The MICA Social Design Lab

Background to the Exchange

Aside from the opportunity to network, my aims in attending the exchange was to examine two main areas – how technology can support the process of innovation and the potential for incorporating System Thinking and Design Thinking into the design of material and even courses. This document summarises my experience and the four lessons I have learned.

Technology and Innovation

Two items on the agenda were particularly relevant here. The MICA Social Design Lab ran during one afternoon – this was a social space designed to encourage interaction between delegates and facilitate discussions, given the question ‘How might we advance social innovation in Higher Education?’

Given the rather spartan conference room environment, the range of fun, brightly coloured physical items to record, connect and visualise responses was attractive and facilitators easy to identify. But while idea capture was strong, collection and dissemination was somewhat weaker. Personally, I never encountered any analysis or results from it, though it may have just passed me by. The physical location hampered the exercise too – delegates could too easily pass by and without their physical presence the exercise was reduced in value. Could technology have supported this process better? Yes, I am convinced it could. At the very least, video or photographic capture needs to be on hand to ensure that contributions can still provoke ideas and actions after the event, along with a clear mechanisim to access it. Ultimately, technologies to engage participants, then capture and disseminate material are essential features of an environment that truly wishes to engage stakeholders. How often has a pile of flip chart paper – containing several person hours of contributions at enormous cost – lingered in the corner of my office?

Lesson #1: Low tech is fun and has its place, but technology to engage in, capture and share group deliberation is essential if the exercise is to make a real difference in a design process.

I attended a session entitled ‘Are we succeeding and how would we know?’, where three case studies were discussing in respect of their attempts to measure success. Drew Bewick of the University of Maryland discussed the use of a ‘Return on Engagement’ grid – very much along the lines of a rubric – to measure the operational value, strategic value and risks of projects on a scale of one to five, and recording the resources used, activities, outputs and impact at the same time.

Lizzie Pollock, from Brown University, discussed the measurement of the learning outcomes for individuals being assessed as part of their Social Innovation Fellowship. The items for inclusion included empathy, creative thinking, critical thinking and entrepreneurial ‘grit’. She was still struggling with ways to evidence and measure these attributes – the Torrance Test, for example, was tried, but rejected on the grounds that it was too broad. Brown are also now beginning to consider – like Maryland – impact, including enterprise survival rates and generated revenue.
John Isham, of Middle bury College, had done some interesting work on the three impact areas of the project itself, the student(s) concerned and the Campus, emphasising the inter-relation of all three. He identified a weakness in project management skills amongst participants in projects and was conscious that just ‘building stuff’ is an inadequate measure of success. Students were beginning to be involved with evaluating other students’ projects but this was at a fairly early stage.

Two points struck me here in particular – the lack of pre-determined project management structures or tools can be a barrier both for students who have little or no experience of managing a project and supervisors who have no ‘dashboard’ view of the progress of a project or its outcomes. Secondly, we seem locked into a ‘new year, fresh start’ approach to developing social innovation projects and ignore the lessons of the previous year.

Lesson #2: A project management system – simple and free to use – is needed to support students and their mentors/supervisors/assessors.

Lesson #3: Evaluation of previous social innovation ventures by students before they start their own, would be a valuable learning experience for them and provide data for the hosting institution.

Systems and Design Thinking

Unfortunately, both sessions related to these topics – ‘Systems Thinking for Leading Changemakers’ and ‘Can Everyone be a Designer? ‘Provocations in the Pedagogy of Design Thinking’ failed to fully deliver to my expectations, the latter being a discussion about a process I didn’t understand! Mary Anne Gobble’s summary article (Gobble 2014) has assisted me to a great extent on the topic of Design Thinking. Whether you believe this to be fad or fact, the importance of taking the “beneficiary’s” perspective into account during the design phase of any social innovation would seem to be a critical success factor.

Lesson #4: Empathy is not just a desirable personal attribute; it is a critical success factor in the design process. 

Systems Thinking seems to sit uncomfortably in social innovation design, being apparently more suited to translating the messiness of real life into computer software. However, there are clear connections here to the knotty problem of measuring success – by establishing the ‘units’ that exist within a process flow and their rates of change (along with auxiliary variables) we can begin to pinpoint objective measure of success. Overall, I couldn’t see how a non-specialist could apply these techniques easily, though David Castro did provide some interesting resources and links (including free modeling tools such as InsightMaker) that I may well do some more exploration with.


Clearly there was a lot more that I got out of the visit, some of which are on I have an excellent contact in Waterloo, Canada who is sharing her experience of embedding Flipboard into teaching with me, along with the Tophat student response system and met a wide range of contacts from around the world. Many of the delegates leave you speechless at the problems they are seeking to overcome and the relentless enthusiasm they still have to press on. Wrangling with a few NILE issues pales into insignificance when trying to develop a system to support 100,000 students in Indian rural schools with no Internet connection!
But as Wray Irwin pointed out before I left, you would be surprised just how far ahead we are in the field of social innovation compared with most. Developing the support infrastructure for prospective social innovators and evaluating our successes and failures more effectively will push us ahead further still.


Gobble, MM. (2014). ‘Design Thinking’, Research Technology Management, 57(3), pp. 59-61


Many thanks to Tim Curtis for inviting me to attend, Rob Howe and Chris Powis for allowing me to go and the ‘awesome’ support of my fellow delegates in Washington.

(a copy of the fully hyper-text linked version of this document can be found at

Tagged with: