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Christian Bason

Global impressions – Part II

By March 1st 2011

From The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) in Adelaide, to Melbourne’s VPS Innovation Action Plan, to Sydney-based strategic design firm Second Road, and to some cutting edge research environments, Australia is in many ways leading innovation in public and social services. During my 10-day visit there in late November 2010 as part of the Social Innovator Dialogues, covering five cities and engaging with public servants, social innovators and the academic community, it was clear that there is a rapidly growing awareness of not only the need for more innovation, but of how to bring it about.

Redesigning family care

Perhaps the most striking example I came across was in South Australia, where TACSI is engaging to help transform ‘chaotic families’ into ‘thriving families’. Chaotic families are typically characterised by high levels of alcohol abuse, violence, unemployment, and dysfunction. TACSI, a not-for profit, is applying ethnography and design thinking – much like MindLab’s work – supplemented by engagement with the state authorities, which are also co-funding the project. For the past eight months a public manager from the state’s Department for Families has been seconded to the project. In that capacity, she has no longer acted formally as a manager, but has participated together with a small team of a designer and a sociologist in exploring how the families live their lives, with the aim of finding new opportunities for helping them to become “thriving families”. When I visited, the project team was beginning to see the results of their work – going far beyond insights into the families’ lives, to generating concrete positive change in their situation.

The project has facilitated links and collaborations between the positive deviant families with the families at risk and is thus generating a positive circle of building resources and helping the strengthened network of families help themselves to tackle the challenges they are facing.

Carolyn, the manager seconded to the project, describes TACSI’s families project as a ‘resourcing model’, which is radically different from how she has worked during her 10-year career as a manager. “It is bottom-up, it has end-user focus, and there is no fixed structure, criteria or categories. The work has been extremely intensive. We have focused on motivation and on strengths within the families – identifying the ‘positive deviances’ where some families are actually thriving, even though they shouldn’t be, according to the government’s expectations. We have focused on finding entry points and opportunities, rather than just trying to mediate risk. It is a co-design, or co-creation approach, and it has been entirely new to me.”

Whether it will be possible to bring the project findings to bear on the public administration’s current practices, and actually redesign the state’s entire approach to at-risk families, remains to be seen. However, just like we at MindLab seek to demonstrate how new insights can lead to real change, TACSI has certainly already made a powerful contribution to how we think and act in such a difficult field of social policy.

Digital innovation enablers

A few thousand kilometres East of Adelaide, the Victoria Public Service continues to pursue its one-year old Innovation Action Plan, embedding collaborative networks through use of new social media. During my session with public officials there, there was constant blogging and tweeting via smartphones and iPads – still something rather rare amongst even the more innovative Danish public servants. As our conversation unfolded, listeners in the US, nearly a dozen time zones away, joined in and commented on the posted remarks. As there has since been a change of government in Victoria, it will be interesting to see whether the Action Plan is sufficiently resilient to adapt and work with a shifting political landscape.

Strategic design in practice

During the final stop of my tour, to Sydney, I had the opportunity to visit 2nd Road, a well-known design consultancy, and engage in dialogue with founder Tony Golsby-Smith and senior adviser Jenkins. Interestingly, the firm’s approach to strategic change has largely been driven from the field of rhetoric, emphasising ‘strategic conversations’ with decision-makers. Interestingly, Second Road has had a long-standing engagement with the Australian Taxation Office, making them one of the exclusive few private design firms with more than a decade-long experience with strategic design in the public sector. See the case here.  Moreover, 2nd Road’s Julian Jenkins has published their experiences rather extensively, which provides for very interesting reading on the potential of design for public organisations.

And now to something completely different…

Travelling from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere is much less of a change than the shift from Western culture to Japanese society – the final stop of my late 2010 journey. Part III of this blog will share the dialogues we had in Tokyo over the potential of Future Centres, space as ‘Ba’, and the role of Japan’s government in engaging citizens in new innovative practices.

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