Written by Joon Sang Baek, Yonsei University DESIS Lab, Yonsei University, South Korea

In this year’s Social Design Forum organized by the Seoul Metropolitan Municipality, people from the public, private, and civil sectors as well as academics gathered to discuss the principles, methods, and cases of assessing the impact of design for social innovations (DfSI). The forum organisers looked for design projects that demonstrate their impacts as well as their outputs and outcomes, but it was not easy to find one. Most design projects that they came across, no matter how successful they were, only went as far as assessing the outputs or outcomes, and few analysed their social impact. This is not strange considering that assessing social impact involves a highly laborious process and is more often than not included in the design brief.

They eventually found two cases. The first case is Kudoz, a community learning platform that connects people with and without cognitive disabilities created by InWithForward, a design agency based in Vancouver. The company collects various user data generated on the platform to analyse both the short-term and long-term social impacts of their service. Followed by a successful operation in Vancouver, Kudoz has been adopted in New Zealand and UK for which the validation of social impacts played a crucial role. The second case is Sopoong, an impact investor based in Seoul which invests to address social and/or environmental problems. Sopoong evaluates the social impact of its investees with a set of rubrics based on sustainable development goals (SDGs). Since 2008, it has incubated 46 social ventures worth over five million Euros.

The importance of assessing the short-term and long-term influences of design projects cannot be exaggerated. The question is then how it can be done better than it is now. This question is connected to Ezio’s proposal on social innovation for the planet. If designers cannot demonstrate the impact of design interventions on the planet and the society, how can they tell if design makes a return as it promises? If they cannot promise the return, how can they convince others including their clients? Coming back to the question, I’d like to propose that design research and practices for social innovation should actively pursue achieving SDGs. Consisting of seventeen goals, 169 targets, and 244 indicators, United Nations (UN) SDGs are by far “the best plan […] to promote prosperity while protecting the environment” (Sustainable Development Goals, accessed on October 19 th , 2019: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/). Many nations and cities have also developed the local version of SDGs for application to policymaking, implementation, and assessment. For instance, Seoul developed the local SDGs in 2015 and has been implementing 328 associated projects. What is interesting is that a significant number of these goals can be adopted as the goals and assessment criteria for design projects. For instance, one may develop a precision farming device and infrastructure that aims at making irrigation efficient and increasing crop yields in response to the SDG target 6.B, ‘support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management’; or to design an educational service that aims to increase the number of female students choosing their career path in science, technologies, engineering, and mathematics in response to the SDG target 5.B, ‘enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women’.

Integrating SDGs with design projects does not necessarily change what we have been practicing as DfSI but makes it more legitimate, measurable, and convincing. Besides, it can broaden the perspective of designers with a comprehensive set of opportunities and guidelines. Design activities for SDGs are already under way such as the Accelerating the SDGs Project by the Center for Sustainable Urban Institute in Columbia University, Global Goals Jam, and game design for SDGs at Yonsei University. Next time you start a DfSI project, why not check out SDGs in your region?

(This article is part of a DESIS Conversations 2020, an initiative launched by DESIS Network to raise discussion about the climate and environmental sustainability related to academic and research practices.)

More on DESIS Conversations 2020:

Co-design: future initiatives, sustainability and moving toward civilisation (Anna Meroni)

Designing as politics of nature (Virginia Tassinari)

Are we thinking radically enough? (Nicola Morelli)

A Response of “Social Innovation for the Planet” (Miaosen Gong)

Social Innovation for the Planet: Small groups, great ideas (Davide Fassi)

Social Innovation and the Environmental emergency: How Design can contribute in this scenario? (Teresa Franqueira)

Social Innovation and Biodiversity, or the Merit of Salamanders (Louise St. Pierre)