Designing an Engine to Drive Social Innovation — Kevin Yang

At World Design Capital 2016, Kevin Yang’s 5% Design Action won the Golden Pin Design Award’s 2016 Special Award for Social Design. It is not a tangible product or physical space, but an impact project set in service design logic. It advocates that designers, professionals, and stakeholders should jointly find solutions to the social challenges they face via “open innovation” strategies.

It began with an experimental project called ‘Breast Cancer Screening Party’, initiated by Yang in 2013. After seeing his wife, who was a nurse, suffer from fatigue due to her efforts in promoting breast cancer screening during her pregnancy, Yang began thinking about how to improve the screening rate in Taiwan. Through a post on social media, Yang called on a group of Taiwanese designers to volunteer a small portion (5%) of their spare time to work on a campaign for breast cancer screening. These designers repackaged it as an enjoyable afternoon tea party. The screening service was also retooled to make the entire process more straightforward. They sought to use a simpler, more accessible approach to communicating information in order to reduce the apprehension that many women feel about breast cancer screenings.

When Yang posted the call to action, he didn’t expect such an overwhelming response. In only two days, eighty designers from a range of fields had answered his call. The number of people who joined in assured him that this innovative concept to promote preventive cancer screenings would become a reality. The momentum that started building from this design initiative resulted in the launch of the 5% Design Action social design platform. After that, they continued to apply this service design logic in finding out the solutions to environmental, educational, economic, and health issues. “Only a mechanism and method with a well-designed underlying structure is capable of continuously producing good results,” says Yang. “I want to design that engine.”

How Does this Design Engine Work?

Because social issues are so complex, 5% Design Action is very flexible in its social innovation design policies. Yang gives an example: 5% Design Action observed that a supportive workplace environment is extremely important to workers who are also family caregivers. Whether or not a workplace is supportive depends upon a number of things; whether employees are permitted to combine their careers with their caregiving duties; how caregivers are reintegrated into the workplace after a hiatus; whether adequate resources are allocated to these and other issues. There are organizations that focus on labor rights and professional women’s issues, and they have worked hard to seek improvements. However, many of them only have access to limited resources, while their ability to effect change is hindered by inertia as well as their own standpoint, so they “never realize that another way of thinking about the problem might lead to a breakthrough.” This involves getting to the crux of the problem. In the example above, manpower costs were a root cause of why many companies are unwilling or find it difficult to make changes.

To achieve a breakthrough, 5% Design Action invites those seeking change, the service providers, and others involved to come together to participate in a discussion-based consultation. A complete picture of the issue is pieced together from their differing perspectives, allowing the various stakeholders to gain a more holistic understanding of a problem that has so far resisted all attempts at resolution, and to recognize the obstacles underlying past failures to resolve the issue. Then, they determine what kinds of professional and design assistance is needed, and recruit a team of experts from different fields and organizations to brainstorm possible solutions.

Yang also says that “we often joke that we are the only party with no stake in the outcome of these issues.” The designers’ neutral status makes it easier for them to cut through to the core of social issues. He adds that “everyone has their own preconceptions that they associate with the word ‘design’. Actually, people from all walks of life need the involvement of design to clarify issues, improve communications, and interface well.” He believes this is an important reason why design is able to implement solutions to a multitude of different social challenges.

The issue of family care and supportive workplaces is a good example of this approach. Working directly with employers and employees turned out not to be the only way of finding solutions to this issue. Instead, improvements to job matchmaking services proved to make a significant difference. Recently, 5% Design Action began working with job banks to design a new job hunting platform that provides tailored matchmaking services, which include jobs with flexible hours and information on care resources, job training, and even psychological counseling for family caregivers who seek to return to the workplace. Yang notes that “in addition to being socially significant, it’s actually a great business opportunity.”

“We are happy to be the provider of tools, mechanisms, and services that bring people together.” 5% Design Action’s program is an open platform whose final level is implemented in the sharing of results. Yang mentions that there is such a variety of social challenges and problems that a single team cannot resolve them all. By managing the fundamentals, they hope to disseminate the experience of social action into fields of education, urban and rural issues, women’s issues, energy. To reach these fields, they use text-based media, visuals, and case studies. In this manner, they can create more opportunities to promote innovation through design, applying the established framework, and making adjustments to meet differing needs.

The Local Development Experience is a Petri Dish for Social Innovation

People over the age of sixty-five already account for over fourteen percent of Taiwan’s population, meaning that the island is now considered an aging society. The government has begun to implement its Long-Term Care 2.0 plan, while many of the design efforts launched by Yang and 5% Design Action in recent years have focused on social issues related to this phenomenon, including population aging, the declining birthrate, and long-term care. Their design projects in health promotion for the elderly in 2016, and in long-term care for the elderly in 2017, were attempts to propose innovative solutions for issues that will arise in the near future.

Yang points out that when looking for solutions to social issues, we should thoroughly consider the experiences of other countries and regions, such as Scandinavia and Japan. Taiwan should study their success stories. However, as the context of Taiwan’s history, culture, laws, and industrial development differs, it may not be advisable to completely copy them. For instance, in the long-term care issue, there is a very different point of view between Eastern and Western societies.

Yang says that in Scandinavia, elderly people primarily move to nursing homes to have the opportunity to interact with people of the same age, or to receive professional care. They enter nursing homes voluntarily, and for them this is an ideal situation. However, in Taiwan and Huaren societies, the children of elderly people who move to nursing homes may be seen as unfilial, or unwilling to take on the responsibility of caring for their parents. This gap stems from the difference in philosophy and the concepts of family relations between those of Eastern and Western culture. Western culture emphasizes humanism, or self-actualization to develop an individual’s value to the greatest extent. In contrast, Eastern or Huaren societies espouse family-centric values such as filial piety, while emphasizing social relationships. For designers, these differences should be considered in sociocultural and design issues.

Yang mentions, even if the design concept is the same, there are many specialties formed by the historical and cultural contexts between the East and the West. Therefore, Huaren design must have its unique characteristics, core ideas, values, or pursuits. 5% Design Action has taken lessons from successful design cases overseas. However, as for those aspects of an issue that are more strongly tied to culture, Yang believes that “we must alter our response, because our local culture is unique. Design can incorporate great concepts from abroad, but when these concepts enter Taiwan or other Eastern societies, they will definitely require new vectors.”

For example, one especially thorny issue that arises when caring for dementia patients is “sundown syndrome”. People with sundown syndrome become anxious and impatient to return home every day at sundown. To cope with this problem, some Scandinavian nursing homes designed simulated bus stops inside their hallways so that dementia patients could be guided rather than coerced. Yang says a similar concept was previously used in a Taiwanese care facility. The difference was that the care facility simulated local gathering places like a temple entrance or the post office that many elderly patients had previously been in the habit of frequenting on a daily basis. He was very impressed by this case because local Taiwanese cultural characteristics were successfully applied to long-term care, and the life experiences of the elderly were included in the design considerations.

Regarding the phenomenon of aging society and low birthrate, Yang thinks that it does not only concern individual’s health level, but it also involves economic issues such as the potential problems caused by lack of labor. Although there are plenty of challenges in today’s society, he believes that his organization’s solutions will become a benchmark of social innovation for other countries or regions that have not yet faced such extreme situations. Yang says, “The extreme challenges we face will become a petri dish for social innovation.” And this is definitely where Taiwan’s opportunities lie. Recently, 5% Design Action has attempted to work with the local organizations and designers in New Taipei City, Hong Kong, and Shanghai to explore the solutions to common social challenges such as family care and supportive workplaces.

In Social Design, Patience is a Virtue

When using design to resolve social issues, Yang looks back at 5% Design Action’s past five years and refers to their first design effort, the Breast Cancer Screening Party. This year, they had the opportunity to bring that activity to Shanghai. “There are time during this process of introducing design to social impact, when all I can say is we have to learn to be more patient.”

“Social design isn’t really a new idea. It’s just that nowadays we handle it more systematically and methodically.” Yang believes that any number of past technological or commercial breakthroughs have helped to advance society. Examples include sewage systems, cold storage equipment, and the telephone. “No matter how far back we extend the timeline, we see that social design is always taking place. However, we have been caught up in an era that revolved around the economy, and we have focused too much on pursuing economic growth. If we look back and reflect, we will see that we have actually experienced a great deal of social design with cross-generational impacts.”

Yang emphasizes, “the degree of complexity involved in designing a social intervention is higher than that of business because the social system and the stakeholders involved are themselves much more complex than we could ever imagine. However, because of this, when design is involved in social impact efforts, the force that is pushing forward is immense.” Although it is difficult to see the changes wrought by design in the short term, Yang nevertheless affirms that “each step forward is a significant moment.”


About Kevin Yang

Yang holds a Ph.D. from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology’s Department of Industrial and Commercial Design, a master’s degree in financial management from Southern Illinois University, and a master’s degree from National Cheng Kung University’s Institute of International Business. He is currently the CEO of design consultancy DreamVok, the CEO of social design platform 5% Design Action, and adjunct assistant professor at National Tsing Hua University, and Fu Jen Catholic University. In the past, he was mainly engaged in cross-disciplinary design research, and has helped many domestic and international brands to introduce innovative design principles into their services and products. His published works include Service Design Tools and Methods, the Future Life Experience Design Trend Report, New Innovative Design for the Future and Dechnology: Design + Technology.

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