Q: How can a local council be ten times better without increasing their budget?
This was the central question that sparked a new approach to tackling local challenges in Cornwall. The answer: to work with the public in more creative ways.
Andrea Siodmok is Chief Designer for service design and innovation at Cornwall Council, an unusual role in the social and service design world, but one intended to help design public services with citizens’ future needs in mind. Having led a Design Council programme on developing local services and increasing social productivity in Cornwall (Dott Cornwall), Andrea joined the Council in 2011 to help embed design-led innovation in the local authority itself.
Cornwall is facing some serious challenges. Beautiful tourist filled beaches sit cheek-by-jowl with areas of isolation and deprivation. The population is ageing and there isn’t sufficient money from traditional sources to meet future needs without reform. Some of the old traditional industries have disappeared. Environmental challenges are looming on the horizon.
Needless to say, Cornwall is not alone in facing these sorts of challenges, local authorities in many other parts of the UK are grappling with similar problems. The extreme nature of these problems requires radicalism in response, but where do you turn for radical ideas? Cornwall’s answer was to build design capacity, starting with hiring a designer. And her answer was, among other things, to open up the problems the council traditionally would manage on its own to the wider public.
Although Andrea has been working on projects across the Council – helping inject design expertise in different directorates where needed – this talk focussed on one particular project, called Shaped By Us. Part of the ‘Creative Councils’ programme, the project aims to identify and solve public challenges by harnessing the ideas and resourcefulness of the community – public, private, and third sector, and citizens.
The team started with the councillors, asking them to identify one challenge they would like to tackle. This same question was then posed to council staff, and answers were placed on a wall of post-its – which were left in public view. The responses ranged from Cornwall-wide to local, from annoyances to problems of democracy: ‘how do we stop seagulls attacking rubbish?’, ‘how do we keep young people in local villages?’, ‘how do we stop inappropriate coastal developments?’.
The team shared these questions with local people to build ideas and potential solutions. Some were printed on posters and banners in places where people gathered: in one instance they suspended them on helium balloons in the city centre. A project website invited further contributions, getting users to add their own challenges: what problem would you like to see solved? Teams – in many cases made up of people who had never before met – coalesced around some of the challenges posted online, and pitched for funding (from the Council and partners) at a community innovation awards ceremony: a sort of angel’s den.
This kind of shift in engagement may be seen as risky. Financially, the risk has been offset by support from Nesta and the LGA through the creative councils programme. But politically, whilst working with the public on new solutions may genuinely lead to better outcomes for all, when everyone knows money is tight it risks looking like devolution through necessity rather than mutual consent. However, in this case the project’s independent political position has helped build public trust and prevent it becoming associated with any particular ideology or vested interest. The materiality of the engagement has been crucial in this, partly for setting a different tone: this was not business as usual. The engagement with citizens was more ethnographic and ‘designerly’, steering away from traditional clipboards and questionnaires. The original wall of post-its was arranged as giant map of Cornwall. The helium balloons were bizarre and curious. Two huge white armchairs positioned outside Asda invited people to sit down and talk. A ‘talkeoke’ at the Royal Cornwall Show triggered conversations between strangers.
The approach – open and citizen-centred – intentionally sought to build bridges across the public, private and third sector, and the media response was incredibly positive. The Dott evaluation showed the public loved it too – seemingly not too disheartened by the fact that not every idea was progressed.
But so much for the engagement. What have the outcomes been? Out of hundreds of ideas that were produced, five key themes were established and developed further. And out of these, three have been helped with business plans, a team, and initial funding, including Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network, Shop by Layby and St Austell Market House. There were also those that failed to galvanise enough support – or were victims of recession – and fell by the wayside, as might be expected. Perhaps the most interesting outcome – in terms of what other regions can take away from this project – is that the Shaped By Us website now has national ambitions. The team have secured external investment to help it become a hub for crowd-sourcing ideas across the UK. A crowd-funding function is also in the pipeline, hoping to attract investors willing to kick-start community entrepreneurs.
Social design practice in local government is relatively new for everyone: designers and policymakers. Andrea’s concluding thoughts on what design can do in that context was as follows:
- It can help the council to talk to people and engage them before coming up with a solution.
- It can get people to co-own the problem, which prepares them to be part of the solution.
- It can be risky, using prototyping early in projects to inform decisions.
- It can reduce the cost by being radically better.
Unlike (perhaps) some other design practices, social design has to be humble. It involves asking naïve questions, and helping people working together to build better ideas. And it manifests itself in very subtle ways sometimes, recognising that material touchpoints speak socially. The coat hanger that you can’t remove from the hotel room suggests you aren’t to be trusted. CCTV cameras are not typically associated with growing social capital.
To do social design well requires an intensity of knowledge and experience. It may look easy, and sometimes playful, but it is clear, for example, that decisions around modes of engagement were very finely judged – or perhaps intuited. And in order to strengthen and mainstream this working method within the council, the team have needed to understand what it displaces, and how to both integrate and develop a mainstream approach to innovation. They call this ‘Thinking Room’- making good ideas happen. This has allowed the Council to accumulate hundreds of tools for co-design, and has helped Andrea to spread acceptance of the design method, and not least the idea that is encapsulated in ‘smart failure’. Whilst early experiments may fail, the insights gleaned from trying things out can ultimately lead to more certain success.
See Andrea’s presentation here: