InWithFor and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI): Blending design with social science and policy


Chris Vanstone (@chrisvanstone) Co-founder of social business InWithFor (@InWithFor) works with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) (@OzInnovation) to lead the centre’s Radical Redesign Team. The team takes on some of Australia’s most complex social problems using an approach and process that co-designs in, with and for people. Chris talks to Design Transitions about ‘working backwards’, blending design with other disciplines and looking outside of the design discipline for inspiration to help TACSI create bold ideas and better lives.

Tell us about InWithFor/TACSI’s design practices and describe why you do what you do.
We set up InWithFor to develop new kinds of solutions to big social challenges
like educational disengagement, offending, unemployment, chronic disease, and ageing. From the outset we wanted to develop a hybrid social problem solving process. A process that blends the creativity and prototyping of design practice with the rigour and knowledge of social science.  We co-design solutions in, with and for local communities – working with people, practitioners and policy makers at every stage of our approach. We call our approach ‘Working backwards’ because it works in the opposite direction to most policy development i.e. it starts with understanding people. We work out what would create change for people and then go on to create policy, systems and structures that enable new solutions to spread.

Our practice comes from past experience. Prior to InWithFor I was part of too many design led projects that ended in prototypes that engaged people but didn’t spread because they didn’t fit with existing policy contexts. Whilst Sarah, my partner in InWithFor who has a background in sociology, had been involved in many policy projects which ended with new policy that did little to impact people’s lives. The Radical Redesign Team at the Australian Centre of Social Innovation (TACSI) which we lead, was set up specifically to tackle Australia’s great social challenges.  So far we’ve been working to develop solutions in the areas of families and child protection, ageing and caring. Family by Family  is the first venture to come out of our work.

What do you think are the current drivers of change in InWithFor/TACSI’s design practices?
We’re rarely content with what we do, we’re always looking how to make things better, so our work is often driven by our own critique of what we did last time. For inspiration as to what to do this time we read widely, books, newspapers ,academic articles, reports and readily steal ideas from other organisations connected with getting things done and creating change. We also draw on the diverse backgrounds of our team which includes expertise in social research, education, community development, business and behavioural change. Importantly, I think, we often look outside of design for new ideas and problem solving approaches.   

What excites you about design at the moment (this can either be your own practice or other practices)?
I’m both excited  by increasing demands from the public sector to do ‘design’ and the increasing interest from younger studios to do ‘social design’.  The public sector interest is also terrifying. Too often their interest is in incremental service improvement which is great for service designers but at best only incrementally better for people.

In delivering against briefs to improve customer experience the risk is that design becomes associated with only incremental improvement, a prettier website, an easier to user phone line, a nicer waiting room.  What excites me is the potential of a design practice, when blended with other kinds of social problem solving practice, to radically challenge what public services should try to achieve for people and to help them find practical solutions to achieving that change. For instance we’ve been working with the South Australian government to develop entirely different kinds of solutions to reduce the stress experienced by carers.

What do you think the future practices of design will look like and why?
If design studios want to tackle social challenges they need to be able to challenge existing solutions and approaches taken by the public sector.  That means studios blending design with other social problem solving practices.  Successful product design studios, like IDEO, grew out of a passion to make cool stuff and a blending of design practice with the more technical problem solving practice of engineering. Studios with a passion for social change are more likely to create that change if they blend design with the rigour and research on behavioural change that comes from the social sciences.

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