Sustain our Nation shows a shift towards social innovation

The Audi Design Foundation’s Sustain Our Nation programme is the latest sign that design is shifting towards social innovation, says Gina Lovett


Apple may still be worshipped in design circles as the creator of a generation of technology that heralded a new era, but those taking the long view are looking beyond their iPhones to social innovation as the future.

The realisation that our existing consumer society is unsustainable may have been beyond the recent G20 summit, but an undercurrent of socially aware designers are eschewing the perpetual cycle of new consumer goods and channelling their skills into the creation of systems for the better of society.

Such is the thinking driving the Audi Design Foundation’s latest initiative, Sustain Our Nation. The charitable organisation, which already runs a number of programmes aimed at improving lives through inclusive and sustainable design, earlier this month brought together a diverse range of sustainability and design experts to help it develop competition briefs across five core themes: crime, an ageing population, climate change and energy, as well as finance and healthcare.

‘Design is in a position to make a change. It has the mindset, the capabilities and the skills to see answers and solutions. It can move ideas to processes and kickstart behavioural change,’ says ADF manager Rebecca Edge.

The intentions behind the programme – to make real change – is laudable, though the ADF has deemed graduate designers best placed to deliver this change.

Working across five regions in the UK and with up to 20 universities, including Kingston University, University College Falmouth and Loughborough University, the aim is to establish five social enterprises with seed funding and regional business support.

Although there is potential for practising designers to get involved, the established industry will not be the focus of the programme. Instead, the ADF sees a need to generate entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for graduate designers, while boosting the service-design skills and knowledge that some academics and teachers deem to be lacking.

‘In the current climate, [undergraduates, MA and PhD students] are not finding jobs because the design industry is not recruiting. There’s a need to grasp optimistic, emerging talent and help them create their own future,’ according to Edge.

What’s more important than the prize money, says Edge, is the provision of ‘after-support’, such as licensing and advice on how to move prototype social enterprises forward.

When the competition opens officially in September, responses will be invited to the five category briefs.

These have been set by the Sustain Our Nation think-tank, – comprising a panel of experts including World Wildlife Fund sustainability advisor Jen Morgan, service design group Live Work founder Ben Reason and Forum for the Future senior sustainability advisor Fiona Bennie – and require ‘quite radical thinking that cannot be constrained by the world of today’.

According to Bennie, who led on climate change and energy issues, ‘We’ve now got to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 and we need to bear in mind that we’ve got to start reducing as much as possible now – 38 per cent in the UK by 2020.

‘This sets a strong premise for the brief and the drastic impact that is needed. We’ve had to set such a scale of challenge, otherwise the project will not be a climate-change project, but just a design one.’

Responses to climate-change briefs and the creation of new systems around water, food and domestic energy consumption to dramatically reduce carbon emissions will be directed to research existing Green technologies, as opposed to looking at inventing new ones.

‘We know the technology to solve these problems already exists. The work will be to research what’s out there and work through the barriers as to why people are not using them. Design will come into play, making these accessible, attractive and appealing, and enabling behaviour change,’ explains Bennie.

Another theme, which is topical in the present state of society, is finance. The briefs proposed by Morgan and her team on the think-tank for this subject will invite designs for alternative finance, business and process models that could possibly set alarm bells ringing in City shareholders’ ears. WWF’s efforts in the financial sector focus on lobbying financial institutions to make ethical investments, as well as encouraging diversity of power.

‘The financial system as it is now is about delivering short-term profit for shareholders, and it’s not very transparent. What we’re trying to do is get students to think about supporting the long-term interests of society instead. Finance is so complex. It needs a diversity of stakeholders to create a space that stimulates innovation,’ says Morgan.

She cites the example of time-banking, where people give up their skills and time to local organisations or authorities in exchange for goods and services.

‘The more time you give, the more credits you earn, which can be in the form of vouchers [to spend],’ says Morgan.

Another of the briefs within finance will centre around the creation of a national campaign to address transparency issues, helping the public to know how their money is being managed, with opportunities for new media or visual communication designers.

Sustain our nation

Key partners – will include regional development agencies, the Royal College of Art, Central St Martins College of Art and Design and Live Work

Core themes for the briefs – an ageing population; climate change and energy; finance; crime; health

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