Can Design Solve Social Problems?

Can design save the world? Hilary Cottam thinks so.

When Liz Demontford's husband died, her world fell apart. "I was at a loss," recalls the retiree, who lives in Peckham, an impoverished part of London. "Our finances were in a mess, and I didn't know what to do with my time." Enter the Peckham Circle, a prototype nonprofit set up to aid local seniors. It arranged for Demontford to see a financial adviser and to join a gardening project, where she made new friends. She was also given a Webcam to keep in touch with her son and his family, who live in Australia. "I didn't think I'd use it, but now I'm hooked," she says. "I can see my grandson growing up."

The Peckham Circle was an experiment devised for seniors in South London -- providing practical assistance as well as encouraging members to help each other, say, by trading cooking lessons for Internet training. "Many seniors worry about their safety, losing their money, and what to do when the heating breaks down," says Hilary Cottam, founding director of Participle, the self-described "social business" that invented the circles, which will launch in other parts of England starting this month. "The secret of a happy old age is getting on top of the everyday and being networked. The circles can help."

Great idea, but what may be surprising is that Participle isn't a conventional bunch of social workers or do-gooders. It's a design team. Participle's interdisciplinary crew includes anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, and a military-logistics expert, but it is driven by design techniques and headed by Cottam, 42, who also has used such strategies to tackle the shortcomings of Britain's school and health systems. "Hilary's -- and my -- favorite kind of design has to do with making people's lives better, often taking account of their mundane daily concerns," says Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "Her projects not only work, they give people a sense of hope and strength."

Cottam is one of a new wave of design evangelists who are trying to change the world for the better. They believe that many of the institutions and systems set up in the 20th century are failing and that design can help us to build new ones better suited to the demands of this century. Some of these innovators are helping poor people to help themselves by fostering design in developing economies. Others see design as a tool to stave off ecological catastrophe. Then there are the box-breaking thinkers like Cottam, who disregard design's traditional bounds and apply it to social and political problems. Her mission, she says, is "to crack the intractable social issues of our time."

With her plummy voice and cropped dark hair, Cottam is a contemporary incarnation of the indomitable English roses who helped the needy by running 19th-century missionary hospitals and schools. She's uniquely equipped for modern problem solving; as David Kester, CEO of the British government's Design Council puts it, she has a rare ability "to talk with politicians as easily as designers."

Cottam is mounting her campaign from Participle's studio, in an old industrial building near London's Tower Bridge, where the walls are covered with giant sheets of paper bearing plans and lists and photos of people the company has worked with. She founded Participle in 2007 with dotcom entrepreneur Hugo Manassei, innovation strategist Charles Leadbeater, and industrial designer Colin Burns. "It's really important that we have a genuinely interdisciplinary team," explains Cottam. "Design is only ever one tool in the mix, but it brings something very special" -- from an ability to help people articulate their problems to a focus on ingenious solutions.

Cottam's catholic vision may reflect the fact that she's not a designer by training, but a social scientist who happened upon design in her quest for answers. One teacher on her master's course at Sussex University was Robert Chambers, who developed a new approach to rural appraisal in India. "He had this breakthrough idea that if you get people to physically model or draw their ideas, you'll have a different dialogue with them -- more honest and less defensive," says Cottam. "Designers use those tools instinctively."

Her conversion to design-driven thinking was completed after she joined the World Bank in 1993 as an urban-poverty specialist and worked on a project in Zambia. The existing water grid was dilapidated and didn't reach Zambia's fast-expanding urban areas. The bank planned to spend millions of dollars renovating it. "We worked in communities to find out what they needed, what we could provide, and whether it would be looked after," she says. "By spending the money differently, we made a social difference. I was very interested in whether you could also make a difference by spending the capital budgets for schools and hospitals differently." What would happen, she mused, if you redesigned those institutions -- not just the buildings but the operating systems too?

Back in Britain, she cofounded School Works, a nonprofit that revitalized a failing London high school. A team of educators, architects, and psychologists worked with teachers and pupils to identify their needs. The team then redesigned the building, curriculum, and management systems. Among their changes was enclosing a dingy courtyard with a membrane roof, turning wasted space into a desirable social center. They also added vocational subjects to the curriculum, enhancing pupils' job prospects. The result was one of the U.K.'s 20 most improved schools for three years running. School Works has since worked with more than 40 schools across the nation.

Earlier this decade, while working for the Design Council, Cottam turned to health care. Originally she planned to rethink hospital design but became more interested in community-based services for sufferers of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. "One in four people in Britain now has a chronic disease that's treated at home," she says. "So why are we investing in hospitals rather than community-based solutions?"

One problem the Design Council team identified is that diabetes sufferers often forget to raise important issues with doctors and caregivers. The solution was a pack of diabetes cards, each printed with a question to be used as a prompt. Superficially it looks like a health-care project but, as Cottam points out, design techniques were critical in identifying patients' problems and producing an efficient graphic solution. "It's amazing how new the simple design concept of understanding users is to many in the health-care field," says Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm Ideo, which works in U.S. health care, among other industries. "Hilary's work has shown that you can take rigorous design methodology and apply it successfully in social systems."

Participle itself came about following rigorous thought about how to address society's problems most efficiently. Rather than wait for commissions, it conducts what Cottam calls "quick and dirty research" to outline its plans, then finds partners to fund them. For the aging project, the Borough of Southwark teamed with Sky, a satellite-TV subsidiary of News Corp., to foot the $1.6 million development bill. The circle concept, tested earlier this year, will go live this month as a self-financing project: Southwark pays for some services, the seniors for others. Participle has also formed a for-profit firm, Future Participle, as an incubator for innovations. It will commercialize products and technologies that spring from Participle's work. "The market is huge," she says. "We're trying to set up a concierge service for seniors, because it would pay for the rest of our work."

There's plenty to pay for. She has already begun a new project aimed at helping youth better integrate into their communities, and she's also thinking about affordable housing. Long term, her challenge is to prove that Participle's ideas can work on a national scale. Arguably her biggest problem will be deciding how to allocate her time and resources to all the social problems she hopes to solve.

"Aging is a really good example of the issues we'd like to tackle, a systemic crisis that no one knows how to solve," she says. And huge as it may seem, that is, to Cottam, just a small example. "There's something much bigger to play for: the growing realization that many of our social institutions and public services have run their course and are out of spec with society -- like Zambia's water pipes."

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