Design for Living Change - RSA

Design for Living Change


  • Design
  • Social innovation

The RSA is developing a new approach to ensure its research and innovation have greater impact.

We design at our best in times of uncertainty, urgency and crisis. As the American architect and educator Ann M Pendleton-Jullian puts it: “design for emergence is designing for change in a context or system already in motion.”

Last year gave us all the signals we need to know that now is the time to actively question whether the old normal – designed through habits, values and systems for living, working, making and trading, and how these all intersect with one another – is healthy and sustainable for the long term.

We saw communities and organisations come together to embrace uncertainty as an opportunity for innovation, experimentation and renewal. The value of social capital came to life overnight as neighbourhoods all over the UK formed mutual aid groups to care for the most vulnerable. Within a week of the first UK lockdown, my own local group for our estate had identified champions, designed a support service, created on open toolkit of resources and information using free collaboration platform Trello, and leafleted all 2,000 houses offering and asking for support. Nearly a year later, these groups are already delivering value to members and strengthening community resilience beyond the immediate crisis we all face.

Meanwhile, parts of the public sector that could deliver their services remotely shifted their operations to digital first as soon as they were able to. GP practices are tapping into a national network of GPs beyond the capacity of their local practice in order to be more responsive. They are also using WhatsApp for visual diagnosis of symptoms, making healthcare more convenient for patients and practitioners alike.

Likewise, catering and food production services pivoted their business models with little notice, from business-to-business to business-to-consumer in response to lockdown. Food sourcing company Natoora is only one of many examples, shifting from supplying food to chefs to re-imagining food supply across the entire system: from farming to retail and consumers, and towards food waste elimination. Opening up to wider markets has diversified revenue streams, enabling these businesses to be more responsive in the long term as new challenges emerge.

The Living Change Approach

This is what we mean at the RSA when we talk about Living Change, which is being applied to all our programmes; this includes our work on cities and sustainability. The approach challenges us to think like a system as we strive to understand and define the challenges we are experiencing (the ‘what is’), and to act like an entrepreneur as we innovate and experiment with interventions that shape inclusive, equitable and sustainable futures (the ‘what if’). We need to see the whole system as a complex web of interconnected social events, trends, structures, models and players.

For example, the pandemic has hit minority ethnic groups the hardest because many of them are low-paid key workers risking their lives on the frontline, and because these groups have higher rates of underlying health conditions. Both of these factors are driven by an inequitable social, economic and political system that hinders the ability of these groups to access and negotiate better-paid work and to achieve the living and working conditions that are essential for good physical and mental health. Thinking like a system about these root causes and interdependencies is the first step in achieving a real understanding of what is driving the challenges we face today and where there might be energy for change.

We need to approach change in a way that also allows us to experiment entrepreneurially

We need to approach change in a way that also allows us to experiment entrepreneurially with multiple interventions that alter different nodes and relationships in the system, to learn quickly, to adjust our approach when things do not work and to accelerate when they do. We might, for example, bring together at-risk communities with local authorities, governmental bodies and civil society leaders to design interventions that improve their living and working conditions. At the same time, change may require advocating for equal health, work and pay opportunities, while designing temporary protective factors around these groups until long-term interventions start to take effect. 

Living Change for all

The Living Change Approach is for everyone who is passionate about making social change happen: the professional, the citizen, the activist, the civil servant, the leader, the employee and the student. Historically, however, designing and innovating for change was seen as the work of professionals from the creativity, social change and policy spheres. Thinking and writing on the subject has always been loaded with jargon, as if jargon elevated the practice and as if the learning of the jargon offered a right of passage into the profession.

The Living Change Approach is for everyone who is passionate about making social change happen.

But living change needs to be everyone’s business if we are truly going to shift the needle on today’s intractable social challenges. The Living Change Approach is for everyone who is passionate about making social change happen. The professional, the citizen, the activist, the civil servant, the leader, the employee, the student. Regardless of role, we know we can have better impact when more of us come together around change.

Designing for living change goes beyond the jargon and the tools to encourage and enable a particular mindset for change: an openness to sharing, learning and collaborating; an optimism that looks out for positive opportunities amidst challenging times; a pioneering vantage point with bravery to explore and experiment with the new and unfamiliar; a rigorous outlook and willingness to do the work to understand the why behind the what; and an enabling ethos championing and supporting others on a change journey.

Now, more than ever, we need people who can think systemically and act entrepreneurially.

The RSA has been at the forefront of societal change for over 250 years – our proven Living Change Approach, and global network of 30,000 problem-solvers enables us to unite people and ideas to understand the challenges of our time and realise lasting change.

Make change happen. Find out more about our approach#RSAchange

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