Design, Government 2.0, Sustainability

Urban water workshop

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop organised by the wonderful Dr Zoë Sofoulis and Justine Humphry of University of Western Sydney. Zoë and Justine have been working as part of the National Water Commission Fellowship for 2010-11 on the Cross-connections: Linking Urban Water Managers with Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Researchers (PDF 311 KB) project.

As the title of the programme suggests, the focus of the workshop was on how to connect social researchers with the water industry. It was a very interesting discussion, looking at the challenge from a variety of perspectives. For me it was an invaluable insight into the challenges of bringing the social sciences into a field that is largely driven by a more quantitative and engineering focused approach.

As part of the days proceedings, Zoë invited me to present a short segment on the use of design research methods for communicating and engaging with ethnographic and qualitative research. My presentation looked at mobile diaries (for which I recommend Penny Hagen and Natalie Rowland’s excellent Johnny Holland article as a backgrounder), personas, infographics and visualisations, customer journey mapping, storyboards. I also used Smart Design’s wonderful work for the FastCompany Biomimicry Challenge (embedded below) as an example of envisioning using video/animation, of particular relevance given the focus on urban water.

IBM Biomimicry Challenge from Smart Design on Vimeo.

Part of what Zoë and Justine have been working on is a Directory of Social and Cultural Research on Urban Water. Their work to date has focused on researching and collating the data for the directory, but they will soon be turning their attention to publishing it. It was during discussion on how this might be advanced that I was reminded again how valuable social technologies like wikis and rapid development frameworks like Ruby on Rails or Django can be in providing low-cost publishing methods for this kind of work.

Thanks to Zoë and Justine for the invite — I’m looking forward to continuing the dialogue into the future.

Business 2.0, Government 2.0, Social media & networking, Sustainability


Just before the holiday break I had the pleasure of catching up with the folks at Headshift (who I think are doing great work) and during the conversation we were considering how slippery the term “social” can be.

Along with others in the Dachis Group, Headshift use the term “social business” to describe their work, which they use as a term to describe to businesses that use “social technologies to improve business performance, communication and customer engagement”.

This is quite a different definition of “social business” than is used In the non-profit and social innovation space — i.e a business at has social outcomes as a core focus.

During the conversation I mentioned that at Zumio we work at the intersection of three different worlds, all of which include “social” as a key descriptor, but where that term means something different in each instance.

Venn diagram showing overlapping social networks, social design, social innovation

Social networks: here “social” refers to the social relations and peer connections between individuals, and how social technologies are enabling these connections.

Social design: as outlined in the presentation I gave at Enviro 2010 earlier in the year, this refers to including people (both internal and external) in the process of design, but also designing for social use — including consideration of behavioural norms and social interactions in our designs.

Social innovation: here “social” refers to positive social outcomes (and environmental benefits) from our activities, often borne of social needs and actions (e.g. communities creating their own solutions).

Each of these areas of focus has a significant history and background of practice — terminology, methods, framing/perspetives etc. — and each in itself has a depth that can take some time to explain and “unpack”.  Which makes it all the more challenging to try and explain succinctly what it is that Zumio does ;)  But combined, we think these focal areas can be a very powerful force for positive change.  Hopefully, over time, they will become more widely known and accepted, making the story a little easier to tell.

And of course, if these ideas do become more “mainstream”, society will of course be reaping the benefits of each approach, which can only be a good thing.

Business 2.0, Government 2.0, Presentations, Social media & networking, Sustainability

Web Directions South 2010 – presentation and notes

Thanks to everyone who came to see the presentation at Web Directions South yesterday, and sorry we weren’t able to have a bit more discussion at the end of the session — some great questions and ideas came up that I would have liked to explore further.  I’ve posted the presentation to Slideshare:

Or you can download a PDF of the presentation, along with notes (PDF 14.4 MB), including pointers to the various sites and articles I mentioned in the presentation.

Business 2.0, Government 2.0, Presentations, Social media & networking, Sustainability, Work

Web Directions South: Creating platforms for social innovation

I’m very excited to be joining an inspiring line-up at Web Directions South in a few weeks’ time, presenting on the topic of Creating platforms for social innovation:

People are redefining the relationship they have with the organisations they interact with, empowered by social technologies.  They are seeking:

  • Human-ness: as organisations have grown in size and become more and more depersonalised, people are wanting more human interactions and personal response;
  • Trust: from greenwashing to the GFC, the market’s trust has been eroded — people are looking for organisations to say what they mean and mean what they say;
  • Co-creation: people are taking a more active role in developing the products and services that they use.  And if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they will often create it themselves;
  • Responsibility: people want to engage with organisations that are genuinely addressing the complex issues of sustainability and wellbeing.

Building a brand, service or product offering that resonates in this new “economy of meaning” requires a rethinking of an organisation’s relationship to the “market” — their customers, stakeholders and the environment.

In this presentation we will examine how innovative organisations are using social technologies and design methods to create multi-dimensional value — both for the organisational and community — and will explore the themes that underpin the examples with a view to applying them in your context.

Regular readers will note that the session is focused on a number of themes that I’ve been exploring here lately, so I’m really looking forward to connecting with other folks at the conference around these concepts.

Government 2.0, Sustainability

The Economist on social innovation

I read Let’s hear those ideas at the Economist with great interest, to get a sense of how social innovation might be represented to a business/finance audience.  It is quite a good piece, but one aspect of it stood out for me:

However, so far the enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship has run ahead of its effects. The problem has not been a lack of good ideas… The problem is instead one of speed and scale. Successful innovations have spread only slowly, if at all. In business, entrepreneurial firms that do well grow fast; but social entrepreneurship does not yet have a Microsoft or a Google. Policymakers hope that with encouragement from the state social entrepreneurs’ best ideas can be spread faster and wider.

While I agree that we need to diffuse social innovation more widely (and as rapidly as possible), the idea of scaling, of creating the next “Microsoft or a Google” in social innovation perhaps misses part of the point.

Ezio Manzini has spoken about small, local, open and connected [site no longer available] social innovations being an appropriate path forward for diffusing social innovations.  In his recent talk he talked about how such innovations have economies of scope, as opposed to the more traditional view of economies of scale.

Through connecting and synergising, social innovations have the potential to maintain the important local-ness and human scale while replicating the benefits to a wider group.  I’m sure I’ve read in one of his papers (though I can’t seem to find the reference) that in fact trying to increase the scale of social innovation may actually reduce the sustainability of the activity, suggesting that trying to scale such innovations is perhaps looking to solve the wrong problem.

This is not to say that social innovation doesn’t need support.  The Economist article points to some great initiatives in the US and the UK that are allocating funds to support social innovation.  More of that is definitely needed.

Something to consider, though is Ezio’s suggestion that Government needs to consider how to engage with such initiatives, leaving enough room for innovation to occur, while building the frameworks that support the longevity of initiatives.  This is a different way of working for Government agencies and I suspect it will take some adjusting for this transition to occur.

My hope is that funds are directed to create the enabling structures that support more social innovations — e.g. supporting the communities who are already innovating and encouraging further innovation — rather that taking specific ideas and trying to scale them to apply to conditions that are poorly aligned with those that saw the innovation emerge in the first place.  While the latter approach may work in some circumstances, I suspect that it may backfire if not done with care.

(I note that Raul has an alternate take on the article over at the ASIX blog.)