Joining up the dotts

Dott Cornwall’s aim is to change the way that services are developed and delivered via a co-design process. Scott Billings asks how can we measure its impact, what has it delivered and what will be its lasting legacy?

As Designs of the Time Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly readies to launch its final major project this month (News, DW 23 September), it is a good time to look at the achievements and challenges of the Dott programme, ahead of its closing early next year. What were Dott Cornwall’s aims, what has it delivered and what will be its legacy?

Dott is hard to evaluate because it is hard to define. Developed originally by the Design Council for a 2007 programme in the North East, Dott’s ambitious aim is to radically change the way that services, typically public and community-based, are developed and delivered. The method it promotes is a co-design process where end-users, service providers and designers all collaborate in originating, testing and implementing services to address wide-ranging social issues.

Andrea Siodmok, programme director of Dott Cornwall, describes Dott as an ’ethos’ or framework which provides a process for working in a different way. ’To pin it down is quite tricky. It’s a bit like asking “What is the internet?” – it’s mostly a tool, an enabler,’ says Siodmok. Nevertheless, Dott has three main objectives, she says: to develop projects through community participation; to develop skills and knowledge locally; and to put the spotlight on Cornwall’s creativity.

Unlike Dott 07, Cornwall’s projects aren’t fully funded by Dott – some have multiple funders, including the European Union, and therefore multiple clients. Projects include Cornwall Works 50+, which addresses the challenges and obstacles faced by an ageing population at work, and the Eco Design Challenge, which askedYear Eight schoolchildren how design might reduce their school’s ecological footprint.

One of the programme’s primary funders is Cornwall Council. Its chief executive Kevin Lavery says some of the pilot projects will be developed into schemes post-Dott, but that it may be the approach itself that is the major legacy for Cornwall. ’We put money into this because we wanted more innovation, user involvement and community action in public services. I’m keen to internalise the Dott approach in the council so that it’s how we do things in the future. The dream would be a new kind of council, which means changing a lot of the typical processes and culture here,’ says Lavery.

Yet Dott Cornwall is not without critics. Although Cornish design groups were involved in the programme, some local designers feel too much work was given to London consultancies. ’I think there is a risk of it parachuting in a team, spending lots of money and then leaving a vacuum behind,’ says one source.

Certainly, there’s no guarantee Cornwall’s design sector will benefit from higher demand post-Dott, although there is general agreement that involvement has been beneficial for everybody. ’I think the process has affected some designers very deeply,’ says Alan Livingston, chairman of Dott Cornwall and former rector of University College Falmouth. ’It has challenged some consultancies to work in different ways. Some have embraced this, others have found it more difficult. But it’s opened up the use of these processes to design consultancies and they have become less inclined to believe design always understands the problem and has the solution.’

Some observers say that although Dott ’feels good’, it is hard to measure its impact in any concrete way. Nonetheless, external evaluators will look at the programme before it closes at the end of the financial year, reporting on harder measures such as return on investment and value for money.

But in many ways, Dott’s legacy will be revealed over the longer run. Ian Drysdale, head of projects at service design group Think Public, says, ’For the culture to change at Cornwall Council and for it to filter into commissioning processes could take a couple of years. Most design groups are looking at paying next month’s bills, so I wouldn’t recommend a wholesale shift to service and co-design straight away, as happened to some groups in the North East.’

As we head towards the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and await the results of the review of the Design Council, the prospect of future Dott programmes is uncertain. Understandably, stakeholders are keen to present Dott Cornwall as a leading example of how Big Society might function: communities, service providers, designers and innovators getting together to define and solve their own issues, locally.

Whether it is politically expedient to frame it this way or not, the Dott programme certainly offers an intensive and fertile laboratory in the emerging practice of user co-design and community participation.

Its successes and failures are being keenly observed internationally, as well as at home.

Dott Cornwall facts and figures
Partners (and funding)/ Design Council (£500 000), Cornwall Council (£300 000), Technology Strategy Board (£250 000), University College Falmouth
Additional funding from Convergence European Economic Regeneration
36 designers on the panel and 13 on the senior producer panel
Ten projects
Academic legacy will include UCF’s planned Academy for Innovation and Research, which will incorporate some Dott approaches

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