Design Research and Understanding Brexit, Division, Unity and Prosperity

Today, and for a while the UK will be coming to terms with the feeling that for generations it seems our society has not been so divided. Young and old. Left and right. Rich and poor. The political class and the disenfranchised. The town with the post-industrial economy feeling neglected or the city with the cultural economy feeling betrayed. By skin colour or faith or where you were born.

I grew up in Hartlepool, who voted 70-30 to leave. I lived in London for 10 years, who voted roughly the opposite. I lived in America for 4, and will come back to that in a bit.

I work in designing and improving services – from education to health to social care, transport and tech – chipping way at our social, environmental and economic challenges. Understanding and working with a diverse range of people is essential to this work, and it’s a privilege to meet so many people in so many contexts that I may never otherwise encounter. It also affords me the confidence to encourage us to remember the words of Jo Cox, the MP tragically murdered by a right-wing fanatic in the midst of this campaign – “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

My hometown – Hartlepool, UK

Why What I Do Encourages Me

The work we do so intensively with the public affords us an opportunity to empathise, experience and listen differently.

Our ethnographic research sees us spending hours in the homes of perfect strangers we would never otherwise meet, sitting around kitchen tables and asking about their hopes and fears when it comes to their family’s health, or education or to unpick trauma around life crises ranging from mental illness to bankruptcy.

We shadow case workers, managers, drivers, nurses and teachers around their normal, hectic working days to observe first hand how policy and the design of services (or lack thereof) translates into practice and experiences.

Why What I’ve Seen Should Encourage You

Most of my career has been in the UK. But having spent four of the last five years living in and facilitating such conversations in the USA, criss-crossing the vast country from deep conservative to deep liberal territory, I see the political lines in the UK now re-drawn on ones that more closely resemble the US. To over-simplify; less about democratic socialism or free-market capitalism and who in society they work more and less in favour of, and more about traditional definitions of liberalism and conservatism.

While the distance in understanding and co-operation between the left and right in America is regrettable and by all means still avoidable in the UK, it is not the entire story. Travelling through a total of 18 states in my four years, I met so many different people who wanted something similar – to build a future together with their communities through mutual support.

Using the broadest brush strokes, the right envisioned prosperity through independence and freedom to action ideas without being hindered by what they saw as the draining interference of institutions that hold power; not limited to government. The left wanted prosperity through equity and collective action without hinderance or exploitation from institutions that hold power; not limited to government. A conservative family I met in rural North Carolina would use almost identical language to describe the same desires for their community and lives as the liberal Millennials I met in downtown Portland.

Conservatives would talk about the closeness of their community, how they help out people in hard times and come together to volunteer, fundraise for local schools and community projects. However, the polarisation of language and the ‘othering’ and labelling of groups in the US of the last half century would mean they rejected words such as socialism as effectively equated with communism, or worse. Liberals would talk about communities coming together and organising resources and local power to effect change despite the authorities blocking the way or dragging their feet. Both were united in their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

But I, often playing or being the naïve outsider, always felt welcome with every threshold I crossed.

Interviewing people in context (i.e. homes, workplaces) allows rich observation and insight into values, behaviours and attitudes. Photo by Darryl James / Ziba Design

Why What We Need and Want and Have Should Encourage All Of Us

The fact that we as practitioners consistently share these ‘kitchen table insights’ out in the open might have meant the politicians we criticise for a lack of answers would listen and take informed action. For us, and I mean all of us, we understand more than ever that we should take more responsibility and diligence in disseminating and sharing information, and look to ourselves and to each other for answers. Democracy demands responsibility and vigilance from every citizen to maintain democracy. We want to prosper, to help each other prosper and to be enabled to prosper by our institutions, not ignored or served-to in ways that don’t hold meaning for us.

Today and tomorrow, deep understanding is needed to heal wounds, bridge divides and counteract the disenfranchisement of the public from each other, and the services, institutions, professionals and the state that should enable robust communities and better futures, but are often seen as under threat and under influences that work to dismantle this.

The public may find it easier to turn away from those with different views, but I would implore everyone to be patient, to listen and to share views. Whichever ‘side’ of ‘us’ and ‘them’, or whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on.

From my experience in creating public services and enabling communities, it’s the only way things get built that last.

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Endless building of ‘gold bricks in the sky’ – property as landlord ROI and individualist speculation rather than homes, housing and community – New York, NY