Guest Blog: Five Lessons from The Social Innovation Lab for Kent (SILK)

By Emma Barrett Palmer

5 Lessons from SILK

At a secondary school in Guadeloupe, Caribbean (2004): Why don’t you work together? … Well, we just never have. Dominican students sit on that table. Students from Martinique sit on that table. Students from Guadeloupe sit on this table.

Ten years later in Kent, UK (2014): Why don’t you work together? … Well, we try to. But Care Managers are in that building. Nurses work from that hospital. Teachers are in the Schools and Police are down the road.

This is the context in which SILK works. Lots of great people… working separately.

I have been in the founding team since 2007 and coordinating the SILK work programme since 2009.

Initially with a primary aim to reconnect people’s day to day life experiences to policy makers, the Social Innovation Lab for Kent was, and still is, an experiment in doing things differently, from within a government setting.

7 years since inception, SILK is going from strength to strength. Our current work programme to develop Kent as a Dementia Friendly Community is a true whole systems approach to change. This involves people living with dementia and their families and carers at the heart of a county wide approach involving emergency services, GP surgeries, pharmacies, schools and colleges, museums, libraries, high street shops and markets.

SILK is not your traditional ‘Lab’. We don’t have a white room; rather, as observed by our resident Mental Health Nurse, our ‘Lab’ is the community of Kent, a region of 1.4m people South East of London. We have 3 permanent members of staff and a rolling project team currently with experience in nursing and mental health, domestic violence and policing, social care quality and commissioning and hotel and event management. The team is agile, intuitive, responsive, smart and well-connected, and significantly part of a diverse network which includes specialists and generalists from all fields in both a professional and informal voluntary capacity.

Our Starting With People Methodology, and Method Deck, inspired by design-thinking and informed by two demonstration projects in 2007, have remained reassuringly the same, in an ever changing landscape. Yet, significantly, what was designed as a Planning Tool, we are now primarily using to record and capture the participatory process – ‘the how’ – after it has happened.

The Diamond Framework can be adapted to suit initiatives across Strategy, Service Design and Sustainable activity, providing a consistent structure. However, deep down we are fierce advocates of the Blank Canvas approach. We have never needed the Method Deck to kickstart a community meeting!

5 Lessons from SILK

1. Organic and adaptable – freedom to change
SILK is demand-led; it becomes what we need it to be. Editing films, designing websites, hosting events, telling stories, making cakes, publishing books, chairing board meetings, remodelling services, writing reports, translating terminology and making connections. Every project we do involves people with direct lived experience participating alongside us. If others want to do the task in hand, we step out the way.

2. Keeping it real and making it relevant
We are exploring difficult issues alongside the people that know them best. The team’s resilience is always reenergised and reinvigorated by the stories we hear and the support we get from the inspirational people we work alongside. Our role is to make sure these voices are heard, listened to and influential.

Each project becomes a shared experience; identifying weaknesses but then opportunities to make it better. Our role is as facilitators and translators, but also to keep the aspiration alive. How can we make this work? “Are we allowed to do this?” we were asked by a community group setting up R Shop.

3. Everyone as an equal contributor
We don’t want our work to reinforce labels about ‘us and them’. We aim to put the whole system under the spotlight, that includes reflection on institutional systems as much as community analysis. Labs present a huge opportunity for whole system reflection – at SILK we are walking a fine tightrope between cultures and organisational systems, listening and translating. A common language is a critical in enabling a common ground for equal participation. The word ‘contributor’ is used deliberately. We want people involved who will genuinely add value; we work with a coalition of the willing, we don’t bang on closed doors.

4. New collaborations – new perspectives

The award-winning Dementia Diaries looks at Dementia from the perspective of young carers, grandchildren who have family members living with dementia. Working across cultural boundaries, bringing together diverse groups and challenging perspectives can be hard. But the results can also be spectacular. The Dementia Diaries Editorial Board includes all participating grandchildren and families – find a recent article here

5. Always whole system

The holistic whole systems approach is a more efficient and effective use of everyone’s resources.
But again it is difficult not to belong to any gang – the designers, the anthropologists, the systems thinkers, the innovation specialists. We’re not social workers, housing officers, community development workers, teachers; the role we play as yet has no description. But there are people who ‘get it’ because it makes sense.

#StartingwithPeople is our strap line. We are perfecting the art of getting people to work well together. By seeing people as assets, as people with likes and dislikes and not merely illnesses or problems, starts to reorganise people away from hierarchies, silos and duplication, towards a ‘Lab model which cuts horizontally across discipline and sector boundaries. SILK is a Lab with humanity at its heart – we are revealing a priceless economy.

Click here to learn more about SILK