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Public Management Review

For a Special Issue on

Design for Societal Transformations: Exploring the Potential of Design for Tackling Wicked Problems

Abstract deadline
30 September 2024

Manuscript deadline
31 May 2025

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Special Issue Editor(s)

William Voorberg, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, the Netherlands
[email protected]

Albert Meijer, Utrecht University, the Netherlands
[email protected]

Sofi Perikangas, University of Vaasa, Finland
[email protected]

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Design for Societal Transformations: Exploring the Potential of Design for Tackling Wicked Problems


Contemporary issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, and aging populations are complex and interconnected challenges. These issues are often described as 'wicked problems' (Alford and Head, 2015), indicating their complexity, intractability, and the intense debate they generate about both problems and solutions. For example, biodiversity loss stems from human-driven factors such as food production, global warming, and pollution (Holden et al. 2024). Attempts to solve these issues, like creating protected areas, may adversely affect the livelihoods of those dependent on these regions, particularly in marine environments (Brown et al. 2013). Additionally, discussions of climate and environmental justice frequently raise questions about who benefits from maintaining the current state and whether the 'right' stakeholders benefit from changes (Schlosberg and Collins, 2014). Therefore, these wicked problems require innovative, creative, and legitimate responses. Several authors suggest that various forms of design – such as social, service, and transformation design—play crucial roles in tackling these challenges (Junginger and Sangiorgi, 2009; Sangiorgi, 2011; Wittmayer et al. 2019). For instance, these approaches facilitate essential dialogues among diverse stakeholders, helping to bridge the gap between theory and practice (Roberts, 2023). Consequently, the public sector is increasingly adopting design methodologies across all areas of public policy and service development (Lewis et al.2020; Bason, 2017). Techniques such as design thinking (Liedtka and Ogilvie, 2011), frame innovation (Dorst, 2015), co-design (Blomkamp, 2018), Human-Centered Design (Buchanan, 2001), and service design (Kimbell, 2011) are being utilized to encourage innovative thinking and enhance creativity. As a result, concepts like 'user-centered design', 'empathy', and 'prototyping' have become prevalent in public management.

The academic inquiry into these realms is increasingly characterized by interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations, wherein specialists across various fields engage deeply in the co-creation of innovative conceptual and methodological frameworks. This collaborative approach holds the potential for pioneering theoretical developments. Within this context, design often assumes a role in facilitating and structuring collaborative environments aimed at crafting interventions that target systemic 'leverage points'. Such environments, exemplified by living labs (McGann et al., 2018), co-design projects (Blomkamp, 2018), transition arenas (Hyysalo et al. 2019), community-based research (Minkler, 2005), and hackathons (Medina Angarita and Nolte, 2020), embody a conceptual departure from traditional design thinking, heralding a novel approach to design's contribution to addressing wicked problems.

Design as transformative approach

However, there is a growing debate about whether design interventions are adequate for tackling complex societal challenges. Scholars from various fields argue that such "wicked problems" necessitate comprehensive societal transformations, such as shifting towards more sustainable food production systems. These transformations involve extensive changes in socio-technical systems, employing a range of social transformation strategies and tools that influence governance and policy-making (Geels and Kemp, 2007; Loorbach et al. 2017). Recent academic discussions have critically assessed the use of design thinking for such systemic challenges,  which is essential for transformative change. This systemic approach emphasizes moving beyond merely using creative methods and tools, highlighting the need to fully understand how interventions can deeply impact and alter complex systems (Rittel, 1982; Meadows, 2008). Consequently, this perspective has merged design-centric debates with research on societal transitions and transformative changes, as seen in the works of Sangiorgi (2011) and Irwin (2015), positioning design thinking as just one component of a broader strategy for societal transformation.

Furthermore, the relationship between design and transformative change has been questioned in various other ways. Some researchers view design interventions as incremental steps towards transformative change rather than as mechanisms for radical overhaul (Ruijer et al., 2023). Conversely, other scholars argue that bold design efforts aimed at altering system dynamics are necessary to achieve 'missions' (Mazzucato, 2021), focusing on the role of design in defining transformation goals. Meanwhile, some argue that design tends to stabilize rather than transform systems, suggesting that design efforts may impede rather than facilitate transformative changes (Tonkinwise, 2015). Thus, the perspectives vary widely, and strong empirical evidence is still lacking.

This special issue seeks, among other goals, to reflect on the evolving role of design in fostering societal transformation. It is intended to be an evaluation of its strengths, limitations, and contingencies. This special issues addresses the question how various forms of design contribute to societal transformation.

Call for papers

Acknowledging that the complexity of wicked issues requires interdisciplinary approaches and collaborative efforts among various actors, stakeholders, and researchers/designers, we invite submissions for papers that delve into one or more aspects of these challenges, emphasizing an interdisciplinary methodology. We welcome both conceptual and empirical studies aimed at enhancing our understanding of the role and effectiveness of design in addressing these multifaceted problems. Literature reviews are also encouraged, provided they contribute to advancing the field beyond merely summarizing existing knowledge.

This call for papers welcomes contributions that focus on one or more of the following research questions, though this list is intended as a guide, not an exhaustive enumeration, of the topics we hope to explore in this special edition:

  1. How can design for societal transformation be conceptualized and operationalized, specifically within public management research?
  2. What are the methodological challenges faced in design research aimed at achieving societal transformations?
  3. To what extent is there a ‘dark side’ of the application of design methodologies in terms of their transformative potential?
  4. What kind of outcomes and knowledge can be gained through design interventions for tackling major societal issues?

In this Special Issue, we are focused on the overall impact of design. We welcome contributions from a range of design disciplines, including service design, product design, human-centered design, transition design, and systemic design. We are also interested in evaluations of specific design methodologies and approaches, particularly those applied to public services, insofar as they demonstrate potential for societal transformation.

We aim to include six to eight articles, including a geographic spread of authors and issues.  Theoretical and empirical papers are encouraged that embrace a range of methodological approaches.


Submission Instructions

To submit a proposal for this edited collection, please email an abstract outlining the manuscript’s contents, including its application of theory, empirical context, methodology (including sources of data) and fit within this special issue, alongside a 50-word per author biographical statement, to the editors.


30 September, 2024                Deadline for proposals: A summary of 1500 words maximum (plus references list) including research question/aim, key literature, proposed methods, and expected or indicative findings.

30 November, 2024                Feedback from editors – invitation to authors with successful abstracts to submit full paper

31 May, 2025                          Full paper submitted for review via PMR submission system

1 September, 2025                  Publication Special Issue

As per the above timeline, all submissions selected by the editors will be invited to submit a full article through the Public Management Review submission system, which will then be subject to the journal’s usual peer review procedures. We emphasize that an invitation to submit a full article does not guarantee publication, and all decisions are ultimately those of the journal editors.

If you have any further questions, please contact the special issue editors:

William Voorberg, [email protected]

Albert Meijer, [email protected]

Sofi Perikangas, [email protected]

Instructions for AuthorsSubmit an Article