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Design for Social Innovation — Moving Past the Assembly Line

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is

The most pressing challenge businesses face isn’t finding new opportunities for growth and market share; it’s changing the way they approach their challenges in the first place. And there’s no better way to change that approach than through design for social innovation.

The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces us into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change.

I’ve seen this same pattern too many times. Want to reboot your culture and re-engage your employees? Hire an outside consultant. Need to innovate? Create an innovation lab. These efforts won’t produce long-term results any more than ordering salad for one lunch will improve your overall health. Without deep, systemic change, things revert to the way they were. One way to identify the symptoms of this is to count the number of committees and task forces a company has. A task force for employee engagement means the employees aren’t engaged. A task force on innovation suggests that there probably is none.

Design for social innovation aims to change this through human-first approach centered on large-scale systemic change and complex levels of engagement. It shows companies how to develop the tools and processes they need to keep pace with the social and environmental forces surrounding them.

One of the most exciting examples of this is U.S.-based Medtronic, the world’s largest manufacturer of heart-rhythm devices. They saw hundreds of millions of people in India who could not affort to be tested for heart conditions, let alone afford a pacemaker, and made solving this delemma a central component of their growth strategy. This is design for social innovation. And in the process of helping millions of underserved people lead healthier lives, Medtronic opened up huge new markets. Nearly half of company’s $16 billion in annual revenue now comes from foreign markets.

Design for social innovation works from the inside out, which is the only way that real change ever happens. And the result is people who see uncertainty as a stream of opportunities rather than a barrage of disruptions.

Of course, design for social innovation is messy, imperfect, and difficult to measure. That makes it scary for established businesses. (The closed-mindedness can work both ways. Too many social-innovation experts, including many of the exciting young people entering the field, are so set in their biases against traditional business that they risk creating their own social-innovation silo and, thus, changing nothing.) Still, I think the onus is on business executives to accept that change is inevitable and that they can either be agents of it or victims of it.

You may have seen the following quote passed around on social media: “CFO asks his CEO, ‘What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?’ CEO answers, ‘What happens if we don’t, and they stay?’”

Design for social innovation is the answer to that dilemma.

136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205

SUBSCRIBE