Introducing: The Residency

A Change Design practical learning collective

In this post we’re introducing ‘Change Design’ as a unifying term to encompass the many disciplines, activities, and institutions leading socio-political change and innovation. We see Change Design as a situation-based and action-oriented field of practice for navigating and responding to complex socio-political problems. It is an emergent and inherently interdisciplinary practice which is comprised of civil servants, activists and social designers.

Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

Mounting Momentum: design and the public and social sector

Increasingly, Change Design and social innovation practices are being called upon to respond to global, complex social issues. The demand for Change Design has grown so much that in 2018, social innovation organizations were granted substantial funding to respond to diverse opportunities ranging from designing alternatives to the child protection system in the UK, to co-creating policies for greater transparency in Chile, to shifting the response behavior around mental ill health in Australia, to reducing corruption in procurement in Ghana.

Nearly 40 years after the emergence of Papanek’s Design for the Real World movement and nearly a decade after the opening of leading contemporary social design and innovation institutions such as, Nesta, Participle, MASS design, MaRS, and TACSI, socially-focused design and social innovation have become desirable commodities to respond to rising costs, intractable social issues and old paradigms. And this movement is only growing: in 2018 Canada announced a $805 million federal investment in social innovation.

As a result of increased familiarity with, curiosity about, and demand for Change Design in the public and social sector there has been greater asks of what it can do; there have also been greater critiques of what its limitations are.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve observed well-intentioned, emergent, multidisciplinary designers dropped into unfamiliar and complex contexts. In parallel, we’ve seen civil servants and activists being expected to upskill their design capability without the preconditions or space for Change Design practice to stick.

While Change Design has the potential and ambition to impact life outcomes at scale, it is not yet held to the same practice, accountability, and learning network standards as other complex, life-impacting disciplines like medicine or law. People progress from certificates, master’s programs or lateral degrees into Change Design projects affecting real policy, real communities, and real long term outcomes.

It’s reasonable to assume that meaningful, safe and effective contributions to sophisticated Change Design require:

  • A transitional step between education and on-the-job value
  • Ongoing access to learning, growth and advancement in practice through other experts
  • Conditions for multidisciplinary collaboration and communication

But in practice, these options are rarely available. Even highly-experienced practitioners we spoke to referenced the phenomenon of ‘entry-years-inadequacy’ or ‘faking it until they made it’ where they felt poorly equipped for the challenges that they were tasked with, scarred by on-the-job ‘sink-or-swim’ training styles, and lacking dedicated sector-resonant advisors to learn from.The idea of a shoulder-to-shoulder ‘show you the ropes’ mentor with multiple reference points to guide when you begin or grow in a Change Design career is more of a fantasy than a reality.

The more we thought about it, the more we realized that a lot of us got to where we are by self-directed learning and observing others, which begs the questions:

Why would people being asked to alter complex systems not have clear opportunities to learn infinitely, intensively and shoulder-to-shoulder before, during, and after designing critical strategies, policies and programs?
Further, are the current training and ongoing learning opportunities for Change Designers — designers by trade, design-minded civil servants and activists — sufficient for the scale of the problems we’re seeking to solve?

Amongst the Social/Public Sector Community

To build on our combined experience, we had discussions with over 30 Change Design leaders and hosted a rapid public social media dialogue. We were curious about what learning factors will hold Change Design back from reaching its potential or fully enable Change Design to add value. Four patterns resonated across global practitioners:

  1. Multi-method Problem-solving
    The scale and depth of the problems in governance systems and social inequity are massive requiring a diverse portfolio of methods, knowledge, and skills. (Design may be one, but it is not the singular appropriate methodology for complex, situational change.) Often practitioners refer to instincts when describing what method to use when. Training the next generation of Change Designers will require an ability to translate these intuitions into informed-decision making approaches.
  2. Shared Language
    There’s a limited shared language and mental models across the many multidisciplinary actors who need to work together in social change. The current shared literacy of critical theories and mental models amongst these multidisciplinary actors is highly varied and insufficient, including the ways design-oriented problem solving approaches (e.g. human-centered design, design thinking) are used and understood in the public sector and the ways that social theory (e.g. principal-agent, rights-based justice, constructivism) is used and understood in the design sector.
  3. Sophisticated Preparation for Sophisticated Work
    Designers entering the social sector feel unprepared for the complexity of the challenges and project management they’re asked to take on. Available options for training, mentorship and support in-house are limited or non-existent. In other cases, designers enter the sector and are pigeonholed into performing narrow technical tasks (e.g. graphic design) and there are missed opportunities to leverage strategic design thinking, participatory methods and process facilitation. Advancing practitioners tend to feel they have hit a ceiling and rely on conferences or articles to progress their thinking.
  4. Learning that Spreads and Sticks
    Civil servants and activists championing design struggle to spread the practice within their environments that are unfamiliar with related design mindsets and methods. Others who are exposed to short-term, expensive design interventions or trainings remain skeptical of the value of design and lose interest.
While there is a lot of existing knowledge and expertise across Change Designers — civil servants, activists and social designers — the cognitive glue to foster global, intergenerational, and cross-disciplinary ongoing learning in Change Design is missing at scale.

We see this a risk: a risk to the social change momentum, a risk to the role of Change Design in social fields, and most importantly a risk to the people and communities we have a responsibility to serve and collaborate with.

Maturing Change Design

This sentiment is not uncommon or new: there has been more and more talk about the transition from education to workforce and effective collaboration amongst people with diverse expertise — both approach/process and subject-matter/content.

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a worldwide Accelerator Labs initiative. Quaggiotto, Oprenenco and Leurs lay out their thoughtful and inspiring aims for the program: “portfolio sensemaking and portfolio design, and creating new mindsets and models to think with, rather than methods and innovation pilots.” Sarah Fathallah recently posted a highly-resonant resource for designers entering the social sector; Nesta has launched States of Change to accelerate social innovation capability in the public sector, and remote learning opportunities for complementary systems design skills like the Systems Sanctuary, Systems Changers and The Forum for the Future are growing.

In addition to our own professional-personal experiences, these initiatives have signaled to us that people are hungry for learning and sharing opportunities that advance Change Design and are workforce-pragmatic.

We see a learning gap in what’s available to the Change Design sector. We also see indicators that the Change Design sector is ready to take another step towards maturity and quality of practice.

We want to build on traditional education experiences (university programs in for example, transition or transdisciplinary design, and public policy or sociology) and on-the-job training; we want to go beyond digital certificate experiences for Change Designers at the start of and throughout a career.

In response, we’ve begun developing something to help fill that learning gap. Something to leverage the knowledge that sits within practiced individuals across the sector worldwide and nurture the next generation of Change Designers.

We’re excited (that’s an understatement, we’re thrilled) to introduce The Residency: a Change Design practical learning collective.

The Residency aims to feed into and link up with initiatives like networks of innovators, emergent design education programs, government agencies, innovation consultancies and civil society organizations.

The goal is to develop a malleable learning platform that permeates traditional boundaries — the result would be a networked exchange that quietly infiltrates a system rather than overtly disrupts it.

Through the residency, we aim to:

  1. Fuel effective multidisciplinarity: To tackle increasingly complex socio-political problems through multidisciplinarity, including advancing the use of Change Design and ameliorating the tensions between Change Design and other common public/social sector disciplines.
  2. Provide support at crux transition points: To support the transitions, including: movement from design education to meaningful participation in civil society, public administration and social innovation; advancement of design-curious to design-confident civil servants and activists; growth leaps for people hitting plateaus in their public interest work; or advancement of individuals from ‘doing’ to ‘coaching’ their expertise.
  3. Elevate the collective practice: Create a learning network that leverages global and intergenerational expertise and experiences to meet the scale of the problems we’re aiming to tackle.

But, What is The Residency?

The Residency is a practical learning collective that aims to to create sustainable multidisciplinary environments for complex socio-political problem-solving.

Multidisciplinarity is necessary for addressing social challenges, but it’s hard. While social designers, civil servants and activists are interested in working together, the differences in their skills, language, and mental models create tensions that have not been addressed in a systematic way. All too often these differently-principled processes are assumed to function in synchronicity without intentional, practical training.

The Residency will:

  1. Be emergent and responsive to the unique learning needs of individuals within their contexts
  2. Provide foundational linking knowledge and content that is currently absent from learning experiences but is known to set change designers up for success
  3. Facilitate spaces for learning where individuals learn with and from cross-discipline buddies, like-discipline clusters, and from sector-relevant mentors to reach and maintain optimal Change Design integration in the public and social sector.

Layered Learning

All too often continued learning occurs through lecture, a reading, a single bootcamp or workshop, however the evidence is clear that people need multiple and repeated dimensions to absorb and apply new skills. The Residency will leverage a layered learning model that provides a diversity of learning experiences. We’ve included a high-level summary of our model, which will expand on in future posts.

Learning Journey

We recognize the value of T-shaped individuals when working on multidisciplinary teams, where people have a broad and shallow understanding of many topics and a deep specialization in one area. We also understand that people might have multiple ‘t’ stems or the desire to develop multiple ‘t’ stems as they progress in their career. Inspired by the four learning competency stages and the concept of infinite learners, The Residency will provide a platform for people to participate on their infinite learning journey as both teachers and learners amongst like-discipline and adjacent-discipline global collectives.

This means that for example, someone might enter The Residency as a design researcher at a Mastery level where they can support the learning of others, and they may be at a Curiosity stage on public policy where they could learn from another Resident with complimentary learning offers and needs. This creates what we will call ‘yin yang’ learning opportunities.

What’s next

We have reason to believe that a Change Design practical learning collective could serve as a needed platform for connecting, sharing, absorbing and advancing Change Design knowledge and practice. Ultimately, The Residency can support the pre-conditions needed for the existing ecosystem to succeed so that the practice is elevated and there is increased accountability.

True to the ‘collective’ intent, we want to design The Residency with experienced and emergent Change Designers who will provide co-operative functions as co-creators, co-owners and participants. This way the Residency continues to reflect the ongoing contextual needs and values of global Change Designers.

In the near term, we have three focuses:

  1. Collaborate with champions and advisors to refine our theory of change, operational model and content areas.
  2. Partner with sponsors and backers to help The Residency meet its potential.
  3. Test a prototype of The Residency. This Fall we will trial our layered learning model with key stakeholders of the collective.

If you’re interested in connecting around these focuses, or in general, send us an email (theresidency.design@gmail.com, a twitter message (@residencydesign) or register your interest at www.the-residency.org/contact. We’re eager to hear from you!


We want to thank everyone who has inspired, encouraged and advised us over the past many months. We especially want to express our gratitude to the civil servants, activists, social designers and social innovation experts who shared their thoughts and resources with us. We are learners and seek to learn from others, build on what exists and share back as much as we can.

A special thanks to: Pablo Collada, John Bruce, Giulio Quaggiotto, Chelsea Mauldin, Lara Penin, Elliot Montgomery, Miguel Arana Catania, Jennifer Grey, Mike Weikert, Ash Alluri, Carolyn Curtis, Kerry Brennan, Beth Dunlap, An Xiao Mina, Elizabeth Eagen, John Emerson, Megan Wiley, Jonas Voigt, Isabella Gady, Rika Viragh, Laura Blumenthal, Rachel Dzomback, Emily Rice, George Aye, Michael Cañares, Noel Wilson, Josh Powell, Duncan Edwards, Blair Glencorse, Tiago Peixoto, Dave Algoso, Nicolás Rebolledo, AC_E, Emma Blomkamp, Rachel Goff, Kelly Ann McKercher, Seanna Davidson, Thea Snow, Lee Ryan, Nonso Jideofor, Hannah Mattner, Melanie Rayment.