5 x 5 - Service Design for Social Innovation, Erica Michie

Interview with Erica Michie, Senior Service Designer at INSITUM

by Thomas Brandenburg

"The important thing is to align on a tangible desired outcome or impact. You might find that the desired impact evolves over time, and that’s ok."

1. Within the social innovation landscape, what issues/problems do you find lend themselves best to using a service design approach?

I think service design is a beneficial approach to solving many social problems because the process takes into account systems and cultural complexities. But, service design methods were developed within organizations and are best used within the context of those organization, including philanthropic foundations and nonprofits.

 

2. What are some of the biggest challenges you face applying service design for social innovation?

In my experience, the biggest challenge in social innovation is navigating within the culture of an organization. As an example, many nonprofits tend to resist innovation because they are blind to competition, especially if the competition is with a for-profit company. They believe the value of their services stem from holding the status of “nonprofit.” While it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment, most of the time it is not what the customer needs.

Another example of a cultural challenge is that many professionals in the nonprofit world devote their careers to working for one organization. This shows the passion people have for the work they do, but also creates an organizational bubble for new ideas.

 

3. In developing social innovation, what some of the most useful activities and tools you have used, especially if you consider how you would engage stakeholders with diverse perspectives and backgrounds?

Many service design activities used in the for-profit world translate to the nonprofit world. However, the difference lies in the amount of time spent on each phase of the project. In social innovation, it is crucial to understand systems and cultural complexities. Often, this means spending more time in the exploration phase. Another difference is that it is important to remain a facilitator, rather than a decision maker, especially if you are not a subject matter expert or familiar with the culture.

 

4. What organizations come to mind when you think about social innovation?

Social innovation is hot right now and I don’t see it going away. With the emergence of B-corporations, companies are using social innovation to differentiate from their competitors. Two examples are Facebook and Google. There seem to be so many companies adopting a social innovation department that I often feel like the for profit and nonprofit world are merging together.

 

5. What are the most useful framework(s) for measuring social impact?

As you might already be aware, this is a big topic in the social innovation community. Most of the frameworks I’ve used are usually formed using academic research findings, studies that show certain behaviors lead to specific outcomes. There are many challenges with measuring impact because impact isn’t always tangible. But since we are talking about measuring impact within the broad sense of social innovation, I would like to recommend an approach rather than specific frameworks.

At the beginning of any social innovation project, the important thing, as a project team, is to align on a tangible desired outcome or impact. You might find that the desired impact evolves over time, that’s ok. More often than not, I’ve found outcomes have not been defined clearly and if it’s been defined at all, the terms are vague and hard to identify when using them to evaluate.

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