Design Indaba 2016
Solving Problems Through Designing Relationships

Back in 1942 in the United Kingdom, economist William Beveridge published his first report on how to combat many of the issues facing the country in war-time. The report was hailed internationally and helped create the UK’s welfare state, expanding and creating public social programs with the goal of a fairer nation. The results were in ways a success, but six years from writing his first report, Beveridge published a 3rd, far-less read report in which he distanced himself a bit from the first report. The key thing he’d missed was the importance of people and their communities. By leaving out people and the human connection, Beveridge had reduced people’s agency.

Hilary Cottam is an “accidental designer”, or so she referred to herself on Wednesday during her presentation at Design Indaba in Cape Town. Back in 2005, she won the UK Designer of the Year Award, which is a bit funny because she doesn’t self-identify as a designer. Or, at least, a designer in the traditional sense. That word is important. Through her career of trying to solve some of society’s most pressing problems, Cottam has not leaned on the past. “Design isn’t about making the best of the old,” she said. “It’s about making something new.” And by combining design thinking with an emphasis on the community—through building relationships—Cottam is determined to transform the UK’s welfare state.

Cottam stressed 4 key principles to her design thinking and community-based problem solving approach.

  • Human – It starts from the people, not the perspective of an institution.
  • Creative – It doesn’t just manage the problem in an effective, efficient way, but it starts to build people’s capabilities and starts to build a very different future
  • Pragmatic – Resources are limited; it works with what’s available
  • Distributed – The institutional, rules-based way of doing things is old hat; it uses a bottom up, network-based approach

Cottam and her teams have used her approach to try and solve a number of problems, and on Wednesday she highlighted two in particular.

A large reason for the failure of the UK’s welfare state is that the narratives surrounding society’s issues have been “flattened”, or simplified. When you approach policy with a top-level, institution-led point of view, the needs of the individual have likely been ignored. Good design, Cottam said, is “about being human, starting with real people”, so that’s what she’s done to combat the world’s number one killer: loneliness. According to the World Health Organization, Cottam said, a third of Britain’s over-60 population doesn’t speak to or see a friend or family member each week. Cottam and her team went to the people, face-to-face, to find out how the problem could be solved. They found out that people wanted help fixing things, getting them to and from doctor’s appointments, and, indeed, companionship. Thus was borne Circle, a technology-aided network where people could sign up to provide care for the elderly, providing as much or as little of their time as they desired.

Cottam soon found this personal, relationship-based solution could be applied to another societal problem, unemployment. Often the best way to find an available job is through word of mouth, not through job postings or advertisements. But not everyone is an expert networker, especially those who aren’t currently working; “unemployed” is a very difficult label to be strapped with. Like taking on the issues associated with aging, Cottam believed that building relationships and networks could help solve unemployment. Technology helped play the role of getting people involved, but it acted as more of a support service. The real relationship building was done in person, with people from all sides of the employment spectrum volunteering to share their stories, experiences and ideas. The community-based approach is there not to shirk the responsibility from the individuals but to stand with them and help them build the courage to overcome their personal challenges. Cottam said they were able to move people into work, outperforming traditional state-based work finding services three times over, at a fraction of the cost.

“Design gets at new angles, new perspectives,” Cottam said. “It doesn’t just criticize, it comes and builds something else.” Whether we’re dealing with problems for our clients, businesses, societies, or ourselves, looking from a different perspective could open the door to a clearer solution.

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