Book Review: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

A review from UX Matters on a methodology which seems closely linked to ideas on Co-Design and transdisciplinary research without the baggage of its intellectual precedents and academic rigour – while citing social entrepreneurship it has yet to see how this might embrace both commercial and social actors in a unified field, I haven’t read the book yet but it looks worthwhile  and have ordered it. 

In this “Handbook & Call to Action,” Kolko introduces the idea of wicked problems—large-scale social issues that plague humanity, like poverty and malnutrition—then describes the role of design in mitigating these problems. Starting with the example of his experience with Project Masiluleke, Kolko points out that traditional approaches cannot deal effectively with complex social and cultural problems. Such wicked problems always interconnect with other problems, are costly to solve, and often lack clear methods for understanding and evaluating them.

Traditional ways of tackling wicked problems include the following:

  • top-down government policy-making and funding that are too broad and complicated to deal with the real issues
  • companies’ being motivated by revenue generation and mass production to maximize their profit margins
  • standard project-based frameworks with finite engagement periods that are too short and too shallow to create long-lasting social impact

Kolko suggests that it is possible to mitigate wicked problems through what he calls social entrepreneurship—entrepreneurship that aims to create social capital by adding value to the community rather than focusing only on creating economic wealth.

Kolko argues that designers need the skills of a social entrepreneur to tackle wicked problems effectively. However, in the commercial world, designer and entrepreneur are two separate roles. It’s unclear why this should be different in a not-for-profit context. Although it’s possible to combine the roles of designer and entrepreneur successfully in one person, this is an exception rather than the rule.

Kolko’s proposed curriculum is first and foremost a design curriculum—and a very promising one. While it is not convincing as a social-entrepreneurship curriculum, it is arguable whether one curriculum should even try to address both design and entrepreneurship.

Kolko advocates making students aware that they can position design within any context and teaching them how to deal with situations in which the circumstances may be complex and far from ideal. This is a very valuable proposition—one that would benefit every design course. It is admirable that Kolko wants to place the emphasis on solving social problems, but students must realize that making this choice has consequences as well.

Read the full review

Author: Jon Kolko

Publisher: Austin Center for Design

Publication date: March 2012

Format of print edition: Paperback; 8.5 x 8.5 inches; 176 pages

ISBN: 978-0-6155931-5-9

List price: $45

Free online edition: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

Social Enterprise: The Missing Stage of Economic Development

From [polis] an excellent post on the impacts and possible futures of socal enterprise as a cure for the ills and evils of donor aid by Melanie Friedrichs who is a Polis summer intern.

Melanie Friedrichs with members of Wa Nak Jariioo, in the neighborhood of Grand Dakar, in Dakar, Senegal.

For years, the majority of first-world academics, politicians, and practitioners have viewed economic development as a two-stage process. When a country or region is too poor to help itself, offer aid: start schools, open clinics, build infrastructure to facilitate basic trade and communication, and do it all for free. After the place has been spoon-fed on first-world donations for a few years, see if it can walk. Stop aid, cut NGO services, and treat it like an adult — a fully capable (and competitive) member of the global economy.

Unfortunately, places — like people — don’t grow from babies directly into adults. Few, if any, countries have ever leapt from aid to independence, and some, as author Dambisa Moyo claims in “Dead Aid,” are economically stunted by too many free goods and services. Social enterprise could be an intermediate step, a driver of development that could bridge the gulf between aid and industry.

Social Venture Partners Rhode Island (SVPRI), the small non-profit where I currently work, defines social enterprises as “mission driven initiatives that apply market-based strategies to maximize social impact.”

This definition is one of many. Like the term “green,” “social enterprise” has been applied to or appropriated by groups of incredible diversity. Usually, it refers to organizations that mix money-making and social impact, two poles on a wide scale that encompasses everything from Girl Scouts selling cookies to the Goldman Sachs Charitable Gift Fund. An important faction maintains that the term can apply to any innovative solution to a social problem.

The spectrum of social enterprise … according to some definitions.

Social enterprise can be glamorous. Some of the most prominent players in the field are boutique consulting and venture capital firms that focus exclusively on non-profits, whose employees enjoy the comfort of air-conditioned, well-connected offices in New York or London as well as the self-satisfaction of serving the greater good. These firms, like Social Finance,New Profit, or the IGNIA fund, focus on improving the “social return on investment” — making every last dollar of donor money count. These firms are making an impact, directly on their clients and indirectly on the non-profit sector, by contributing to new standards of accountability and efficiency.

However, the greatest potential benefit of social enterprise may lie on the less glamorous side of the spectrum. There are thousands of small businesses that may never attract the attention of big-shot funders or employ more than five people, but that nonetheless marry social mindfulness with real income, employment, and economic development. Most of these micro-enterprises can’t make it without some donations, but unlike charities, their earned-income strategies grow or maintain the donor dollar while creating what every economy needs: new business.

In the developed world, micro social enterprises have some established streams of funding and support. For example, SVPRI runs an eight-week incubator program to launch and grow micro social enterprises. When they start, most enterprises are just a lone entrepreneur with an idea: a bike shop involved in the community (Recycle-a-Bike), a distributor for maternal health kits (Maternova), a catering business run out of a local soup kitchen (Amos House). The entrepreneurs are often unemployed individuals seeking to give back to their communities and also support themselves and their families.

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A New Type of Hybrid – Social Entrepreneurship + Business Equity via Stanford Social Innovation Revue

We need to understand how the future we are all so busy imagining and  designing will be made possible in an era of reduced public spending on the very projects and infrastructures that are so desperately needed. For  long time it has been suspected that its can’t only be done with donor funds and the capital constraints on participation organizations that have no track records or legal standing, nor tangible assets make it impossible to raise conventional fiance; This new hybrid model could pave the way for new ventures in social and private cooperation. We have to be able to think or imagine something before it can become real, many of us are adept at thinking up new tangible designs for space, but often lack the skills to think up new ways of organizing, financing and managing the change. This article from Stanford Social Innovation Revue by Allen R. Bromberger points a way ahead:

Social entrepreneurs have taken the hybrid model to a new level, crafting it into what is in effect a single structure that can operate as both a for-profit and a nonprofit.

“Much to the chagrin of social entrepreneurs, U.S. law does not currently recognize any single legal entity that can simultaneously accept tax-deductible donated capital (charitable contributions and grants); invested capital (equity investment for which investors seek a market rate of return); and quasi-invested capital (such as loans or program-related investments [PRI] from foundations that are structured as investments but in which the funder has a strong philanthropic motive and neither expects nor demands a market rate of return). As a consequence, social entrepreneurs are typically forced to choose between for-profit and nonprofit models that require them to compromise their social vision and restrict their ability to finance and operate their ventures in a way that meets the founders’ own needs as well as those of their investors, customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Some entrepreneurs, however (especially the most intrepid ones), have found ways to combine the best of the for-profit and nonprofit models. They have done this by creating a hybrid structure: separate nonprofit and for-profit organizations that are bound together through governance or legal agreements. Hybrids, of course, are not new. They have been around for decades (consider Children’s Television Workshop, owners of the Sesame Street characters). For the most part, hybrids have been created by an existing nonprofit or for-profit to meet a new objective that could not be met under its existing legal structure. A for-profit corporation might create a nonprofit foundation to manage its philanthropic work. Or a nonprofit museum might create a for-profit retailer to sell posters, jewelry, and other merchandise.

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