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Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Social Innovation Examples

Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation faculty members Sarah Soule, Neil Mal- hotra, and Bernadette Clavier (n.d.) defined social innovation as “the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress” (n.p., emphasis added). The genesis of any social innovation project is often an exigence brought about by social injustice. In “Disrupting the Past to Disrupt the Future,” Natasha Jones, Kristen Moore, and Rebecca Walton (2016) effectively traced the social justice movement in technical communication to the field’s early influences by the social paradigm and its growing research trajectory toward inclusivity. Reasonably, this trajectory lands on social innovation as one of the (ante)narratives that situate technical communication as social activists and user advocates. To showcase the role of design thinking and social innovation research in our field, I spotlight three case examples here as a demonstration of advocacy through socially responsive innovation.

Example 1: Project EMAR—Participatory Design

Human-computer interaction has been a growing area of study in technical communication since the proliferation of computer-driven communication and information delivery. The rise of physical computing, boosted by the Maker Movement, has caused increased attention to robotics from our field. For good reasons, many engineering and human-robot interaction projects have focused on designing robots for the elderly. However, there is a lack of attention to a significant population underserved by robotics research—children and adolescents. Technical communication and user experience researchers Emma Rose and Elin Bjdrling, in collaboration with robotics scientist Maya Cakmak, have led a team of student researchers at the University of Washington to design a social robot that captured adolescent stress levels. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot (EMAR) project is an exemplary application of design thinking. Specifically, the EMAR project demonstrated the necessity of participator)' design as informed by design thinking principles. The EMAR team engaged local high schools and sponsored activities like a robot design challenge to let students envision and create a robot interface with which they prefer to interact (“Project EMAR,” n.d.). Teens were given foundational knowledge in human-centered design and user-interface design, and were invited to engage in the ideation and prototyping processes through collaboration (team- based competition).

The key to participator)' design is meaningful engagement, as Bj5r- ling and Rose (2019) reported. As co-designers, participants should feel that their contributions would have a meaningful impact on the outcomes of the project. More importantly, participatory design maintains “an ethical and meaningful stance with the population they intend to serve” (Bjorling & Rose, 2019, p. 2). It motivates researchers and designers to focus on the social implications of their project rather than mere productivity or profits. Project EMAR also embodied the spirit of social innovation as it situated social problems at the center of design, while bridging user experience design as a technical communication practice with robotics design as an area of interest for emerging technologies researchers (Rose & Bjdrling, 2017).

Example 2: inControl—Rapid Prototyping

Social innovation uses design as a platform to call out oppressive cultures and practices. In technical communication and across adjacent fields, ableism is often overlooked and manifests in many of our products and processes. Fortunately, the critical tradition in our discipline has constantly reminded us to reflect on our privileges and advocate for more inclusive practices. Accessibility and universal design scholars have been the forerunners in social justice advocacy work in technical communication. Writing teacher Deborah Wood and industrial engineering instructor Janice Mejia have со-advised a small team of students in the design thinking and communication program at Northwestern University to address accessibility issues in game design. Within merely 10 weeks, this student- led project has built a prototype for a single-hand operated video game controller, inControl, that showcased the power of design thinking for social innovation (“inControl: A video game controller,” n.d.).

The inControl team redesigned the joystick and buttons on the game controller to meet the needs of patients with hemiplegia. The project relied on rapidprototyping tools including 3D modeling software, laser cutters, 3D printers, and electrical circuit boards to build a testable prototype. Given the short time it took from problem definition to prototype testing, this project can be used as an exemplar for technical communicators who work at the intersection of accessible design and game studies. It demonstrated the practicality of design thinking for addressing a social issue about which our field has been concerned. It also highlighted the importance of prototyping as a process to materialize ideas to achieve actual social impact. Per the project page for inControl, the student designers, under faculty assistance, have filed a provisional patent application for this controller design. From a pedagogical standpoint, design thinking adds an entrepreneurial layer to the conventional learning experience of students, giving them a special edge into their future career.

Example 3: Google Glass—Why We Must Begin With Empathy

Unlike the previous examples, the third instance featured here is a failed case of social innovation. I offer here a critique of a short-lived technological breakthrough in wearable computing, Google Glass, which had garnered global attention between 2013-2015. Many technical communicators and user experience designers were particularly intrigued by the introduction of the unprecedented wear-on-your-face computer, when Google’s very own co-founder Sergey Brin took stage at a major TED Talk event in 2013 and gave his audience an imaginative ride on the roller coaster of computing’s future. Scholars and practitioners alike wanted to know how this new device might influence or change the way users engage with screens and non-screen interactions (audio, haptic, etc.).

Arguably the first major consumer wearable device on the market, Google Glass otfered users the ability to look up information online, take images and videos, translate foreign languages, and even live-stream events while keeping the wearer’s hands free from a bulky device. What would that mean for technical instructions? What about virtual communication and collaboration? For many industries, Google Glass promised a leap into a future where action-oriented leisure meets the possibility of sensation without mediation (Pfister, 2019).

While I was a member of the University of Minnesota Wearables Research Collaboratory, I had examined the potential use of Google Glass in digital literacy development. As part of the collaboratory’s collective research, we noted the affordances of the device but also recognized its lack of focus on users’ actual needs. Google Glass offered the aforementioned functionality with a popular narrative that centered around revitalizing human’s social nature by freeing them from their phones. In his TED Talk, Brin asked: “In addition to potentially socially isolating yourself when you’re out and about looking at your phone, it’s kind of, is this what you’re meant to do with your body?” Yet, as many smartphone users might concur, there is more to why we use phones the way we do—like how we kept our screens to ourselves, how we wanted to know if others were recording us, how we used our phone as an escape mechanism when we wanted to avoid personal interactions. . . all of which were social implications of technology' that the Google Glass project failed to empathize with. The design of Google Glass prioritized efficiency, but it disregarded the contexts in which users might perform the different actions it enabled. All in all, the Google Glass example serves as a cautionary tale wherein social innovation designers may learn about the importance of empathy. Design thinking begins with empathy because it is the foremost crucial element in the design process. As the primitive Google Glass case showed us, innovation should start with empathy toward users or it would not succeed; functionality and features of technology must address existing problems as identified by users rather than the imaginations of designers.

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