Social Design in Technology Development

5 min readApr 1, 2022

Helixos specialises in bringing cleantech to market with market research, strategic communications, and stakeholder engagement being key parts of this process to help inform better product design and decision-making. Learning from research in science communication and our own experiences, we make the case for why and how communicators should be involved in the design and deployment of new technologies.

The principles of effective science communication show that the adoption of new technologies is most successful when stakeholders are engaged in the development and deployment process. As science communicators, we know this, but are rarely empowered by technology developers to deploy a true engagement model of communication. We’re often stuck in the information deficit model, in which technology developers utilise their communicators to inform the public and other stakeholders, as shown below:

In this information deficit model, we assume that our stakeholders and the public just need more information about the technology and to understand it better and support its deployment. The flow of information is one-way and does not allow for true engagement. However, time and time again, we’ve seen that information, education, or understanding of a technology does not necessarily improve the sentiment about or adoption of that technology.

New technologies often elicit fear and concern in many people. The antidote to fear is trust. We build trust by acting with integrity, being transparent, and involving stakeholders in the decision-making process. This is why the one-way direction of communication illustrated above does not work to build trust. Even if stakeholders and the public are informed, and perhaps have an avenue to express concerns through a regulator, they are not completely sure if they are being listened to or even considered in the technology development process.

On the other hand, the engagement model of science communication calls for stakeholders and the public to be actually involved in the technology development process. A feedback loop is formed where science communicators serve a key role as the conduit between stakeholders and technology developers. Information flows in multiple ways and concerns and feedback are taken seriously, as shown below:

‘Social design’ is the process in which the engagement model of science communication is fully utilised and a feedback loop is created and implemented between technology developers and all stakeholders. While technology developers are often most concerned about the technical design of a product, science communicators can have better insight into the social design of a product through communication with diverse stakeholders. Even a perfectly engineered technology solution may not get deployed if the social design isn’t right. Another outcome is that technologies are deployed and then face social and environmental justice issues further down the line.

Social design deviates from the conventional problem-solving solutions that are executed with a top-down approach. At the core of social design is an integrated solution where actions are centered around the needs of the community. Essentially, it is a bottoms-up approach for implementing projects that considers diverse perspectives. Collective intelligence is a key foundation to success, and understanding the perspectives of others is critical to inclusiveness.

Collective intelligence is about distributed decision making and accessing the input and insight of diverse people within organisations, broader community, and the industry. And that engagement — being able to access those insights and inputs — facilitates better decision making and reinforces trust.

It is common for technology developers to engage with investors, regulators, customers, and end users during the design and deployment process. Social design extends this engagement to other stakeholder groups including the general public, host communities, local policymakers, and groups that have been or will be impacted by the technology. Diverse stakeholder engagement is important because you don’t know how your technology could unknowingly impact various stakeholders until you engage with them. Diversity in feedback can also generate new ideas that haven’t been considered by the company or its direct stakeholders to make the technology even better and benefit everyone.

How do we implement social design?

Social design starts with design thinking, or human-centred design. IDEO defines design thinking as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Social design additionally incorporates the dimensions of environmental justice, including addressing legacy issues, involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes, recognising all perspectives, and equitably distributing the benefits (and risks) of technology.

The social design aspects and processes are different and unique for each technology and the regions and paradigms that they operate in. However, the goal is the same — to design and deploy technologies that are beneficial to all, contribute to sustainable development, and do not cause undue harm to the environment and disadvantaged communities. For the technology developer, this social design process builds trust with stakeholders and ensures a more smooth pathway to commercialisation and adoption at scale.

At Helixos, we consider social design in all of our commercialisation, communications, and technical advisory projects and services. Implementation of social design, especially for companies with existing operations, can also involve ESG (environmental, social, governance) reviews and goal-setting. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more or incorporating social design into your technology commercialisation or operations.

Helixos’ work on social design touches on all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but Goal 17 on Partnerships for the Goals directly addresses the importance of involving developing countries and disadvantaged communities in the technology development process.

More specifically, the following targets:

17.6 Enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms, including through improved coordination among existing mechanisms, in particular at the United Nations level, and through a global technology facilitation mechanism

17.7 Promote the development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms, as mutually agreed

17.16 Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries

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