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, chipping way at society’s biggest 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 would 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 political 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.”


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 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 in 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 18 states I met so many different people who wanted something similar – to build a future together with their communities through mutual support. The right envisioned prosperity through independence without being hindered by what they saw as the draining interference of big government. The left wanted prosperity through equity without hinderance or exploitation from corporations so big they skew the actions of the state. A conservative family I met in rural North Carolina would use almost identical language to describe the same desire as the liberal Millennials I met in downtown Portland.

I always felt welcome with every threshold I crossed.

Pollsters and politicians might be envious of this insight were we not always seeking to share it.

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

Such access might have meant the politicians we criticise for a lack of answers would have a more certain plan. 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. 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.