From “how can I” to “how can we”


“We are witnessing the largest experiment in comparative governance we are likely to see in our lifetimes. The virus is the control variable” — Benjamin Bratton

As the Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific outlines, countries across the world have experimented with new policies at scale

“We’re in uncharted territory. Can governments test transformational interventions, radically new service concepts, or apply whole new thinking about the way they operate? It’s human to struggle with uncertainty but when everything is largely unknown how fast can governments learn what’s working, and what isn’t? This is an opportunity to try things and learn from them. Let’s explore how we can sustain that sense of experimentation.”

Income tax was created to fund a war during the Napoleonic times, and yet we still pay for now.

What experiments developed during Covid 19 do we think will outlast the pandemic?

1. How can we experiment policy at a local level?

Councils that put in place the foundations for building strong relationships with their communities and anchor institutions and supporting their staff to work in a creative and agile way will have been able to scale up and flex their support to respond to the situation. However, the scale of the social & economic crisis that we’ll enter into will require local places to develop strategies for collective investment that can help places rebuild a resilience that can cope with future shocks the crisis will bring, reinvent themselves to meet new needs and renew a social contract with their communities.

2. How can we “design out” the virus

Even though we’re in a crisis where science is guiding us in how we reduce the spread, we’ve had to rush and not come up with hypotheses that help us test what we want to achieve. Now we’re in the recovery phase, what are the hypotheses that are most important? Who’s best placed to tackle them?

  • How can we reduce the infection rate?
  • How can we rebuild the economy in a way that’s more sustainable?
  • How can we get people back to school or work?
  • How can we help people connect while physically distancing
  • How can we support people to pivot their careers or businesses?

In a previous post before Covid 19, I shared how you can use experiments to design out problems, be it crime or loneliness, using the example I’m involved in which is the Loneliness Lab. How could you design out Covid 19 through experiments?

  • Build alliances around designing out Covid 19 through designing in physical distancing with communities, public services, businesses & developers
  • Focus on emerging issues which are difficult to understand let alone solve, like how do you bring people together while ensuring they’re physically distanced, how do you pivot businesses which have relied on physical contact, etc.?
  • Understand what you need to “design out” and who you are “designing for” — we need to design out the virus, but also design in new ways of getting around, learning, working and living
  • Mobilise people’s skills to “design out” the issue and organisations to change their strategies, from people who can design and make products that help design out the virus like PPE or plexiglass, to performers or artists who can develop creative ways to bring people together while physically distancing
  • Start by pretotyping how we might work before we can actively prototype it (i.e. guerrilla cycle lanes before we introduce them, using desire paths to identify what paths can help people navigate the neighbourhood well, etc.)
  • Share the lessons you’ve learned so other people can pick up the baton and change culture, like Edward Saperia Coronavirus Tech Handbook or The Catalysts’ Service Recipes

” We need to rewild our imagination. We must learn how to dream again, and we have to learn that together.” Extinction Rebellion

How can we identify people’s assets as well as needs and what motivates them to get involved in creating neighbourhoods that are “healthy by design”?

3. From “how can I” to “how can we”

Councils have worked much closer with partners and communities during the pandemic, from delivering food to brokering volunteering. The majority of councils like all hierarchical organisations will often start by thinking how they can fix a problem and once they’ve identified the approach, only then will they involve residents and partners.

If you start with “how can I”, you’ll get many different and even competing needs and only the assets that an individual can mobilise. If you start with “how can we”, you get people to focus on the needs…and of the assets of those around them. Moreover, you start to move in the direction of bringing a systems perspective to tackling issues.

Supporting people in this way only helps them develop solutions to needs they’ve identified, it helps people understand the world around them and how technology can help them tackle issues that matter to them.

How could you do it?

Involve people in finding out what needs and assets they have and design solutions with communities that build on their motivations

When people want to help others we have identified five types of approaches they might take based on identifying their motivations for helping others:

  • Supporters want to help out but aren’t necessarily comfortable with leading the way or standing out. They will walk your dog or help keep the neighbourhood clean and are vital cogs in any community activity.
  • Growers lay the foundations for others to be able to help each other, however big or small. They will set up coops or community gardens. They come up with ideas and channel their energy into planning activities.
  • Learners are the bridge between people, as they spend time listening to their motivations and spread the learning so supporters can feel empowered to be involved. They will be involved in skills exchanges. They will help you understand what’s going on in the community.
  • Performers are too impatient to share learning and do not want to be responsible for organisation. They want to help now and they want others to know about it. They will take activities like bungee jumping off a cliff for charity. Give them the opportunity to be in the spotlight but stretch what they can do!
  • Organisers take on the baton from the growers, provide the environment for the learners, but most importantly, they get the supporters to turn up and get on board. They will be facilitators or community organisers. Nurture them so they don’t burn out.
  • Use the insights from finding out how people want to help each other and identify patterns
  • Think about how you would involve the different types of people in helping you redesign a service
  • Map out a ladder of how different groups could move from receiving support to become more independent in meeting the needs themselves

Help people put themselves in other’s shoes

  • Use insights on how people want to work in a new post-Covid environment to create design principles that you can use to design new services
  • Don’t just put yourself in your users’ shoes, help put them put themselves in other people’s shoes

Help people make the best use of their skills to design solutions with their community

  • Build trust from the start to be able to scale the solution
  • Understand what people would like to get out of your project involving them
  • Help people develop the skills they want to take forward the solution they’ve helped develop

Finally, as Laura Winn shares, we can’t just experiment as if we hadn’t experienced the pandemic, we need to recognise that people and organisations will be still affected emotionally. When we experiment, we need to help people navigate through the change it creates

Head of Strategy (Communities) @camdencouncil #localgov Director @euroalter Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese