Ideas to Action: Design Council & GoodGym

[Title image credit: @sarahrajabalee]

Ideas to Action is a partnership between Sport England and the Design Council. Its mission is to help organisations with great ideas to support some of the least active groups in society to become more active. As part of the programme I mentored sixteen organisations ranging from the national bodies of particular sports to local authorities, social enterprises and charities. All of these were seeking to use design thinking to find and deliver new solutions with the people they aim to serve. It was an honour to field problems and share my expertise, wisdom and support.

“The programme is about doing things differently: working together and finding new solutions – based on what people want and need – to bring about positive and lasting change…It aims to find new ways to overcome inequalities in physical activity. This is vitally important. These inequalities are persisting or even worsening for some groups during the pandemic.”

I was also asked to contribute to one of a series of webinars for the larger national cohort of sporting and community organisations. I decided to present a cause very close to my heart, but importantly also show its origins in asset based community development (ABCD) as a way to inspire the audience to seek out new ways of delivering services with communities.

My talk is up first at the start of the video, but if you’re tight for the 10 minutes to watch it, there’s a summary of the points I make written below.

There’s also a great Design Council ideas to Action Report summarising the impact and outcomes of the programme now available.

Our communities are alive with services.

In the public sector, we interact with services every day from transport to health, social services and education. In the private sector services invlude everything from local retail to international banks, restaurants to airlines. And the third sector works to improve our environment, society and economy through charities, support workers, campaigns, research and funding. Services are over 80% of our economy, and what makes our days, our places and our society tick.

The provider-customer dynamic is often one-way.

Even when we do our best to understand the lives of people, and design better services, we often treat end users, customers, patients students, citizens as the receiver. We design for and serve to, not with. Resources and expertise are often brought in from outside, profits may be abstracted and extracted so that they are never recycled within that area. many services across the public, private and third sectors have a long way to go to shift philosophy and transform themselves to be truly and and of the places and people they are seeking to impact.

Our neighbourhoods are teeming with potential.

Through formal and informal services, and by simply using a different lens with which to look out our communities, we can see them as teeming with assets and potential. Residents have lifetimes of knowledge and skills that could be harnessed and re-purposed. Local green spaces offer an abundance of opportunities for learning, health and socialising. Idle cars and transit could be re-purposed to maximise their use in ways never originally intended. An Asset-Based Community Development approach offers an opportunity to harness under-used assets, and bring in community actors at the same time to help co-produce new services. This is particularly helpful in communities where services could make a difference, but using traditional models would make an intervention unviable.

Where ‘we’ is a core of decision makers, with the public on the outside and ‘done to’
[Isometric image credit: Maxim Popov]

Even abstract assets can be revolutionary.

Some assets can be more easy to overlook. We can see vacant retail units and school buses sat idle for hours during the day. We can get a good picture of intangible assets such as the skills, knowledge and occupations of residents by speaking with them, surveying and convening.

GoodGym harnesses the energy people would expend in a gym, and puts it to good use. As founder Ivo Gormley puts it, “Picking up heavy things that don’t need picking up, and putting them back right where you found them, then getting on a treadmill and running nowhere.” Besides the individual good purpose of being fitter and healthier, this energy can and should be used for a collective good purpose, by diffusing it into our streets and communities. Goodgym is a charity where people get fit by doing good through physical activities out in the community. We run to make weekly visits to older isolated people; we gather in large groups to help out at community centres, schools and local green spaces; we visit homes to cut back gardens to make them more accessible and dismantle furniture indoors to make room for NHS beds so that people can come home from hospital earlier.

My two parting challenges for the audience were:

1. Start with an area’s strengths rather than its needs: Identify the assets communities have to contribute

2. Design platforms that enable rather than services that provide: Support communities and citizens to meet their challenges

A Bit More About GoodGym Because I won’t Shut Up About It

GoodGym was founded by fellow service designer Ivo Gormley in 2009, after making a visit to a recently widowed and somewhat isolated family friend a more regular thing, picking up a newspaper and jogging in the process. Formerly a consultant working with multiple clients at ThinkPublic, he is one of the few consultants I know from the early days of service design who ‘married’ one idea and pursued it. While living and working in the US, I held up GoodGym as a case study to convince clients of the merits of the approach, and to get colleagues interested in social innovation. On my return to the UK in 2015, it was fate that my very first client was GoodGym as part of a cohort of six charities and social enterprises in my charge that I was mentoring and developing scaling plans with.

On a personal note, returning to London and the UK was a bumpy landing. Missing the optimism, openness and positivity of the west coast in my working life, I knew that I also needed to find new ways to be more at home in my unfamiliar North London surroundings. I had a very strong feeling that GoodGym would stick. I’d always wanted to improve my running habits, and socialising with a bunch of fellow ‘do-gooders in red t-shirts’ appealed greatly. Seven years later, I have volunteered over 400 times, made friends for life, ambled out of the front door for a run over 1000 times, become a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and regularly consider myself lucky to have found GoodGym. As I write, GoodGym has 20,048 members in 59 areas across the UK who have helped 34,553 people with 289,313 good deeds.

GoodGym has been a big part of my life for the past seven years. I hope that if this is the day you discover it, it’s also the day you decide to give it a try.