Poverty is a design issue.
The design stories less told are those that don’t result in one of the artefacts we have come to associate with the design process – world beating products, engaging apps, powerful communications, alluring brands, stunning interiors or seductively simple customer experiences in retail. This artefact-less design approach is increasingly being labelled design thinking. In our view, it is just the underpinnings of good artefact design applied to something a little more esoteric or intangible.
Late last year, in an interesting sign of the times, Treasury asked New Zealand at large what it thought government should do about the large numbers of New Zealanders trapped in poverty. At least two responses used design thinking to shape their replies. One was a workshop run by Thinkplace, organised by Auckland city mission and the Auckland council, the other was the Kiwi Gov Jam, a DNA, Thinkplace, Optimal and DIA result 10 session for government designers.
Both started with a piece of deep design thinking research done by Thinkplace for Auckland city mission. The archetypical entrapped family, summarised from the research around four journey maps covering food, housing employment and debt, was a 'read it and weep' revelation for those not familiar with the territory. To system conscious design thinkers it was obvious that the melange of services, charities, entitlements and agencies that make up the world of poor families is in no way fit for purpose. In fact, the checks and balances applied to ensure the system is not ripped off (by the few) make dealing with poverty and trying to give the kids a vague chance in life a full time role for a single parent. Moreover it is a full time role in which failure is inevitable. The time and cost to juggle charities for food parcels, deal with substandard housing, manage out of control debt, find work, let alone manage benefit entitlements and other challenges, perversely inhibit good parenting, driving families further down and further away from giving their kids a chance at success and escape. The deep sense of guilt, shame and helplessness engendered adds only further disability.
The system’s ethos - that employment is the antidote to poverty is shockingly and obviously fraught when the work on offer (low pay, shifts, zero hour contracts and the like) makes caring for kids and supporting their growth more difficult and more costly, not less.
Despite these system defects the fundamental driver for families so trapped is, could and should be the same as the driver of a better designed system – to give families a chance to succeed in education, health and lead fully participating lives. Where this happens they will go on into work that contributes to New Zealand’s future and live life fully, independent of state aid.
The life-long cost to the state of the current failure of deprived families is immense. Creating systems to facilitate rather than hinder successful families is more about reorganisation of current programmes and services than the addition of more with more cost. Designing this system coherently around the goal of fostering successful families would be a national investment of significance with returns for everybody.
The teams at Kiwi Gov Jam didn’t have time for detailed design of the system, but some first steps seemed obvious. Government action to make food plentiful for needy families would be easy with supermarket vouchers, food banks and the like. This would buy families time that could then be applied to the hard stuff - building family capability and resilience. Similar initiatives in housing or at the employment boundary would also buy time but would be somewhat more difficult to implement. Yet the paybacks are so large and the downsides so debilitating for the country though that tackling the difficult and the hard stuff is essential.
Creating such a system will challenge politicians and design thinkers alike.
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