Design for Social Innovation Meetup

Catia Pereira
Written by
Cátia Pereira
Innovation Lead
Mar 03, 2021 . 7 mins read
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At Koos we believe that design is a fast-growing area that can help everyone evolve to a better state. With that said, we challenge ourselves to learn and share experiences in different fields.

This time around, in our meetup, we gather a group of interesting people that work in social innovation and we open this conversation to the world. We took a look at Design for Social Innovation from 3 different perspectives to understand how they complement each other. Our guests act at different levels and have a lot of experiences to share. 

First and foremost let’s share what we consider the best definitions

Social Innovation: Innovation that is explicitly for the social and public good. Innovation that is inspired by the desire to meet social needs which can be neglected by traditional forms of private market provision and which have often been poorly served or unresolved by services organised by the state. (Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan, 2010:10) 

Design for Social Innovation: Design as a approach for innovation provides a set of skills, tools, and methods that can guide people to new social innovative solutions or improve existing ones. (Brooks, 2011; Emilson et al, 2011; Social Innovation Exchange, 2011a, 2011b; Winterhouse Institute, 2011) 

Our topics and speakers:

  • Educating future generations – Gonçalo Gomes is an assistant professor at the University of Aveiro and a member of the ID+ Desis Lab, teaching design for social innovation in the master’s degrees and leading different academic research projects.
  • Working globally with local communities – Munir Ahmad leads the Aga Khan Foundation’s Innovation portfolio globally. He focuses on addressing the challenge of using design and technology to co-create innovative solutions together with communities.
  • Foresting social entrepreneurs – Gustavo Freitas is social innovation programs manager in the department of entrepreneurship and social economy in Casa do Impacto of Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa working with the implementation process for new business ideas.  

Educating students to be social innovators 

From Gonçalo, that teaches at the University of Aveiro, we learned that teaching design is being focused on the process and not the solutions. Having a research unit, ID+ Desis Lab, with participation in the international Desis Network potentiates the exchange of experiences and helps the field to grow. Development of projects on social innovation and sharing the experiences and results to a community of more than 50 labs around the world brought a different perspective and helped establish this research area. 

The main challenge is to help the student to have an open mind to seek the definition of the problems, focus on the process and not the solutions, that is the only way they can innovate in the field of design. 

We try to teach the students to develop their own design thinking mechanisms.

Learning about working globally with local communities

Aga Khan Foundation, which partners with communities around the world to build better futures together, considers the best strategy to be the use of a multi-input approach towards development.

AKF uses design-driven innovation and guides its practice with 5 key ingredients:  

– Empathy – gathering unarticulated needs and wants;

– Collaboration – getting people to work together efficiently; 

– Creativity – thinking outside the box and exploring new opportunities; 

– Experimentation – prototyping and testing our assumptions; 

– Technology – using technology to widen our reach and scale interventions. 


We use design methodologies and innovative problem-solving approaches to enable both internal teams and communities to co-create the next generation of solutions, systems, and strategies that can provide aspirational and sustainable impact.

Last year brought a big challenge to AKF, to remotely train and support teams of non-designers to innovate through design – their big investment is focused on empowering their own staff, partners, and communities. Provide them with the necessary competencies, mindset, and resources to design innovative programs using methodologies as Human Centred Design or Design Thinking. In order to adapt to the circumstances, they quickly moved their 5-day program to a digital collaborative platform – Mural – creating a new and longer version of the program online.

What we can say about foresting social entrepreneurs

For Gustavo from Santa Casa da Misericórdia applying design thinking can transform social innovation initiatives into an ideal situation. For that, he recognizes design to be: Empathic; Creative; Visual; Tangible; Iterative. Having the framework that allows you to experiment and not be afraid to change or fail is not easy and we don’t see that always present in an environment like social innovation.

Talking about social innovation on a local or national scale is different, but both need to have:

– Regulatory frameworks and public policies; 

– Financial support and social investment; 

– Capacity building and recognition tools; 

– Research in models and methodologies; 

– Collaboration and networks; 

– Impact management and measurement.

The main challenge is scaling a social innovation – to grow an initiative or solution to a national level is not easy, it needs a special mindset and tools. We know that design has a clear role in the first steps; – generation of ideas, prototyping, and testing. For Gustavo, we can achieve systematic change by using the right approach. We can achieve a more democratic state by potentiating social innovation initiatives and create a more human-centered approach. 

The main benefit of design for social innovation is empowerment.

5 key learnings from the session

  • The best way to start is to start small. Start by applying some design tools in a project that you are working on and move forward as you feel more comfortable; 
  • You don’t need to be a designer to be great in designing social innovation initiatives, you need to have passion and will; 
  • Start with structure and then go wild. Start with tools that are already proven to work or with someone with more experience. As you gain experience you can customize tools to meet your needs.  
  • Do not look at problems only from the solutions’ perspective but also from the definition and scoping of the problems. It is important to frame the problem the right way in order to find a solution. 
  • You should bring all the stakeholders to the process. As designers, we can’t be specialists in all different areas, we should bring everyone to the table to build a solution together.

We hope that you enjoyed reading this blog about our Meetup. Check our Events page for more future Meetups or events.

Want to know more about social innovation?

Catia Pereira
Written by
Cátia Pereira
Innovation Lead
Mar 03, 2021 . 7 mins read
Share this article