I’m one of Innovation Unit’s newest staff members, working within the Service Design team, or the ‘Studiu’. Since I’ve already been here 6 weeks or so, I thought it high time I introduced myself properly. My background is mainly in environmental sustainability campaigning and policy work. With a degree in International Relations & Development Studies from the decidedly left-leaning, activist-grounded University of Sussex, I emerged passionate about social change, particularly at that time climate change as an all-encompassing, systemic issue. Although my degree might not have equipped me very obviously for the ‘real world’, it did give me an unrivalled grounding in the theoretical underpinnings of a critical, ecological mindset – that is a ‘systems’ or ‘design’ thinking perspective which is unafraid to examine big questions. (Thank you, Sussex.)
Sustainability was – and is – for me the most pressing issue for my generation, and in my early career I focused very specifically on the environmental component of this broad agenda. I thus spent quite a lot of time as an undergraduate, and shortly after, doing unpaid work for a number of large environmental NGOs, notably Friends of the Earth, the RSPB, WWF International and Green Futures magazine, applying my theoretical knowledge to the frustrating confines of the real world. Always a tough but necessary lesson for a fresh-faced, wannabe change-maker! Exposure included stints doing parliamentary lobbying, research, advocacy and communications.
A few grassroots projects later, I realised that in order to make change happen in a 21st century world, I wanted to position myself at the cross-section of doing and thinking between sectors, and not limit myself to one. I thus joined the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), working primarily with business leaders, but also with academics, policymakers and NGO practitioners, in promoting the business case for sustainability. Here I project coordinated and managed a number of large initiatives, including The St. James’s Palace Nobel Laureates Symposium on Climate Change and The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders’ Group on Climate Change, particularly managing a campaign to recruit signatories for The Copenhagen Communique on Climate Change – an international business statement calling for progressive action on climate change. I learnt to engage on strategic sustainability issues, to communicate with a business audience on a critically important social challenge and also, most importantly, to understand the mechanisms and principles of achieving change within large organisations and systems. During my time at CPSL, I also co-authored a report on Transformational Change Models, which looked at the different policy and technology tools available for climate proofing society to create a draft framework for business and UK government action.
I left CPSL to focus my activities on my analytical skills, becoming a freelance research consultant for almost two years. I continued to work with CPSL on research and analysis projects, particularly working with The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders’ Group on Climate Change on, for example, policy position papers, and also joined an international development consultancy to support research projects on energy, environment, development and sustainability. I also worked with the Institute of Actuaries and the Global Sustainability Institute, supporting research on limits to growth and natural resource peaks. During my time as a freelancer I really consolidated my research and analysis skills, and immersed myself in the high-level world of policy, trends and insights. Although I enjoyed this aspect, I was beginning to crave hands-on contact with on-the-ground solutions and developed a hunger for implementation, as opposed to simply research. My interests were starting to broaden away from a concrete focus on environmental issues, towards a more holistic understanding of wider social factors that, in my mind, were fundamentally intertwined into the sustainability agenda. I was also beginning to realise that sustainability was a design problem, so needed designers, or those with a design-mindset, to tackle it.
As a result, I began to get interested in service design as a tool for social innovation. I’d never heard of service design before, and was intrigued to come across an emerging profession which had both a theoretical approach and the methodology and tools for implementing that into action. Theory and practice fusing before my eyes! Hoorah! Here was something interdisciplinary and strategic but also hands-on, creative and people-centred; it offered a way to bridge the gap between research and implementation, understanding and solving problems, consultancy for facts and facilitation for action, learning through information and learning by doing. It was also grounded in a design-thinking approach to solving challenges, and when applied to the social sector, seemed to be a powerful tool for change grounded in the confines of real systems. All of these things hugely excited me – I was going to become a service designer!
Through taking on a community project based at social enterprise Union Cycle Works, working with unemployed 16 -25s from the Lewisham borough through a cycle mechanics training and personal development programme, I experimented with service design tools and techniques to design and deliver the programme. I also organised London’s first Global Sustainability Jam – a 48-hour event focused on using service design to come up with service-based solutions for sustainability challenges. Through gaining understanding and grounding in service design, I began to look for a more sustained role in which I could grow and develop my skills. Having been interested in Innovation Unit’s work for quite some time, particularly its commitment to radical change within real structures, I was keen to get on board, and learnt that the service design team was expanding.
Joining the Innovation Unit has been a whirlwind journey, often into foggy, tricky territory. I am learning how to grapple with big, practical problems (like designing a prevention model for Buckinghamshire County Council’s adult and social care service), filtering through reflection (often with big-brained colleagues) towards clarity and recommendations for actual implementation (such as principles for how to tackle youth obesity within Southwark Council). Fusing theory and practice, as well as research and action, is a messy, imperfect business. Luckily I am surrounded by those very experienced in the ways of path-finding within complexity. I am in good company and look forward to learning – and doing – more. (Thank you, Innovation Unit.)