This paper describes what you will need to consider when you are planning to do generative design research for social innovation. I will start by discussing generative design research for commercial innovation in comparison to social innovation and then describe what is unique about design for social innovation.

Commercial Innovation vs. Social Innovation

Designers have long focused on commercial innovation, but today we see increasing interest and activity in social innovation. How are the two forms of innovation similar?  They both play out in the front end of the design and development process. They both address a wide range of stakeholders and explore their larger contexts of use. In addition, they use the same general design process, including many of the same methods and tools.

How are they different? In commercial innovation, we usually design for others like us. In social innovation, on the other hand, it is more likely that we will be designing with people from other cultures. For example, our co-designers could live in another part of the world or they could live nearby but have very different experiences of living.

Commercial innovation uses design to serve the marketplace and to benefit companies, whereas social innovation uses design to improve the lives of people, often people who live with limited resources. But there are also commercial organizations with social aims. I believe that we will see far more interest in social innovation from commercial organizations in the future because of the cracks that have recently appeared. For example, we can see the negative social consequences of commercial innovations such as Facebook and Twitter playing out in front of us on the political landscape.

Opposing Trends in Design Research

Design researchers in the commercial realm are expected to work more quickly than ever before in exploring the needs of future consumers in order to arrive at insights to drive the next new thing.  We can see signs of this trend on the internet where they share ready-to-use playbooks, templates, canvases, starter kits and toolkits for design research.  These ready-made tools can be useful for less experienced design researchers, but they should be approached with caution so they are not taken out of context.

Design research for social innovation, on the other hand, has been slowing down. Design researchers who work on social challenges have realized that their work must become more connected to the people who will be affected by the results of design. Slow design research for social innovation today embraces a co-design mindset as we can see in the language that social design innovators use. They have shifted from designing for others to designing with others. I do not recommend the use of ready-made generative design research methods and tools for addressing social challenges. These situations call for custom-made methods and tools in the hands of experienced design researchers.

Imagine a line with ready-made methods and tools for design research on the left side and bespoke (i.e., custom-made) methods and tools on the right.  Designers and design researchers need to be aware of where their work is positioned on the line from ready-made to bespoke. For example, if you lack deep experience, it is best to start by using and adapting ready-made methods and tools. More experienced design researchers can work at the bespoke end with custom-made methods and tools for co-designing. Commercial innovation sits on the left of the line and uses modifications of ready-made methods and tools. Social innovation is best when it sits the right of the line using bespoke methods and tools.

A Framework for Social Innovation

Figure 1 shows a framework for generative design research in social innovation. You can see the core process in the middle (i.e., making the plan and the toolkits; executing the plan; making sense of what happened).  At the end of the core process, you can see insights, ideas, and concepts popping out. The core process connects to the Culture Container at the top and to the Generative Toolbox at the bottom. The framework shows only one cycle through the process but in design for social innovation, many cycles through the framework will take place. The feedback arrows show that both the Culture Container and the Generative Toolbox grow with iterative cycles through the framework.

Figure 1: A framework for generative design research in social innovation. Figure shows a diagram depicting how the Generative Toolbox and the Culture Container interact between the stages of Making the plan + the toolkit, to Execute the plan, to the Make sense of what happened stage. Those 3 stages back and forth with the Container and Toolbox results in various insights, ideas and concepts.

How is this framework different for social innovation versus commercial innovation? The main difference is in the size and content of the top and bottom components. For commercial innovation, the Culture Container is smaller and would more aptly be named Understanding the Market. The Generative Toolkit for commercial innovation is about the same size but would probably contain more ready-made tools.

The first step in generative design research for social innovation is to understand the culture of your co-designers. This understanding is essential for making a good design research plan and creating relevant generative toolkits. The next step is to make the plan and prepare the toolkits, drawing from the Generative Toolbox that you build during your practice. The third step is to execute the plan. This step is followed by the making sense stage where you figure out what you have learned.  It is important to take time for reflection so that you can capture the insights and ideas that pop out. Every cycle through the framework adds to the depth and breadth of the Culture Container and the Generative Toolbox. The Culture Container will grow larger to the extent that you engage in more co-design relationships with people from cultures different from your own.

Let’s take a closer look at the Culture Container and the Generative Toolbox because these are the components unique to design for social innovation. The core process (making the plan and the toolkits, executing the plan and then making sense of what happens) is covered in chapters  5, 6, and 7 in the book Convivial Toolbox if you are interested in learning more about that.

The Culture Container

The greater the difference between you and the people you are co-designing with, the more time and energy you will need to put into understanding their culture. You need to become familiar with each other. This experience of cultural connection takes time and is best done in a face-to-face manner.

You will need to understand who you are co-designing with so that you can prepare a relevant co-design plan and toolkits. Your role, as a generative design researcher for social innovation, is to prepare your co-designers to be able to express their creativity. Sometimes the co-design sessions will occur with individuals and sometimes in groups. Your co-designers will need time and activities to become comfortable with each other, particularly if they did not already know each other before the co-design session begins.

I use the Contexts of Creativity Framework (See Figure 2)  from Convivial Toolbox as a guide to prepare and plan for cultural connection experiences.

Artboard 2@5x

Figure 2: The Contexts of Creativity Framework: A guide for planning cultural connection experiences. Figure demonstrates how the layers of context lead towards the idea. At the bottom of the figure is a circle labeled “Materials Places Spaces” Layered on top is Body, which is layered under Heart. Finally, on top of heart is a circle labeled head. An arrow leads from head to a cloud labeled Idea.

The Contexts of Creativity Framework shows that individual creativity is influenced by three layers of context around the head of the individual. It shows that individual creativity is not only in the head but in the heart as well.  We are more creative when we are having fun. And creativity takes place in the body. We are more creative when our bodies are in motion. The last layer shows that creativity is in the environment. We can impact the creativity of our co-designers by carefully considering the places, spaces, props and materials that we provide for them to use. And finally, there is a timeframe for creativity. We can enhance people’s creativity through preparation and with the passage of time.

Here are the some of the questions that I think about when planning for cultural connections.


  • Are you using your co-designers’ language and natural forms of expression?
  • Have you learned about their values, traditions, and practices?
  • Have you managed their expectations about what will take place before, during and after their participation?


  • Have you planned for activities that will be fun your co-designers?
    Are you aware of what your participants value and what is meaningful to them?


  • Have you invited your co-designers to engage physically in the planned activities?
  • Do any of your participants have physical disabilities that you need consider so they can contribute at an equal level to the other participants?


  • Are you using locally sourced materials with which your co-designers will be familiar?
  • Will individuals or teams use the toolkits? Have you designed the toolkits to optimize their use by individuals and/or teams?


  • Have you prepared your co-designers well ahead of the generative session so that they come to the session with creative confidence?
  • Don’t forget about using safe online social spaces as a preliminary means of making cultural connections.

Physical Spaces

  • Have you considered the mobility of your co-designers when deciding where to hold the sessions?
  • Will the workshop take place in surroundings that are familiar to your co-designers?
  • Is there enough space for people to move around?
  • Have you worked out the need for individual vs. collaborative spaces?

Social Spaces

  • Do your participants already know each other?
  • Are there hierarchical differences that you need to consider?
  • If your participants do not know each other, have you planned activities for them to get to know one another in meaningful ways?

The Generative Toolbox

The Generative Toolbox is a collection of all the materials that you have ever used and will ever use for executing generative design research. The Generative Toolbox helps you to grow from being a design researcher who modifies ready-made toolkits to becoming a design researcher who can create custom-made toolkits for the situation at hand.

The toolbox grows in use over time. You take toolkits and materials out of the Generative Toolbox for use in generative sessions. Later on, you return materials, used toolkit and insights. Some of the materials will be reusable, and others you will need to replenish. You should always be on the lookout for new toolkit materials as you never know what you might need in the future.

Some of the 2D materials and tools that I have in my Generative Toolbox include:

  • Photos, both concrete and abstract including images of people, places, things, and feelings
  • Colored shapes made out of paper. They may be iconic, symbolic, abstract, representational, etc. They come in many sizes.
  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Symbols
  • Pictograms
  • Emoticons
  • Stories and story headlines
  • Small sketches showing people in action
  • Blank cards for writing on (or to use in making games)
  • Blank booklets
  • “What if? cards” for provoking thoughts and actions
  • Colored tape in many thicknesses
  • Markers, both thin and thick and in many colors. Some Dry-Erase.
  • Glue and tape. (Removable is best so participants can change their minds.)
  • Scissors
  • Post-it notes, both square and round

Some of the 3D materials and tools that I have in my Generative Toolbox include:

  • Clay and Play-Doh
  • People figures that range from abstract to realistic, small to large, etc.
  • Wooden blocks of many different shapes, sizes, and colors
  • Paper boxes that fold flat for travel, in all sizes and colors
  • Velcro-modeling components for full-scale mockups of prototypes
  • A sandbox full of sand and a wide range of plastic sand toys
  • Puppets of people and animals
  • Dress-up items such as hats, glasses, etc.
  • LEGOs, both Duplo and regular
  • Wire and wire cutters
  • Pipe cleaners of all types and sizes
  • Yarn of different colors and thicknesses
  • Little balls made of wool Felt and other fabrics

What does the Generative Toolbox look like?

Figure 3: The Generative Toolbox in use during Workchops

The photo above shows the Generative Toolbox during a workshop in New Zealand called Workchops (See here). The fourteen workshop participants were experienced design researchers wanting to learn more about using generative design toolkits for social innovation. I put together this toolbox for them to use in making their own toolkits which they then used on each other.  Because of the travel distance involved, I could only bring items that traveled well, so many items were locally sourced.


I hope this short paper has helped to get you thinking about planning and conducting generative design research for social innovation. As social innovators, we need to slow down and take the time we need for the co-designing process. Look for opportunities to practice at both ends of the ready-made to bespoke scale of design research methods and tools. If we are to become better at addressing the future consequences of what is designed, we will need more design researchers who can facilitate generative design research for both social and commercial innovation.


  • Sanders, E.B.-N. & Stappers, P.J. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers. 2012.