In 2013, the Design Council launched the second of their initiatives to change policy in Britain. ‘Design in the public sector’ sought to increase the knowledge and ability of public sector workers to use strategic design skills to solve key challenges and better inform the service commissioning process, (Design Commission, 2013). Its aim is to engage civil servants from a mix of roles and disciplines; training staff to ‘reframe their challenges’ from the perspective of the user and therefore develop more appropriate solutions, (Design Council, 2015). However, in light of the recent actions of the UK government and the pending changes to public spending in the face of austerity, can this approach provide scalable solutions for nationwide services? Can a ‘bottom up’ approach to service design help shape the UK’s future public sector?

The Design Council thinks so. They propose that design thinking and methodology used in the right way with inclusion of all key stakeholders can provide the solutions to some of the most pressing issues of this generation.

One of the most prevalent demographic challenges to face the UK, over the next 50 years, will be our ageing population. It is predicted that by 2040 almost one in four people will be aged 65 or over, (Age UK, 2015). With our average lifespan improving year on year many services must adapt to accommodate the growing numbers of elderly clients- most affected by this are the health and care sectors. So far, it is in these sectors that the Design Council have focused the majority of their efforts initiating competitions to solve problems for dementia patients or working with hospital care staff to redesign their equipment and service.

One consequence of the deemed ‘Silver Tsunami’ is of personal concern for many families, as the cost of care support for elderly people has become unaffordable for the majority. With the UK average yearly rate for residential care homes currently sitting at £29,250, (Paying For Care, 2016); it is no wonder then that this has been the topic for discussion in numerous sectors, with many experts suggesting potential solutions.

An excellent example of a social innovation project, in answer to this challenge, is the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme developed by Prof. Heinz Wolff and his team at Brunel University. They have proposed an alternative pension scheme that will see citizens becoming active in the care of other members of their community, incentivising people to give time now in order to receive support themselves in the future; in other words paying forward for their care. In an interview, Dr Gabriella Spinelli, a co- lead on the project from Brunel, discussed the importance of this social revolution.

Dr Spinelli defined the opportunity for the designer to draw awareness to the public social problems and to highlight the needs of the minorities, where they are otherwise neglected. In her opinion, design has failed people differently able, by designing for the condition not the person; overall as an industry it has not given enough thought to designing products to assist people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives. ‘The challenge when considering service provision is that the experience derived from service fruition is very personal and may vary considerably.’ Dr Spinelli invoked the engagement of service users as a key element of Give and Take with the intent to transform care from ‘what you ought to have to survive, to what you wish to have to have a fulfilling life as individual. For some people this may mean help in the garden, in the kitchen, in personal care or a simple chess game to feel cognitively and socially stimulated’. Dr Spinelli explained the open possibilities of the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme. Such service user’s engagement is extended to all other stakeholders of the Give and Take Care scheme and in many ways it embodies the principles of a co-design approach. Who better to decide what is needed from a service than the users and providers themselves? A well designed service must be mutually beneficial for all parties.

Dr Spinelli identified trust as the main barrier faced by the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme, as it brings a disruptive innovation to society. It is something that has not been done before, hence people have no experience by which they can assess whether ‘Give and Take Care’ will be successful. ‘If they put the time in now, will the service still be available and will they be able to get the time back when they need the care?’ A challenge, while specific to this service, alludes to similar problems faced by other emerging, unique social systems. When discussing the sector’s attitudes towards design, she said that there is ‘a differing understanding of what design can offer. Some people understand its potential, whereas others believe it is simply the final gloss.’ Generally, though, the future for this project looks to be very positive, Dr Spinelli noted that ‘people are beginning to realise there is no alternative, unless communities start to pull together and works towards a solution’. The fundamental fact is that pensions are not stable and the cost of care is too high. The current system can’t continue to absorb the predicted demographic changes.

While co-design’s relevance to service improvements is widely recognised within the design community, those un-enlightened to the skills of design thinking still have difficulty imagining the potential benefits. One of the biggest challenges for the Design Council (2015) and similar bodies has been to convince key officials and local authorities of the value of design. They noted the challenges to the sustaining and scaling approaches are the constraints on resources and capacity, and dealing with organisational cultures that do not support design-led thinking. In a world ruled by agendas, spreadsheets and statistics, perhaps what is lacking from the argument is any quantifiable improvements, (Mulgan, G., 2014). Change can be scary, especially in an institution like the welfare state, but for social innovation to be truly successful it requires a creative solution to drastically change the way we behave and see the world. When embarking on a service design project, in local or national government, the key is to help everyone involved perceive the tangible difference it could make for them.

It is hoped that with a growing body of successful projects the argument in favour social innovation will become stronger. As the pressures on public sector services grow and more cracks appear, people will need to take the chance and invest in the emerging design-led projects.

A revolution is necessary and like it or not people will need to look for new solutions, and it appears design thinking may hold some of the answers.


Written by Jennifer Bryant (Email/LinkedIn)


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