Designers want to be part of David Cameron’s ‘big society’

Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision for a big society might be meeting with a predictably mixed reception from political commentators and critics, but many in the design world are ready to embrace the move, which aims to liberate public services from central Government control and put more power into the hands of communities.

Cameron launched his big society plan with a speech in Liverpool last week. With a stated aim to ’get rid of the centralised bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale’, he said, ’We’ve got to give professionals much more freedom, and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need.’

Obviously, the plan is not without controversy, with critics querying how it will be paid for (Cameron’s plan is to use dormant bank accounts to fund projects) and suggesting that the initiative is an attempt to draw attention away from swingeing cuts to the public sector.

However, many in the design world, particularly those involved in social design, have pointed out that if the big society is to be delivered in line with Cameron’s ambitions, good design principles will have to be employed.

Commenting on the current state of public services, Lord Bichard, chairman of the Design Council and director of the Institute of Government, says, ’No designer would have created the dysfunctional web of policies and procedures which, while aiming to reduce reoffending, have instead increased the prison population to record proportions and failed to provide support for short-term prisoners.

’So to make the most of the big society and the myriad providers, voluntary groups and individual volunteers out there, we need people who can bring design disciplines to bear to create cost-effective, client-centred services.’

The Design Council is keen to point to projects it is currently delivering that fit into the big society programme. These include the various initiatives set up by Designs of the Time Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – such as its two showcase projects, dealing with play and sustainable transport – and the Water Design Challenge, run in conjunction with Southern Water, which challenges schoolchildren to design a service, product or campaign that improves the way schools use water.

Social design consultancy Think Public also works on many projects it believes fits into the big society initiative, such as the Dementia Advisors service, to signpost dementia services and help to connect people suffering from dementia with their local communities. Think Public director Deborah Szebeko says she believes the big society can provide ’a platform’ for social design, but adds, ’The challenge is how to make the enterprises sustainable.’

Szebeko says, ’If we really want to bring in the big society and engage citizens we need to do that in an appealing way and motivate people. Design can help to make it exciting.’

Bichard concludes, ’Well-intentioned public-sector workers, volunteers and charities are not sufficient – indeed, their energy and dedication can easily be wasted unless they are channelled effectively. Step forward the world’s best designers.’

Launchpad for the big society

David Cameron has identified four ’vanguard communities’ across the UK for the big society programme:

  • Eden Valley in Cumbria
  • Windsor and Maidenhead
  • Sutton
  • Liverpool

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