The Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Design

After a bit of digging I’ve been able to uncover some more about Geoff Mulgan’s critique of social design.

The most direct reference is a fantastic set of visual notes from Jonathan Hey who attended Mulgan’s talk at the DMI conference in London earlier this month.

But for the details of the argument I’m extrapolating from a working paper Mulgan wrote for the Social Innovation Exchange conference in December 2009. This is a third hand translation of a French summary of that paper (or discussion about it at the conference) so caveat emptor. But it looks like he’s indeed critiquing RED and Participle as well as Thinkpublic, IDEO, the Rockefeller Foundation, and an organization that’s new to me called EMUDE focused on sustainability.

According to the summary of Mulgan’s argument the key strengths that designers bring to social design projects include new perspective and clarity, tools for systematic thinking and catalyzing behavior as well as visualization techniques and methods for rapid prototyping. Key weaknesses include high cost, lack of investment, a tendency to reinvent the wheel, mediocre skills at implementation, lack of economic understanding or organizational perspective and lack of rigor.

The visual notes from the DMI conference confirm this by listing three strengths: insight, prototypes and imagination; as well as five weaknesses: revising research, economics, understanding [political] power, delivery, expensive.

Mulgan presented a case study from the Young Foundation called Studio Schools [PDF pg5], but there aren’t any details about projects from the agencies mentioned above so it’s still unclear where or how the weaknesses manifest, if at all. Or why these efforts have been judged a failure.

  1. Fabian

    EMUDE is the name of the project group that ran the Sustainable Everyday project under Ezio Manizini.

    For more, see their webpage: and

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