How to design for uncertainty - RSA

How to design for uncertainty


  • Economic democracy
  • Design

Can you remember when the first lockdown was finally lifted?

It’s easy to be so focused on the present and worried about the future that we forget about the times we have passed through. The distance travelled. The challenges overcome. This is, in part, why I published a framework in April - to support people to track those changes over time.

Reviewing what has changed and what we’ve learned is important. So, I’d like to offer a community perspective on the pandemic from June. In particular, as I shared at a recent RSA event, I want to reflect on what we’re learning about the need for flexibility and responsiveness in the face of uncertainty. 

A community perspective

In the summer, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the School of Social Entrepreneurs to run some sessions with a variety of community businesses and groups in the North West of England.

I thought I'd take you back to early summer and share their stories in their own voices:

  • "There's fear, anxiety, worry amongst parents; services and support networks that used to exist now not running."
  • "Have changed our activities. Adapted to running an emergency food relief project rather than doing our group activities."
  • "Have set up a phone-based befriending service partnering younger and older isolated people. Moving all radio production and contact to phone and web-based learning and outreach. Managed to pivot funding and get some more in to support our project."
  • "With a physical centre being closed, delivery of sessions to adults with disability has been done via video, CD’s and even tapes (yes, remember them!)."
  • "For most of our young people home is not home as we know it. Home to them is injurious and chaotic. We have extended support hours and also offer support to family members who have very little parenting skills."
  • "Our service delivery is now remote, this has meant no working face-to-face, no mentoring in schools etc. Sole focus has been to continue engagement and keep children and young people safe."

A look back

To make sense of things, we look for stories. To make sense of the current moment, we’re looking at the history of how we got here - recognising that we interpret those events through our own filters and experience.

In the UK, part of the story is the deliberate policy of austerity. Local government has been weakened by severe budget cuts handed down from central Government over the last decade.

This has led to a perfect storm of service cuts, dis-investment in our more deprived communities, and rising demand for critical services. Many people were already living with poor health, lack of opportunity, food poverty, economic insecurity, and so on before the pandemic.

The result has been to reduce our resilience as individuals, as communities, as organisations. We have marginalised large areas of the UK and left some groups of our population particularly vulnerable. And now we are seeing what happens when a pandemic hits.

A crisis will serve to accelerate and amplify pre-existing trends, sometimes intensifying fault lines and revealing deep structural challenges; sometimes offering opportunities for change and hope.

So how can we respond to these challenges and opportunities?

Designing responses in a time of uncertainty

We might decide our first step is to stop and revise our vision statement or strategic goals to better reflect these changing circumstances. If we do that, our task becomes to work towards that vision from the present. But the risk is that could make us blinkered. We could miss the possibilities of now as they emerge if we over-focus on a new mission.

We might try to logically plan our way ahead, based on analysis of cause and effect relationships and a review of the literature on good practice responses when faced with a pandemic. But by the time we’ve, diagnosed the challenge, dreamed up some solutions, turned them into a specification, put the brief out to market, evaluated tenders, concluded a contracting process, hosted the kick-off meeting, started to develop the delivery can see why now might not be the time for a full process.  

So how can we design responses when we're dealing with complexity and uncertainty?

We need to get comfortable with being in an emergent situation – a time where things are still evolving and growing. We need to figure out how we can take out next steps together. And we need to recognise everything we do changes the system.

The community groups I spoke to in the summer show the importance of this. They were continuously scanning to see what's changing and using that feedback to inform their next actions. As they said:

  • It’s amazing what can be achieved when we have to think on our feet.
  • There's a real feeling that now is the time to re-evaluate and do things differently.
  • Now is not a time to be perfect, sometimes raw content and just stepping up in a situation is key.
  • Not knowing what the future holds and not being able to plan or prepare; exploring new avenues, or possibilities; reacting to keep the business afloat, tapping into funding streams, not allowing for much reflection/strategizing
  • Being flexible to future crises.

These community leaders saw the needs presenting in front of them and they did something. And as those needs have changed, so has their work. They didn't standardise, they absorbed variety.

They reacted to emergence, they didn't excessively plan and follow fixed delivery models. As opportunities presented themselves, so they responded. They were able to see what works and what doesn't, and amplify the former and move on from the latter.

Would they think of themselves as designers? Probably not. Yet they were all, to some extent, designing their service or business, on the fly. They were responding as the world and systems and relationships changed around them.

They were living change.

This is what we mean at the RSA when we talk about Living Change. People who can think systemically and act entrepreneurially, like those whose stories I'm sharing, are needed now more than ever. Those who can both see the bigger picture and act when and where it’s needed.

More than the year of the pandemic

We are not living through a single crisis. We are living through many. Crises of social and racial justice, climate change, poverty... and crises caused by Covid, especially around mental health and employment. I think how well we handle these crises depends (at least to some extent) on how well we learn from our responses to Covid-19.

I'll finish by quoting one community business leader who I thought beautifully summed up the idea that coping with these crises requires learning and resilience:

“It’s the feeling of riding a ‘coronacoaster’ of wobbles and overwhelming days, but then days of great inspiration and of communities working together to tackle the issues”

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