Posts Tagged ‘design’


coproduction and communes

February 24, 2009

lewes-poundwhen I was out in LA I managed to fit in a catch-up lunch with John Thackara, whose book In the Bubble was a real source of inspiration for me when it was published a couple of years ago. Our conversation turned from sustainable design to communes, as we turned over the question of what tools and support people need in order to make it easier to share resources. Wannastartacommune is an inspired site, from its name to its content, on this question.This isn’t about ethereal or abstract debates about the principles of coproduction, but rather, simple legal, technological and practical issues that might enable groups of older people to pool assets in order to make them go further, for example.

And so to the bulk-buying project that has grown out of our Just Coping work in SILK. We’re currently working with the Digital Inclusion Team at CLG to business case an idea from our workshops with residents of the Parkwood Estate in Kent to make it easier for people to club together to buy stuff they need – simple, but genius, and it has the potential to make everyday life much better.

I was mentioning this project this morning when I met up with the new economics foundation. They are doing some fantastic work on coproduction and sharing resources. This pamphlet, by their new head of social policy Anna Coote, is a piece of original thinking that connects up the agenda around sharing resources for environmental and social reasons. nef are building a really interesting set of projects exploring different aspects of how to put coproduction into action. Just a few examples of this include:

Work on alternative currencies. The picture on this blog is of the ‘Lewes pound’ – an currency that John Thackara alerted me to, and designed to incentivise Lewes residents to shop locally. L from nef also told me about other areas who are developing alternative currencies, not only to support local businesses, but also to facilitate timebanking and to put a value on non-monetary resources people can contribute to their communities – for example Brixton should be getting their own pound later this year.

Work on procurement and commissioning models. There’s an essay about nef’s work with Camden on this issue in the pamphlet I’ve been editing for IDeA – will post this up once it’s launched at the end of March. Other councils such as Kirklees are also trying to find ways of embedding the principles of coproduction into the way in which they commission services – no mean feat. This is the detail where the devil resides. If we don’t get it right coproduction will remain a thinktank idea rather than a practical agenda.

Work on measuring value and impact. There are various models out there for measuring impact at an individual level – not least the stuff on ‘my metrics’ that J and I wrote about in Journey to the Interface – but the real prize will be in helping local councils and other public service organisations measure value from coproduction models in new ways. There’s a real tension between trying to monetise or turn everything into numbers to make measurement easier, and asserting that some value just can’t be converted in this way. Again, nef’s work on the social return on investment is pretty advanced here, but there’s lots more to be done.

Work on the core values of coproduction. One of the things we discussed this morning is the fact that it’s too easy for the underlying value system of coproduction (about mutuality, respect, recognition) to get lost in its translation to a ‘mainstream’ political agenda – see for example what has happened with self-directed support, which too often is simply seen as individual budgets. In my view, the only way we can come up with a credible and authentic account of what coproduction means is to draw on emerging practice across many sectors, from housing to social care to policing. How can we connect people together who are pioneering in this field, in order to give them even more rocket fuel to keep going?


bruno latour on design

February 20, 2009

it’s been a bit quiet on sparkthinking recently thanks to a holiday I’m nearly at the end of in Los Angeles. What a place! I’m not sure I like it very much – very taken aback (naively so, I suspect) at the reliance on cars, the extent of huge shopping malls – all lit up and air conditioned, the sheer weight of expectations to consume of the place – so despite marvellous company and a fun week, I haven’t been converted to LA life. in fact if anything it has given even more solidity to a sense I’ve had for a while that I want to simplify life and pare things right down to what’s actually important when I get home. watch this space on that front…

anyway, I’ve spent a bit of time here thinking through what’s going to go into the pamphlet I’m doing with the RSA on social design, service design and the future of design education, and as part of that I’ve been reading a fairly impenetrable piece by sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour. It’s a paper he gave to a design research conference last year, and for me it brings out two key themes that will feature in my own pamphlet.

First, the need for design ethics these days. As Latour says

By expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers take up the mantle of morality as well

This is certainly a theme that has come up in my interviews with design tutors and some of the students: if designers are serious about applying their skills to social challenges then they have to accept that there are ethical and moral dimensions to this work, and that their own activity has impacts that they should think through carefully in advance. Yet design courses have little to say about ethics currently – all the more striking when you compare design to other disciplines interested in achieving social change – in subjects such as psychology, or anthropology, or even political sciences, ethics features heavily and is taken very seriously.

The second theme that I thought Latour’s piece brought out well was about representations and communication of design work. Latour is interested in how design can do more to represent the complexity of real life, rather than objects in a vacuum:

Design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing practical skills for drawing objects… but what has always been missing from these marvellous drawings… are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stakeholders that are born within these.

Many of the students I’ve interviewed raise this question of how to represent complex social or service-based design work. We don’t yet have a language that’s developed enough in this sphere and it seems to me that it’s a prime area for further development in design research.


vote for us!

January 29, 2009

dadsOK, so the Social Innovation Lab for Kent not only has an official place on Kent County Council’s website now, but it has also been shortlisted for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award. They have a public poll and I’ll love you forever if you follow these instructions and go and vote!

First, go to the public polling site here.

Then go to the Graphic Design section, then click on the ‘More answers’ link at the bottom right of the large grey box until you see the ‘Social Innovation Lab for Kent’ box. Still with me? then all you need to do is click on the link to VOTE

One interesting reflection on where service design is at in the design world more generally here too: the fact that we are in the graphics section of the award doesn’t really do justice to the project that’s been nominated. It was the work Kent and Engine did with dads in Sheerness, to help the Children’s Centre there create services that help dads to connect with their kids better. There doesn’t really seem to be a category that can cope with this kind of social or service design – so despite a lively and growing community, there’s still a way to go before the significance of design in these contexts is fully understood or recognised.


genius cycling idea

January 25, 2009

picture-21i’ve just started cycling again, and I am scared, very scared. Thanks to JW for highlighting this brilliant idea of a portable cycling lane…

and while I’m on transport, I can’t recommend the newly done-up London Transport Museum enough. Spent a very enjoyable afternoon there yesterday amidst some dodgy waxworks and old tube carriages.


history is the past, the present and the future…

January 9, 2009

until very recently I hadn’t been aware of a movement called ‘public history‘ – it’s more developed in the US than here, but by all accounts it’s growing. What characterises this movement? Well, other than an unwillingness to be pinned down by a rigid definition too much, there seem to be some characteristics to the debate about history which are strikingly similar to current debates raging within the design profession.

So public history – which emphasises a democratisation of knowledge, and doesn’t elevate the academic historian’s reading of events over public interpretations – is history’s equivalent of the service design and transformation design movement. In both cases, the significance of public participation and reflective practice challenge notions of what it means to be a ‘professional designer’ or an ‘academic historian’. In both disciplines, such arguments have ignited fierce debates, and just as service design is sometimes trashed as non-design, so too is public history sometimes regarded with suspicion by academics.

Beyond this, public history demands new forms of collaboration and communication: to engage the public, how historians work with museums, archives, TV (thank you Mr Schama), and other institutions becomes central to the project. It is here that the practice of history is potentially deeply political and connected to emotive issues like the formation of national identity. Tristram Hunt is my favourite writer on this stuff, and his article here on the teaching of history unpacks this stuff better than I ever can. As he says:

as society changes, so does its relationship with the past.

Finally, there is of course a rich debate about how policy makers and politicians could do more to engage with lessons from history. Blair was a fan of referring to history (now is not the time for soundbites… I feel the hand of history.. etc) but to what extent are today’s people of government really engaging with the past? More on this in a fab interview with John Tosh here, a so-so conference speech by Frank Field here, and the best resource on this, set up around the time of the first invasions into Iraq, is the History and Policy site. Makes me long to be a historian again.


a good day…

November 27, 2008

Well, today has been a good day… we found out that Engine and the Social Innovation Lab for Kent have been shortlisted for the Brit Design Awards of the year. Even if we don’t win, that means that we get a place in the exhibition at the Design Museum in the new year… hurrah to that! We’ve been shortlisted for a great piece of work that the guys at Engine did with Caroline and Vicky exploring how dads could be better supported by the children’s centre down in Sheerness. It that emerged out of the Just Coping project I’ve blogged about here. Hurrah all round! As soon as SILKweb is live, I’ll be posting more about this… in the meantime, here’s a short video the team made with John Fowler, the director of Seashells children’s centre:

And while we’re on films, I’ve also been sent a little taster clip of Us Now, a film I participated in. You can watch it here. As the producer of the film says:

“Us Now is a ground-breaking documentary project about the power of mass collaboration, the internet and its potential impact on society. Directed by Ivo Gormley, the film explores how the web is changing the ways we can organize ourselves. From a democratic football club where the fans pick the team to a lending service where everyone can be a bank manager, Us Now tells the story of new technology through human eyes, and for the first time brings together the leading thinkers in the field of participation and web culture to describe how mass collaboration could change society.”

There are two preview screenings coming up. One on the 3rd December at the RSA, and one on the 10th December at the smelly but cheap Prince Charles cinema. The team behind the project have also been kind enough to post all the contributions so that others can make their own version of the film. Hats off to the wonderful thinkpublic for supporting the venture.


reflections on visiting prisons so far

November 23, 2008

I’m doing a small piece of work at the moment with the design team at the RSA on prisons, looking in particular at the experience families have of visiting their loved ones when they’re inside. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited about my trip to Newcastle tomorrow to meet the students at Northumbria University who are participating in the project. So I thought I’d get my thoughts in order about what I saw when I went to HMP Wandsworth last week.

The thing I find most shocking is that visits are still part of behaviour incentive programmes at many prisons – in other words, you get fewer visits if you behave badly. This surely flies in the face of large amounts of evidence that maintaining family ties is key to reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Having seen how visits work now I am stunned that anyone can keep any semblance of family life going with two hourly visits a month – so to make them part of an incentive programme seems plain bonkers to me.

Still, the demands on the family members themselves are almost certainly enough to put people off visiting. Once you’ve gone through the rigmarole of securing a visit (not every prison has an email facility yet, and many have just one phone line that is not always staffed), each visit lasts between an hour and two hours, depending on how busy the prison is. But often prisoners are not near home – they get moved around quite regularly to prevent them from forming relationships (hmm, positive relationships are another factor in reducing reoffending so here’s another perverse thing) – meaning that families often have to travel a long way, at some considerable expense, to even get there in the first place.

Once they arrive, they go to the visitor’s centre, usually housed outside the prison walls and run by excellent organisations like PACT. From here they are walked over to the prison, checked in – you cannot take anything into the visits hall except baby food and loose change to buy refreshments – and then taken to the holding room. Here all the visitors are lined up, and searched by officers and by dogs. At the prison I went to last week this holding room was probably the most depressing place I’ve been to for a long time: broken chairs, a stench from overflowing toilets, no tables or anything to occupy kids during the waiting game. Once inside the visits hall, visitors are allocated a table, and the prisoners are brought up from the cells. Prisoners must stay sitting and cannot move around during the visit.

Once the visit is over, the visitors are escorted back to the holding room. From here they are taken out in small groups, back to the visitors centre to collect their stuff and then back into the real world. Depressing stuff.

Still, it’s not all bad. The PACT staff I’ve met treat visitors and prisoners with genuine respect. In fact, the person who showed us round last week worked hard to correct many of the Daily Mail-esque attitudes of some of the students towards prisoners, reminding the group that ‘life’s tough and shit happens: prisoners and their families are no different to us, they’re just people, they’re not evil and sometimes things just happen’. Some officers clearly work hard to make the visit as positive as possible; however many still struggle with an institutionalised mindset that sees visits as ‘soft’.

It seems to me that visits are woefully under-used and undervalued as part of the process of rehabilitating the vast majority of prisoners who will be released again. No use is made of the time to help prisoners and their partners renegotiate their relationships, to deal with the anger that is likely to have been caused by getting banged up. There are erratic links made to advisory services who could help couples work out issues around housing, benefits, jobs and skills together. I hope that the students participating in this project spot those as opportunities and make some suggestions about this.

Finally, so what did the design students think of the visit? ‘It surprised me’ said one. Another said ‘it felt like being in a hospital – like you shouldn’t be there, that you couldn’t touch anything’. Still, reflecting on their decision to get involved in the project, most of them were resoundingly positive, feeling that it had really challenged their design skills, and, my favourite comment of all, ‘it’s made me think about whether I want to design more crap stuff for people to buy and then throw away’. Hurrah for that.