As some of you may know, I left Lesvos (Greece) a month ago. I spent two great years that I should share with you. I am taking one insight away from there. A confirmation that I want 100% of my work to have a positive impact for our planet (it’s always good to write it down, try it).
So before to start applying for jobs, I felt the need to do a “state of the art of social and strategic design communities in Europe” by visiting a few countries. It was an organic travel where I felt free to go from one town to another based on events and people I met. It was a way to reconnect with this urban context that I had left by living on my tiny Greek island where I pretty much focused on humanitarian challenges for two years non-stop. I wanted to do networking, grasp updated insights from the field of design, and also meet former volunteers.
This is not a report, nor a research. It’s an informal feedback session -call it a “carnet de bord”- from what I gathered along this travel. Therefore, I assume all kind of biases that I will write as it is obvious that I can’t gain a deep understanding of a country’s culture in just a few days.
During these two weeks surrounded by buses, trains, and guest-houses, I also met my friends and former-volunteers from Lesvos whom accepted my impromptu calls to host me. Meeting them was also a great motivation during this journey.
I travelled to The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France. I went to the Dutch Design Week, a Hackathon with Techfugees, the ImpactFest and What Design Can Do’s gathering. I am now writing from Brussels (and finalising from France).
My goal is also to motivate people to follow a similar path. I tried to put a lot of links so you can do your research and maybe find your dream’s job.
Social design, strategic design, what are those anyway?
Not everybody indeed knows about it. The headline’s blog is “Élargir la vision du design”. It promotes the learning about design, whether your background is design or not. So here are more links that accompany your reading:
- I shared on the Facebook page of Opoiesis, an essay comparing social design with design activism. I will come back to it during the article so here is a preview:
- I generally invite people to read the blog “I think I design” based on Dr. Stefanie Di Russo’s PhD. You can start with A Brief History of Design Thinking: The theory [P1].
- Finally, an easy-to-read introduction about “Business design“. Design’s professions have a lot of overlapping. Business designers are people with a business background who learnt about design. Strategic designers are designers who learnt about business.
The definition of design evolves through time, and is different for every culture. That’s why I wanted to start with France. It’s true that my travel in France was a short Marseille-Lille-Eindhoven but I think that, as a French citizen, it’s important to explain a bit of my story and background.
I would then move on to every country.
1. The French culture in design?
I remember when I graduated. I was full of hope and ready to tackle meaningful challenges with human-centered approach. I quickly lost my motivation when I searched online for “strategic design job France”. Why? It was only digital & marketing agencies. They were all saying the same thing: “we improve your brand identity through design and innovation”. They were hiring strategic designers to sell innovation to their clients (understand “digital touch”, nothing innovative here). The end-goal was to transfer client’s vision into a digital identity and sometimes digital services to attract more consumers.
And this is understandable. Paris is well-known to have a lot of luxury brands and large industries. Trends are really important in this field so the marketing sector is always following the last ideas.
I remember applying for a Master in Strategic design, in ENSAAMA (Paris). I realized during the interview that I wasn’t interested because all the showcased projects were luxury brands. Advice if you’re still a student: always check the list of partners of your school. You will learn interesting things about the projects you will have to work on and the post-graduating job opportunities you will get.
I am glad I got a scholarship in IED Madrid. Without these steps, I wouldn’t be writing this article today on Opoiesis (fr).
2. Trends in France
2.1 Design thinking
When I graduated, design thinking was expending since a few years and reaching France. There was a lot of “facilitators” offering their services. I remember design thinking was part of a package sold with “open spaces” and a new “corporate culture” idolised from GAFAM.
It was still perceived by industries as a “team building process”: they could get employees across departments working together for one hour about creative solutions, and then, a man (it’s always a man) with a fancy suit would show up and pick the closest idea from his pre-workshop-vision. Yes, that’s the frustration of “being the only designer in the room” here.
2.2 Start-up Nation by Macron
Since then, we also had the “freelance economy”, followed by the “start-up economy”. It reached a new level with the “Start-up Nation by Macron”.
Understand, I am negative about a lot of useless projects created by start-ups. After a quick search online, “42% of start-ups fail happens because there was no market need“. It resumes it all: “lonely egocentric will to change the world (or make money) coupled with no care about the users”.
In the start-up world, you’re forced to grow by your investors. So, even good ideas turn bad by default. You’re pushed to use unethical ideas such as addictive user interface to “hook” your users, or selling users data, to survive. Look at these unregulated electric scooters… we all know this will be on a scrapyard in a few years. How do we know? It already is.
So yes there are social entrepreneurs and we will talk about it later. But more than a social entrepreneur, only an activist entrepreneur (never heard that one, sounds like an oxymoron) could have a positive social impact. Because this person would need an antagonist mindset to go against the natural start-up growth’s rule: to work for the good of the users & employees more than for the good of the investors & personal greed. It’s the only way to not being part of this fast line privatised train driving over our social standards and public services (that our government seems happy to give away).
Design is political: you might want to get over political etiquettes during your research or creative workshops but you don’t have to stay neutral during your creating phase.
Well, well, well it’s getting out of topic. Tell me if you think this is relevant for you.
3. The alternatives in France: why France can be interesting?
In the end, I quickly left France and never really imagined myself coming back to live in France. Only a few options are remaining in my mind.
3.1 Doing a PhD
PhDs in France are quite interesting and seem more qualitative (I didn’t say more advanced) than abroad. Doing a Phd, you get more room to experiment and apply your values. But let’s agree, this isn’t the easy path. In three years, you will develop a specific complex French vocabulary that will open you the doors to a new community of researchers & practitioners. Stéphane Vial (fr), Alain Findeli (fr) and Brigitte Borja de Mozota (fr) can be helpful names to learn more about the state of design research in France.
It seems that French schools follow the idea of “research and practice (action)”. Your PhD thesis must improve the global design’s knowledge, but, practice must confirm or not the assumptions you made. This might be different depending on the schools. In TU Delft, you can decide to focus on the theoretical aspect only, like a classic PhD.
Side notes about PhD research in general:
- You will often see big industries investing on design research labs and financing Phd thesis, such as Orange, Decathlon, EDF and SNCF. I am curious to know the freedom you can have as a researcher working with/for them.
- Outside France, I also like to keep an eye on DESIS network, discovered through Politecnico di Milano (Polimi), and OCAD University in Canada.
- I will make the assumption that design PhDs in France are still elitist programs. It might be due to the fame of Parisian public schools; the lack of support; the absence of entry opportunities; or as well the lack of attractiveness, diversity, and recognition.
3.2 Urbanism, politics, and public policies
A second path to follow for designers willing to have a social impact is to work on projects related to public spaces or public services. This is more developed in the Netherlands but France has its own experiences with social designers.
The main example is “La 27ème région“. This one stands out because French regions are financing them. By being agonist, these social designers can create long-term collaborative projects where they can question power, experiment with stakeholders, and meet local communities.
- Update: Few days ago were “Les assises du Design (replay)” in Paris. The event, in collaboration with the government, has developed five thematics to make design a more recognized discipline. By creating a French Design Council and a French Design Week. But also by anchoring design within public policies. A great initiative if the promises are done.
- While social design is often agonist by default because of our collaborative approach, architects might be an interesting sector for antagonists people. The recognition of their diploma give them a stronger authority and foundation (joke intended) to contest the wrong use of public space (fr). The creation of Unions and regulations for designers is a thematic developed by Mike Monteiro.
3.3 What else about design and France?
- An interesting event to check is the World Design Capital. From January 2020, Lille will be the capital. An interesting time to visit.
- Saint-Étiennes is also part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the category “Design” and has interesting structures for designers.
- In France, the term “Économie sociale et solidaire (ESS)” might also be used for social companies. Don’t forget that you can miss large communities just by not knowing the right keywords.
- Connected to ESS, I just heard about BPI France, for potential grants and financial support.
- Like I already said in my article “Aller sur le terrain: le bénévolat comme manière d’apprentissage” (fr), I advise young designers to pick a topic from one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and find a local association working on that issue. There are so many things to do and communities of same minded people to join.
Now, let’s start our journey abroad.
Of course, from now on it will be harder to give deep insights as I don’t know about their government, policies, culture, and context. My insights are pretty much based on fantasies that I built through the years. These few days of travel helped me to discover if, yes or no, these fantasies were legit.
1. My fantasy about the Netherlands
When I was a kid, the Netherlands was “the country that will get flooded first”. I don’t know if it affected Dutch mindset or not but I always felt that Dutch companies were more open to social and environmental challenges. You remember when I was doing my first job’s research in France? Well most of the interesting results were based in the Netherlands: Enviu, Except… and Philips (we all have weaknesses).
I have done my Erasmus there. I spent six months in the lovely town of Maastricht studying interior architecture (I like diversity in skills). Courses were in Dutch but the Dutch system made it good: we were seven students and courses were one-on-one sessions with fluent English-speaking teachers. There, I discovered the work made by Dutch -and German- architects. There was a sense of “ethics and sobriety” that suited me. I had a great opinion about the society in The Netherlands and kept that in mind all along.
It was a running joke for the past two years that, after Lesvos, I would go to visit and live in Rotterdam. Half done.
2.1 The strongly connected community
Eindhoven was my first stop. I went there for the Dutch Design Week and wrote a full article about it. Still, I felt the article was more a description of projects than a real feedback based on personal feelings: I didn’t like it (neither did you).
I discovered in Eindhoven a strong creative community built from the Design Academy of Eindhoven (DAE). I talked to young graduated designers whom confirmed this network. It’s quite interesting but it might also take you longer to get into this community if you’re not an alumni from DAE.
One exhibitor from the DAE told me: “Today I am exhibiting because I knew the host of this studio and she invited me. […] When someone needs a skill, we come and help each other, or we share friends contact… A friend photographer came to help me for the shooting of my project; he said that he is fully booked now: he is helping all around during the event…”.
Another French graduate told me: “once graduated we created a studio all together. […] Many graduated students create their studio. It’s quite simple in The Netherlands, you need an address and it’s done in half an hour”.
I can agree on this last example: most of the business cards available from the graduation show were filed with “studio [name]”.
2.2 The Design Academy and social design
Here is a funny story that will introduce this school. I learnt few days before my visit that the school had a Master in Social design running for almost ten years. Curious, I went to the graduation show to meet some students, see their projects, talk with them, and maybe do some interviews.
Their exhibition was on a large formerly-abandoned warehouse. I went in the building that had no walls, and walked through the different sections and the different projects… then I arrived at the exit door with no social design in sight. End of the story.
Let me explain. The modus operandi of the school seems so much connected to materiality and product design that all the projects exhibited were similar.
Whatever the Master you’re doing or the year you’re graduating, you will end up with a high-quality product that you can proudly exhibit to get hired. I checked the alumni’s page of the Master in Social design: it looks like a Master in Product design. Only when you read about the projects you can see wide topics such as dyslexia, ageing population, soil contamination, or languages.
With its artistic aspect and work on products rather than people, I can ask: is it social design or critical design (speculative products to inspire debates and increase awareness of social issues in the eyes of the public)?
I didn’t have the chance to talk to these students (I didn’t find them) but if you graduate as a critical designer, maybe activism is a closer field than social design. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of activism visible during the Dutch Design Week.
One of the only example of activism I found is the Foundation We Are… a group of graduated students from the DAE.
2.3 Eindhoven city hall
Recently, I saw a job opening for a full-time strategic designer. It was written by the city of Eindhoven. I was quite surprised that the city had in-house strategic designers. It was too late to apply.
After reflection, it would have been a difficult journey. Speaking the local language is a strong asset: you have to communicate with locals and read new policies daily. But look at this extract. I wish to read this more often:
“In recent years we have worked on many projects with our own municipal designer and we have discovered how we can make design thinking work for the city. In co-creation with stakeholders at different levels, solutions have been developed for issues where the user is central. Design thinking is now familiar within our organization. It is time to take the next step.
- You listen carefully to what the organization needs and find out the question behind the question.
- You like to bite into complex social issues. Consider, for example, improving the safety policy of the municipality, the changing role of residents and the municipality in the new environmental law or the major task of making the city natural gas-free;
- You provide direction to the development and assurance of design, and its working method, in the municipal organization. You also provide informal direction to other designers working in the organization;
- You maintain relationships with the design courses and the designers in the city. You know what is going on and thus also give direction to municipal policy in the field of Design in Eindhoven;
- You are also a source of information and adviser for managers, sector heads and department heads who want to use design thinking. And you proactively identify which politically and administratively urgent and current social issues lend themselves to a design thinking approach. You advise the responsible director and alderman about this.”
I didn’t visit Rotterdam so much unfortunately. I discovered many studios and creatives in Keilewerf 1 & 2.
The government is giving grants to designers for the only purpose of experimentation and with no specific outcomes needed back. You can contact them easily and get feedback on how to best fit your idea to receive the grant.
This kind of grants give good opportunities to get a studio in this creative area full of workshops, and experiment for a year.
Check at Stimelringsfonds.nl, or Mondriaan Fonds for public funding.
4. The Hague
During my travel I got recommended by a few people to go to The Hague.
I have to say I had no clue about this town, but my curiosity pushed me to do some research about it. After scrolling on Eventbrite, I finally found my trigger to go and visit. The ImpactFest: the “Europe’s largest impact meetup [that] will once again demonstrate that social impact and economic success go hand in hand”… quite a promise. So, I went.
4.1 The ImpactFest
I found there the social entrepreneurs you were waiting for. But the beauty of The Netherlands (and what seems to be a big difference with France) is the diversity available during this event: entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, companies, social companies, NGOs, academics, politicians, … I even saw military officers. This diversity -and inclusivity- is much more social than the social design presented earlier in Eindhoven.
And it’s one of the lessons shared during this event: partnerships are great. Indeed, and I learnt this on Lesvos too: partnerships make organizations more resilient. For Lesvos, it brings more diversity of income, more volunteers, and more expertise. It also helps to solve challenges based on each other’s resources.
Photo: We had a role-play exercise organised by Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken. It was a fictional case study of an emergency crisis. Each one of us were given a company or a persona to impersonate: we had insights about our resources, knowledge, and needs. And we had to initiate collaborations between each others. It was a great exercise to stay down-to-earth and get people to think about feasible solutions, i.e. someone was Starbucks but became resourceful for setting up emergency hospitals during an earthquake.
This kind of public-private partnerships reminds me a lot social companies.
Social companies seem like a great deal between NGOs struggling with their funding and companies struggling with their ethics (sarcastic mode /off). But what seems to lack for social companies and that I can find only with NGOs now is the activist mindset.
The mindset of human beings that are working for other human beings because they deeply care about it.
When I am saying that, it’s not to do a basic good vs bad people. It’s because I am observing a damn lack of professionalism in human interactions, human empathy, and “Do No Harm” approach from social companies and designers too.
What you learn working with NGOs (which I never learnt elsewhere before) is that your work is not neutral: either you do good by solving people’s issues, or you harm. And harming can cause the direct death in a humanitarian context, so you better care about it. It’s more straightforward and visible in the humanitarian field than in the design field but consequences can be exactly the same.
Unfortunately, I came to realise that focusing too much on the business side and the so called “positive impact” can blind social companies. By showcasing the good metrics of their work, they tend to wear blinkers and put aside the negative ones which might still dramatically affect people’s life reported as “edge cases”, if reported at all.
This is probably a project I want to focus on. To transfer humanitarian standards & tools, such as Do No Harm, to social companies. I remember having a course at school about building a social business model:
- People were “users” and not human beings. Treated from a top-down perspective where we had to bring our solution to them. We had to do a quick survey of potential local users that will have for only goal to make sure it confirms our assumptions. Never we talked about the potential harm we would create, how to measure it, and how to prevent it.
On the contrary, humanitarian aid, through its history, had many occasions to face the deadly consequences of a wrong assessment. So, they learnt much quicker than social companies. I made a training for volunteers if you’re interested to take a few positive steps already.
Side note: I discovered a matching program for social entrepreneurs from Euclid Network which could be interesting. Indeed, I still appreciate social companies as it should correspond to my strategic design background, but I still can’t fully connect with it. I am also aware that spending two years on Lesvos with extra-motivated and activist people is enlarging my own biases and critics. I am sorry (no, I am not).
To give a quick example about my frustration, there was a funny moment during the ImpactFest. A speaker talked about the fantastic world of new technologies in computing and the growing leading power of China: you know, the quantum computers, AI, machine learning, … facial recognition.
At the end of the presentation someone brought the ethical issue of such resources being used by the Chinese government. His value towards innovation and technology got smashed by ethics. Of course he knew the topic. Of course ethic is also part of his values. But you could see him struggling to reply in a clear way, he had to reboot (I didn’t push him further by introducing the environmental impact of such technologies).
It is this dissonance of values that also bothers me with social companies. It’s a community claiming loud to be doing good (focusing on people) and claiming loud that technologies are going to save us all. I am surprised to see the lack of auto-critic about the use of technologies and its potential negative impact on the exact same people they want to save. It makes me quite doubtful about the real motivations of this community. Again, this is just an example: hopefully, I could see that the spectators had similar doubts than me during the presentation.
4.2 Strategic design for humanitarian innovation
So, let’s move on. Another sector that interested me during this event was the presence of organisations doing humanitarian innovation. What is innovation in the Dutch humanitarian sector?
Humanitarian aid & Design
Design in the humanitarian field isn’t something new. The US foundation IDE Global had in-house strategic designers for years. I always said that Anglosaxons are much more advanced than European countries in developing and implementing design and strategic design in companies.
For example, the business model of IDE in Cambodia is to create a product that solves a large humanitarian challenge, and then, empower local entrepreneurs to sell this product to their communities. But if this foundation ran co-creative projects by using design for years, it’s not the case for most of the NGOs.
International NGOs (INGOs) have teams dispatched across the world. Each one of them have their own budget so it’s hard to find an NGO with a global strategy towards innovation AND with in-house strategic designers.
I made a quick research by curiosity about existing innovation labs:
- IRC: Airbel Impact Lab in the US (regional hub in Jordan). Categorised as “research & innovation”.
- MSF: Innovation Unit in Sweden.
- CARE: Innovation Global Hub in the US.
- UNICEF: Office of Innovation in the US.
- UNHCR: Innovation Service in Switzerland.
Their teams are small, sometimes with no designers. For the NGOs, it’s based in one of their Country Office. For the UN, it’s at their headquarters.
Most of the INGOs will prefer to hire a specialised agency to run or facilitate a project from A to Z (think Ideo.org, Greater Good Studio, Butterfly Works). Or they might as well partner & fund smaller innovative ideas like 510.global, or the -preventive- systemic landscape restoration project made by Commonland and Red Cross: Princess Margriet Fund, or through incubators.
So where are the designers?
Humanitarian aid & Network
In 2004, the creation of Clusters within the humanitarian field enhanced “predictability, accountability and partnership”. This helps to coordinate efficient and quick emergency responses to crisis. NGOs started to create their own networks (eg: Start Network). These networks are organizing and trying to improve their standards together. So they created “collective innovation” workshops to solve their challenges… but they have no designers in-house neither.
So where are the designers?
Back to The Hague
What I observed in The Hague is not the creation of a “network for emergency” running collaborative workshops. It’s an organisation specifically created to build a network that will enhance innovation.
- The Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI) welcomes “governmental actors, knowledge institutes, academia, businesses, and humanitarian organizations in the Netherlands who develop and scale innovative solutions to increase the impact and reduce the costs of humanitarian action”.
- The Spindle, created by Partos, “connects, strengthens, renews and represents its members (100+ NGOs) with a view to effective development cooperation”.
If they can create win case studies, it could develop this sector and motivate designers to finally get involved. We could have a generation of humanitarian designers (I know it’s not new but let’s be honest, humanitarian designers have to be really lonely people at the moment).
Designers have a great card to play and should push forward to prove they can be useful within the humanitarian sector. This introduce an important question:
Are designers really interested in doing good?
Behind this provocation is a fact. In more than two years on Lesvos and thousands of volunteers met, I only saw three designers. One is I.
5. TU Delft
During my travel I had a quick stop in TU Delft. I wanted to talk with PhD researchers, unfortunately, after contacting them on Linkedin, it wasn’t the right time. But I still went there, out of curiosity.
TU Delft is a huge university. When I arrived there, I got lucky: there was the graduation show of the Bachelor in Industrial design engineering. So, I went and checked the projects. Unfortunately, school’s partners were industries like Ravensburger. It resulted in a quite boring show to my taste… I was observing new designers going into the consumerism’s side of design by default… with little or no -visible- insights about environment in their projects.
And everything makes more sense now. The PhD researchers I wanted to meet were mostly working on the circular economy which matches the industrial & technical world of TU Delft (University of Technology).
Interesting fact, I have been studying with several schools and I always go and check their job boards out of curiosity to see if, in the filter section, they have a category “designer”. Spoiler alert, if the school isn’t 100% for designers, they don’t have.
Well, I managed to get into the TU Delft alumni dashboard and like any other non-design schools filled of designers, there is no design’s category… I always find this incredibly shocking.
6. The Netherlands: last notes
During my stay, the horizontal hierarchy in Dutch politics was a recurrent topic. I compared it to the vertical hierarchy in France. I think a country is a bit healthier when any citizen can send a mail to a minister and expect a personal reply. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to compare two countries on this aspect without talking about their differences in term of population, size and culture, … It’s like comparing the use of bicycles in the flat land of the Netherlands with the (amazing) hilly town of Marseille. And then complain that Marseille’s people don’t use bicycles.
Locals reassured me that the “Dutch way” also has its own biases, i.e. it might be easy to talk with any politician and get their approval about a project but it doesn’t mean that the crowd of employees in-between will follow with the same enthusiasm. Sometimes resulting in endless delays where everybody has its words to say, compared to French top-down decisions.
I had some time to visit the Humanity House in The Hague. Topic? Migration:
Denmark - Copenhagen
1. My fantasy about Denmark
This one will be quick: I never had any interest about Denmark. Every time someone talked to me about Denmark, it was to say:
- “The country and the people are boring, don’t go there.”
- “Bicycles everywhere.”
Well, I could guess by meeting a few Danish people on Lesvos that there were far from being boring but still, I never expected to visit them anytime soon.
But it happens that, scrolling on Facebook events, I heard about a hackathon organised by Techfugees that I was following. So, probably a bit bored about the Dutch Design Week, I decided from one day to another to go there and see by myself.
2. Copenhagen: the lifestyle
I have to say I quickly got surprised by the coherent atmosphere in the architecture of the town:
- The modern architecture nicely contrasting yet supporting the older buildings.
- The visible notion of “hygge”: I felt at home from the first day.
- The well-thought-out interior architecture that I observed in my friend’s student flat (originally a public housing). It completely surpassed the Dutch architecture in my mind. It took the same “ethical and sobriety” base and added a warm cosy atmosphere (by design and ergonomics, not by decoration). For example, windows giving on the street and facing another building, were at an angle so you could see the river on the side of the street instead.
- Even the schools had bars on the ground floor, which is coherent to the students’ drinking habit. Amazing.
I can include the fact that everybody spoke a great English and would immediately switch to it in your presence. To the extent that I arrived in a room and people sitting on the next table switched to English (or maybe their language is too difficult for themselves too).
But. Money & cost of life.
So Copenhagen was a real coup de coeur and the Hackathon went great. I already described it on these two articles: Hackathon with Techfugees & Diginauts and Hackathons are perfect events for young designers.
But again, I didn’t describe the feeling.
If I decided to go first to this hackathon, it was with the hope to find a community of hackers, developers & activists sensible to Techfugees challenges. I was trying to find a community I could feel comfortable with. Because, let’s be honest, that’s also what I am looking for. It’s probably the critic of Eindhoven that pushed me to go to Copenhagen (and the cheap price of the night bus ticket).
The event was happening at the University of Copenhagen and I could feel that it was much more business-oriented than expected:
- The University focusing on business and technologies.
- The -classic- incubation winning prize.
- The feedback from the advisors and jury that were very much business oriented.
So, with my team, we pushed forward a very activist project to compensate this. Oops.
Of course, this event’s bubble should not influence my perspective on “what is the state of social design in Denmark”.
The world-famous Danish Design Ladder (2001) developed by the Danish Design Council helps me to give this experience some perspective. It quickly reminds us that Denmark had a national strategy towards design since 2001. If we add to this the Scandinavian culture -that I relate to environment and social- we get the idea that social, environment and design might as well be very well-integrated inside the Danish business mindset (it’s a hope at least).
I haven’t found a lot of NGOs but I heard they exist… and that’s a great introduction for Brussels, my next stop.
Belgium - Bruxelles/Brussels
1. My fantasy about Brussels
As you may know France and Belgium are always joking about each other, in a friendly way of course. So, it’s fine to say that I picture Belgium as a grey small village with no government for way too long.
Brussels is of course the European capital and has most of the European institutions. This fact is quite important because I came back from Lesvos: the EU’s fail & shame. Yesterday, a 9-months-old baby died of dehydration because of the insalubrious conditions of Moria camp.
But that’s also where my systemic mindset comes back to calm down the activist outrage. I do assess that the EU is quite a complex system that cannot be entirely responsible. We must do better in targetting the ones responsible within the EU and with the many stakeholders. But I don’t know enough… yet.
2. Brussels: the town & the social
First days in Brussels I joined Design for Everyone during the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This ASBL (“non-profit organization” in Belgium) questions, through direct actions, the urban furnitures created against homeless people. We are in a much more antagonist work.
It seems the ASBLs are quite organized and developed as a community. More than 60% of the people I met (friends, housing, events, …) were employed or working on social-related projects. Topics were unemployment, homelessness, formerly incarcerated people, abused people, families, art, … Brussels has a lot of social challenges to overcome. I felt there was a bigger need for social workers than social designers. But that’s maybe exactly when a social designer should jump in.
3. Brussels: the EU & networking
When it comes to the EU, networking is a 24/7 job. You can see people exchanging business cards around a coffee. A lot of people can be accessible if you know how to connect. At the same time, it seems that nobody is accessible and if you want to contact someone you will barely be able to speak with the assistant. That changed a lot compared to the Netherlands.
It’s a closed bubble that wants to look open to the world… just in appearance. They compensate by being smart and unbeatable on a large range of topics. I have seen young extra-motivated people, confident on being doing good for society. I have also seen ego’s competition. There could be a lot to say but because I don’t know this world, I also feel to have too much biases to comment on it even though I easily get attracted to it.
I learnt during a Skype about strategic designers working for the EU Commission on a Policy Lab. It was an interesting insight which also made me discover companies like Namahn and ShiftN using human-centered design with governmental and public entities.
4. EU & NGOs
In the end, INGOs might be higly visible in Brussels but they just have small offices doing advocacy. If you want to work as a designer on such NGOs it might be better to focus on their headquarters or regional offices.
5. Brussels: the design school
The school of St-Luc has a Master in Social design as well. I was quite surprised and would be curious to know more about it but I couldn’t meet any teacher yet.
Before publishing the article, I had a quick stop in Amsterdam. I went to the event Radical Collaboration organised by What Design Can Do. It was a one day workshop around 5 different topics. I joined the “No Waste Lab” group. We used basic co-creation tools to develop challenges. These challenges will help to develop next year WDCD’s contest.
The brand identity with bold typos and impactful words is attracting a lot of creatives. In a certain way, it allows them to build a community of designers but, somehow, the event had much less professional diversity than ImpactFest. I didn’t get out with a lot of insights from the workshops but I got out with a great smile because at the end of the day we received a book called “Designing Activism: 31 designers fighting for a better world”. This was a perfect personal conclusion to this travel.
What I wrote is part of a personal journey with a specific context. And this article is a way to transfer, in a more structured way, an internal reflection on paper: to connect the dots between all the insights I gathered. It’s also for curious people to learn and comment with their insights.
To run a conclusion that connects with some assumptions we have made:
- We can take away that yes, social design practices differ from one country to an other.
- It seems that value’s definition is changing from one community to another which is framing the stakeholders that we want to involve or not. This choice influences the way we conduct a project and the impact that we have. It would be interesting to measure the life span of projects and compare them with the number of stakeholders they had or the choices they made (eg: social vs activist).
I was happily surprised to see designers working in the social and/or strategic side for more than 15 years. Men and women who walked their paths, being alone or not, and made it through. I wish to see these people talking more often to students.
I will emphasize the end for the few students and freshly-graduated designers from around Europe who contacted me to get feedback from this journey. Thank you for reaching out. It means a lot to me and your messages are really motivating! Continue going to events. Continue contacting people on Linkedin. This is highly valuable. Question people about anything every time. You will learn more and get the motivation to follow the path that you want. Keep the work you’re doing.
I hope we could all connect, support each other and share our experiences all-together.
It sounds like a proposal so what are we waiting for?