How can public services “design out” problems?

5 min readJun 28, 2020


One of Camden’s key commitments is to tackle loneliness & isolation. That’s why I’m excited to be part of the Loneliness Lab, which is looking at how can design out loneliness. What can we learn from how we can design out problems?

1. Build alliances around the issue with key players

To “design out” an issue you need to build coalitions. This can include key decision makers (i.e. like government departments) and organisations who have the skills you need (i.e. like a design school). It can also include organisations who have strong relationships with the audiences you want to reach (i.e. foundation working with schools or Neighbourhood Watch for residents). The Loneliness Lab has being doing this with key local institutions in the areas it’s trying to design out loneliness. It is working over 100 people from 40 organisations having part of it, including community groups, NGOs, Local Authorities, businesses, designers, artists, and importantly people experiencing loneliness.

2. Focus on emerging issues which are difficult to understand let alone solve

You’ll have issues that have always existed, like crime, waste or loneliness, where there are well known and historic challenges, like people stealing from peoples homes, people throwing rubbish onto the street or people living on their own. There’ll be also more invisible issues that are emerging due to changing social or technology trends, like hot product theft, single use plastic or loneliness in plain sight.

The work to design out crime recognised that while crime had fallen, the evolution of society & technology had created new trends in crime. As such Designing out Crime focused on hot product theft, alcohol-related crime, businesses, schools and housing.

In the case of the work the Loneliness Lab are focusing on, these include the physical environment which has a massive impact on how lonely we feel. That environment might be your home, it might be where you work, it might be the streets you pass through or the wider neighbourhood around you. While spaces do have specific functions, they also influence our personalities. They can change our behaviours. They can create subliminal effects . Indeed, wilder environments have more positive neurological effects on us than well-organised spaces.

To help us really connect with the issue, Collectively facilitated an exercise where we draw our own loneliness map. This was to understand when we’ve been more or less lonely through the different stages of our lives and how public space has influenced that. I was struck through my own loneliness map how I’ve been more lonely when there’s been less public spaces around me. Ironically though, I’ve been less lonely living or working in a more urban environment which is alive & kicking, than places in the suburbs, which are like clone towns and which take longer to commute into! Having said that, where I’ve been the most connected has been where the city literally touches the sea!

Through my work with European Alternatives and collaborating with urban space & games designers Laimikis from Lithuania and Spanish architects Radarq, supported by the European Cultural Foundation, as part of their Idea Camps, featured in the Guardian.

3. Understand what you need to “design out” and who you are “designing for”

You may need to start to research what factors impact the issue, not just the visible consequences of it. In the case of crime, this might be in anticipation, like CCTV, as a consequence, like time off work because of injury for stress or reduced productivity as well as to respond to.

Remember any products, services or places you design to tackle these issues still need to be accessible, enjoyable and inclusive for people to use or interact with (like a safer pint glass to tackle alcohol-related crime), rather than safe but over restrictive (like a gated community, or a perception of being spied on, or stopped & searched at every corner)

Get under the skin of the causes of the issue. In the case of preventing crime, this was getting people to understand what criminals try and exploit, like loopholes and weaknesses in systems, situations and premises, but also understanding the journeys of different people affected by crime, like young people going to school to tackle bullying.

Or in the case of designing out waste, challenging assumptions that recycling is part of the solution rather than part of the problem or getting under the skin of the lifecycle of a tshirt to understand how to design out waste.

In the case of loneliness, it’s even more difficult as it involves changing the way people see themselves, and where social trends have exacerbated our disconnect with nature, with other people and with ourselves.

Everyone has a different perception of what loneliness means and a different experience. It’s subjective, you might feel lonely even in a crowd or on the other hand, feel good if you’re on your own.

We do know that it affects particular groups more than others, and people in transition, whether that’s moving house, school, job or leaving school, being made redundant, being diagnosed with a health condition or starting or ending a relationship.

4. Mobilise people’s skills to “design out” the issue and organisations to change their strategies

The Design Council worked with Central Saint Martins to challenge students to design solutions to tackle these, like designing out shoplifting. They then launched a national competition to create ‘crime proof’ mobile phones.

When the Design Council’s “Design Out Crime” came to identify insecurity as a massive issue around crime, Neighbourhood Watch was also developing its new strategy. As such, there was a natural opportunity to use design to help rethink people helping other people feel safer, not by being “curtain twitchers” but mobilising new types of volunteers.

The Loneliness Lab uses a whole system design-based approach that makes sure that we bring together the problems & people who want to solve them to build the space for collective action, enable them to test & learn experiments that help tackle the problem and influence the wider system to scale the solutions & lessons learned.

Examples of the skills of people it mobilised, include an immersive street art experience showcasing stories of real londoners to tackle the stigma of loneliness, using space to connect residents through welcoming and inclusive spaces and initiatives or using craft to facilitate conversations between strangers on public transport to combat loneliness. Janice Johnson, who was on the same “Enrol Yourself” cohort as me, developed Eating with Elephants as a way to connect people through food around omething that was uncomfortable but which was safe for people to share that issue.

Image by the Loneliness Lab

5. Share the lessons you’ve learned so other people can pick up the baton and change culture

The Design Council developed Designing out crime: A designers’ guide as a practical guide for people and institutions to build on their work, which many have. Or like UnSchool have done with the Circular Economy using gamification through their Play Cards and Game Changer kit. The Loneliess Lab has developed a Playbook sharing its lessons learned, where tackling loneliness needs to be through meaningful connection, where it’s not just about the frequency of the interaction but the intensity and duration.




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese