Youth unemployment is a long-standing challenge in Wolverhampton, with 16-24 year-olds in the city three times more likely to be unemployed than the national average across other age groups. The City of Wolverhampton hosted a constellation of teams from city government, public services, a specially-formed youth council, local businesses and charities, higher and vocational education and training institutes. Partnering with the Design Council, we developed a human-centred programme to build capability and connections between stakeholders, and prospects and prosperity for young people. We combined our knowledge of what works with a reflective and responsive process, coaching teams and infusing a systemic design and asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to deliver a portfolio of initiatives, and a toolkit to help the program become self-sustaining.
Young People Have it Tough
As we all struggle to cope with a perfect storm of overlapping ‘once in a generation’ social, economic and environmental crises, younger people have fewer job opportunities, and more of their futures to lose.
In the last decade and a half we have seen a global financial crash accelerate the rentier economy and put previously average goals such as home ownership out of reach. Brexit continues to disrupt our systems nationally, and the climate crisis is shifting our way of life on all fronts globally. The Covid-19 pandemic cut lives short, changed how and where we live and work and created an even deeper recession than 2007-8.
Employment trends paint a similarly difficult picture with the atomisation and devaluing of labour accelerated by the atypical and insecure work of the gig economy (where one third of 18- to 34-year-olds now work), the cost of living crisis causing a fall in living standards not seen since the 1950s and the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars. Around the world, employment levels of 18-24 year olds in OECD countries are frequently double that of the national average.
Young people indeed have it tough. But our young people are better educated and informed than any generation before them. There may be an abundance of ashes right now, but phoenixes will rise.
Wolverhampton’s Acute Challenges
Wolverhampton’s youth unemployment figures are by some accounts the highest in the country, yet there are high numbers of vacancies in the city. Before the pandemic, many types of high street businesses not threatened by the shift to online shopping, and many types of jobs not directly threatened by automation were imagined to be somewhat safe. The past two years’ churn of businesses and jobs has increased both vacancies and unemployment levels, yet this is not a simple case of matching up these two loose ends.
We need solutions that improve the education and preparation of young people for a world that is changing dramatically, and helps the labour market and individuals to continue to evolve and develop robustness and resilience amidst changes that we see, and others we can’t. The only constant is change, and if we’re not building people’s adaptability and improvisation we will keep ending up here.
Systemic Design and a Diversity of Voices
From the outset, the core team broadened the diversity of voices feeding into not just the working sessions, but the programme’s direction and trajectory itself. A key inclusion was the establishment of a Youth Council – local young people who weren’t just full of good ideas and critique, but ensured an accountability and grounding that avoided the common trap of ‘designing for user groups’, rather than truly with people.
The programme followed the Design Council’s internationally recognised and adopted Double Diamond – a model that summarises what a ’typical’ design process can look and feel like which was developed around 2005 when I was a wide-eyed intern at the DC. Currently, the Design Council is revising, expanding and experimenting with this model as part of its Systemic Design Framework – in order to take better account of the wider factors influencing any design process, context, change and stakeholders. Our work with Wolverhampton is one of the Design Council’s many projects currently probing, stress-testing and reflecting on how designing change might better appreciate and engage with wider systems and influences.
What remains core is design’s role in championing the needs, assets and experiences of all stakeholders involved in developing new solutions and reaching outcomes. There is not a more powerful tool available to a designer than the voices of stakeholders. With our more diverse constellation of participants we are able to construct more complex and ambitious outcomes to aim for that no single organisation or sector could tackle on its own. With our wider systemic lens we can anticipate, work with and even take advantage of the disruptions and ripples of interventions becoming real and interacting with other systems from local business incentives, planning laws, cultural biases, education frameworks and local policymaking.
Improve Systems to Sustain Good Ideas
Four teams were created to each represent a cross-section of organisations, roles and interests. This ensured that throughout the programme communication enabled empathy, collaboration forged understanding and familiarity created approachability. These shifts in culture are critical both for building and sustaining today’s ideas, and creating an environment for future conversations and collaborations to get off the ground, long after the programme’s intensity has dissipated. This working time between the more formal sessions was invaluable for building relationships that can sustain future initiatives. Similarly, the core design team adjusted the process to work quickly and deeply in the background and between sessions to help synthesise research and ideas, and ground them in context and best practice.
Each of the four teams worked across organisations and silos to develop their ideas, and presented to a wider audience of community stakeholders in a show and tell session finale. The teams performed brilliantly (while writing this I may be having a proud coach moment) as each idea was pitched and unpacked. This event represented a preliminary finish line for the programme proper. But as is often the case, the learning, connections, relationships and trust built throughout is of such value that the process can be described as both the means to get to the finish line, and an end unto itself.
The ideas presented were a Life Skills Passport to consolidate the wider range of skills and qualifications on offer amongst young people, and to help translate this to application in employment. An Employment and Skills App to connect young people and employers by improving the speed and communication between these two spheres. An Aspiration Ambassadors scheme to improve the frequency and diversity of contact between local role models and those still earlier on in their journey. A Provider Network and sustained series of events to bring together those who seek to connect job opportunities to young people.
The ideas should feel familiar to those working in the field of youth employment, local and city government and economic regeneration. The above are co-created variants on familiar tropes. Through research they are localised, grounded, relevant and meaningful to the people, the city and their unique characteristics of its communities. Through prototyping they are more robust and those delivering them are wiser and better informed. Through sharing assets and by being multi-agency and multi-sector delivered they are more ambitious in their goals. What is personally more significant is a universal recognition amongst the teams in moments when we developed ideas that were re-inventions of things that had gone before: That the idea is often solid but systemic factors such as the infrastructure, policy, human knowledge, resources and political will to sustain something, is the reason for past failure and what therefore should be the focus of the next generation of more sustainable, robust and locally-grounded innovations. This need to appreciate, accommodate, change and shift the systemic forces around our efforts is key in order to move on from simply ideas to their successful application: which for me is the definition of innovation, and the route to impact.