In this article as part of the Guardian sustainability and design series Chris Sherwin, then Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell, makes the case for design for social impact
What do a near indestructible football, newly designed clothing for female medical patients and a new condom pack have in common? Firstly, they are all shortlisted for the 2013 Index awards for "design to improve life". Secondly, they all provide great examples for the theme of our next article on sustainability and design: how designers are creating real, practical solutions to some of the world's many social and environmental challenges – through social innovation by design.
The biannual Index awards are one of my favourite sustainability initiatives, and also I believe one of the most important. Aiming "to use design skills to develop sustainable solutions to global and local challenges", it features a collection of some of the most inspiring examples of social innovation you will find in one place.
For example, the One World Futbol Project is promoting a new ball design which never needs inflating and will rarely puncture, is guaranteed child labour-free in its manufacture, and is sold using a "buy-one, give-one-to-developing countries" model to send equipment where football can create hope and build communities. The one-handed condom wrapper design provides contraception without those awkward, embarrassing and doubt-creating moments of fumbling – to promote dignity, empowerment and build confidence. This blouse design replaces standard issue hospital robes to provide better wearability, access, comfort and self-worth for breast cancer patients throughout radiology treatment.
There are many more examples, but it's also important to note that the Index awards are the single biggest design prize anywhere in the industry – €500,000 (£403,500) in prizes awarded – showing a growing recognition of and investment in social innovation.
Social innovation meets design
Put simply, social innovations are ideas that work for the public good. It will not be a new term to a sustainability-literate audience, but designers' involvement in it might be.
Rather than design focusing solely on heating up the economy so it grows, driving consumption and stimulating sales, this is design and innovation focused on society's most important challenges and problems: climate change, access to clean water, better sanitation, pollution, poverty or malnutrition, female empowerment, crime and so on.
Whether for- or non-profit, it's offers a different role for design in being driven not solely by commercial needs, but by social impact, and in genuinely creating a better world for people or planet. Same process: different goal.
Why "design" for social impact?
I don't believe designers have a monopoly over social innovation and don't need to be involved for its success. But designers do have an important skill-set to apply to social innovation – namely, an empathic approach to their solutions. Unlike their engineering cousins working extensively from technology or science, designers start from people. It's historically been termed empathic design, user, human or people-centred design, and it's been interesting to hear recent calls for a overhaul of terminology within the design industry, from "human-centred design" to "humanity-centred design", which does rather hit the spot.
This methodological orientation explains why, in my opinion, designers tend to gravitate toward the social rather than environmental problems of sustainability, as it's a natural fit for their skills requiring no retraining.
Bringing social innovation to life
Great examples of social innovation abound. The Watercone project, showcased in our sustainable product design gallery in September, allows the poor to purify drinking water simply, in one day. The design of unbreakable glassware for UK pubs helps reduce alcohol related accidents and injuries and design-out crime. The inspirational One Laptop Per Child project would not be what it is today without the design consultancy Fuseproject's work on the product itself.
Moving from product to the organisational levels of design, IDEO now have a not-for-profit arm to work directly and systematically with NGO's, social enterprises and foundations to apply design directly to social problems. While Frog Designrecently launched a free design toolkit for social innovation, for charities or social entrepreneurs to learn for themselves, then apply in situ. You can even get a master's in design for social innovation.
Social innovators themselves do seem to be seeing the value of design, as I recently spotted "redesign" described among the "10 steps to transform capitalism for the better" by two leading commentators. This all goes to show the design world is waking up to its social responsibilities too.
Many years ago, the godfather of sustainable design, Victor Papanek, called for designers to donate 10% of their time to exactly these sort of "projects for the greater good", and while I don't think we're quite there yet, there are promising signs of a new and exciting approach to world-changing design.