Cottam is a former director of the UK Design Council and describes herself as “an accidental designer”. In the 1990s, she helped develop a new model for assessing and reducing urban poverty in South Africa while working with the World Bank, and in 1998, she set up School Works, working with teachers, pupils and designers to identify how schools should be built today. A few years later, she worked with architects, criminologists and prison governors to develop an alternative prison model, suggesting that the UK should build new prisons rather than maintaining costly Victorian ones, and focus on educating prisoners to reduce re-offending rates. (The project was a conceptual one, but over a decade later, the government has announced plans to sell off Victorian prisons, and build new ones which focus on improving literacy levels among offenders).
For the past few years, Cottam has been running Participle, a project focused on reforming the welfare state. Its initiatives include Circle, a low-cost social care model for older people, which launched in Lambeth in 2007, and Backr, a membership service which aims to help jobseekers learn new skills, improve their confidence and make connections.
Developed through working with over 250 people in Lambeth, Circle was founded to tackle adult loneliness and reduce pressure on social services by encouraging people in local communities to meet people in their area, help each other and share resources. For a fee of £20 per year, members could use the service to organise and sign up for social events such as pub lunches and day trips or learning events such as workshops and gallery visits. They could also find neighbourhood ‘helpers’ to assist with domestic tasks, from changing a light bulb to fixing appliances.
Circle helped people over 50 find new friends, attend meet-ups and educational events, reducing their reliance on public services. Image: Participle
Backr, meanwhile, is a membership service offering jobseekers access to networking events, skills sessions and one-on-one coaching sessions. The service aims to address changes in the labour market, which Participle says job centres fail to acknowledge: with jobs becoming less stable (leading to people often having 10 or more throughout their career), more vacancies being advertised informally and small businesses (one of the UK’s biggest employers) recruiting through existing networks, Backr is designed to help people make new connections, build their confidence and learn new, transferrable skills, such as building relationships and using social media.
Participle worked with 140 people to develop the system, including people in and out of work as well as local employers, and a soft launch has had positive results: 53% of people who took part in the scheme found work, while over 80% reported an increase in confidence.
Speaking at creative conference Design Indaba last month, Cottam said that the systems set up to tackle the world’s social problems had moved on little since the 1950s. Prison systems are still focused on punishing people rather than educating them, she said, while the job seeking model has failed to reflect a shift away from a culture where people often have one job, and use one set of skills, for life.
Speaking to CR, Cottam said this failure to adapt to changing circumstances was in part due to the efficiency of the UK’s public services in the past, which has led to a reluctance to adopt radical new approaches.
“I think part of the problem is that because we’ve had this incredible welfare state, and because its infrastructure is so dominant in our lives, the immediate response is to repair infrastructure rather than think again,” she explains. “I think what’s also really interesting is that even when we have