What can social leadership learn from design?

Building a neural net of wishes and sharing experience at the #RSARDIsummerschool filmed by Dr James Furse-Roberts

This week I returned from the 2013 RDI Summer School; an immersive, collaborative design experience created by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry. Held over four days at Dartington Hall, Devon, the Summer School brought together designers and others from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who could learn from each other and be inspired and empowered to think differently and creatively. During the event, the eminent designer and creative leader Michael Wolff RDI shared his favourite quote by the author and poet, Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Having worked on six summer schools with the Royal Designers, I have observed that each event has had a dramatic or life-changing impact on those who have attended. Some of the designers leave with renewed confidence and are emboldened to take more risks, or start their own businesses. Others decide to change the way they work, become more open to collaborating, or begin a new altruistic pathway.

As we developed the 2013 Summer School, jointly directed by exhibitions and interior designer Dinah Casson RDI, and engineering designer Chris Wise RDI, we proposed the inclusion of more ‘wildcards’ in the cohort; participants who were not designers but were somehow touched by design. They might be commissioners, teachers, or civil servants. Could the summer school be as educative and transformative for them as it had been for designers?

The wildcards that were selected this year all shared a connection with the public realm; a healthcare researcher specialising in quality improvement initiatives, and a regeneration manager of a local council to name but two. Here follows a personal account of the Summer School from wildcard Owen Jarvis, a social entrepreneur and Clore Fellow, who is exploring how social leadership can learn from design:

“During my Clore year I’ve been considering how can social leaders make better use of design-thinking in shaping social and public services.

The Summer School involved a series of curated activities to allow us to meet, network, and collaborate away from work. Challenges were introduced for small groups around themes such as “us and them” and explored meanings and expressions of emotions and how these can be used as inspiration for work. These culminated in the sharing of findings, performances and art works on the final morning, with many groups working through the night to finish on time. Pleasure, creativity, play, discussion, reflection and work were delightfully intertwined for a very rich weekend.

The Royal Designers were incredibly open and generous in offering support and mentoring. Often provocative, they demanded honesty, sharper thinking and attention to detail and standards in exercises. Challenges and insights were received and respected in turn. As we moved from discussions to making objects and performances the magic started to happen. The final pieces were surprising and engaging and remarkable given the short time we had together.

So what can be taken away with reference for the social sector? Many of the challenges designers face are familiar and not specific to their profession. How big do you get before you lose the essence of what you are, how do you attract and keep talent? How do you avoid selling out to the agenda of investors in the process of growth? Over the weekend we were called upon to move away from these important but day-to-day issues to ask other broader questions.

In the same way the social sector comes back to a question of social impact, designers are also constantly returning to a question of quality and attention to detail in the pursuit of beauty. This raised some important questions for me. What is in the beauty, design and elegance of a social service and in achieving social change? Is there an aesthetic? How can organisations be designed in their own right to be things to admire? In addressing these questions, do we make a greater impact?

‘Life can be evaded, death cannot’, our final session considered. Everyone faces some apprehension and anxiety in presenting views, ideas, creations. We feel surrounded by judgement yet our real adversary is our own self. Talent that doesn’t fulfil its potential is a tragedy.

The Summer School has been one of the most extraordinary learning opportunities of my career. It has reminded me of the courage needed to step-forward and step-out and embrace the risk of failure. This has lessons for us all to reach our potential and live life fully. That is also a mark of leadership.”

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

RSA Student Design Award Winners: the next generation of socially responsible designers

June 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation 

A self-repair washing machine, a bee-friendly neighbourhood scheme and an app that provides more active and scenic routes for commuters are among the 16 cracking projects that won in the RSA Student Design Awards this year. 150 people came together at the RSA last week to celebrate the 2013 winners, take part in a spot of speed networking, and hear keynote speaker Kevin Owens talk about his experiences as Design Principal of the London 2012 Olympics.

Now in their 89th year, the RSA Student Design Awards is an annual competition that rewards students for coming up with innovative design-led solutions to today’s big challenges. Each year the RSA works with industry and university partners to develop a series of briefs focused around social, environmental and economic issues. We work closely with universities – in the UK and internationally – to support design students in applying their skills to research and respond to these problems. Their finished projects are then judged in person by a panel of experts, and winning students receive prizes that include cash awards, paid internships, and a complementary year of RSA Fellowship.

This year’s briefs addressed a range of pressing social issues, from improving workplaces and commuting to reducing waste and water pollution. There’s a full list of winners on the RSA Student Design Awards website, and our online exhibition will be going live soon – but for now, here are some snippets about a few of the winning projects:

  • Chris Redford from Sheffield Hallam University won a paid internship at branding agency Springetts for his ‘Tinker’ project; a radical stripped-back domestic washing machine that is designed to be repaired by the consumer without the need for a technician.

Chris Redford

“I got the inspiration for my repairable washing machine from thinking about the number of times we dispose of entire products – especially large consumer appliances – when there might only be a single failed component. My design exposes the user to all the components so they can learn about its function and hopefully feel more confident about attempting to fix it.

  • Charles Anderson, who has just finished a degree in Graphic Design at Kingston University, won a paid internship at the Environment Agency for his scheme to reduce water pollution in the UK.

Charles Anderson_DIP

His project, ‘Dump in Polystyrene’, is a service design solution for breaking down and recycling polystyrene that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

“Since my childhood I have constantly been aware of the litter in the river and the influence it had on the local environment. Through my project research I learned about how water-borne animals mistake polystyrene for food. It clogs up their digestive system which starves the animal. Polystyrene also breaks up and releases pollutants into the soil formation. This project is about reducing polystyrene waste down to a manageable size. The current size-to-weight ratio targets mean that local councils can’t recycle it – so I designed a process that meets these targets.”

  • MA Design students Nicole Shadbolt and Meredith Thompson from Plymouth University each won a paid internship in Waitrose’s Graphic Design team.

The Hive

Responding to a brief asking for ideas to help people live more sustainably, ‘The Hive’ is a community improvement scheme focused on developing bee-friendly communities and educating people about the importance of the UK bee population.

Rebecca Ford is the Assistant Manager of the RSA Student Design Awards.

You can follow her @RebeccaPFord

Are you ready for an extraoRDInary journey?

What do the iPhone, the Millennium Bridge, Harry Potter film sets, and the World Wide Web have in common? They were all designed by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), a cross disciplinary collective of designers who have shown sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value, and significant benefit to society.

The Royal Designers are planning a Summer School which will be held at Dartington Hall, Devon from 5 – 8 September 2013. This event will give 24 young designers and 12 wildcards the chance to work with them in an intensive 4-day collaborative design experience.

Designers of any discipline with between 5 and 15 years’ experience, and wildcards – people who intersect design, as commissioners, public servants, users – are invited to apply for a place. We are seeking applications from people whose work has the potential to be an instrument of beneficial change, from whatever field. If you are up for a bold new challenge, and would like to be one of the designer or wildcard participants, you still have a week in which to submit your application.

Set up in 2000, the Royal Designers’ Summer School brings together a group of people from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who can learn from one another and are inspired to think differently and creatively. Open, conceptual challenges are set to mixed groups which are discretely choreographed by the Summer School Directors. Exhibition designer, Dinah Casson RDI, Master of the Royal Designers for Industry, and Millennium Bridge engineer, Chris Wise RDI, are co-directing this year’s programme:

“The summer school is both touch-stone and touch-paper, reassuring at first, and then a fuse is ignited. Flashes of insight come when nurse, designer, economist, engineer and neuroscientist face each other openly. It is a well-spring for understanding how ideas are born, and why design is at the core of our being.”

Click here to apply and submit to the RSA by Friday 28 June.

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews 

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

Seeing the wood from the trees – A tale of two Fellows, a volunteer and some woodland

May 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

At the RSA I have the opportunity to meet and work with a diverse and motivated group of Fellows.  I’m always amazed how they manage to juggle the range of different ideas and enterprises that they are developing.  With 27 000 Fellows there are so many stories it can sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees but today I’d like to tell you a story of Fellows getting together, discussing an opportunity and providing a solution that helped the environment but more importantly a young man called Sam.


This year the RSA Fellowship brought together Hill Holt Wood founder and CEO Karen Lowthrop and Steve Coles, Salvation Army Social Enterprise Development Manager.

Hill Holt Wood lies on the borders of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and is home to an award winning social enterprise.  If you get the chance to visit please do, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and always offered a cup of tea.  In just over ten years of operation, the enterprise has transformed the woodland from a failing, flooded rhododendron-smothered patch of trees into a thriving broadleaf wood.

The main stay of the enterprise has been as a supplier of alternative education.  The woodland provides a developmental resource for excluded or marginalized young people to build skills, confidence and improved prospects.  Benefits to the young people and to the woods feed back positively one on another.  Kids need the woods to learn and in turn the woods are maintained by kids. So year on year a trickle of woodland converts graduate from Hill Holt Wood who are interested in sustaining woodland and so the story goes on…


The wood itself was privately owned but is now open to the public and community owned and the social enterprise operates from a stunning eco-build that incorporates an eco design team, meeting rooms, and a café.

Salvation Army enterprise manager Steve Coles was looking for a similarly sustainable project in which to invest a small fund of £10,000 donated as a bequest by the Booth family for the purpose of planting trees.  Hill Holt Wood seemed ideal and proposed the money be used to support a young person through a horticultural apprenticeship AND plant trees.   The long-term on-going gains are obvious.

Sam WelchSam Welch was 15 years old when he first visited Hill Holt Wood.  As part of his school curriculum he attended for a day a week on a junior rangers scheme.  He developed an unexpected passion for woodland and went on to attend Riseholm College in Lincoln but when he graduated with Level 2 and 3 qualifications in arborioculture he could not find work in Gainsborough. At this point a Job Centre advisor suggested that he return to Hill Holt Wood as a volunteer on the flexible support fund.  Sam proved to be a fantastic volunteer and an obvious candidate for the Salvation Army fund.

The award was given to Hill Holt Wood and they have funded Sam’s on-going apprenticeship in horticulture.  He says he has two main goals in life “the biggest one is to get a full time job at Hill Holt Wood which I would love, or work somewhere doing the same sort of job…

The Fellowship Team are always looking to hear about Fellow led projects.  If you know of work that is going on that would benefit from Fellows support and advice please get in touch directly, shout about your work at rsafellowship.com and apply to RSA Catalyst.  If that work is based in the East and West Midlands then I’m your first point of contact, email me at richard.pickford@rsa.org.uk or tweet me @pickfordrich I love hearing about new ideas especially when they are told over a hot cup of tea and some cake.

Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

In pursuit of happiness

May 10, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.

The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.

Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn’t correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.

One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.

Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.

Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn’t make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.

So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.

Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme: Big Society, but with the politics?

February 10, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

It is now stating the patently obvious to say that the public policy and public services landscape – especially at a local level – is undergoing a transformative change. Austerity, fiscal pressures, political shifts in Whitehall and a raft of social, political and demographic changes and pressures are forcing decisionmakers and public managers to rethink the way services are designed and delivered. “Public service innovation” has become a buzz-term, and councils are at the forefront of attempts to re-design services in the context of massive fiscal squeezes, ageing populations and rising demand for services. This is why 38% of all local authorities in England and Wales applied to be a part of the LG Group and NESTA’s Creative Councils programme last year – with the hope of implementing radical innovations to meet these challenges.

Public policy is also changing: the localism bill and associated policies and drives for greater decentralisation (or, according to critics, attempts to shift responsibility – and blame – from Whitehall to local government) – along with overarching narratives such as ‘the Big Society’ – are heralding in a future where ‘more with less’ is set to become the central organising principle. The Big Society vision has been used to provide a great deal of the moral case for change: the government says it wants to see greater power in the hands of local communities and citizens, and wants to see an active and engaged citizenry as a core part of a new era of politics and public services.

The difficulties and contradictions are abundantly clear. Some argue councils simply can’t deliver ‘big society’ initiatives at the same time as they are forced to absorb massive cuts in funding – this is why Liverpool City Council withdrew from the government big society pilots last year. Nevertheless, several other councils are making strong attempts despite recognising the pressures of austerity and disagreeing with current Government policy. For examples, thirteen Labour councils – including Sunderland – have joined the Labour Co-operative Councils network, which seeks to develop co-operative models for running local services – putting citizens at the centre.

Much of the scepticism about the ‘big society’ comes from many regarding it as a rhetorical device, and arguing that it relies too much on volunteerism without a solid political structure behind it. It is clear that for truly ‘big society’ politics to take shape, the concept needs to be less associated with volunteerism (although this is important) and more grounded in a new political economy – a point Philip Blond has repeatedly made.

In this respect, Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme (CLP), which is a key strand of the council’s ‘Sunderland Way of Working’, provides a good example of a local model that is moving towards a political ‘big society’ approach- even though the Labour-run council would eschew the ‘big society’ as a political term. As the 2020 Public Services Hub’s latest report – an evaluation of Sunderland’s CLP – shows, the CLP encompasses multiple strategic layers. This includes engaging elected members more effectively as community leaders and creating the processes and structures necessary to empower them at the community front-line. The second layer is about reconfiguring public services so that they are locally responsive and foster new forms of delivery and accountability in partnership with citizens. The third layer harnesses the power of people, place and council to achieve sustainable growth at a time of political and economic flux. While Sunderland’s CLP certainly faces challenges and has space for improvement, the 2020PSH report shows that it provides valuable lessons for localities across the UK.

At the roundtable marking the launch of the report (on Wednesday 8th February), there was also a general broad agreement by participants on different sides of the political fence about the importance of locally responsible and citizen-centric services supported by various forms of community leadership. Participants at the roundtable also raised some of the challenges that face local politics in practice. For example, Christina Dykes (of the Conservative Next Generation Project) spoke of the need for a culture change at the local level, which Government needs to be proactive in helping. Conservative councillor for Hammersmith and Fulham (and former Leader) Stephen Greenhalgh also said there needs to be greater effort in achieving mass engagement and communication to make local politics relevant to local people. Representing civil society, Neil Jameson (CEX of Citizens UK) and Lucy de Groot (CSV) also argued that civil society is the missing ingredient in many approaches to reinvigorating local democratic politics – civil society has the greatest engagement and contact with citizens, and yet it is often the weakest political actor in the local mix, and so it needs to have greater support. All participants generally agreed there needs to be a politics behind local democracy, and the state at various levels has a key role to play in making narratives such as ‘big society’ viable in practice.

To read the 2020PSH report, click here.

Cradle-to-cradle with a difference in Stoke

October 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is about a radical model of enterprise in Stoke where the “cradle-to-cradle” zero-waste business model has been taken one step further. On Saturday I heard at Stoke Stories how a former cattle and tropical agriculture specialist came to be involved in an organisation tackling pressing environmental and social problems through computers.

Hugh Irvine is one of a number of people who are functionally “directors” of The Ethical Computer Company (TECC), based near Stoke. He gave us an honest and insightful account of how it refurbishes and recycles computing equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged. For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost whilst providing paid employment for long-term unemployed and training for young people and marginalised individuals to get them ready for employment. Unemployment is generally recognised as Stoke’s greatest problem, in particular, the unemployment of skilled artisans who once worked in the pottery industry.

This is borne out in the murmurs of approval 51 seconds into Hugh’s talk…

… or if you prefer more quantitative evidence, almost a third more people in Stoke‐on‐Trent are unemployed compared to the national average (1).

Desso aims for all the material resources in their products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials

I wanted to write about TECC in relation to the “cradle-to-cradle” approach discussed in last week’s RSA lecture, which included Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, CEO of the carpeting company Desso. Desso (like TECC) aims for all the material resources in its products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials (though renewable energy and human resources are undoubtedly needed to undertake this recycling and reusing).

TECC delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model… helping local people develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment

What TECC showed me – and this is why I called it a radical model – is another way of looking at the cradle-to-cradle business model. Firstly, TECC also recycles and reuses the products of other computer sellers (its competitors of sorts), as well as making its own products recyclable and reusable. Secondly, and what I will explore in a bit more detail, TECC also focuses on human or social sustainability. Desso might employ whoever in the labour market wants the job (to deliver a zero material-resource-waste business model). TECC, on the other hand, delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. Desso wants to prevent its product materials from ending up on the environmental scrapheap. This compares with TECC which also works to prevent people from ending up on the ‘economic scrapheap’, instead helping people to develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment.

This model of operating a business will be familiar to a number of social entrepreneurs. Indeed eight of the 25 enterprises that won the prestigious social enterprise programme the Big Venture Challenge are applying a similar method; employing people who would otherwise face major difficulties in getting employment.

With this in mind, you could argue that this (expanded) interpretation of cradle-to-cradle then also has relevance for those few sectors that don’t dispose of their products quickly for recycling to be important. At the Desso lecture, Paul King, CEO of the UK Green Building Council, laid down the challenge of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock – 80% of which he said will still be here in 2050. Could retrofitting be delivered by training up the long-term unemployed? The Green New Deal described this as a ‘carbon army,’ Boris Johnson proposed something similar, but RE:FIT, set to retrofit 55,000 London homes before March 2012 (2), show no signs of training long-term unemployed people. Birmingham council has embarked on something along these lines. With the retrofitting industry worth £500bn over the next three decades (3), with the likelihood of public investment diminishing and with people so far unenthusaistic about letting big energy companies sell them energy efficiency services, is there not a space for a social enterprise? I’d love to know if one exists.

we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen

Lastly, I wanted to raise some of challenges TECC faces in increasing its impact that Hugh talked so passionately about, which I will soon put to the RSA Fellows’ Social Entrepreneurs’ Network.

  • In a majority public sector economy, there was some scepticism among previously state-funded voluntary groups who had been told by local authorities to become social enterprises. But the story of the Ethical Computer Company showed that it was possible to build a social enterprise in Stoke, with a lot of hard work and no little skill, without funding from the public authorities. That said, TECC has been frustrated about the lack of collaboration from the public authorities. It is based exactly opposite a partially-empty Council-owned building which could provide a springboard for growth, and Hugh knows of a closed-down school that has a great deal of IT equipment just sitting there unused
  • Established in 1999 before the Community Interest Company legal form was created, TECC is a charity and company hybrid. This makes some charitable foundations suspicious and less ready to fund the enterprise
  • Hugh describes TECC as follows “we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen.” Decisions are made in a weekly meeting, open to all team members, each of who provide leadership according to their own particular strengths. This is philosophically important to the team but is a challenging way to organise an enterprise and also thoroughly confuses some people. Suggestions of how to scale up governance arrangements that are neither a fully-fledged collective nor a traditional company are welcome.

Please get in touch via the comments below.

Coke, condoms, cigarettes, cell phones… and Cars

November 16, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Design and Society 

John Pavlus, a blogger for MIT’s Technology Review, dismisses most of TIME’s current feature The 50 Best Inventions of 2010 as “shiny flying things that no one on Earth needs”. A sceptical technocrat after my own heart then. But he picks out three that he thinks are more worthy of attention, one of which is a prototype incubator for premature infants.

Conventional incubators can reduce neo-natal deaths by carefully regulating the baby’s temperature, but they are completely unsuitable for less economically developed countries – high up-front costs and require prohibitive ongoing costs and training. The NeoNurture is rather different.

While researching the problem, the team of design students and professional volunteers behind the NeoNurture noticed that a lot of medical equipment donated to the hospitals they visited quickly broke and was much too complex to fix. Starting to ask “What does get fixed?”, they were swiftly led to cars.

Adding “Car” to the four Cs (Coke, condoms, cigarettes and cell phones) that Paul Hudnut describes as ubiquitous products, they developed an incubator that can be constructed from widely available vehicle parts and mended by any local mechanic. The warming is provided by headlights, a motor blower draws in filtered air, indicator lights as an alarm and a motorcycle battery protects the incubator from power outages.

It’s ingenious inventions like this that perfectly exemplifies the thesis behind the RSA’s Design team. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” as Teddy Roosevelt (who I guess would have made a very resourceful designer) put it. Or as the Design team’s webpages argue: “design will be fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration because of the particular resourcefulness that designers represent”.

Design Champions Needed

Aside from the student march in central London yesterday protesting a proposed rise in student fees, many conversations around the implications of the CSR and the imminent and immediate budget cuts have significantly died down. On the design front, there was a flurry of discussion around the demise of Cabe announced as part of the budget cuts, but there has been much less talk about the possible end of another, much smaller design champion, Design for London.

Operating under the London Development Agency (which itself is under threat) Design for London, has adopted a more proactive approach to championing good design, driving forward the Mayor’s policies and objectives and working with the London boroughs to deliver high quality plans, most notably the Thames Gateway and a number of public realm initiatives. Their contributions to new design schemes in Barking, Brixton and Dalston town centres are of particular note. Design for London represents a model for the future of locally-led, collaborative planning and urban design that will result in better places ands spaces for all citizens.

What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes

RIBA has similarly warned that in the face of organisations like Cabe and Design for London being axed, the Coalition government must work even harder to promote local empowerment in individuals and communities (through the Big Society agenda) but it must also foster support for local authorities to understand and make informed design decisions. What we desperately need are organisations, communities and individuals that will promote good design through the delivery of practical, locally-led, high quality schemes.

In light of this need for design champions, we return to the RSA’s central mission to foster good citizenship by closing the gap between our current behaviour and our aspirations for the future. The RSA Design team argues that design is fundamental to closing the gap between behaviour and aspiration. The process of design demands creative problem-solving and improvisation in the face of the unexpected. Designers observe, analyse and seize opportunities and this course of action (observation, analysis and opportunity) is particularly relevant as all citizens will need to take greater leadership and ownership in their communities, including the built environment that surrounds all of us.

Though not a design consultancy or a design advisory body, the RSA is a design champion of a different sort. We are the only UK organisation that considers design within a broad, multi-disciplinary understanding of society, enterprise, individual human capacity and collective action. We are particularly interested in how design can increase the resourcefulness and self-reliance of people and communities. We promote design through hands-on projects, such as our forthcoming Resourceful Architect project, our Design & Rehabilitation work and our recent 3-day residential Design & Creativity Workshop (which Emily Campbell, Director of Design recently wrote about here).

It remains to be seen who will take on the leadership role of championing good design in the environment and in our communities in the absence of organisations like Cabe and Design for London, but I can only hope that more resourceful citizens will emerge, taking a vested interest in the power of design to improve communities from within.

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