Opinion April 8 2012, By Sarah
On Friday, I met an older man who sits in a recliner chair for most of the day waiting for a care worker to drop off a frozen meal. He eats alone.
A month ago, I met a family who has moved three times in the last year because their learning disabled child keeps getting expelled from schools. They have no family or friends nearby.
A year ago, I met a young mum on the brink of losing her kids because she couldn’t keep a clean house. She’s estranged from her mum and dad.
The older man, family, and young mum all live in Australia. A country with the second highest standard of living in the Western world. Unless you are an Aboriginal Australian, in which case, your life expectancy rivals Sub-Saharan Africa.
The older man, family, and young mum receive state funded social services. Aboriginal Australians, living on the lands, are subject to state interventions.
Something is terribly wrong.
It’s true I live and work in a place with a lot of wealth, with well functioning democratic institutions, and with robust social safety nets. And it’s also true that injustice is very real and very much happening here.
The injustice I see isn’t just people left behind by economic growth, but people kept down (often unintentionally) by the very safety nets set-up to help them.
There’s a narrative about socio-economic development that assumes attending to basic needs - to food, housing, safety – must come before meeting higher order needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy says so. And yet what happens if the way in which we attend to basic needs prevents so called higher order needs from ever being met?
The older man who sits alone in a recliner chair is not all that hungry for food. He’s hungry for a reason to keep eating. This is not the life he imagined for himself, and not the life he wishes to lead any longer.
The family who keeps moving receive benefits from a myriad of government agencies, but no one has been able to address the reason for the constant moves.
The young mum with an unhygienic home has exhausted all of the state’s options. She’s been warned. She’s been brought to court. She’s been assigned social workers. None of the thousands of dollars already spent on her have addressed the real inequality – her lack of social networks, her lack of education, her inability to pay for the kind of household support that most middle class families have.
How could not having ‘household support’ be an inequality we seriously need to redress? Since the state started using its most extreme power – breaking up the family – without first putting in place the same supports that a family with greater wealth and privilege has.
I believe this is fundamentally wrong.
If we are seriously interested in combatting injustice in our own backyards, than we have to look at what causes the real disparity in life outcomes. And that real disparity comes not just from lack of access to food or housing but from the lack of social supports, experiences, and opportunities.
If we are seriously interested in combatting injustice, then we have to recognise that the social safety nets we’ve created perpetuate, and in many cases, contribute to the real disparity in life outcomes.
In others words, we have to recognise that our industrialised approach to social services is often wrong. We have to face up to the moral dilemmas ‘modern’ society has created.
These moral dilemmas underpin the ‘social design’ work we try to do. They have informed our value set – a value set that enables us to make decisions about the projects we choose to take on, the people we choose to work with, and the solutions we co-create.
Over the past week I’ve come to understand what happens when ‘social design’ is taken up by organisations with a different value set.
For the past several months we’ve been working with a government agency that has its own internal co-design unit. This agency values ‘efficiency’ and ‘innovation’. At the beginning of the project, we could fit within their innovation frame. But then we started spending time with people, in their homes, and observed how the social safety net was failing to improve life outcomes. Such observations – and the ideas that these observations spawned – were simply too far from the ‘efficiency’ and ‘innovation’ value set to be acted upon.
I’ve been feeling both disappointed and outraged. Disappointed that we won’t be taking a project forward. Outraged that values like ‘efficiency’ and ‘innovation’ comes before values like ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’.
It got me thinking. Where is the outrage in the social innovation & design thinking communities?
Outrage seems increasingly hard to find. At the same time that social innovation and design thinking are increasingly easier to find. Business schools are clamouring to teach social innovation & design thinking. Austin centre for design has launched a new 10 day program in design & public policy. Stanford’s d.school is promoting its new online curriculum. Major consultancies like Deloitte are adopting design thinking. Governments are setting up centres for social innovation and public sector design.
Whilst the methods are new and shiny, the value set underpinning them appears to be the same old, same old. My hunch is that the lack of outrage has an awful lot to do with these same old values. Values I’ll call managerial – like creativity, collaboration, competition, value for money, customer and user and human and people and citizen centred. Values that are all about the ‘means’ with which we do things, rather than the ‘ends’ we’re trying to achieve.
The public sector is riddled with the remnants of once new and shiny methods: service integration, new public management, lean project management, etc. Each new method comes and goes, all the while inequality widens and the industrialised approach to social services remains firmly intact. In other words, the ‘means’ change and the ‘ends’ stay quite the same.
It’s not that I don’t believe in ‘social design’ methods – in starting with people, making ideas real, and iterating those ideas over time – but I believe in them insofar as they shake up the status quo, narrow inequalities, and set new social standards. The danger comes when these new design methods make social services more palatable, more attractive, and thus more difficult to challenge.
Of course not every social service needs such deep challenging. Some just need incremental improvements. But how do we know which deserve to be improved, and which deserve to be fundamentally re-conceived? When are we right to challenge the means, and when are we right to challenge the ends?
Answering these questions requires developing a critical, ethical voice. And using this voice to make some tough decisions. Decisions around what work to do, who to work with, and what solutions to invest in. Decisions that go beyond the ‘innovation’ trifecta of what’s desirable, feasible, and viable – to what’s morally right.
Sadly, there are few deliberate mechanisms for developing this critical, ethical voice. (AC4d’s course reader on ‘design ethics’ seems to be missing the ethics part). Over the coming weeks, I’ll post a series of provocations about how we might go about doing so. From a personal perspective, and an organisational perspective. I’ll talk about the very real discomfort of working in, with and for organisations that come at this work from a different value set, and think aloud about what an organisation that practices an ethical value set might look and feel like.
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