An emerging trend in some UK government departments and local authorities has been to use a Design thinking approach to help shape services, but involving users in co-design stays a rare occurrence in the voluntary sector, especially when technology and young people are involved.
The Social Innovation field is one that encourages an approach close to Design thinking, but the testing, evaluating and adjusting approach can also be seen as very similar to what is seen as an action research approach in the voluntary sector.
The term Social Innovation itself is interpreted in many different ways, some seeing the innovation as necessarily involving technology (as does Tim Brown, Ideo CEO, when describing Design thinking, often leading to social ventures) while others see Social Innovation as new forms of service delivery such as user-participation and other non-technological innovations (usually in the voluntary sector). A combination of both approaches can be useful to ensure Innovation is driven by good useful ideas rather than by the need to 'fit in' a technological component to a solution solely because it is possible.
However technology being now ubiquitous in many young people's lives, it is difficult to conceive of innovation around young people without at least looking into some technological dimension if one is coming from an entrepreneur or business background, but for the voluntary sector, the Design thinking approach and the potential innovations offered by technology around youth work and youth-related services remain opaque.
Numerous surveys have shown that young people use and need digital tools (how much is another issue) on a daily basis (e.g. for social networking, accessing information, support, as stated by the latest Youthnet report), but Social Innovation projects around ICT and young people are rare (e.g. Youngdads.tv by Social Innovation Camp).
Youth projects are usually funded by statutory organisations or Trusts and Foundations, and funding streams that initiate or that encourage applicants to include a Social Innovation or Design thinking type approach to make their programmes more suited to young people's needs are rare.
There could be several reasons for this:
- organisations will often not invest in technology for young people's projects for fear of the risks involved (fear of theft of equipment and of cyber-bullying for instance).
- staff would need to be trained extensively and updated regularly as found by the 2011 Warwick University report around young people, ICT and mental health.
- target groups might have limited access to technology if they are marginalised, making innovation restricted to what technology they currently use.
It would be interesting to see the start of a Design thinking movement in the voluntary sector with the systematic involvement of Designers in exploratory conversations, as their knowledge might help unlock issues through technology that most people outside the Design world wouldn't be aware of, mainly because of the fast-moving pace of technology. The Good Gym is an example of social innovation outcome with a digital tool (website and webforum) to help isolated elderly people, not the target group one would immediately think of when thinking about how technology can help fight isolation.
Designers have also proved very useful in discussions around the built environment (Futurescape08 ) and learning (Futurelab) , but this is usually limited to schools contexts.
The built environment and how young people use it outside a learning context could lead to further innovative ideas: the desire for young people to display their graffiti in public spaces, causing high costs to Councils, is an issue that could potentially be addressed through technology as suggested by young Graffiti artists in Stratford during an Open-City project: physical and virtual graffiti walls could be replicated and projected throughout community spaces to minimise the need for 'illegal graffiti'. Graffiti artists could work with Designers to see how they could use technology and push technological boundaries to serve their art, potentially leading to motion graphics graffiti, turning ‘over-writing’ by another graffiti artist into palimpsests to name but a few.
One could easily get carried away thinking about all the innovations that could come out of the systematic involvement of Designers when exploring ideas within the voluntary sector, and therefore the involvement of end users and of relevant staff would be paramount to ensuring these ideas were grounded in reality.
When discussing innovation for vulnerable young people with the Foyer Federation Director of Innovation Colin Falconer last week, he mentioned how useful it was to have a social entrepreneur involved in conversations, which is another interesting dimension of Social Innovation: it is usually driven by social entrepreneurs as opposed to charities, trusts or foundations. Is there a conflict between testing out and incubating new ideas for the benefit of client groups and the lack of financial sustainability of many of ideas from a business perspective?
This could be why the Right Here (Paul Hamlyn Foundation/Mental Health Foundation), Comic Relief and Nominet Trust new Innovation Labs project is such an interesting project (although I would say leading the project for Right Here).
The aim of the Innovation Labs is to explore how ICT/Digital Tools could help young people look after their mental health and access effective support, and the investment in exploratory workshops with Designers and young people as a starting point by the three funders is ground-breaking in the voluntary sector.
Some of the issues involved in running the Innovation Labs project could explain why social entrepreneurs haven't looked much into Social Innovation for young people:
- The cost of involving and supporting young people throughout the co-design process is very high.
- Ideas generated will probably involve further costs in terms of implementation (building outputs/devices).
- The return on investment is likely to be very low because young people are unlikely to pay much (if at all) to use outputs, and advertising possibilities on outputs targeted at young people could be seen as a highly unethical way of generating income.
- The cost of technology and the digital divide are still an issue for some young people, despite them being called 'digital natives' and the misconception that every young people can now afford to be connected 24/7.
Similar challenges would probably apply to design innovation approaches for young offenders, young asylum seekers, young mothers, gang members etc, which could be another reason for the voluntary sector not investing more in this approach.
However, I believe many organisations working with young people start innovative projects using technology on an ad-hoc basis because they work closely with young people in co-designing services. I stumbled upon one ad-hoc innovation when I was managing Dublin’s Intel Computer Clubhouse a few years ago, after being met with similar issues I had been met with when working with disaffected pre-teens and teenagers in Paris: however great the work participants were doing with us, their parents would virtually never attend the celebration and showcase events, making it very painful for the young people who had prepared for months. I was lucky enough in Dublin to be working with Media Lab Europe Researchers/Designers, and after speaking to them we decided to take the show that no parent had come to see to the local estate by projecting it on a wall and laying a few chairs. A local youth worker had explained to me that the parents didn’t come to events not because they didn’t care (many people’s initial thought), but because they didn’t have the self-confidence to do so, and we thought a projection they could watch from their balcony might suit them better, while making it a small event for the young people in the estate. It didn’t take much technology to set the projection up, one plug in a local flat was enough for the projector and laptop. The most difficult part was the screen, which Designers built from a giant piece of white linoleum weighted by heavy sticks against the winter wind.
That evening the parents peeped from their balconies for a long time before deciding to come down and join the young people watching their work (performances, animations, music, etc). The 50 or so people who ended up coming down were more than we would have ever hoped for at an event, and more watched from their floors.
While at the time this was seen as an innovation that could be replicated elsewhere and help other youth professionals, there was no repository for these ideas to be shared and tested out in other parts of the country, and there still isn’t.
As research shows that young people need services to use technology more than ever before, and as many services and projects working with young people are wondering how technology could help them engage with their audience better, a wider use of Social Innovation, Design thinking and research approaches in the youth and voluntary sector in the UK could lead to many exciting new ideas and new projects matching young people’s needs better.
Sharing those with others in the UK and around the world through an online repository like Social Innovation Europe and relevant voluntary sector and researchers’ forums would be crucial to enthusing other youth organisations and overcoming current barriers, the biggest being the fear of technology endangering young people rather than supporting them.