The Social Progress Index – how do we measure the quality of life and design better solutions to social issues?

A global think-tank has released its latest measure of social progress. The index ranks nations’ development according to their economic prosperity and social progress by using a range of social, economic and environmental measures. The index compromised three components: ability to provide basic human needs; provision of foundations of well-being and opportunity. Currently, the top three countries are New Zealand, Switzerland and Iceland. Australia is in the top ten nations along with the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Canada. Therefore, according to this index Australia has significant capacity to meet the basic needs of its citizens.

But what is the purpose of the index? One aim is to measure a nation’s capacity to meet the needs of its citizens but another significant aim is to indicate the nation’s capacity for social enterprise, philanthropy and development programmes. If a nation is providing effectively for its own citizens, then people will look for business models that are more environmentally and socially responsible. Prospering nations will be more capable of starting enterprises that are focused on projects that have larger positive impact upon society than just financial gain.

A few weeks ago I attended a HotHouse event at the Powerhouse in Sydney. The evening focused on the question of space – can we develop more sustainable and globally responsible solutions to creating spaces where we work and live. Australia’s position on the Social Progress Index suggests we are well positioned to pursue this goal of seeking better solutions for ourselves and others.

This week in The Conversation (www.theconversation.com), an article raised the topic of the end of the Digital Education Revolution programme in Australian schools. The roll-out of laptops for secondary students has ended and we are now asking the obvious question – where to from here? The dilemma is two-fold: What do we do with ageing hardware sitting in schools or students’ homes without IT support to upgrade or repair it? How do we continue to provide equitable access to students? The problem involves issues of sustainability, environmental responsibility and equity. Now we are the end of the DER programme, the nation needs to approach this type of problem with creativity and the confidence that as a nation we really do have the resources to design solutions for problems such as these but perhaps by considering different values and tactics.

Ed Gardiner, of the Design Council in the UK, regularly writes about using behavioural design to bridge a gap between research and practice to “revolutionise how we tackle social issues” (14/4/14 designcouncil.org.uk). If we combine an understanding of human behaviour and sound design, we can innovate. Being mindful of human tendencies to make decisions intuitively and with little conscious awareness, steers us away from default solutions that “focus on information, skills or incentives”. Basically, behavioural design is aimed at helping people make better decisions. The Design Council’s approach is divided into four stages: discover the problem; define the cause; develop ideas and deliver what works. Last year, I had the opportunity of meeting Ed to discuss this behaviour design approach. Throughout our conversation, Ed emphasised the importance of asking the right questions when trying to understand issue. If the problem that is preventing the achievement of this goal is not identified, you cannot design a solution to achieve a certain goal. Even when the goal is clear, “the problem is often ill-defined and uncertain”, so “embrace this uncertainty by focusing on the people involved” (14/4/14, designcouncil.org.uk) and by defining the “what”, the “why” can be then understood.

Is the end of the Digital Education Revolution in Australian schools a social issue? Yes, it is. The DER funding went towards proliferating hardware and devices in secondary schools and provided unprecedented access to digital communication tools and information in the classroom. Pedagogy was reshaped around this new flow of digital information and availability of technology and continues to develop today. However, the DER programme was shaped around a 1:1 ratio, an unsustainable and possibly an undesirable or unnecessary model. With the government funding coming to an end, the debate surrounding access to technology, its role as a pedagogical tool and the link between students using the latest technology at school and preparation for the jobs of the future (the original aim of the Digital Education Revolution) will intensify as school and their families will need to budget for the technology. This is where it becomes a social issue. Before moving forward with ideas of simply sourcing replacement funds to continue the DER programme, we have the opportunity of designing a new solution for achieving the same goal or setting a new goal for technology in our schools.

ABWs, co-working, hot-desking, collaboration in four days

Today I get to see some glitzy workplaces – the Shard and the Lend Lease HQ. But before I go off to be impressed by these places, I thought I would reflect on this week.

I experienced co-working with KindredHQ, talked with two hosts from Islington and Westminster hubs, had a very insightful conversation with a researcher from the Design Council, visited a private enterprise that is a co-working space in Eastbourne and attended a full day conference on workplace trends. In four days I have had the opportunity to sample some of the experiences that are offered in co-working and collaborative spaces, glimpsed the enormous range of options that are emerging as co-working and activity-based spaces and most importantly, talked to many people about working in these new spaces and ways.

I was reminded in my conversation with Ed Gardiner, from the Design Council, that we need to be asking the right questions and identifying the real problem before leaping into designing the solutions. The heart of the problem may not lie where you think it is, so intervention will not bring about the change you desire. Ed commented that in his experience, the educational sector (and in particular, school sector) did not approach the Design Council looking for assistance with designing solutions to problems in this sector, whilst other similar industries like health and justice had. The workplace conference continued with the same theme – ask the right question before seeking the solution. Especially when shaping workplaces and spending millions of dollars (they actually all spoke in terms of pounds and square feet) on real estate, you do not get many opportunities to change direction once committed to a certain path.

The conference had 220 delegates (most were from the UK and Europe) from the property, design, human resources, architectural and research sectors. The only section of the educational sector represented (other than me) was Higher Education, and there main focus was the construction of university campus cities and the new breed of interactive spaces. A day of 45 minute presentations from researcher and architectural firms, exploring the new activity-based-work environments and practices. One delegate ran a blog during the day – so check it out if you are interested: http://www.workessence.com. The blogger was a very witty guy, who gave the plenary address in verse.