Guest post by Hamish Lindop from Aotearoa New Zealand.
I’m currently an Advisor at Auckland Libraries, with a background in education and librarianship. In the last couple of years I have been on a learning journey, starting from the point of how libraries might enable communities, particularly youth, to innovate and tackle local challenges, but morphing into how libraries become connected up organisations to deeply understand local challenges and then collaborate with people, groups and organisations in their community for positive social impact.
It started with conversations with Sam Rye, from Lifehack about how to enable youth innovation. Then, early in 2015, around the time I was looking for a research topic for my final project to complete my Masters in Information Studies, at the suggestion of Sam I read “The Social Labs Revolution”, which had a catalytic effect on my thinking. I had been feeling so weary about the big hairy problems of the world, and nothing seemed to be able to put a dent in them. When I read the book, I saw a practice that could finally speak to complexity, and being a library practitioner at Auckland Libraries, I wanted to see how community libraries could empower communities to develop the capacity to solve their own complex social challenges at community scale, using Social Labs practice.
I discovered Tāmaki Mental Health and Wellbeing Programme through the Design for Social Innovation Symposium 2015, where they held a “surgery” to explore their practice with symposium participants. I wanted to do a case study on the programme because it was underpinned by Hassan’s principles of Social Labs practice, and was a place-based initiative, so it seemed a good fit to explore how a social lab might work in a library. My report had a lightweight case study, which I’ve expanded through recently interviewing Oliver who is one of the key people at the programme.
The Programme’s vision, which was co-designed with the community, is as follows: “Our vision is an experience of mental health and wellbeing focused on the wellness of the whole person in their family, whānau & community, over the whole of their life, supported by integrated services that are relevant to Tāmaki.”
A Proto-Social Lab
We talked about how the programme in its current incarnation is a Service Development Hub, not actually a Social Lab as such. The service development hub has five work streams, each with a design challenge, but not all being tackled simultaneously. The design teams display diversity of perspectives within the health system, for example in one team there is a GP, a consumer representative, a developmental evaluator, a facilitator, and a couple of practice liaison nurses. Oliver also talked about the developmental evaluator “proxying in” user perspective, as she was doing a lot of interviews at the same time. This provides the design teams with rich information about the connection between the way they operate and how this impacts the way people experience the service.
The Hub is funded by Auckland District Health Board (ADHB), and so it is centred on health, but I was interested to see that it seemed like an intermediate step towards a Social Lab that aspires to work at a fully systemic level. The Hub currently only looks at the health bit of the system, so parts of the problem which led away from the health space were initially parked; for example in the framing stage when people told them that housing was one of the things causing them stress, they put it to one side since their current mandate doesn’t cover the housing sector. But one of the current work streams has a design team including representation from Tāmaki Regeneration Company who are strong stakeholders in the housing sector, as well as other stakeholders that are focussed on both the health and social components of their challenge, and this will test the waters for a wider, more systemic engagement.
They used co-design (PDF) a lot in the framing stages, having a co-designed vision which was developed through workshops with the community: 100+ engagements to identify themes, a second round of co-design workshops around idea generation which created 700+ ideas, and 32 high level project proposals. This indicates a strong commitment to empowering the community in the redesign of services which impact them. The co-design of a vision contrasts somewhat from Hassan’s model of defining, within the core team, the challenge that the lab will tackle, and then refining this challenge as stakeholders and potential lab participants are engaged in discussion during the preconditions phase. This “co-design from the outset” distinguishes the Tāmaki Program from the model outlined in Social Labs Revolution to some degree; community are empowered to co-design the framing of the challenge from the very beginning. It echoes the Co-Design Lab team’s concern that a rich diversity of stakeholders be involved very early in the framing of the challenge.
However, Oliver questions himself on how much co-design, validation, and checking is enough, especially as the design process continues over time. There seems to be a tension between doing enough the right amount of those things whilst not exhausting the people they are designing with, with ongoing requests for participation. I was talking to Co-Design Lab about this the other day and they were saying how they try to give the participants something valuable to them for participating, for example for parents of 0-3’s, holding a children’s party gives the parents some space to breath, and makes them more amiable to participation. The Tāmaki Program uses their space in this way, inviting community groups to use the space for a considerable proportion of the time, to build good will.
Oliver talked about what an important part of their practice the developmental evaluator was. She sits in on sessions with the design team, observing, taking notes, and asking key questions to stimulate deeper thinking. She produces 2,000 word summaries after every work session, which the group then reads and reflects on, and this will set the direction for the following session. Things that the evaluator notices can be picked up on and expanded upon through prototyping, for example it might be something small like figuring out the best way to text people, as they’ve received feedback that this is how they’d like to be contacted. Oliver also talked about how as the facilitator he could receive real time feedback that would alter how the session ran; at times the evaluator would take him aside for a few minutes and talk about something that needed addressing, and he’d go back in and adjust accordingly; this seems like a powerful tool to enable the facilitator to keep things on track.
This is a great primer on Developmental Evaluation from JW McConnell Foundation (PDF).
Developing Local Solutions
An interesting aspect of the Tāmaki Mental Health and Wellbeing Lab is its focus on local solutions. The team recognise that solutions need to be tailored to localities which have individual characteristics. When they were talking about what learnings they would take from the lab work, they emphasised how they can learn approaches to designing solutions for communities which are transferrable, but they can’t develop a one-size-fits-all “model” which can be scaled or exported directly to other communities; this would deny the unique characteristics of each community that need to be tailored to and ultimately create a blunt instrument.
This ties in well with the theme of “empowering communities”, in that one sense of empowering communities can be in terms of giving them opportunities to participate in the redesign, through co-design, of the services that they use to best meet their needs; the community can design “radically local” services, so as not to be trapped by “diseconomies of scale” as discussed by O’Donovan and Rubbra (n.d.), where large, one-size-fits-all government services fail to cater to the specific needs of any particular community well.
Oliver talked about an actor’s map being developed by the lab, showing strong and weak connections between primary health care, community organisations, Auckland District Health Board(ADHB), and non-health agencies. He described how this was a human-centred map, with people in the middle, and services around the outside, rather than placing, say, the ADHB at the center of such a map. This builds a picture of the ecosystem of services and organisations that sit around the people of the community.
Shift in Language, Shift in Thinking
When I asked Oliver how important shifting attitudes was in the work of the programme, he said that was “the main stuff”. He talked about how they used the question “is that person centred?” as a cornerstone question to keep coming back to as the group worked together. A change in the language that the team was using was critical to shifting the attitudes, for example “referrals” became “introductions”, where one service provider would introduce a client to another, transferring the relationship to the new provider and giving context to the interaction. He described how later in the process, the group was calling each other out on the language they were using, so it sounds like a culture shift had occurred in some way. We also discussed how people working in the system have to get to understand the user’s perspective experientially. Oliver also described how it felt like they were force feeding human-centred design to a system that “is and isn’t ready”. I wonder if this is the state of play for most service organisations nowadays: there is a recognition of the need for human-centred practice, but considerable attitudinal organisation-centred baggage.
Working with Local Libraries
The team had found from community feedback and observation that local libraries were “a bright spot for inter-service connection”, but when Oliver interviewed Panmure library staff he didn’t see too much of that in relation to health. However library staff did talk about a new collaboration between the library, ADHB, and Plunket, an early childhood service provider, to provide a touchpoint for a seamless support service in the library where mothers ranging from antenatal right up to three years old could come and get support. This sparked an idea for him about shifting Manaaki House, a local community house, from being a place to go just for help from specialist mental health services, to a place where people can go to get support for a wide variety of support for physical or mental health, or social issues, and is an ok place to go and be seen in the community. When I met with the team during my research project we discussed an interesting and previously unforeseen possibility: lab teams wanting to engage local communities could partner with local community libraries to activate them as community co-design spaces for design challenges which would impact that community. The team reflected on the potential to get constant feedback from the community as the lab operated in the library space. This finding is echoed with the Co-Design Lab team, who are exploring ways to work with the local library and use the space to engage the community with codesign on their challenges.
However, when I visited again recently, I think this idea had slipped off the radar a bit, so I brought it up again, discussing the idea of using the library space to engage people in the community. It seemed odd to me that they were offering up their space for community groups, and were paying rent on a space right across the road from the library, when one of the major functions of the community library is to offer space for community groups to meet. “Walk-up” Co-Design activities could be set up so that interested stakeholders could bump into their challenge and engage with it at any time of the day.
Oliver talked about how it’s really difficult to do “intercept” interviews, for example out on the footpath, and this relates back to how the interaction is framed; Mark Buntzen might say that in terms of the SCARF model (PDF), the intercept method may create an “away response” for most people, where they feel intruded upon and therefore less likely to participate willingly. But the library could be potentially a good space to use for engagement because people are coming in and out all the time, and there is an expectation that one will “bump into” new ideas in the library space, and engage with them if they are interested.
Walk up Co-design would be quite different from typical Co-Design workshops, where a group come together in a very focussed way, but instead there would be the advantage of being accessible any time the library is open, and in a high foot traffic space.
One particular interview with a social innovation expert was a turning point for the project. He really challenged the premise of the research project, asking what it was that the strategy of Social Labs was meant to achieve. The point was that it was a strategy, not an outcome, and I had been confusing the two up till that point. After a bit of thought, I managed to articulate that the outcome was actually community empowerment (which I subsequently went back and wrote into the front of the report). He then proceeded to challenge the viability of that strategy to achieve that outcome in that context, and provided other alternatives, such as community asset mapping, open space technology, and so on.
Currently Auckland Libraries is understanding how we can connect with our communities through an iterative feedback loop between the community library and its community, with human-centred design and co-design as enabling tools. I have been thinking about how we could engage with communities in a wider way by infusing service design with soft systems techniques and Theory U to get a rich, multi-perspective, shared understanding of design challenges, and look for ways to develop new services as part of a local service ecosystem, part of an “ecosystem of innovation” as Scharmer suggests in Theory U; It’s not really just about “what would a social lab in a library look like?” anymore although I think the principles that I’m considering are the same as those underpinning Social Labs. Libraries are in a unique position in communities to be the connector between diverse strands; what would it look like to achieve shared understanding and deep collaboration between diverse actors around local design challenges, like supporting early childhood children and parents, enabling youth employment, and more? I’ll be exploring this through u.lab starting in September; what lies for libraries at the bottom of the U?
Thanks to Hamish for sharing his journey into Social Labs and his developing understanding in this space. Picking up on the conclusion, we’d like to add that Social Labs are a strategic response to complex problems, aimed at increasing the likelihood of successfully tackling those problems. Social Labs offer an alternative approach, not just to planning and development, but also to implementation of solutions.