Service Design in Gov talk — March 2020
I said I’d write up my talk from my Service Design in Government Keynote. Thank you for all the lovely feedback. I especially loved taking an audience of 350 people through a social dreaming experiment.
This is it, word for word.
Thank you for having me here.
I don’t normally do public speaking, especially keynotes on a big stage. It often feels like talks, stages and conferences are geared towards a certain kind of charisma and projecting a certain kind of power.
But Scotland has a special place in my heart. ❤️
And some of my ancestry is celtic, so in some ways being on this land feels like being home.
I am also nervous, and I’ve been wondering why it is nerve wracking standing on a stage like this. It’s not because I have imposter syndrome — that’s a patriarchal concept — it contains hierarchy and exclusion in it, as if some people don’t belong somewhere and others hold the right to whatever that thing is.
So if I never feel imposter syndrome, what are these feelings? I realised it’s because I don’t want to waste an hour of your time or your money. I want this to be useful for you in some way.
I also wanted to just share a little about the context in which I created this talk. I got back on Tuesday night from 3 weeks in an Ayurvedic retreat in Sri Lanka. As I kept explaining to my Mum, who text me several times to ask if I was enjoying the pampering — this wasn’t exactly pampering. Think needles, pummelling, no cold water allowed despite the tropical heat, and five hours a day of various different treatments.
Every morning, after acupuncture I lay on this bed for 90 minutes at a time, before being moved to the ‘coffin’ on the right, where I quite literally baked.
After that, I was moved to a bed in the herb garden, covered in head to toe in a sticky paste and a sheet placed over my face, where I had to lay still for another 30 minutes. After 21 days I was sent home with an array of medicines.
That means I might be high whilst giving this talk. 😂
Anyway, it was a strange place to be compiling this, because it was a time for me to be very inward, and I couldn’t imagine my voice during that time.
And in my darkest moments there I felt like the embodiment of Western excess, laying face down on a bed being pummelled by two native Sri Lankan women (who we colonised from 1796–1948) to break down my excess, which you could also think of as having been acquired through extraction.
And one last thing, I should say that I’m not speaking here with my National Lottery Community Fund hat on.
I’ve divided this talk into 3 parts.
I’ll share something of my own journey as a designer that makes sense of where I am now. Primarily as a way of introducing the second part of my talk.
I’ll then reflect on what positions I’ve stood in to try and influence change, the different roles in change as I currently see them, and why it’s important at this time to have intent about what role you want to play.
I’ll end on where I see gaps, where I see hope and leave you with a few questions that I find helpful to navigate these uncertain times. I’ll also be inviting you to take part in a mass experiment together!
And of course I say all of this as a white skinned, queer, able-bodied, lower-middle class, proudly state educated, art school graduate.
Sorry if that is too woke for you.
It’s 1997, I was at Ravensbourne to do a 3 year degree in fashion and textile design. I learnt how to do design research, how to construct and make, on my year’s work experience at Marie Claire magazine in New York I learnt about the industry of fashion, the trends and the mainstream, and through my textile work I could show my love of pattern — both an ability to create patterns and to see them.
I left with a First Class honours but unlike my classmate, Camilla Stærk, I was less sure what I wanted to do, so instead spent two years working with her in a rat infested studio in Notting Hill with 20 unpaid interns.
With just two of us leading the organisation, I learned quickly about running a small business, about production and manufacturing and the precarity of relying on others to deliver your goods, about fabric trade fairs overseas, and about the circus-like nature of fashion weeks.
During this time there was always an unease in me — mainly the awareness I had of how uncreative so much of the fashion industry really seemed to be. Fashion buyers and editors all behaved like sheep, and power was entrenched in Anna Wintour and LVMH. At one of Camilla’s London Fashion Week shows I witnessed the panic created by Anna Wintour, having announced she was coming, then potentially being unable to attend. Her no show had the potential to literally crush a new, emerging fashion label. Isn’t it crazy to think that one person could wield that much influence? Has been given that much power.
It’s 2002 — glad to move away from cyclical fashion, it wasn’t until I set up my own company with business partner Lois that I really started to use design as a way to problem-solve. Our company was called Lorelei — which if you didn’t know, was the name of a water nymph who lured men to their deaths with her siren call. Lorelei did three different things — consultancy for other fashion houses ranging from Top Shop to working with Stella McCartney at Chloe in Paris, costumes for events and brands, and also uniforms, which was the largest growing area of our business.
I continued to do all Camilla’a print design for the next 7 years, and at Lorelei we still did some frivolous things like designing costumes for places like Coco De Mer, Jade Jagger and Garrard the Royal Jewellers.
However, when we needed to design uniforms for the Soho House group or for Albert Heijn supermarket chain in Holland, these needed to be functional, they needed to meet a user need. Uniforms were also part of the whole experience of a space — it was a toe in the water of experience design.
It’s 2004 and I was lucky to be selected by an organisation I had never heard of to take part in a programme for graduates of design wanting to set up (or already in the early stages of running) a creative business. It was Nesta’s Creative Pioneer Programme and I was in the first year. Through this programme I met Deborah Szebeko, who’s creative business idea was thinkpublic. Engine and Live Work (only a year old then) came to talk to us whilst on the programme about this thing they were calling “service design” but at that time, they were working in the private sector.
At age 23 Deborah set up the first public sector service design agency. We shared a studio in those early days, alongside a bunch of the other Creative Pioneer businesses. That programme went on to spawn people like Jane who invented Sugru, Mark, the Science Museum Inventor in Residence, Harriet the Dean of Pratt School of Architecture, and Mary and Zoe of UsCreates.
I was spending more of my time with Deborah, learning with her about experience-based design, co-design and service design, and trying to find ways to fit what I was doing in to what she was doing. We talked a lot about how to redesign hospital gowns!
In 2006 I finally jumped ship, leaving my business partner to take over Lorelei (now the Uniform Studio) and started working with thinkpublic some of the week. People like Sarah Drummond and Lauren Currie came through as interns.
I also worked at an education charity, Antidote, with James Park, formed as a campaign for emotional literacy and where I tried to bring a design approach to how they were thinking about delivering emotional intelligence into schools.
There wasn’t an MA in service design at that time. I think it would be fair to say that all of us who identified as designers and were working with the NHS, with local government and the third sector at that time, were doing a real mix of designing services, co-design and social design. Certainly my design practice grew up around the growing community of Social Innovation — social in terms of it means and its impact (see this publication from 2007), and that was what was more important than anything else — the desire to work on things that really mattered and that we believed might make a difference.
I also went back to school, studying part-time for an MSc in the science of wellbeing. It was called Positive Psychology but that is far too american! And I trained as a coach too — social science, strengths based approaches and appreciative inquiry is a helpful backdrop to all design work.
I stayed on a retainer with thinkpublic but started doing work with other agencies too as they were created — with Snook, with FutureGov, with the Young Foundation, with Project 00 and later on with Participle.
It did feel like most of the talk at this time was either about improvement or was increasingly being narrowed down to the design and delivery of better services. I heard few people say during this time, lets build some new institutions or radically change things. I also believed (and still do!) that people’s lives exist outside of services too.
It’s now 2010, a decade ago, and Ellie Ford and I had the idea for The Point People — some of which was in response to what I just mentioned. I felt like there was more to do than just improving services.
I also felt amazed, having worked across multiple organisations during this period, how little joining up there was. Not only between organisations — many of whom were too busy competing to think about the best ways to try and effect long-lasting systemic change — but also across thematic areas of work. I think between 2006 and 2010 I must have worked on projects that covered end of life care, personalised budgets, housing services in local authorities, troubled families, care homes, social care, mental health, loneliness …and more.
I felt like the intelligence I’d unintentionally been gathering about the ‘in-between’ spaces, and the patterns across sectors and fields, could actually help change to happen more wisely if only it could be connected up better.
So Ellie and I, during a time when everyone else was becoming a social entrepreneur and focussed on building their thing, curated and set up the Point People.
The next 6 years
It all gets a bit jumbled for the next 6 years, during which I Co-founded Tech for Good Global, worked at Government Digital Service for a year part-time (I wanted to see what all the fuss was about), worked with the Libraries Taskforce in DCMS, built a new digital service for Mind working with 50 different local offices, worked with both Somerset House and the British Council to design and grow their networks, and worked at the Co-op as the first service designer on the team helping transition their funeral business.
During this time I also did some art and culture work. I set up and ran the Intimacy Lab at the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, the Data Store and Data Cafe at Future Everything, and the Citizen Census at Somerset House.
And then the Civic Shop. That was really me attempting to do some field-building and systemic narrative work — bringing together a range of projects that individually seemed like they were small and at the edges, but together were demonstrating a more believable and imaginable alternative future.
I also did a lot of convening — intentionally designing different networks and communities to come together. The Ad Hoc Enquiries with Tessy Britton, Joe Smith and Laura Billings. The Recombine Dinner series with Nesta, British Council and Bethnal Green Ventures.
It’s now late 2015 and a new thing has started — Doteveryone.
I initially went is as the user researcher for their end of life work, but there was an opportunity to stay, and to help shape the organisation as a member of the senior management team. I wondered whether I could have a different type of impact by doing one thing for a while.
And then at the end of 2018, 3 years later I left to start working at The National Lottery Community Fund. I started as the Head of the Digital Fund, and next month I will start as the Senior Head of the UK Portfolio. I’m excited to shake off the “digital” label!
I tell you all this history as a way of reflecting back the different kinds of experience I’ve had, from different vantage points of change.
I have learnt about the role of culture, narrative and “art” in social change, as ways to not only move people’s heads but also their hearts. And the importance of creation as a part of resistance.
I have learnt about spotlighting and championing the new and emerging ideas, that offer an alternative and to try and join dots between them to bring them greater coherence, and to help them survive.
I have learnt about being a convenor, actively trying to link things up in new ways and connect different communities together to try and influence change.
I have learnt about setting something up from scratch, and understood how creating something entirely new can orientate the energy of change in a different direction.
I have learnt about working on the inside of change, navigating bureaucracy, arbitrary authority, but being able to access scale and reach for enabling change.
I have learnt about the tactics of policy influencing and the importance of narrative work.
During this unconventional and varied set of experiences, I learnt too about the biases people have.
How much people want to put you in boxes.
How much people need a job title or an organisational association to assign value to you.
How much people are afraid of you for not conforming, or because they don’t understand you.
How much people can’t cope with just how much you do and how many different things you do.
How it is possible to build trust, relationships and influence without ever having to rely (or fall back)on the currency of the patriarchy.
I wrote a whole post about that here.
Until my first “proper job” at Doteveryone, which was the first time I was on PAYE, it felt like every single door I went through I had to build from scratch myself, over and over again. I didn’t have the power of an organisation or a known brand behind me. I didn’t have the social capital (confidence and entitlement) that comes from being Oxbridge educated, I wasn’t working in a foundation and giving money away, and I had a very confusing CV.
This has been one of the things I’m most proud of — how I’ve approached working life, where I’ve challenged the ruling definitions of worth, of status, of the nature of work, and what we should value. Working in this way, alongside others has seen us able to push our collective thinking light years outside those boxes we can’t get into anyway.
And this plurality of experience has, I think, made me much more aware of the value in being intentional about what role you take in change.
First, let’s take stock of where we are now. Why might you want to be involved in change? There are so many statistics I could share with you about inequality, about the climate emergency, about huge injustices, about the polarity and division that exists in our communities. I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room recognises that we each must do what we can, living in the times that we are.
“You have to act as it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
There are lots of different models we can use to think about change. This is one I have been using since 2010, developed by the Berkana Institute. It’s something I use to help me create a narrative about whatever work I’m doing in the present.
In essence it shows a dominant system that is dying, and an emergent system that has the potential to become the system of influence. As the dominant system reaches its peak, new pioneers emerge (1), recognising that the dominant system (maybe capitalism, however impossible and far away that might seem!) is beginning to decline.
A few things I like about this model include —
- All roles are valuable.
- You can zoom in to the micro or out to the macro — as in, you could do this at an organisational level, or use it thematically (e.g. around the climate crisis)
- Also, I am continually surprised by how few people I meet that can articulate why they are doing something when it comes to change work. The why is important because it means uncovering your beliefs.
I’m going to talk a bit about each of the roles.
Stabilising is about steadying and maintaining the vital things that we need like the NHS, and certain government departments. People need to have access to basic services and amenities, whatever is happening around them, and to know that those services will be responsive.
People doing this work have a lot of patience. They aren’t distracted by the shiny and the new, and they probably love the saying “Lets get the basics right” or “Lets fix the plumbing.”
Another role is helping people and organisations transition from the existing, dominant system — helping make tangible how to do things in a new way and showing them what is happening in the emergent system. I always picture these people as doing hand-holding work — walking alongside organisations to cross the “transition bridge.” Some make it, others don’t. I expect many of you in this audience are doing this kind of work. We know Government Digital Service tries / tried to do this alongside other government departments. Parts of the NHS are trying to do it.
It’s what we’re trying to fund some of the larger National charities to do through the Digital Fund where I work. It’s what the Catalyst is trying to do at a civil society level, with multiple charities and other civil society organisations.
One of the many challenges of this work is to ensure that what you’re doing in the long run though doesn’t just end up as optimising the existing system. I think some of the founding Government Digital Service team would be the first to say, they didn’t change the purpose of government, they just made its current functions work a lot better.
Solely making things better in the present won’t help you get over the bridge. When you start the transition of something, you need to keep asking whether what you are taking from the old to the new can be evolved to fit the new paradigm and whether it should even still exist in its current form.
This work requires patience, persistence, the ability to inspire, an ability to narrate where you’re heading, and being able to demonstrate and reassure about what the new might look like.
Starting up something new — the Pioneers
Another role in change work is that done by the Pioneers — the people and organisations building alternatives, creating entirely new entities, that aren’t reliant on the old systems ways of doing things. They are underpinned with a new set of values and models — understanding the need to operate from within an entirely new paradigm.
At the moment a lot of this kind of work is happening at the edges, or in forms (like movements) that people feel it’s easy to write off as momentary, but I believe they are laying the foundations of something important and truly alternative — a patterning of hope. Things like the Sunrise Movement in the US and Black Lives Matter, the work that Dark Matter Labs is doing, and Participatory City, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics Action Lab, the Open Systems Lab and Civic Square. There are many more of course.
These people are showing us what an alternative looks like and saying “this is how things need to be”. They have vision, tenacity, persistence, belief, boldness — imagine trying to do something that is not only new in terms of its set up, but new in terms of the where the wider world’s level of understanding is in relation to it.
Connecting the Pioneers
Another important role in change is those people that are illuminating, connecting together and nurturing the new / the alternatives. They help those emergent ideas, projects and organisations form communities of practice and grow more coherence as a field. As they do, more people and organisations join. Of course a lot of what goes on in the dominant system is trying to crush the alternatives that are appearing in the emergent system. Illumination is also necessary to show a path for transition from the dying system to the alternative, emergent system.
Some of the organisations and initiatives that I think are intentionally doing this work include Atlas of the Future, Farmerama, Emerge, and the Constellations project (and podcast).
Giving power to the Pioneers and growing the network
It helps when there are people in the dominant system who work to protect and enable those alternatives as they emerge, whether through funding, new policies, different kinds of commissioning etc — holding the space for pioneers to do their work.
I see that happening with foundations and philanthropy working in new ways, like the Edge Fund, the Guerrilla Foundation, the Resource Movement (which inspired me to set up the Ally Ship Fund), the Civic Capital Movement in Montreal, Plymouth Council and Wigan Council commissioning in new ways, and the Green New Deal and the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose defining different kinds of value and economic models.
The Hospice Worker
As the dominant system starts to decline, the Hospice Worker role provides care and compassion for those organisations that are no longer needed or no longer fit for the future. The need to close things down, dismantle them, end things, is a natural part of change, but I don’t think we do it very well. This image of a bridge demonstrates the point well, where it’s no longer serving it’s purpose.
I can see in civil society where the wider context has changed so much, and organisations haven’t managed to keep up, that they probably need to close down. This is also important because it makes space for the new — sometimes things need to break down in order to take new forms.
As a society we’re also going to need to get more used to loss, and practice how we work through loss aversion. This work needs doing with care, compassion and fostering a sense of agency. I’m exploring this more through the Farewell Fund for which I’ve recently been awarded an Ideas & Pioneers grant, and is now the Stewarding Loss project.
Cultivating the culture and the myths of the new — the new systems narrative
What isn’t on this diagram but I want to add in is the role of people who are cultivating the culture and myths of the new system. I’m going to talk next about one of the things that makes any of this work hard which is void in our collective imagination, but it’s important to recognise (and the people who play this role do) that we can’t just move quickly in to dreaming about what’s possible.
Before we do so, this is a window of time where there’s opportunity to raise our collective consciousness. We have this moment to understand intersectionality more, to link up the different struggles — that of climate justice, environment justice, food sovereignty, trade justice, anti-racism, anti-patriarchy, anti-war, anti-austerity — to pause and say “we did fuck up” and to recognise our whiteness and imperialist history mean we need to atone for a huge number of things. The cathedral thinking that Greta Thunberg is asking for requires us to deploy different tools— I believe these are only accessible to us if we face up to our past.
I see the work of the climate justice movement doing this, and organisations like Soul Fire Farm, Land In Our Names, Healing Justice London, the Interdependent Futures community, and the MAIA group in Birmingham.
“Our communities have been on fire for a long time and these flames are fanned by our exclusion and silencing. Without incorporating our experiences, any response to this disaster will fail to change the complex ways in which social, economic and political systems shape our lives. “
So going back to the Berkana Model, like I said at the start, all of these roles are needed in change — and what is needed of you is being able to hold that plurality. If we only fixed the plumbing how would that play out long term? But if we didn’t pay attention to immediate and basic needs, what would happen then? If we only make everything simple, what might be the cumulative effects of that? If you only focus on user needs, what happens to all the other needs of the system?
“When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go?”
Kevin Slavin, MIT
Bring criticality to the dogma.
And be intentional about your role and from all of these roles, think about your positionality— they each have a different kind of power.
Something that is missing for me in the Berkana model, and that I’ve felt over and over again during this last year, is wondering what has happened to our imaginations?
I was co-hosting a roundtable at the Bank of England recently, talking about the future of civil society and was struck by how the room only seemed able to imagine civil society as being about delivering services.
Lauren Berlant says we are stuck in a ‘State of Impasse’ — a moment where existing social imaginaries and practices no longer produce the outcomes they once did, but no new imaginaries or practices have yet been created.
I believe there’s an absence of an organised social imagination.
A US-based academic, Kyung Hee Kim, who evaluated data from the main creativity test done there since the 1960s, concluding that imagination and IQ rose together until the mid-1990s, at which point they parted, imagination going into a ‘steady and persistent decline’.
And I’ve found that most people really struggle to articulate a plausible, desirable picture of society in the medium term or in one or two generations time. All of us find it really easy to describe the apocalypse.
“The hippocampus, the part of the brain most linked to the imagination, is, of all the parts of the brain, uniquely vulnerable to cortisol. When we are stressed, anxious, traumatised, isolated, our hippocampus can shrink by as much as 20%, resulting in a contraction in our ability to think hopefully about the future, and in our imaginative capacity.”
Given what’s happening all around us, I can understand why our imagination isn’t at its best! It’s still a concern though, because without that ability to imagine, without being able to perceive a future, we don’t have the pull to transition from the old to the new, or to keep creating and building.
It’s interesting to think about how much the technology world invests in its version of this — the smart city, the smart home, driverless cars, but the social sector, civil society, it doesn’t seem to do this. Is this because the institutions that cultivated our imaginations no longer exist? University’s aren’t able to do it anymore, political parties used to invest much more in foresight, and think tanks used to do this but are now primarily part of the news cycle meaning they have to feed current news agendas.
However there are two pretty predictable trends if we’re looking 50 years in to the future. Working hours are going down and life expectancy is probably going up — that’s not just the average age going up but people also have more years of life.
I say probably because a) PANDEMIC’s and b) we heard in the news last week that here in the UK women’s life expectancy is at 10-year low in the poorest parts of England.
However, this could mean millions of hours will be freed up. Maybe everyone will just watch Netflix (who say their main competitor is sleep) — the digital economy has sucked up so much of our attention that we spend an average of 30 hours a week on social media. It could also become an extraordinary resource for social imagination and creativity, with a parallel economy growing that is much more centred on care, maintenance, art etc. The question is how do you actually organise for that, in new ways?
I should say that this doesn’t mean denying the turbulence that we will face for some time, maybe forever. The threats are real. As Donna Harraway describes it, we need to “stay with the trouble…” but something might exist alongside or beyond the trouble that we’re finding hard to imagine.
For this reason I’m increasingly interested in processes for social dreaming and mass public imagining.
Social dreaming is a pioneering method for exploring new ways of understanding the social world. Dreaming has long been used by communities around the world, including Native Americans, Africans and Australians, to capture thinking about the past and learning about the present, while guiding them towards the future.
W. Gordon Lawrence’s social dreaming work builds on this legacy to bring new thinking and meaning to the communities in which we now live and work — it is based on the assumption that we dream not just for ourselves but as a part of the larger community in which we live.
Social dreaming normally takes place within a social dreaming matrix. Dreams and fragments of dreams are shared. Meaning is expanded and developed through association, amplification and systemic thinking to give voice to the thoughts that exist in our shared experience.
We can’t do a matrix today, but I do want to try and get the whole room doing a mass imagining! Does everyone have a pen and some paper?
I’m hoping this film may hypnotise you! (it played on repeat). Alternatively, if you are able, I invite you to close your eyes.
We are going to travel, in our imaginations, to 2030. But this is not to be the 2030 of the dystopia we can more readily imagine, but rather a place we hear far less of, the 2030 that turned out OK. I invite you to imagine that the years between now and then are a time of remarkable social transformation, which was unimaginable in early 2020.
I invite you to imagine that a cascade of change was unleashed, some triggered by crises like the Covid-19 Pandemic that reset our patterns of work, travel and showed us how much communities can come together. Other change has been triggered by the School Strikes for Climate, the Sunrise Movement and other local but connected projects and movements across the globe, so that a momentum has built thats became unstoppable. The pressure for this positive change has come from business, from local government, from communities, from schools and universities. A hunger for a new culture has built and spread rapidly after a few global crisis that jolted us into the collaborative action we needed.
Cities have been reimagined, and new relationships exist between rural communities and their nearest towns. As cars were designed out of city centres, huge amounts of space in need of alternative uses has opened up. The change thats unfolded has been underpinned by social, climate and racial justice, community involvement and empowerment, and has been focused on building a new, just, diverse, more resilient economy from the ground up. It’s been a 10 years characterised by remarkable change that future generations will sing great songs about, and tell great tales about the courageous and focused people of this time. It’s a time when we feel we’ve been doing everything we could possibly have done.
Take your imaginations for a walk through the streets, the public spaces, the village community, the High Streets, the city centres, parliament, a community space, the local park, the health centre of this 2030 of your imagining. Use all your senses, what can you see……. feel……touch… smell…..hear…..taste of this future world?
Stay in that moment.
Now you can open your eyes, and I invite you to describe what you saw, to draw or to write, or both, something of what you imagined. The essence of it. Something specific from it. It could be as simple as a word. And if you can, please share it on Twitter, with the tag #SocialDreaming.
You can look at these on Twitter — about 48 people shared something.
And now I want to talk briefly about Bill Sharpe, who created the Three Horizon’s model. Bill talks about the same bit of the brain being activated for imagination as for memory, so there is latent future consciousness. He talks about patterns that connect and are interconnected (rather than systems). And lives that embody those patterns. Someone, somewhere, will already be inventing or even living parts of what you just imagined. Telling the stories of our imagination can induce cognitive priming, causing us to think about something and when we do, we realise that it already exists in pockets.
If we had time now, I’d invite you to take what you imagined and do a backcasting activity, asking “what will get us there….? using this schema:
- Every day …
- Then ONE day …
- Because of that …
- And because of that …
- Until, finally …
This is how I interpret Bill’s “Patterning of Hope.”
The final part
In these last 10 minutes I’m just going to share with you some of the questions I ask myself regularly, to help me navigate through these complex times.
Do you meet people where they are? Or do you believe in their capacity to expand? — I think this is more than just a literal question, at the heart of it is belief. It can be kind and considerate to meet people where they are, but I feel too often that risks keeping people stuck where they are too. Too much kindness without any challenge is naïve; too much challenge without any kindness can be harsh; but when kindness and challenge are combined it can be transformational. I call this structured, ambitious, demanding love and I invite you to work out what that might mean for you.
What beliefs are you bringing to your work? — Maybe this is an obvious thing to say, but how aware are you of the beliefs you bring to the change work you are doing? Do you believe things can change? Do you believe people can change? Do you believe we can find ways through the climate crisis?
As a designer you are likely to have worked across many issues — how are you taking responsibility for making sense of how those things link up? — I spoke earlier about the many different issues I have worked on as a designer, and I’m assuming that is true for many of you in the audience. That’s a real privilege, and also a rare lens that you have access to on the world around you — that you can do something with.
Is the way you are narrating change over-simplifying or perpetuating the same myths? We need to widen the lens of our storytelling — We do too much simplifying, too much flattening, too much individualising in the stories and narratives we tell, and that does a disservice to the nuance and complexity of the challenges we face. It can also suggest that individuals are in some way to blame for their challenging lives, without acknowledging the wider contexts — the structural and systemic reasons why they may face what they do. Based on a framework that the Narrative Initiative designed, I believe we need to move beyond individual stories (stars) and create narratives for the constellations (the stars combined).
Are you designing care into everything? — I’ve written a lot before about Attending to care. The work we need now is the thick, relational, craft of care rather than the thin, transactional work of lean processes. Care has a multiplier effect: it generates resources where there did not appear to be any before. As relationships and care deepen more becomes possible.
To quote Dr Martin Luther King “Such work should be long, because it takes time; broad, because it reaches out; deep because it is about what matters in life and tall, because it aims for higher goals.”
What are you centring in your design work? Centre the collective and design for interdependence (which I have written more about here and here) — this seems more relevant than ever in the face of Covid-19 Pandemic. The characteristics of efficiency, speed, competition and profit have socialised the idea of individualism into the very foundations of our civic and social frameworks and I’d like to ensure that the collective is back at the heart of how we live together.
Connect with your ecosystem because in this interdependent world you are only as good as your ecosystem! This requires being intentional about how you build the field, and about how you are in a network.
Don’t let what the patriarchy offers limit your world — too many people I know have either made their way to where they are though the currency of the patriarchy. UGH. Or they are unable to imagine an entirely different way of being in the world, that isn’t limited by the norms of the patriarchy. I’d suggest some queer magic for everyone.
Be intentional about your role in change — which was obviously the focus of this whole talk!
And Keep Your Word* Self care has been taken to its extremes and we’ve forgotten how important it is to keep your word, to stick with your commitments, to be consistent, to show up when you said you would, to do what you said you would do. That’s how trust and relationships deepen. That’s how we are really there for one another.
So before I end, I’m going to ask each of you to close your eyes one more time.
And to imagine this.
What does it mean and how does it feel to place our lives in each others hands.
I could never have imagined how pertinent that last sentence would be, 12 days on. Take care of each other, everyone.
Thank you to Service Design in Government for having me, and in particular to Sophie and to Jacqui for being so lovely to work with. And to my cheer leading crew who sat in the front row.
People who inspired parts of this talk or whose work I drew on —
- Aurora Levins Morales and her book Medicine Stories.
- A conversation with Geoff Mulgan about social imagination.
- Rob Hopkins work on imagination — and especially his workshop script for guiding people through an imagination.
*I know this is different for people with health conditions or caring responsibilities.