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The power of trust and motivation in a designing social system

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer

social systems
social design
design expertise
design relationships
design management

The world is increasingly faced with open, complex, dynamic and networked problems (Dorst, 2015), which result from a highly connected world (Manzini, 2015). Over the past decade, many have turned to design practice to address these problems, which has led to promising results, but at the same time has also revealed many challenges and constraints. For example, designers have been critiqued for failing to successfully implement ideas (Mulgan, 2014; Norman & Stappers, 2015).

In this paper I take a social systems view of design. Traditionally, design has been described as a social process within a design team (Badke-Schaub, Neumann, Lauche, & Mohammed, 2007; Dorst, 2006). However, the application of design in addressing complex issues has moved design beyond the boundaries of the design team, to what Manzini (2015) calls ‘designing networks’: a distribution of design processes among numerous actors who differ in culture, motivation, and professional development. As such, designing becomes part of a social system.

A social system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts, and within this system both the parts – human beings – and whole are purposeful (Ackoff & Emery, 1972). Social systems theory focuses on the relationships between people (Stacey, 2006). A social systems view of designing could provide support for the development of successful design strategies for complex social problems. To achieve this we need a better understanding of the people and the way they relate to each other in a ‘designing social system’.

In this paper I will explore the roles of the human beings that are part of a designing social system, and the way the relationships between these people can be characterised and shaped. The successful application of design requires at least the following capabilities:
• Decision making about investment in design processes and implementation of outcomes
• Design expertise, ranging from novice or naïve to expert or visionary (Lawson & Dorst, 2009; Nelson & Stolterman, 2012)
• Domain expertise about the problem space and feasibility of implementation of solutions.
In a complex social system these roles are distributed over multiple people within different stakeholder groups such as the design team, funders, service deliverers, end-users and service organisations.
To develop an understanding of design within social systems we conducted five case studies of contemporary social innovation agencies in Europe, North America, and Australia. The case studies show design practices in relation to different levels of expertise and impact:
• Local level design: design practitioners who design and implement interventions locally, for example service deliverers: they have a basic level design expertise, high level of domain knowledge, and agency to make decisions within their local context.
• Systems level design: design practitioners with high-level design expertise who rely on interactions with domain experts and decision-makers to develop initiatives that create change on a systems level.

The relationships between the people who played a design role in the case studies were explored through phenomenological themes, which describe the structure of the lived experience of the people who participate in the design process (van Manen, 1990). The case studies showed that the themes of trust and intrinsic motivation played a key role in shaping the relationships within the designing social systems, and through that in the success of the investigated projects.

On a systems level, trust played an important role in the relationship between decision-makers and expert designers in all five case studies. Trust was essential as designing on a systems level can be a very uncomfortable and uncertain process. This trust was achieved in different ways across the case studies through building long-term relationships, building credibility, and a carefully designed open and participative communication process.
On a local level, trust was key in the relationship between decision-makers and the local designers/ domain experts. In those cases where decision-makers provided domain experts with the agency and capability to design initiatives for their own practices, a high level of trust was experienced mutually. In one case study this level of trust was achieved through the design of what I have previously called a ‘social infrastructure’ (Author, 2016), a structured way of connecting and empowering people to incrementally improve their service.

Intrinsic motivation drove people in the designing social system to make a difference. The themes that are related to intrinsic motivation are described by (Pink, 2009) as mastery, purpose, and autonomy.
Mastery (or growth): opportunities to learn drive people’s motivation to contribute. All case studies included capability building of decision-makers and domain experts, through training or active participation in the project. The relationship between growth and motivation is reciprocal: the learning opportunity drives motivation, and motivation is essential for learning.
Purpose: all participants wanted to make a difference. Purpose-driven decision-makers played an important role in each of the client organisations in making sure that the design process and design outcomes were implemented. To maintain a sense of purpose decision makers were involved in design, which allowed them to see what the impact was of their decisions.
Autonomy (or agency): being able to implement your own design is highly motivating. In one of the case studies service deliverers were provided with the agency and capability to redesign their own practice, which had a profound impact on their mindset and how they experienced their work.

Current ways of problem solving fail to address the dynamic and networked nature of problems. Problems are often addressed in a rational and top-down controlled manner, resulting in slow processes, demotivated employees and service deliverers, passive end-users and sub-optimal solutions, which prevent successful implementation. In the view presented in this paper, people within a dynamically designing social system continuously design and redesign interventions on a local and systems level, supported by trusted relationships. A better understanding of the relationships between these people and their capabilities will contribute to the development of structures for organisations and networks in which people are empowered to make a difference through design.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: The power of trust and motivation in a designing social system
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 12 October 2017
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