England & Wales Communities and society

Viewpoint: Design for life

Sara Lopez discusses the role of design skills in engaging people in the development of social innovation projects in London and in India.

As one of a team of six MA Industrial Design students, I worked in collaboration with Camden Council and the Public Collaboration Lab (PCL), to find ways of lessening the impacts of overcrowding. It was the first time that I used my design skills to engage with public organisations and real people, so I was very excited to target my work through social innovation.

From the beginning our main challenge was to engage hard to reach residents. Most residents only wanted to know when they would be rehoused. Unfortunately, we could not even guarantee an improvement in their situation in the early stages, let alone being rehoused. That forced us to find different ways to engage residents; to rethink home visits and how to provide support and advice to overcrowded households. We realised our tools needed to be accessible, engaging and useful for residents whilst being insightful to us and the Council.

In the early stages, residents and council officers thought we would redesign their space and build furniture. That was a possibility, but there was no way of knowing if that kind of intervention would be the right thing to do. In most design led social innovation projects there is a phase where we know what we want to do (alleviating the pressures of overcrowding in our case) but we don’t know the best way to do it. It is vital that we listen, observe and interact with residents and service providers to uncover the insights that inform our design briefs.

The questions we asked during our visits were designed to help us understand the residents’ needs and experiences. This helped us to keep the conversation focussed whilst allowing residents to see the solutions that were available for them.

Residents and officers tested tools and gave feedback on how they could be improved during a co-design workshop. We listened to the advice, made some improvements and tested them again and again. These design iterations ensured that the tools were ready to be used by officers and residents.

Overall, it was an intense journey, full of new experiences and lessons. After the hand over to the council, I felt ready to embark on a new social innovation project: this time in the context of social enterprises in India. I set out to discover what design could do in supporting mental health services for students. I again engaged with different stakeholders, developing different research methods and came up with initial design proposals. There was no time to finalise my proposals and the project is now being led by my Indian colleagues.

In India access and support from stakeholders was limited compared to working with Camden. There were barriers such as language, the distances between meetings and site visits. Also being a woman from another country was an obstacle. However, I learned through the same journey of experiences and lessons.

Both these projects have helped me to start my final year thesis, which combines my mental health research in India and my experience of working for public services in Camden.  Over the coming months I am enquiring through design ‘how to improve the users experience of mental health assessment services?’

You can follow my project her www.mindnosis.wordpress.com. Please get in touch if you have any advice or insights that you can share or are interested in my findings and proposals.