By Rachael Steven


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

[new] technology, we try to use it to prop up those old systems: we tag prisoners we don’t educate them, even though they all re-offend, and we hang bleepers around older people’s necks rather than building a system like Circle which stops them falling over in the first place.”

Participle’s Circle project also helped members find neighbourhood helpers to assist with domestic tasks online, instead of having to call their local authority and be put on a waiting list. Image: Participle

“I also think it’s about the idea that if you have read sociology at Oxford, for example, you might be the best person to solve the world’s social problems. Because of the complexity [of redesigning social services], we need many different disciplines working together,” she continues. “I don’t think designers can solve the worlds problems but I think designers with other people can, and I think design provides the most incredible common language for this work. What we’ve been asking [at Participle] is ‘How do people want to live? What is a flourishing life for the 21st century?’ … In the UK our debates are so locked down in money and institutions, when what is needed is profound cultural change. It’s thinking in a different way, and design is that: designers think in a different way and they build, they create, don’t just analyse.”

With Backr and Circle, Participle adopted an iterative approach to design, speaking with hundreds of jobseekers and older people to determine common problems, issues and needs. It then created basic prototypes, which were refined based on feedback from users in several rounds of testing.

Circle, for example, was created in response to research which found that older people didn’t want “to be befriended by a well-meaning social organisation, but people we like who have common interests,” says Cottam. People had also expressed a need for a system that would allow them to ask for help with domestic tasks without having to put in a request with the council and be put on a waiting list.

Not all features from the prototypes were successful – a life coach feature offering members advice was quickly dropped after it was met with a negative response – but Cottam said these mistakes were a key part of the learning process. “We said, ‘that’s OK, we won’t carry on with this, and we’ll think about doing it in a different way. And in the context of social policy, that’s quite a radical approach,” says Cottam.

cache_271ff77be87d1e85922a3304740803f5Backr, a new service for jobseekers developed by Participle, focuses on helping people develop new skills and build connections in order to find work. Image: Participle
backrafterBefore designing Backr, Participle visited job centres to speak with people out of work about their experiences of using the current jobseeking service, and their feelings about being unemployed. Image: Participle

Participle has now come to an end (it received funding for a ten year period), but Cottam says she plans to write a book about what she has learned from the project, and hopes to work with the government to develop the next phase of Backr. The organisation has also published a ‘manifesto’ for designing public services, titled Beveridge 4.0 (after William Beveridge, author of the 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services), which outlines some recommendations for designing new welfare systems.

Circle’s London and Suffolk schemes were closed down after they run out of funding in 2014, but two still exist and are now run by local authorities. In its duration, the scheme had several thousand members, helped reduce hospital visits by 70% in areas where it was running, and was used to organise over 3000 social events, as well as help with over 11,000 domestic tasks. Cottam said it also saved councils money by reducing fixed costs (for example, by encouraging people to share lifts or host meet-ups in their homes, reducing the need for a fleet of minivans or cars or meeting facilities).

In the years since Participle was founded, Cottam says attitudes towards public service design have changed significantly: “When I first started Participle we worked with a few very brave business leaders, local government leaders ministers that thought ‘we’re not going to solve these problems by doing the same things better’,” she says. “Now I think everybody understands that, but the difficulty is that this realisation has come at a time when there’s not very much money to reinvest [in new services]. Although our work is cheaper [than fixing existing models], we need some kind of upwards investment and I think the government needs to think where that investment is going to come from.”

1fbd338c__1363373869Backr website design. Image:
ae54fbd0__1366027004Backr website design. Image:

What is needed now, she says, is a system that doesn’t just fund innovative welfare projects for a short pilot phase, but provides long term investment in new systems and services that will save money – and improve people’s lives – in the long run. “Take Circle as an example: people call all the time and say, ‘I’m in Somerset, can I have a Circle?’ But I have to say, ‘ask you your local authority.’ I can’t just start one, although I’d like to,” she says.

“In the UK, if you want to run a £50,000 project, it’s easy to get the money and do some great innovation, but then it will just die and the system won’t shift. What we need is a further level of growth to take these projects to the next level.”

Read more about Participle’s work at Cottam was speaking at Design Indaba – see for details

Read more here:: Why Britain’s welfare system needs a redesign