How can safaris help us design better outcomes?

5 min readMar 22, 2022


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

I’ve written recently about how designers need to work more closely with systems thinkers and vice versa.

Design Council is an organisation that takes a whole systems approach to design, and despite being badged as the professional lead for design in the country, takes an open and inclusive approach to what design is.

@designcouncil introduced us to methods we could use to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, some more mainstream like interviewing in and out of context, others like observation, journaling or service safaris. These are all methods that some people might not think representative but are important 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 constantly rethink:

  • 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 constantly put our communities first

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

  • How to move beyond the feeling of needing to tackle too many issues at once?
  • How to channel the enthusiasm and expectations of lots of people wanting to do different things to tackle the problems?
  • How to rebuild trust with the communities the council has engaged with countless times not always leading to action?
  • How to embed and scale the change we’re going to be testing?
  • How to balance the simple quick fixes and the deeper more complex change needed?

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

We then went on a journey of discovery, or what’s called a “service safari” to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and immerse ourselves in experiencing a service. For our team, we went to Waterstone’s where we interviewed people who worked there, who were browsing books, we observed people and the space, the interactions and the magic and miserable moments.

What was fascinating is that I discovered how involved the staff were in the books and the conversations they were having with us. You could feel the passion, the knowledge and being empowered to 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, you become more curious about discovering other themes or activities, like the fish tank in the store!

2. How do we 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 up on a wall, opposing each other, as if there’s always a clear line between the two. 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, which created interesting tensions.

So we may not think we have sufficient data and evidence, but actually, we have many stories of what people think about the neighbourhood, which is evidence too. We may not know what will be different as a result of the project, but we know what values bind us, which may be more important.

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

It can be difficult when developing a networked approach to feel like we can claim to decide what the issue is that we’re going to dedicate all our energy to as 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, then how to cross the river, and finally how to 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.

And when we’re focusing on issues that are about helping people feel safer, you’ve got a mixture of outcomes which are both about the hard reality and the felt experience, which makes it even more difficult to define the boundaries of a system!

How much do we try and 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 itself? 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 learned from helping develop a Loneliness Lab

  • Build alliances around the issue with key players
  • 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 the lessons you’ve learned 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 that 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