Evolving design practice: on radio

Cat Drew
Cat Drew
Oct 21 · 9 min read

BBC The Fix, the BBC Radio 4 programme that takes a design approach to tricky social problems, is back for its third season. As per a design approach, we are always iterating and evolving it, and this blog sets out what 2020’s episodes will feel like (but you’ll have to wait for the fixes themselves!).

As a reminder, BBC The Fix came about because the BBC were interested in ‘solution journalism’: doing a programme about possible alternatives rather than current problems. They asked Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, whose role it is to spread good ideas, to present it. And they asked me, now Chief Design Officer at Design Council, to use design to bridge creativity and action.

Introducing the participants to this year’s The Fix at Participatory City’s Warehouse HQ

This year, we wanted to focus in on just one topic and give the different design stages more airtime. The topic is problem debt in Barking & Dagenham, the second most deprived borough in London. For those affected, the situation is dire. Whether it happens quickly after an unexpected event — such as a job loss, bereavement, health problem, or unexpected extra expense — or builds up slowly over time, debt is exacerbated by stigma which prevents people from asking for help and by easy access to high interest credit, which can lead to a spiral of more debt and mental health problems. And it’s a problem that could easily be our own. Around 40% of people in the UK have less than £100 savings (FCA Financial Lives Survey, 2017) and the ONS revealed that British household finances are among the most indebted in major western countries, although in many cases it is ‘good debt’ in the form of mortgages. Bigger forces at play of consumerism mean that many of us are living beyond our means.

This year, we spread the episodes out.

Episode 1 was about ‘discovery’. We spent time with people experiencing problem debt and with frontline staff trying to support them to get to the heart of the issue and to understand the good stuff that is already going on in the borough. This included the Homes and Money Hub, which provides residents with financial advice and support, and the Community Food Club, where residents pay a small amount for food tokens, which also entitle them to support services.

Episode 2 was the buzzing co-design workshop, where we brought together people who were not experts on debt but came from different backgrounds to bring fresh perspectives to the challenge and come up with ideas. This year we had a policymaker, ethnographer, teacher, fintech specialist, data expert, architect, fashion designer, branding expert and urban spacemaker. The teams were expertly led by Lil Adair from FutureGov and Rebecca Ford from the RSA. This time we were hosted at the Warehouse by Participatory City, which provided much inspiration and context for the ideas.

Episode 3 will be recorded later, once we have actually tested out (or prototyped) the ideas in a real situation. It was for that reason we reached out to Barking & Dagenham. They absolutely have a challenge with residents in debt, but they are also one of the most-forward thinking councils and actively looking for new ideas and doing things differently.

Very early stage prototyping to explore what could be

Some reflections from me about the process:

Being able to spend time with people experiencing debt was of course invaluable. Listening to Audie going through her outgoings with a debt advisor who ended up saying “it doesn’t look like you can spend any less that you are” and then giving her three weeks’ worth of £60 food vouchers to set against a debt of over £2,000 makes you realise that radical solutions are needed rather than tinkering with the existing system.

We recorded her story and played it to the teams at the start of the co-design day. Firstly, there is something much more powerful about listening to someone’s personal story rather than reading an aggregated persona that a user researcher has put together. Recently there has been such an increase in user research through the Government DOS commissioning system, which on one hand is great, as its embedding people centred design into policymaking, but on the other hand has ended up in loads of slide decks with icons and high-level hypothetical quotes. Secondly, the act of listening is a different experience to viewing. You just listen more carefully if there is nothing visual to stimulate you/distract you from the words. As Lil and I discovered when we played sections of The Fix at the Service Design Global Conference in Dublin last year. Radio and service design are closer buddies than we think!

The power of listening to people’s stories — more powerful than a persona!

Co-design versus design leadership (inspired by Jennie Winhall)

There is a theoretical debate between design thinking and design leadership. The former focuses on user needs and responding to those, the latter is more provocative and requires someone to suggest a different alternative which challenges existing mindsets (e.g. the Henry Ford quote which says “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”). And you also have community design practitioners who provide loads of great examples (which trump theory) of how communities themselves know what is best for them.

The question is, design leadership from where? We sense that the best ideas come from people experiencing issues, but they often don’t go anywhere, having at best been developed but then resisted or at worst surfaced and then dismissed.

Design leadership needs to feel less ‘design’. It needs to open up the time and space for communities and service providers/commissioners to build trust, listen properly and dig down into those underlying social structures — the rules, mindsets and beliefs — that underpin our current system and that otherwise might resist/shut down new ways of doing things that poke up from communities (and I use poke intentionally, because it often feels that way).

It’s quite hard to do this in the confines of a workshop setting, and although it is often a necessary place and time for people to come together, there is so much more that sits around it — to prepare the groundwork, to build the relationships, to help people actually question and challenge the rules. Indeed, the insight that led to one of the ideas came about through a conversation over lunch, rather than in any workshop-based activity.

Given we had such a tricky issue, a borough full of innovation already and a greater awareness about systems and power, we had our work cut out. We had to get the teams to think differently. So, in this series, we used some systemic design approaches and techniques, inspired by work with Jennie Winhall, The Point People and Tessy Britton (who founded Participatory City):

  • Ask the teams to dig down into the underlying mindsets and values that was causing problem debt to exist or not go away
  • A longer ‘define’ period where teams were asked to reframe either the problem (e.g. focus it down, tackle a root cause) or imagine an alternative way of thinking about the issue (e.g. as an opportunity, using a different metaphor, etc)
  • Inspiration from Tessy Britton about how to generate ideas by combining things that already exist, and giving them an asset map with some of these
  • ‘Change questions’ asking people to think what they would do if ‘they only could use assets that exist already?’, “their superpower was to change mindsets?’, ‘they were John Lewis (or another trusted brand)?’
  • A pitch sheet which prompted them to set out an entirely different vision
  • And of course, by having teams full of people with very different perspectives…

Prototyping and buy-in. But of course, part of the value of a co-design process is to test out whether these ideas will actually work and also to get the buy-in of those who will deliver them. So the next stage is to ‘un-do’ the ideas enough that we can co-design them again with those who will have a hand in delivering them, allowing them to shape them in a way they understand, and also to test the ideas with residents. We’ll do this through prototyping over the next few months with support of the council (and testing out both ideas). Maybe it was because this was clear, but the table-top prototyping worked much better in this series, with the cardboard and paper artefacts not only helping the teams to articulate the ideas to the judges, but through the process of making them, providing further inspiration (including name changes) to the overall concepts.

Whether the ideas stay the same or not doesn’t really matter, so long as they evolve to address the challenge. One of the episodes from last year’s series was around low levels of morale among junior doctors. The winning team’s idea was ‘stories from the shift’. It tackled the specific problem of lack of team continuity and therefore mentoring/coaching (due to limits on shift lengths) by creating a series of shift rituals where teams would be sent some questions before the shift (e.g. ‘what do you want to learn? What are you concerned about?) and after (e.g. ‘who do you want to thank? What are you proud of’) which the team could discuss together, but also could be shared throughout the hospital, in the waiting room ticker tape, a storybooth or local playhouse. Now, dramatisation and surfacing anxiety may have been too much for St Thomas’ but it did prompt them to implement excellent reporting and a culture of celebration, which has contributed to a 20% increase in junior doctors reporting they are satisfied with their jobs compared to last year. So ‘jumping out’ to radical alternatives and working back to what is pragmatic is often better than iteratively improving on what exists already.

Developing relationships and connections. My final reflection is the greater time we gave for personal connections and growth. When I was taking part in the International Futures Forum’s 21st Century Competencies course, I was struck by someone in my group saying it’s funny how we rush straight into the core of a meeting without really getting to know who we’re working with. Of course, workshops are designed around teams forming, storming, norming and performing. But this time we spent a good half hour with the teams sharing five different skills/identities they have, as well as the type of problem solver they are (maker, storyteller, planner, something else). This allowed them to find other connections between themselves and see what role they had to play in the team.

At lunch, Tessy hosted an amazing meal where we all sat down together, in mixed teams with other social enterprises working at the Warehouse. It was a really special moment and reminded me that eating together, away from the ideas, is as important as the ideas themselves. And as I said earlier, this is where the important insights come.

Audie, the person whose testimonial we had heard, had agreed to be on the judging panel. I was so thrilled to see her working with the teams in the afternoon and sitting next to Chris Naylor, the Chief Executive of the Council, assessing each teams’ idea, with Chris deferring to her for the final say. Right now, I can’t tell you what the ideas are, or who has ‘won’, but I will say that Audie is definitely part of the solution.

The judging panel, comprising Audie Brown (customer of the Money Advice Hub), Manny Hothi (Director of Policy, Trust for London), Chris Naylor, (Chief Executive of Barking & Dagenham Council) and Avril McIntyre (Director, Community Resources)
The meal, provided by one of the organisations supported by Every One, Every Day, at Participatory City

Design Council

Making life better by design.

Cat Drew

Written by

Cat Drew

Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, previously FutureGov and Uscreates. Member of The Point People.

Design Council

Making life better by design.

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