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Supporting social change through culturally-aware design in Asia-Pacific

The greatest innovations can be a positive force throughout any society. Professor Joyce Yee’s work looks at design’s role in driving creativity for the good of global communities – in this case, those in the Asia-Pacific region. Through her formation of a unique design collective, DESIAP, business opportunities have increased, while the network’s passion for contemporary and ambitious design has yielded dynamic international partnerships and a vision that is already changing perceptions.

Professor Joyce Yee at Northumbria University's School of Design has been co-leading the pioneering network, ‘Design and Social Innovation in Asia-Pacific’ (DESIAP) since 2015. Addressing social problems has always been a focus for the Design School and has led to it becoming one of the world’s leading centres for design research. 

DESIAP was set up in partnership with RMIT, in Australia, to facilitate knowledge exchange and encourage joint working among different innovation communities, all united by a shared goal of delivering social impact in Asia-Pacific regions. In the last few years, the network has been a consistent influence in areas such as practice, professional standing, collaborative work and business opportunities. In only three years, DESIAP has brought together researchers and practitioners for major events in Australia, Cambodia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

Through these activities, DESIAP is gradually building its sphere of influence and boosting its international credibility. The network adopts a critical approach which calls on participants to go through cycles of action, reflection and joint decision-making. It’s a system that is designed to embrace power, gender and political dynamics among the wider teams, heightening awareness of local culture in the process. It also challenges the western-centric status quo, by offering different approaches. These themes have been explored in a special issue of the Design and Culture Journal, co-edited by Professor Yee, while further research has highlighted the various ways social hierarchy influences Thai design and social innovation practices.

The network’s compelling approach to engagement has led to changes in embedded cultural behaviours, while also creating opportunities for cross-border partnerships between designers, social entrepreneurs, researchers and NGOs on sustainable development projects, particularly relating to education and impact evaluation. Above all, DESIAP has been instrumental in bringing Asia-Pacific practices into the international arena, contributing to an improved professional reputation and better ways of working.

Evidence of dynamic relationships between network members can also be seen in emerging collaborations. STBY – a notable DESIAP member – has been working with several Thai design and social innovation practitioners, long after convening at the 2016 Bangkok symposium. In addition, Proximity Design – based in Myanmar – worked with Dr Joon Sang Baek, from South Korea’s Yonsei University, to explore precision farming in Myanmar through a project involving graduate designers.

The next ambitious step for DESIAP is to engage with commissioners, government officials and policy makers with a view to amplifying design’s role in supporting and driving change for the good of society.

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