In a recent article, "Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design" (2014 Design Studies), Ezio Manzini discusses what social innovation is and how it relates to design. The article is quite short and is based on a discussion of cases where Manzini sees social innovation at play. Overall this article is interesting but it is quite brief in its treatment of the cases and the way Manzini deals with both the notion of social innovation and design leads to some really good questions.
I will only comment on one of the insights in the paper since I find the analysis of the cases as different forms of social innovation only to serve as background to the main argument. Manzini is making the case that social innovation involves design. It is possible to read the article in a way that makes it almost impossible to distinguish the two based on the definitions Manzini uses. However, at the end of the article Manzini states that designers (I read this as professionally educated and trained designers) can act in different roles when it comes to social innovation. He mentions the roles of facilitators, triggers, members of co-design teams, and design activists. He writes that at the moment the role as facilitators is today the most common, but argues that the roles as triggers and activists "seem to be very promising". He comments, "In fact, operating in this way, designers can make the best use of their specific sets of capabilities and their special sensitivity." He ends by stating "In other words, "making things happen" seems to be the most concise way to express what could be the most effective and specific role for designers".
I believe that many would find this position as commendable and something to aspire to. Who would argue against the idea that designers should activity try to change society, to make things happen, to engage in social innovation? Well, I find this reasoning to be troublesome. Depending on how you define design and designing, this shifting of roles is not easily done without serious consequences. Manzini writes about designers "specific sets of capabilities and their special sensitivity". To me, these capabilities and sensibilities are developed because professional designers are trained to be in service of others. Designers work with clients, customers, and users. They have the capability and sensibility to work in close relation with the people to reveal their needs and wants and to be able to imagine new solutions that can fulfill their desires. As soon as a designer becomes a "trigger" of change or an activist, this relationship changes fundamentally. Now the designer is seeing his or her own desires as the primary purpose and goals. The designers role now becomes one of an activist which is a political role which brings ideologies and values to the forefront. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but it also means that the capabilities and sensibilities need for this type of activity is necessarily in the toolbox of most designers. They are not necessarily trained in public policy, the philosophy of government, democracy and activism, etc. They do not necessarily have the capability and sensibility for being the leader of a social change. To me, as soon as a designer becomes an activist, he is primarily an activist that maybe secondarily draws on his designerly competence. The measure of success is no longer if he is a good design, but if he is a good activist. I am quite sure that these two roles requires radically different capabilities and sensibilities (even though there may be some overlap).
The question of what constitutes the role of a professional designer requires an ongoing discussion. New proposals related to design, such as critical design, adversarial design, etc., all raise the fundamental question what the designer is. To me, there is a difference between the role of a designer and the role of someone who is primarily something else and uses design as an approach (as some of the people described in Manzini's article).
As you can see, I am not really sure what my argument here is. It is obvious that the article by Manzini stimulated me more than I thought when I read it. The article raises the question of the role of the designer in a way that leads to more questions, such as what is it that determines one role or another. I am afraid that if the role of a designer, social innovator, activist, etc. collapses then we have lost something. Keeping roles distinct (at least in theory, as Weber's "ideal types") is useful in scholarly discussions, even though in practice it may be less crucial.