The role of design in policymaking

An interview with Chris Ferguson, Founder of Bridgeable, about the role of service design in preventing youth homelessness

This year, Bridgeable’s pro bono project is seeking to prototype and design services to better align government policy with frontline service delivery for youth experiencing homelessness. We are partnering with Making the Shift (MtS), a Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab that is co-led by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) and A Way Home Canada, two internationally recognized organizations with a strong track record in social service innovation.

Bridgeable is drawing from its design toolkit to research, prototype, and iterate service elements associated with Duty to Assist (DtA), a rights-based homelessness prevention model based on legislation that is proving successful in Wales. Together with our partners, we will work with frontline staff, youth who have experienced homelessness, and key decision makers from across the homelessness sector at sites in Hamilton, Ontario. But while our work will be situated at the front lines, our focus is on connecting those real-world service interventions with the details of an innovative new policy approach.

Bridgeable believes that by simulating service elements associated with this policy, we’ll be able to support our partners in crafting a much more meaningful, deliberate, and legible policy.

The state of youth homelessness in Canada

Canada’s homelessness population was estimated to be 235,000 in 2016, equivalent to the population of the entire city of Saskatoon, with young people (ages 13–24) accounting for 20 percent. These numbers are all the more significant considering that youth homelessness can lead to chronic homelessness, increasing strain on social services such as healthcare, education, and criminal justice.

Among youth experiencing homelessness in Canada, 30 percent are LGBTQ2S, 31 percent identify as Indigenous, and 28 percent identify as racialized. Tackling the youth homelessness challenge also means addressing the various forms of oppression these youth face, including anti-Indigenous racism, homophobia, and transphobia, which make accessing housing and housing-related services more difficult.  

I spoke to Chris Ferguson—Founder of Bridgeable, Rotman Executive in Residence and professor of design at the University of Toronto, and co-founder of Service Design Canada—about Bridgeable’s commitment to innovating in the areas of government and social services and the role of design in preventing and ending youth homelessness in Canada.

Why is Bridgeable interested in addressing youth homelessness? Why did you decide to partner with COH and A Way Home Canada?

CF: It really came down to the partners—the people at COH, AWHC, and MtS. They are focused on making massive systemic change happen in the homelessness sector—for example, with their recent publication of The Roadmap for the Prevention of Youth Homelessness. At the same time, they are interested in what needs to happen on the ground to make this change a reality. It’s this commitment to connecting theory and practice that resonated with us, as it’s very much aligned with the work we do at Bridgeable. This project is great because it’s an opportunity for mutual learning. As experts in policy and government research, COH and A Way Home Canada have a lot to teach us about policy development. I hope we can reciprocate by teaching them design methods that will help them with knowledge translation. Our partnership has the potential to result in a paradigm shift in how we address the intersection of policy and practice.

Why is there a gap between policy development and frontline service provision, and what can be done to address this disconnect?

CF: Design! A lot of the disconnect between policy and frontline work is historical. It dates back to how we have traditionally organized and thought about work. Think about a factory: there are people on the floor doing manual labour, and there are people upstairs in offices overseeing this work. The need for silos, or breaking work down into discrete tasks and departments, was necessary for efficiently managing the production process. Fast forward to the current post-industrial context. Work is much more knowledge-based, complex, interconnected, and distributed. This demands a new set of skills, including collaboration, empathy, and systems thinking.    

Take, for instance, work that is happening in the homelessness sector. From policing and courts to schools to social workers, each of these areas of government is grappling with the issue of youth homelessness in their own way. While each group’s individual efforts are important and valuable, because their efforts are happening in silos, they risk becoming myopic and redundant.

I’d say that co-design is something we do extremely well here at Bridgeable and something we can leverage from our past work in complex systems such as healthcare. When we work together with stakeholders and start building the real things that people will experience—such as interactions with a staff member or with a screen on a website—those tangible moments create a level of clarity for everyone involved that doesn’t exist when you are talking about ideas in the abstract. Making the experience real in the world helps to detangle and align a complex web of stakeholders.

In your opinion, what’s stopping the public sector from adopting this approach?

CF: Many things, but I’d say regulations and rules often don’t allow for the kind of openness and collaboration that our contemporary problems call for. In some cases, this stems from the perceived political risk of a project failing. Another real concern is that public servants just haven’t been trained in design methods, and these are skills that take a lot of time and specialization to do well.

Throughout my career, I’ve experienced firsthand how design can be used as a platform to enable change. Is it hard to get people to try new approaches? Absolutely. When people experience what it’s like to really collaborate and create, they can’t help but change their mindset about how they see problems and how they work with one another. When co-design works at its best, social context and relationships within the group of stakeholders are permanently transformed.

 

When co-design works at its best, social context and relationships within the group of stakeholders are permanently transformed.

Do you know of a case study of human-centred design being used in policy-making that has produced important outcomes?

CF: I’ve long been inspired by the work of the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL), which closed in 2013, because they viewed design as a means to experiment with and transform the Finnish government. They were interested in having people interact with interventions to see how they can change the system.  

For example, in Finland, if a person has a food entrepreneurship idea that they want to pursue, they face a lot of rules, regulations, and approvals to get their business started. In some cases, the regulations were so onerous, that people just gave up trying to start a business. So HDL would learn about the entire experience that a person goes through by actually going out and running experiments in food entrepreneurship. The lessons learned would lead them to make policy recommendations so that others do not have to face the same red tape.

You talk about making things to solve problems. What forms of making are you most excited to see come to fruition in this project?

CF: We hope to get in the field and simulate how frontline workers’ roles will change when supporting youth who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The project will also explore how prevention might change under DtA and we’ll generate cross-channel prototypes in order to simulate that experience. Our approach will rely on design sprints and rapid prototyping as a means of quickly learning and iterating in the field.

We feel honoured to work on a project of this significance and in such close collaboration with youth living in Hamilton. They are trusting us with their stories, and we take this responsibility seriously. My hope is that by fostering collaboration between all partners involved we can make real progress on the issue of youth homelessness.

 

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