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How good design can help tackle the big issues

Words: Cat Drew
Healthy city

'Whole system' design has an important role to play in helping policymakers and practitioners address social challenges such as homelessness, crime and in-work poverty, says Cat Drew

Often the first thing that springs to mind when someone says the word design is something physical: a beautifully designed chair, a provocative advertising campaign or an amazing feat of engineering in the form of a bridge or skyscraper.

But great design is also about the things you can’t see: behind the scenes processes that make organisations more efficient; the experience of a service that feels effortless and a pleasure to use; social challenges that have been solved or – better still – prevented from appearing in the first place.

So, as well as designing the built environment, we can also design public services and businesses to help tackle social challenges in the community. 

‘Designing’ as a method works here because it involves starting with understanding people’s experiences of an issue or a place. It looks at both challenges and aspirations, and designs ways to support, solve or achieve them. Different design disciplines will all tackle a brief in a different way and, because today’s challenges are quite complex, we often need more than one solution that spans buildings, services, businesses and homes. We call this ‘whole system design’.

Here are examples showing how different types of design are being used to tackle three challenging social problems: homelessness, rises in obesity and crime. 

1. Homelessness

Service design: As part of the new Homelessness Reduction Act (which placed greater responsibility on local councils to prevent homelessness), Uscreates (now FutureGov) worked with the housing options team in Lewisham council to understand how their services were experienced by those threatened with eviction. They worked with them to design and develop more welcoming conversations where people could build trust with the council officers more quickly and make joint plans for what they could do to avoid eviction or find alternative accommodation.  

Infrastructure design:  Chris Hildrey, designer in residence at the Design Museum, identified that not having a permanent address was stopping people from opening bank accounts or had a stigma associated with it that was preventing people getting jobs – all of which trapped them in homelessness. He designed a system of proxy addresses – vacant or unused addresses ‘loaned’ to homeless people to use in order to open a bank account or apply for a job – while the postal service re-routes them to their temporary accommodation, allowing them to access bank accounts, get jobs, and move on their lives. 

Architecture: Around the world, from Marseille to Boston, architecture studios have been using well-planned and carefully considered modular construction to create temporary accommodation for homeless people (often on sites awaiting regeneration). A far cry from poorly converted shipping containers, the best examples, such as Place Ladywell in Lewisham or the Dignity Village in Oregon, have designed the experience and services for people living there to support them into employment and better health.

2. Lack of physical activity and rise in obesity

Architecture and the built environment: The Design Council's Active by Design guide has looked into the ways the urban environment can encourage physical activity. For example, lots of places are transforming urban centres to be more cycle friendly, from Brighton to Los Angeles, and new data tools have been designed to identify which roads would lead to greatest cycling conversion, if made bike-friendly. In Bogota and Medellin in Colombia, they cordon off the streets to cars on Sundays to encourage whole-family cycling, and Copenhagen and Melbourne have introduced ‘green-wave’ cycle paths ensuring that cyclists hit a string of green lights in rush-hour if they keep to a set speed. There are also clever tactics for encouraging people to use the stairs (while ensuring there is always accessible alternatives), for example making them musical in Sweden https://www.designoftheworld.com/piano-stairs/, or putting them in prominent positions at the MOMA in New York. 

Public services: Sport England is supporting 12 local areas across the UK to take a ‘whole place’ approach to increasing physical activity. This means thinking through what all organisations can do to increase physical activity, not just the leisure centre. 

In Calderdale, West Yorkshire, adult social care services used design to think through how they could increase physical activity among their residents. Their first idea had been to use idle transport to take people from the care home to activities but through spending time with residents and understanding what the residents wanted, they started to build physical activity into their everyday routines. 

The Good Gym is another well designed service that takes a different approach. It is a network of volunteers who combine exercise with doing good deeds for the community, whether it’s having a cup of tea with a person in later life, or fixing a playground wall. It also has a beautifully designed digital experience, allowing people to cheer others on and motivate them to take part. 

3. Crime

‘Designing out crime’ has been a term in use by UK police forces since the 1970s and, in 2008, the Design Council ran a ‘designing out crime’ programme, which looked at different ways that design could prevent wrongdoing. 

Architecture and the built environment: In Sydney, Australia, the area of Kings Cross was a notorious late-night drinking spot. So many bars kicking hundreds of people out at the same time was resulting in lots of drunken aggression. A conventional response might have been tightening security and enforcing earlier closing times. But students at the Designing Out Crime Research Centre unit flipped things around and turned challenges into opportunities. Instead of cracking down on crime, they imagined that Kings Cross was the world’s best music festival and designed ‘unconscious sobering’ areas of lit chill-out seating, food vans and toilets on the way to the station, increased the number of buses, and allowed some bars to stay open even later. The result was a huge reduction in crime through seeing the problem through a different lens and working with bar owners rather than against them. 

Services: Policy Lab is the UK government’s team to bring design into the heart of policymaking. It supported Surrey Police to design an online crime reporting service, which was estimated to save £3.7 million and 180,000 officer hours when rolled out nationally, as it now is. Interestingly, it was assumed that this service would only be for ‘lower level’ crimes, but after spending time with victims, it became clear that it would be valuable for those suffering domestic abuse as they could report crime without anyone hearing. 

All too often, the design of the built environment doesn’t fully consider the design of the spaces in between the buildings: the services that support the people living there, and the businesses that employ them and offer fun, cultural and leisure activities. This piece has identified many brilliant individual examples, but imagine if the design of our towns and cities used a ‘whole system’ approach, with all types of design focused on tackling the most prominent issues from a myriad of angles. Whatever the challenge, from revitalising the high street to future-proofing against climate change, design has many answers. 

Cat Drew is chief design officer for the Design Council