Design for relationships, not for solutions
In Radical help, you imagine a welfare state in which relationships are at the core. Can you tell us more?
Hilary Cottam : My work is about how all of us can flourish in this century. This is a question of capability. And one of those core capabilities is relationships. Capabilities are about power: the way that social and economic structures determine our education, the place where we grew up, the color of our skin, us as well as our feelings, etc. – what we have been told we can do, determine who we can be. I think it's really important to think about relationships within that bigger framing of social structures and power control, which determines who does and who does not have access to capabilities.
In order to counter poverty and to have flourishing lives, we need bridging relationships : relationships with people that are not like us but with whom we share a common place or interest.
Don’t we live in a society of relationships today ?
H. C. : In general, communities that I work with are economically deprived. They have very strong bonding relationships : relationships with people like them. It's a way of managing living in a place where all the work has left and everyone has to be strong together. But in order to counter poverty and to have flourishing lives, we also need bridging relationships : relationships with people that are not like us but with whom we share a common place or interest. This is what being part of a “community” means.
In all of our societies we are living in bubbles, with people just like ourselves. It's creating big challenges for democracy and social conditions : how can people thrive, have good education and so on when they live in a very homogenous and deprived area? In Scandinavia for instance, communities are very homogenous and they face massive challenges enabling immigrants to integrate. So we need to design those bridging relationships in a very natural way, so that people get to know each other very spontaneously. It cannot be another social engineering project.
With the capability approach, social workers are not supposed to give answers but to stand by people’s side and support them to develop their capabilities.
Can technology help in building these communities ?
H. C. : For me digital technologies are working on three levels: they help with the framing, the practice and the mindset. First, digital technologies help us see things differently. In every technology revolution, we have re-framed the social contract, the common sense which underpins our society.
Social workers are the worst paid, the most publicly criticised but still with the hardest job in the world. Basically they are superheroes.
Then on the practice. We don't expect anybody we work with to use technology, because we know they don't have expensive phones or are not online, but we can use it as a simple way to manage the projects behind the scenes. We can also do more! If you think of public services for the elderly, all the money is spent on drivers, buses and physical infrastructure. If we use simple available software, we can connect everybody that wants to help, even if it's just for 10 minutes in a day, a lift from the hospital to local school. Suddenly, you are able to bring people together and run services differently, in real time.
On the mindset, the idea of sharing and swapping behind many digital services is very powerful. Even though right now those services are mostly owned by people on the west coast, it profoundly changes our previous mindset, the industrial one. We go from “I'm going to give you a thing” to “we have the tools and we can share them”. In the 70s, the idea of “conviviality” and sharing tools was just a dream. Now, it is possible.
What would it change for social workers to focus more on capabilities?
H. C. : It is drastically different. Today professional public service workers think they have to have the answer. If you come to me with a problem, as a professional, I need to be able to give you the answer. Preferably it's a pill, but it might be a piece of advice. With the capability approach, I definitely cannot give you the answer and I can't do anything to you, but what I can do, and this is relational, is that I can stand by your side and support you in developing your capabilities. And relationships are a very good example here: I cannot give you a relationship, but if you feel sad, nervous or insecure, I'll go with you to that place to support you to build those bonds. In that framework, social workers are not going to do anything but to support people to do things themselves. On top of that, people are going to determine themselves what kind of support they need. In one of my projects for instance, people chose to do things that apparently had nothing to do with health. But those things helped them get their confidence back, which in turn contributed to measurably changing their health.
This is a huge change for social workers. Isn’t it too much to ask for people that are already under a lot of pressure?
H. C. : Social workers are the worst paid, the most publicly criticised but still with the hardest job in the world. Basically they are superheroes. In a project I describe in Radical Help we asked social workers if they would like a chance to devote 80% of their time with the family, reducing the bureaucratic work (which currently takes up the 80% of their time). People queued around the block to work with us.
Professionals can't stand to work any longer in those bureaucratic structures. If you liberate people, they really want to do the work, and it is the same in the experiments running in Norway or Denmark. Social welfare based on capabilities is liberating. One important challenge is that if you ask social workers to really support people with what they are living through, which is often very hard and painful, you also need to provide spaces where you can hold those workers and contain that emotional load. You can't leave the workers with all that pain at the end of the day. That is the reason why we are investing in high quality supervision which is completely different to hierarchical management. My motto is take care of everyone.
Do we need to change how the State works to change social care in the way you describe it, putting communities and relationships at the core ?
H. C. : Funding is key. Today, the social innovation sector is very small in the UK and we are always forced to compete with each other to get funds and to frame our projects according to existing institutional frameworks rather than the future that is needed. Market logic is embedded in how we fund our projects. The question is: how do we resist that? Funding works like a kind of colonisation project: it prevents you from doing what you want to do! I try to develop very deep relationships in the places where I work. My money doesn't tend to come from philanthropists or foundations, but from local actors that have long term commitment in that place, and are often more open to exploration. With Radical Help, I started with a manifesto and I said very clearly : “this is the thing we need to do, this is the way to do this work, who wants to work with me ?”. So then people came to me, and they brought resources. The people that came in the beginning were very brave because nobody knew whether it would work. It was easier for people that joined later because the work already had a reputation
How can we change the system? Where shall we start?
H. C. : We have to work with everyone to change the system. In my work about Social Revolution 5.0, I distinguish between the roles needed from :
- Organic intellectuals : Those who can produce new ideas inspiring global imaginations in all disciplines, science, design, history, economics, anthropology.
- Organised civil society : Artists, movement makers, labour unions, activists, those who bring creativity, knowledge and above all diversity in lived experiences.
- New industrialists : Business leaders who, walking in the footsteps of enlightened forebears, will challenge their peers believing that a new era is only possible with the design of new social systems and in particular new norms for labour.
- The state : They are the architects.
As an example, “Circle” was a project that we developed in a bottom up approach and the team was a partnership between business, state and the community. So you have the project on one hand and the lobbying on the other hand, evolving at the same time. I was always working with the ministry saying "your policy is creating problems ; we are going to show you how to do this". So you need to consider the whole system. You need to go for the idea that has the highest probability to break open the system for us and others to come through and make things change.
Hilary Cottam is an innovator, author and social entrepreneur. She is the author of Radical Help: how we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the Welfare State and Welfare 5.0: Why we need a social revolution and how to make it happen.
In Ouishare we tried to use Hilary’s ideas as a source of inspiration on various projects. Here is the case study on one of them : Living together on our social issues.
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