How can safaris help us design better outcomes?

6 min readJun 12, 2024


I was at the Design Council for the start of their Design for the Public Sector programme, where different councils came together to test and learn how design could help tackle complex issues, from what skills Londoners will need in the future to using different levers to tackle the climate emergency, assisting people to live better out of the hospital, and how design can help communities reduce violence and improve their resilience.

Recently, I’ve emphasized the need for designers and systems thinkers to collaborate more closely. The Design Council, where I had the privilege of participating in their Design for the Public Sector programme, stands out for its unique approach. Despite being the professional lead for design in the country, the Design Council takes a whole systems approach to design and maintains an open and inclusive view of what design entails.

@designcouncil introduced us to methods to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, some more mainstream, like interviewing in and out of context, and others like observation, journaling, or service safaris. These are all methods that some people might not think representative but are essential to get under the skin of people’s lives. One method called “alternative worlds” reminded me of the exercise that Nesta set to get people’s radical visions of government. It also made me think that as people working to develop change, we need to rethink constantly:

  • What we know about the world where we challenge our unconscious biases and instead experience how different people live their lives
  • What our role is beyond a service provider to one which is just as much a sense maker, storyteller, facilitator, movement builder or protector
  • How we work in a way where we don’t come up with ready-made solutions but instead test and learn in a way that encourages challenge.
  • How we work in the open to develop creative ways to tackle issues and challenge ourselves and others to put our communities first constantly

We started out mapping the challenges we envisaged about our project:

  • How do we move beyondthe feeling of needing to tackle too many issues simultaneously?
  • How can the enthusiasm and expectations of many people who want to do different things to tackle the problems be channelled?
  • How can we rebuild trust with the communities the council has engaged with countless times, only sometimesleading to action?
  • How do we embedand scale the change we’re going to be testing?
  • How do we balance simple, quick fixes withthe more profound, complex change needed?

1. How do you immerse yourself in a service to understand how it works and makes people feel?

One of the most enlightening experiences was our ‘service safari ‘, a journey of discovery that allowed us to immerse ourselves in the experiences of others. For our team, we chose to visit Waterstone, where we had the opportunity to interview staff and customers. This method, which involved observing people and space, interactions, and even the less pleasant moments, provided us with invaluable insights into the service and the people it serves.

What was fascinating was that I discovered how involved the staff were in the books and the conversations they were having with us. You could feel the passion and knowledge and be empoweredto read and select books. You could see the impact of the space creating a subtle persuasive effect on the person that meant that you wanted to wander, and you became morecurious about discovering other themes or activities, like the fish tank in the store!

2. How do we empower ourselves to constantly challenge what we think we know and don’t know?

Once we’d mapped what we knew about the issue and what we didn’t know, we put them on a wall, opposing each other, as if there’s always a clear line between them. But when we started mixing knows and don’t know on similar issues, we discovered that people have different perspectives on an identical theme, and some methods can be complementary, creating exciting tensions.

We may not have sufficient data and evidence, but we have many stories of what people think about the neighbourhood, which is evidence, too. We may not know what will be different due to the project, but we know what values bind us, which may be more critical.

3. How do we focus on issues that can mobilise people around a common cause while being flexible enough to adjust our hypothesis?

When developing a networked approach, it can be challenging to decide what the issue is that we will dedicate all our energy to an organisation. We want the way we do it to be open and inclusive, but we also want it to mobilise people around a clear common cause. We were taken through an enlightening exercise where we were initially asked to come up with ideas on how to make a bridge, cross the river, and finally get a message to another side. This helped us think about what mattered and not confuse a solution (i.e. a bridge) with an outcome.

When we focus on issues that help people feel safer, we have a mixture of outcomes that involve both hard reality and felt experience, which makes it even more difficult to define a system’s boundaries!

How much do we try to define the issue before we go out to residents to co-design the theory of change? Do we wait until the discovery phase to have defined the problem, and can we start testing ideas that create learning in themselves? How do we put ourselves in other people’s shoes if we don’t understand the invisible parts of their lives?

In a previous post, I shared what I learnt from helping develop a Loneliness Lab.

  • Build strong alliances around the issue with key players, fostering a sense of connection and shared purpose.
  • Focus on emerging issues that are difficult to understand, let alone solve
  • Understand what you need to “design out” and who you are “designing for.”
  • Mobilise people’s skills to “design out” the issue and organisations to change their strategies.
  • Share your lessons so other people can pick up the baton and change the culture.

4. How do we take ourselves out of our comfort zones while remembering to look after ourselves?

Working with my fellow team members reminded me of the importance of starting with the values & principles that bind us and celebrating and reflecting on the journey we’ve been on so far. As people who want to solve problems and tackle systemic issues, sometimes we come out of our comfort zone to such an extent that we miss the human side of navigating change. There’s a tension between being uncomfortable about not knowing the best question to ask and being passionate about wanting to tackle the issue.




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