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Essay: A designerly perspective on addressing complex societal challenges

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  • A designerly perspective on addressing complex societal challenges
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Everyday, thousands of people try to cross the Mediterranean Sea and eastern European borders to escape from war and poverty. Politicians discuss the closing of borders and building of fences and walls to address this migration flow. What are we dealing with? And what is our role in this?
Like migration, society has to deal with many other social,- economic,- and environmental challenges, such as inequality, poverty, and global warming. Due to their complex nature these so-called “wicked” problems are almost impossible to solve. Given the large amount of stakeholders involved and their conflicting perspectives, they cannot be accurately modeled nor studied using the reductionist approaches of science and engineering (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Consequently, the traditional incremental approaches to deal with these challenges, e.g. from a technology push or a market pull are insufficient. Therefore, Rittel suggests that human relationships and social interaction should be placed in the center to solve these problems.
Responding to these contemporary challenges and questions society and industry are facing, innovation models are changing. For example the innovative design company IDEO is successful with their model in which desirability (human), viability (business) and feasibility (technical) are equally important (Brown REF). With these changing models for innovation also the role of design is shifting. Brown defines this as ‘a shift from old-school design where designers were involved only at the end of the process in creating a beautiful looking end product to now, where designers work alongside businesses and organisations to tackle intangible strategic and behavioural challenges’. In this new context the designer plays the role of enhancer, connector, facilitator or the role as creator enabling improvements in knowledge, tools or techniques.
My passion has always been on addressing global issues and during my five year project-based learning at the faculty of Industrial Design I gained knowledge on how to approach and work on these challenges. I believe that by addressing wicked problems on local scale, through a human-centred process in which stakeholders are unique but equal, we can all contribute to enhance the social quality of life. In such a process the designer is involved from the start, using tools and techniques to create a deep understanding of the context and to define values of involved stakeholders.
The goal for this graduation project was to explore the designer’s role when addressing complex societal challenges and reflecting on the value of skills, methods and theory and knowledge. Therefore a global contemporary problem was addressed: refugees. Refugee migration can be defined as a wicked problem according to the characteristics defined by Rittel, such as the interconnected nature of this problem with other problems and the number of people and opinions involved. Like one of the effects of the migration crisis is the resistance among local residents when opening an asylum seekers center in their neighbourhood. This project explores the aspects that cause resistance and the opportunities for design to decrease this.
With reference to this project this report ends with a reflection on how designers can contribute on addressing complex societal challenges and the aspects that play a role.
Migration has always been a part of life as people move for many different reasons like improvement of economic situations, to pursue education or to escape human rights abuse. But escalating conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have provoked extreme population shifts and large refugee movements. In the end of 2014 the worldwide displacement was at the highest level ever recorded, at that moment 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced (UNHCR, 2014). This causes many problems on different aspects; people risking lives on dangerous sea crossings, shortage of food in big refugee camps, Southern European countries getting overwhelmed by massive amount of arrivals and rising political tensions across central Europe. All these different issues, on different levels, involving different stakeholder makes the migration-crisis a wicked problem.
————– Graphic met aspecten van het probleem Wereld tot Nederlandse wijk ————–
Design for refugees
Multiple companies and individuals in the creative industry have taken responsibility and use their field of expertise to ‘design for refugees’. The broad design range differs from raising awareness on the topic to concrete practical solutions. For example, IKEA designed refugee shelters; units that are spacious, have solar panels, and can last an average of three years. And OpenIDEO has started a Refugee Education Challenge for designers to come up with solutions that help refugees learn new skills and gain access to quality education. Jan Rothuizen made an interactive multimedia documentary Refugee Republic to give a more accurate picture of life in refugee camps.
Debate in the Netherlands
Like in a large part of the world, the refugee influx has also its effects in the Netherlands.
Refugees and the debate around it has dominated the media since summer 2015. This has led to intense discussions and very diverse reactions from the Dutch population. According to Ghorashi, anthropologist at VU University Amsterdam, the paradoxical situation has led to a polarised refugee debate in which you see two reactions. She said: ‘Across the nationalist and populist demands to ward off “criminals, rapists and profiteers”, are citizen initiatives that connect with the newcomers.’ Sociologist Leerkes from the Erasmus University describes even a potential split up of the society; the more nationalistic people on one hand and the internationally oriented on the other. This polarisation holds back on substantive discussions and the exchange of perspectives (Schinkel, 2009).
Polarisation is also reflected in neighbourhoods when debating about a potential asylum seekers center. When COA and the municipality announce the intentions, this frequently leads to protest.
Protest is expressed in many ways; spoken during organised public debates, on social media, through banners a petitions, but also through violent acts like fire-raising, writing provocative texts in public spaces. Other shocking examples are cities where residents built a gallows or hung a dead pick with a robe around its neck in a three next to the potential ASC.
It is stated that object to an ASC often derives from people’s wish to preserve existing social status and power relations (Lubbers et al., 2006). It is striking that the actual presence of an asylum seekers centre in the neighbourhood decreases those objections.
Local resistance to municipal decisions is not uncommon. A similar situation is the placement of windmills; many people agree that there is a need for green and sustainable energy sources, but when there is a plan for placing windmills in the area projects often get delayed or cancelled due to resistance and a lack of support by local residents (Travaille, 2013). Social interest is present in these situations, but individuals do not want to be affected by the consequences. I many cases the ‘Not In My Backyard’ character derives from fear for the unknown and dissatisfaction with the decision-making process.
Current approach by municipalities
The Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) is responsible for the reception, supervision and departure (from the reception location) of asylum seekers coming to the Netherlands. This housing is organised in collaboration with the municipality concerned. Due to the large influx of refugees COA is in need for extra housing centres and approaches municipalities for potential locations.
Information and explanations about the opening of the asylum seekers center is often provided by involved parties and government organisations. Apparently, this does not reduce negative attitudes and emotions among residents. As described in the previous paragraph, this can lead to resistance. Resistance can cause delay or cancellation of potential plans.
Design Goal
It occurs that the current approach of municipalities to inform its residents is neither effective nor efficient. The goal of this project is to map the process of opening an asylum seekers center based on different perspectives. Bottlenecks in the process and other aspects causing resistance will be identified and reflected upon by means of design.
A case study on the process of opening an asylum seekers center was done in Eindhoven Noord. The contextual inquiry was a human-centred approach using various stakeholder involvement methods. Consequently, research findings were the base for an iterative design approach of building and testing in context with follow-up discussions and reflections feeding the next iteration. The final concept has been evaluated with involved stakeholders.
Structure of thesis
The thesis is chronological ordered. My vision on society and design is described in the introduction. The context of the project is explained as part of the introduction in the chapter context. The project serves as a means to reflect upon designer’s role in a societal context, a theoretical foundation is described in the chapter Theoretical Framework. The contextual analysis and its findings are discussed in chapter 3. The iterative design process based on the findings is described in the chapter Design Iterations. The final concept and its evaluation is described in chapter 5. The thesis closes with a reflection based on experience and knowledge on the role of design when addressing complex societal issues.
Chapter 1_ Introduction
Chapter 2_ Theoretical framework
Chapter 3_ Contextual analysis
Chapter 4_ Design iterations
Chapter 5_ Final design
Chapter 6_ Reflection on design in society
In the introduction of this thesis it is outlined how this graduation project serves as mean to reflect upon the role of a designer in addressing complex societal issues. This chapter describes the theoretical framework that has been utilised in pursuing that aim and outlines the structure of the process.
Global changes are noticeable at local scales, changes in localities do contribute to global changes as well as they are being affected by them (Thomas, 1999). Therefore, scale matters when addressing societal issues. The matter of scale can be understood in the terms of relations and processes (Sayre, Vittorio, Berkeley, 2009). A model of scalar hierarchy levels expresses relationships between and within the individual scale as smallest, followed by local and regional and as largest the global scale. Moving within this scale the level arrangement refers to the restriction of process influencing from one level on another. (Goodwin and Fahrig, 1998). Other geographers however state that these levels are not necessarily hierarchical, as they do not capture the complexity and dynamics of actual interactions.
As a response to the growing complexity of our world and the need for societal change, Brand and Rocchi (2011) describe the transformation paradigm. This paradigm describes how business opportunities derive from initiatives addressing socio-economic and social-environmental issues. The key factor in this paradigm is the stakeholder cooperation working together on solving local issues that derive from greater global issues. In this collaboration within the transformation economy are stakeholders equal, but not identical and does the collaboration requires engagement and empathy (Hummels 2012).
Design Thinking is a bottom-up approach in which desirability (human), viability (business) and feasibility (technical) are equally important and stakeholders are involved throughout the research- and design process, rather than at the end (Brown et al, 2010). The aim of this human-centered approach is to transforms a deep understanding of value and needs of the involved stakeholders into opportunities for products and services (Brown and Wyatt, 2010). This methodology stems from the field of Design but can be applied to decision-making processes in many other fields such as management, public health, and organizations in general (Melles et al, 2012) Recently, this human-centered problem solving process is frequently used in projects with a focus on social impact.
There is a variety of methods and tools to facilitate the involvement of and engagement with stakeholders throughout the process. The methodology of designing in three person perspectives is based on observation, conversation and participation. In this method the designer takes different perspectives; from an outsider creating a broad understanding of the context to insider acting as part of the system (Tomico, Winthagen, Heist, 2012). The qualitative generated data can be analysed through affinity diagramming to group and create an understanding of the information (Beyer, Holtzblatt, 1997). The output of the analysis can be used to create personas and a stakeholder value flow. Personas serve as representation of the target to emphasis their values and needs (Cooper, 1998). The stakeholder value flow visualizes the value-added roles of each stakeholder within the network.
To design for innovative systems in open societal challenges Frens and Hummels (2009) initiate a Reflective Transformative Design Process. In this process designers switches according to own values between the activities of envisioning, making, thinking, analysing and taking decision while reflecting upon every step. This reflective process fits within the Design Thinking approach in which fundamental elements are making and iterating to learn from mistakes. In this iterative process Field research is a valuable method to reflect upon the design. Design is put in the field to contextualize, instead of in a decontextualized lab (Koskinen et al, 2011). In this method observation and conversations through the object create a deep understanding of what people drives to interact with the design, how they react to it and why. Ideas and concepts on services and systems can be communicated and evaluated through co-reflection (Tomico, 2009). Co-reflection facilitates confrontation between the designer’s rationale and stakeholder’s motivations and values through dynamic tools that can adapt to an unstructured process.
Social innovation?

The purpose of the contextual analysis was to create a deep understanding of the context, to create empathy for the people I am designing for and to build relationships with stakeholders. In this chapter I describe the methods used, the findings, conclusion and reflect on the process.
From a human-centred design approach, this process was based on the method to design from 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd person perspective (Tomico, Winthagen, Heist, 2012). This qualitative study stimulates designers to not take themselves as point of view, but to take different perspectives on systems in society. Starting with the 3rd person point of view, the approach taken was desk research. The aim of this study was to gain knowledge on the general procedure of opening an asylum seekers center and to get an impression of the national daily businesses around this topic and the public opinion. Also was the literature study used to create a general view on the kind of neighbourhood based on facts and figures. The purpose of the 2nd person perspective was to directly communicate with the target users and request information about their thoughts and experiences. Data was collected through observations and interviews. In total 30 individual and 2 group interviews were conducted with different stakeholders (Appendix A). Interviews were video taped, recorded, or notes were kept. Eventually, a first person perspective was taken to become part of the system. By participating in activities and being active within the system it was possible to experience the experience of the target user and to envision a view through the target user’s eyes (Appendix B). Recordings of the interviews were transcripted and affinity diagramming was used to externalize and meaningfully cluster the collected data (Appendix C).
Findings & Evaluation
The created clusters in the affinity diagram gave insight in the main aspects causing resistance among local-residents when they get to deal with the potential opening of an asylum seekers center, see figure 1. Based on the gained insights on the involved stakeholders and their values a value flow was created (Appendix D). Personas were created to capture the people in the neighbourhood and to define a target group (appendix E). Findings of the desk research were translated into a process overview (Appendix X) and a compilation video (Appendix X). A co-reflection session with representatives of the municipality, COA and local residents with different perspectives served as validation for the findings. All involved stakeholders recognized themselves in the different parts of the context. The evaluation turned out as a constructive part of the process, since the all stakeholders spontaneously started sharing their experiences on the presented topic with the other stakeholders.
Discussion & Conclusion
As first, not all data was consequently recorded. The main reason was an earlier experience in which people got scared away or discouraged when they knew conversations were going to be recorded.Therefore some conversations has only been documented based on notes of key aspects that were written down by the designer. It is doubtful if this direct interpretation of the designer influences the neutrality of the research. Second, COA is an important stakeholders in this context, unfortunately the direction was not willing to be involved in the study.
However, the co-reflection in which the findings were positively evaluated covers the dissimilarities in documentation and the absence of a stakeholder’s perspective in the contextual inquiry.
From these findings can be concluded that resistance among local residence in the neighbourhood derives from two major aspects:
– The lack of information on the general topic refugees and more specific the consequences for the neighbourhood.
– The decision-making process in which residents feel locked out and passed.
Reflecting on the process of opening the ASC in Eindhoven improvements can be made when addressing the approach of the municipality towards the process and its communication strategy. In this process the information and the involvement of local residents is key. Therefore the research will continue on the topic of communicating information, what kind of information and how. In the end of the project, the findings of the communication flow will meet the improved requirements regarding the process approach.
The contextual analysis showed that a lot of knowledge and information about asylum seekers is available, but information is spread over different sources. It also appeared that it is hard to decide what information to trust since different media do not show corresponding numbers on facts. The purpose of this quick iteration was to bundle all collected information (chapter X) in a visual way to make it easily accessible, engaging and source based.
Design approach
The module Tools for Transformation by Phillemonne Jaasma gave insight in the role that digital technology can play (appendix X), In the context of design research concrete data of a large and diverse topic can easily be transmitted and een groot bereik. ref storytelling
So, a story is more than just a transfer of information. It’s an active mechanism for communicating events, communicating contextual information, and for developing connections between people.
Experts were involved to discuss the topics of connecting people through stories and engaging through video. Carola Eijsering is social entrepreneur at Indigo-Wereld. She creates a broad range of activities and projects with the goal to connect people from different worlds (appendix X). Ron Krielen is a graduate from the Design Academy and for his graduation he designed a service ‘Two Hats’ in which he personal stories gained as taxi driver translated into engaging videos (appendix X)
Iteration_1 & Evaluation
An interactive website was created on which factual information about refugees was visualised and personal stories sketching different perspectives on the topic were shared. The aim of this mock-up was to make the concept visible and to discuss effect of sharing personal stories.
Interviews in Oirschot en on de demoday
the but for further ideation the data should be captured again, with higher quality.
Niet in context getest, maar op straat (dat overvalt misschien) en op de demo day.
Evaluation and Conclusion
At the demo day I observed the way people interacted with the website and discussed their opinion on it afterwards. Visueel erg aantrekkelijk, zorg dat je blijft kijken en verder wilt zoeken.
Evaluatie gesprek met de gemeente. vinden de vertaling van informatie naar visueel erg mooi.
Bewoners vonden meer interactief mogelijk moest zijn, tegenkomen op facebook ofzo
Maar teleurgesteld met een app. Tegenwoordig voor alles een app. Dat moet anders kunnen.
59.5 MILLION AND YOU_installation at the Dutch Design Week
Municipality was proud of the research findings. And with the current situation that they had to start a process to open a new location.. In September the migration crisis had become a hot topic and the stand van zaken situation in Eindhoven was that the current ASC would have to close soon, in ruil voor a new location somewhere else in Eindhoven. In discussion with Maurice Delil (project manager new ASC) it was decided that the Dutch Design Week would serve as a great opportunity to show results of Eindhoven ASC. The app as shown in the previous chapter need a more physcal engaging factor. As also the project manager was proud of the findings of the Eindhoven situation with refugees With the Dutch Design Week coming up, it was a great opportunity to show results. With the fact that a new asylum seekers center needs to be opened on another location in Eindhoven, it was a great opportunity to share research findings
Design approach
To communicate the research findings on an emotionally engaging level the data had to be re-captured. This was done in cooperation with filmmaker Stef Arends. New interviews were done and videocaptured with people from the neighbourhood and the asylum seekers center.
The second challenge for this iteration was to give physical form to the communication. Since museum spaces are increasingly augmented with digital technology (Hornecker, Stifter, 2006), inspiration was gained from several museum installations (appendix X). Implemented qualities to support an explorative and attractive setting were visuals and mumbling sounds.
But in the medien.welten the interactive media itself is part of the exhibition ‘content’ that visitors should experience and engage with; interaction with an installation is part of its ‘message’.
Design_iteration 2
The installation exist out of six barrels in which the videostories are projected with a beamer. Every barrel represents a different perspective. Visitors can explore different perspectives deciding their own walking route. An interactive video booth was present for visitors to record their own perspective on the topic, this recorded topic appeared one day later in the reaction barrel.
Change of perspective
A change of perspective on ‘refugees in the neighbourhood’ was evaluated through an enquete designed by Neakert van Naem (appendix). This enquete could be filled in online at home, or at the exposition itself. At the exposition it was meant that the visitors would will in the enquete before visiting and after visiting, in order to waarnemen a change in perspective and opinion on the topic. It was remarkable that the standpunt when starting the enquete was quite equally devided. Scale liktert 0,388 was completely postive on the topic refugees in the neighbourhood, 0,334 was completely negative. 75 people filled this enquete in at
529 people participated in the enquete.
76 people filled this enquire in on the location itself. which shows a remarkable fact of the kind of people visiting the Dutch Design Week as 0,93 was on the positive side of refugees in the neighbourhood in the likert scale. This group is not representive for the target group of the project.
Also showed the enquire that the worries under the positive and negative voters were the same, such as cultural difference, safety in the neighbourhood.
Also showed it that 17% of the negative voters would switch to positive if they could discuss ‘veiligheidsmuren’ with the municipality.
Technical aspects
licht, geluid. Look and feel.
Observation visitors behaviour
We found that a big proportion of people visit the exhibition only as a part of the entire museum – often as the last floor they get to. These we termed the ’15 minute strollers’ as they spend 10 to 15 minutes
who often wished to take background information home for further study and would have liked to buy the smartcard for these purposes
Techincal aspects, content wise.
To give a physical shape to the information, a moodboard was made on
hoe doen museums dat. Informatie communicatie op een leuke manier.
Discussion and conclusion
op ddw is veel publiek, maar allemaal behoorlijk open oor exploreren. en positief tegen asielzoekers (Zie enquette Neckert)
fysieke search naar informatie helpt. trekt mensen die ook niet perse meer willen weten van het onderwerp.
59.5 MILLION AND YOU_iteration_installation Helmond
iteratie van de DDW installatie. op technisch gebied (licht en geluid), look and feel, en verdere uitbreiding van interactie gedeelte. Helmond is echt de doelgroep, eventueel openen AZC, de discussie is hot. The effect
Eerst geprobeerd om wat er was te verbeteren. Toen besloten, voor letterlijk idee kijkdoos en de technische aspecten te garanderen ten koste van ‘interessante verschijning’ als beamers.
design/ evaluation
De installatie met video en informatie
Interactieve plek
Online platform observatie, interviews, enquetes
discussion and conclusion
actieve participatie online is nog een level te ver. Burgerparticipatie is iets anders dan informatie en process communicatie
FINAL CONCEPT_Product service system
‘59.5 million and you’ is a product service system that supports municipalities with communication and information strategies to local residents when an asylum seekers center is going to be opened in the neighbourhood. The service provides a recommended process based on evaluation in which tools can be used to
The key elements of this PSS are the tools that support communication between stakeholders on different levels in various forms. The visuals of factual information and videos of personal stories that have been collected throughout the research process are the basis of these tools in a digital, physical and personal space.
Digital interactive platform
– visualise decision-making process to share taken decisions and steps
– Q&A to answer most common questions.
– Visuals of factual information
– videos of experiences
Physical installation
– installation in public space showing personal stories of fellow residents with ASC experience
Consultative group of residence
– on the information market a few residents will be collected from the group to share their personal stories about the experience of having an ASC in the neighbourhood.
– It is important to keep up the good communication with local-residents after the the planning and conclusion states. Keep them involved evaluate the current situation. In order to document this, the after treatment service provides a camera team to document personal stories of local residents. This documentation is added to the system of 59.5 million and you, to share with new stakeholders. As second, local-residents can share their story when becoming a member of the consultative group of residents.
De service: Met gebiedscoordinators van de gemeente Eindhoven, process manager gemeente Eindhoven. processmanager gemeente Helmond.
This project different factors causing resistance among local residents when there might potentially open an ASC in their neighbourhood has been tested.
Future steps
Prijs geld gebruiken voor verdere ontwikkeling.
samen met beleidsmaker, uitbreiden. Maken. Eerst Eindhoven. Dan naar andere steden voor aanvullen database.
REFLECTION_designerly perspective on global issues
– gebaseerd op het project een reflectie op mijn rol als ontwerper.
– de key was stakeholder involvement en engagement.
– mijn project heeft niet perse ‘doel’ gehaald, maar wel ogen geopend wat betreft aanpak proces en benadering. het project opzich is niet het doel, maar de weg ernaartoe to empower betrokkenen door het process heen. Inspire met creativiteit en kritiek.
– bottom up, local actors nodig.
– perspective proces neemt veel tijd in beslag maar is erg waardevol. Sustainable als het systeem hier verder op kan bouwen.

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