Design Role: Investigating: an introduction…

Investigating is the process by which Local Project (LP) initiatives are searched out and identified as promising. Principally a field activity, investigating comprises mainly of observation and dialogue with players and stakeholders, backed up by a range of visual reporting methods. Information collected is mapped out to situate each project within its own particular system dynamic (constellation of stakeholders and players).
Investigating is a qualitative process which serves to reveal both emerging and established LP initiatives. It also applies to the exploration of a context/area as a preamble to proposing future projects. Furthermore, it offers the opportunity to identify potential key players for long-term cooperation to create, consolidate or expand sustainable local networks.
The investigating process is principally carried out by design students. Learning basic ethnographic skills to support observation and exchange become part of an active learning process for the participating student taskforces.
Findings are assembled, processed and shared in order to provide platforms for determining potential for future actions/partnerships to be developed in the following activity phases.

Tentative guidelines:
• Map the social assets of the place, promising in terms of sustainable living which means to track often invisible and heterogeneous resources, to localise where they are situated one form another, to represent them on the same support in order to create an overall picture of the local potentials…

• Observe in-depth, take time to open the dialogue, take pictures and show them to the populations observed, raise trust, use the investigation process as an occasion to team with local stakeholders and to involve them…

• Involve large team such as design classes in order to get sufficient investigation capacities, to give visibility to enough promising initiatives and to transfigure  the mainstream perception of the place…

Detailed analysis:
Inspiring sustainable living from local social innovations…
What are the main characteristics/aspects/dimensions of the activity?
Investigating covers a cluster of activities which aim at eliciting local assets and at finding opportunities for new solutions, services, partnerships… to be developed.
Investigating is commonly understood as designating a wide range of field activities oriented towards informing and understanding in-depth a specific context and the subtle mechanisms that characterise both its conditions of existence and the dynamics of interaction between the different players present.
Such generic investigation processes exist within the cases collected in the SEE research project, but what is understood as ‘Investigating’ in these cases tends to focus on a more specific activity. Often as a starting point, local contexts are investigated to identify initiatives of social innovations on which to build Framework Projects… Inspired by the initial process first experimented in Europe through the European research project EMUDE (1)  and further developed in Brazil, China, India and Africa within the CCSL (2)  project, this core investigation activity consists of indentifying groups of sustainability active, cooperative people (the Creative Communities) who self-organise, through a high level of initiative and entrepreneurship, to invent and practise solutions appropriate to their needs. These solutions are recognised as new ways of doing – alternatives to the mainstream and promising in terms of sustainability. The systematic investigation and documentation of these initiatives locally in a neighbourhood, a city or a region reveals how these Creative Communities are both social laboratories inventing new and more sustainable ways of living and the social context from which to further develop and deploy these sustainable ways of living.

Action-learning approach and user-centred investigation tools…

How to start/develop/disseminate it?
Many of the skills needed to support investigating activities are part of the designer’s toolkit: tracking (via sketch, photo or video), interviewing; synthesising; extracting content; translating and giving form to information to make it understandable and inspiring to others (mainly to non-designers). Investigating is more effectively carried out in (small) groups, where skills and profiles can be balanced (male/female, listeners/talkers, observers/recorders etc.).
Schools (students and researchers) are the principal resource. The investigating process demands a relatively large taskforce, able to offer time and energy. Hence, active learning tasks are integrated as a broader education framework of investigating activities.
As a first step, practical and general contextual information can be gathered via Internet but investigating is essentially a question of tracking down innovative, sustainable forms of living, in situ, and encouraging people to tell their stories.
In DOTT07 designers, working in interdisciplinary teams, conducted investigations at Platform level (“shallow dive”) and Project level (“deep dive”) by inviting various stakeholders to help define and build partnerships for the project and by carrying out cultural probes, ‘shadowing’ or co-creating films to inspire creative exchange and involve stakeholders in the process.
The Malmö Social Innovation Living Lab underlines the importance of building close relationships with stakeholders. This is likely to be dependent on time available for trust building and the maturity to manage exchanges. The two-fold aim here is not only of mapping the details of a particular project but also carefully preparing the ground for future initiatives.

A mix of bottom-up and top-down approach…
What are the expected results/outputs/benefits?
The initial EMUDE/CCSL research projects quoted above focused on a qualitative inventory of social innovations which were promising in terms of sustainable living. The scope was to investigate different socio-economical contexts worldwide to build a catalogue of cases and identify recurrent or similar solutions. This catalogue is the core of the investigating activity and works both as a bottom-up exploration and a top-down design projection. The catalogue is a reference to show the wide range of existing typologies of initiatives and to orientate local investigation (do similar cases exist locally?). It works also as a source of inspiration (could such cases be developed there if they don’t exist yet?). The different typologies recorded in the catalogue are progressively enriched by new local investigations.
With the Feeding Milan project, investigation was carried out to establish the strengths and weaknesses of the Parco Sud context, in order to draw out existing project/people assets (capital) to build on for future project development. Two categories of social initiatives of short food network and local tourism were particularly focused and then systematically investigated.
As demonstrated in the in the Amplify project, students from Parsons New School for Design were asked to discover and make a comprehensive mapping of examples of urban activism in New York’s Lower East Side. Interactive settings in the public exhibition developed after were aimed at completing – through a crowd-sourcing like process – an investigation as exhaustive as possible of all existing initiatives.
In Chong Ming Island, investigation did not identify particular interesting local initiatives already existing within the rural population. In this case, investigating was  conducted more as a generic exploration activity to better understand the context and assess if,  for instance, similar strategies based on short food network and local tourism could be pertinent. In the same way the opportunity to implement other collaborative services was also confronted with the local context.
DOTT07 is an example of a more design-led approach. Five overall project themes were set up by the main board (led by the British Design Council) with the aim to promote, enhance and connect existing initiatives, opportunities and needs.
In Feeding Milan and Amplify, investigating seems to be first a bottom-up exploration whereas in Chong Ming Island and DOTT07 investigating is more guided by a top-down design projection

(1) EMUDE (Emerging Users Demands for Sustainable Solutions) is a Specific Support Actions funded by the European Commission and aiming at detecting needs for technological developments to support strengthening and deployment of social innovation in Europe.
(2) CCSL (Creative Communities for Sustainable Lifestyles) is a research project within the Marrakech Task Force on Sustainable lifestyles funded by the Swedish Ministry of Environment within the 10th years framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production supported by the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Department of Social and Economic Affairs (UN-DESA).

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