Creative Arena – Case study: Designing Out Crime

Spending money to save money is always an attractive option, especially when it comes to high-profile public issues such as crime. Last year the Home Office put up £3m for the launch of the Design and Technology Alliance, which aims to bring together designers and wider industry with the public sector, crime prevention experts and victims of crime, to look at ways of fighting crime through more effective design. The alliance’s programme is called Designing Out Crime and runs in parallel to the Central St Martins College of Art and Design’s Design Against Crime Research Centre, set up in 2001 by Dr Lorraine Gamman and officially accredited in 2005. The alliance is looking at five key areas where it hopes to make a difference: schools, housing, ‘hot products’ – which involves finding ways to make gadgets such as mobile phones and iPods less attractive to thieve – alcohol-related crime and business crime.

Home Office Minister Alan Campbell, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary responsible for crime reduction, says using design to prevent crime and protect potential victims is a high priority. ‘It is part of the new crime strategy and it’s an increasingly important part of what we do.’

The Home Office has worked closely with the Design Council and the other members of the Design and Technology Alliance. Campbell says he has been impressed by the way designers approach the challenges involved. ‘Designers come to this from a different perspective. It is very rewarding to sit with them and discuss the possibilities,’ he says.

A key issue to emerge from the discussions is that, although the project is being driven by the public sector, it will demand change from the private sector. Crucially, it must involve privatesector companies taking more responsibility for the safety of their customers, says Campbell. ‘It’s an extension of corporate responsibility,’ he says. ‘They must focus on making sure the product is safe from criminality, and that the users of it are safe too.’

So in Campbell’s view, mobile phones that are attractive to thieves put users at risk of a mugging, and the manufacturers should take steps to make them less appealing to criminals. The idea follows the proposition of the Cox Review – that public-sector projects will filter change down to private industry – and shifts the cost burden of a project to reduce mobile phone theft back to the manufacturers.

The Hot Products initiative, which has £1.6m of funding, is challenging design consultancies and manufacturers to team up and develop products that will be less appealing to thieves, using a procurement model similar to one pioneered by the Department of Health.

‘I think there is an appetite for a situation where there is somebody senior in every ministry who is responsible for the quality of design thinking. I think the Home Office has got the ball rolling quite early on,’ says Sebastian Conran, managing director of Studio Conran, who is leading the Design and Technology Alliance.

‘The emphasis is very much on design thinking, rather than design. If you say “design thinking” the perception is that it’s not just about what things look like. Design thinking is a process; design is a verb not a noun.’

Widespread potential to use design to reduce crime has been identified. On a local and practical level crime could be reduced, for example, by redesigning public parks to remove large shrubs that might be creating sheltered areas popular with drug users. Opening such areas out to be more visible means such antisocial behaviour becomes less common or, at least, moves somewhere else.

At the other end of the scale, cutting-edge technology can also be used to fight crime. The Identity and Passport Service division of the Home Office has been looking at biometric technology for a number of uses – not least for passports and identity cards. But the technology could also be integrated into popular devices such as personal stereos and mobile phones, meaning only registered owners could use them.

Neil Fisher, vice-president of Global Security Solutions at technology group Unisys, says the technology is not only available, but is getting better and cheaper all the time. ‘With touchscreen mobile phones there is the opportunity to install a biometric device, either for facial recognition or a fingerprint reader,’ he says. ‘USB memory sticks with fingerprint readers are already available.’

At the volumes in which popular mobile phones are produced, the current cost for such a feature would be around an extra £5, says Fisher – pointing out that as phone handsets are subsidised by network providers, consumers would be unlikely to see any change in cost. Laptops could be made less attractive to thieves in the same way, he says.

And while no anti-crime technology is perfect in a constantly developing world, it can deter or resist casual thieves. ‘The best analogy is the car,’ says Fisher. ‘We don’t think twice about having a set of keys for our cars, but until the 1940s they were just left open. People can get past the locks, but you wouldn’t buy a car without them.’

Crime fear statistics
The Design Council surveyed 1000 11- to 15- year-old young people in England about their experiences of crime and how their hot products are at risk. The survey found that:

  • 12% say they have been a victim of crime in the past three years
  • A quarter say they have had a hot product snatched from them, and a third have been pickpocketed
  • A third of the victims were distracted by headphones, texting or talking on a phone, or playing a games console when they were targeted
  • 97% of young people carry a gadget at some point, 85% have mobile phones, and 35% have MP3 players
  • Two-thirds of young people estimate their gadgets to be worth more than £100, while 42% estimate they are worth more than £200
  • Almost two-thirds of young people worry about crime

Mobile Phone Security Challenge:
The Mobile Phone Security Challenge gives teams of designers and technology specialists the chance to help reduce the number of mobile phones that are stolen, and to head off some future problems while they are at it.

Mobiles are increasingly likely to be used for financial transactions in the future as mcommerce technology becomes more widespread. Already, 80% of the 4 billion phones in use contain information that could help criminals commit fraud.

Teams entering have been given three core aims: to make phone handsets harder or less desirable to steal; to make the data on the phones harder or less desirable to steal, and to make future m-commerce transactions secure and fraud-proof.

Four winning teams will each be rewarded with a £100 000 prize, supplied by the Technology Strategy Board.

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