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Design Thinking Design UK Welfare

'Design is powerful because it can communicate across cultures' – Participle founder on how design thinking can fix the welfare state


By Natalie Mortimer, N/A

February 17, 2016 | 4 min read

Design principles are helping to build a welfare state fit for the 21st century, according to Participle founder Hilary Cottam.

An ageing population, poverty and unemployment are just some of the issues plaguing society today, but the policies created in post-war Britain to fix these problems and traditional methods are just not working. Until now.

A 10-year project to fix the broken welfare state, Participle, is applying design thinking to turn things around.

When the Social Insurance and Allied Services report by William Beveridge in 1942 set up the welfare state it initially transformed Britain, leading to longer life spans, better health, universal education and safety for those out of employment. But fast forward to today and an ageing population and health issues caused by lifestyle choices are crippling the government; the model of the welfare state just doesn’t work.

To challenge this, social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam set up Participle, a social enterprise comprised of people from different disciplines all working to apply design thinking to create new types of public services that place people at the heart. The organisation has worked with all types of people from those in entrenched poverty (third generation) to those who are out of work and seeking employment.

Speaking to The Drum at the 2016 Design Indaba in Cape Town, Cottam explained why design thinking is able to create social change in a way that we haven’t seen before.

“Design and the design process provides a common language for people from different disciplines to work together,” she said. “The world’s problems are very complex and you need very different disciplines to come together; I think design can provide context and an approach. I work with policy makers – my team isn’t just designers – and I think the way it can bring that together is very important.”

One project created out of what Participle has dubbed Beveridge 4.0 is Circle: a system for older people that helps with both practical issues and loneliness. It uses a technology platform that enables a small local team to respond on demand and connect members to each other. As it has limited overheads – no buildings, vehicles, etc – it has turned traditional business models on their heads.

And it seems to be working. Visits to the doctor have fallen by 70 per cent in areas where Circle operates, as elderly people that were once lonely find that a new social life has opened up for them.

“The other thing that I think is really powerful is a visual way of working that uncovers different attitudes and complexities,” said Cottam. “Too often, we try to solve social problems from the top down and think, ‘this is how the world should be’ – and actually, we need to start with people’s lives and really understand that reality. The design process philosophy and visual nature is just critical for that.”

In the healthcare sector Participle applied its design process to create Wellogram to address lifestyle related chronic diseases. The social enterprise asked people to share how they lived their lives; what they ate, who they spent time with and what they did. The focus is a Wellogram Guide, a person who takes the time to understand a person’s motivation for change, facilitating and supporting them to take meaningful actions. In the three GP practices where it was rolled out, 75 per cent of members lost weight, and of those who smoked 75 per cent quit successfully.

“Design is powerful because it can communicate across cultures,” added Cottam. “Increasingly it’s a generational thing: we all have Instagram, we are all communicating in images so it just seems so second nature. The idea now that we can change the world through a Beveridge report, that day has gone.”

Design Thinking Design UK Welfare

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