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  • Ba of EmptinessA Place of Potential for Designing Social Innovation
  • Yoko Akama (bio)

The post-disaster landscape of March 2011 revealed the inadequacies of government policies still entrenched in the postwar economic expansion model,1 and serves as a prime example of how authority-driven, one-size-fits-all approaches to fixing large-scale "wicked problems" are often ineffectual due to the diverse character and needs of communities.2 As a design researcher, I examine this inadequacy in this essay first by critiquing how design often reinforces authority and centralization, usually by experts that seek to "solve" problems on behalf of the community. I argue that this can make the community passive recipients of experts' "solutions," leaving them removed and disabled from having input and participating in the process of regeneration. Second, stepping away from the cumbersome bureaucratic processes that compound the recovery process, I ask: What possible alternatives are available to us for catalyzing social innovation among communities and building societal resilience to move forward? Again, I explore this question through design and critically reflect on a case study called, an after-school program for high school students in Kesennuma, a small fishing town located about 500km north of Tokyo that was devastated in the March 2011 (commonly referred to as 3.11) disaster. The designing of enabled students and local residents to collaboratively harness their latent creativity and traditional practices to generate new ideas for a local seafood business.

Kesennuma's was initiated as a form of experimental and participatory social innovation. Social innovation, an emerging field of interest in public policy and service delivery,3can be observed when communities self-organize to provide assistance and resources in post-disaster events like Hurricane Sandy in the United States.4 Social innovation implements change for the public good through new products, services, and systems that address social needs while forging new relationships and collaborations.5

Designing, in this instance, is an activity undertaken by non-design experts as opposed [End Page 227] to design that is performed by professional designers who possess specific knowledge about design. Here, I would like to amplify the difference between designing (verb) and design (noun) to bring attention to the creativity and inventiveness of "ordinary people" who are designing to tackle problems in their daily lives.6 Ezio Manzini and Francesca Rizzo, scholars in design research, similarly argue that a political shift is required from seeing users as "carriers of needs and problems" whose needs are solved by designers, to instead seeing them as social actors who "bring local knowledge, specific competences, and ideas for solutions."7 This recast sees people as collaborative co-designers and co-producers with the ability to draw on their "creativity, organizational capabilities, and entrepreneurship, and therefore capable of figuring out, enhancing, and managing new solutions."8

I argue that designing for social innovation demonstrates ways in which communities can tackle "wicked problems," and that is one such exemplar that seeks to address the entrenched issues of youth exodus, lack of local employment opportunity, and the disconnect with local knowledge and traditional practices, all of which were further compounded by the 3.11 disaster. In doing so, I add another layer of reflection, calling upon the Japanese philosophy of ba of emptiness (conditions [place] for potential) to enable a culturally nuanced analysis that is often missing in the discourse on designing for social innovation.9 This "design from nowhere" is also critiqued by the seminal anthropologist Lucy Suchman, who has argued for the need of design to acknowledge the specifics of its context, "to locate itself as one (albeit multiple) figure and practice of transformation."10 My attempt here, therefore, is not to celebrate the act of designing in the case study by isolating it as unique or causal in enabling social innovation. Instead, as Suchman suggests, I reflect upon the specificities of its place as inherently entangled with people, culture, materiality, indigenous knowledge, histories, and aspirations. In doing so, I highlight the necessary assemblage of conditions for social innovation to manifest and attribute a dimension of this to ba of emptiness, a Japanese notion of...


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pp. 227-246
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