Redesigning the British Welfare State with Hilary Cottam

British social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam is working to innovate and update the Welfare State.

Hilary Cottam is motivated by a desire to really understand how people live and how you can be an impactful change maker. Her career began in Africa and Latin America, but more recently Cottam has been focussed on how to redesign the British Welfare State, which has been largely the same since the 1950s.  

Published in 1942, Sir William Beverage’s document outlining the responsibilities of the Welfare State remains one of the most powerful vehicles for social change. But the world of today is quite a different one. The problem areas are the same: poverty, health care, jobs and education, but the tools with which to address these problems have dramatically changed. 

“How can we harness new innovations?” asks Cottam. 

Cottam uses design as a way of thinking in her approach to the rethinking social policy because design has the ability to help you see things from a different perspective.  

“Design isn’t about making the best of the old, design is about starting something new,” says Cottam.

She shares stories from two significant projects. Circle is a social network for communities that allows and encourages interaction and exchange. New social relationships are built around required practical ones, with remarkable results. In communities who use circle visits to the doctors dropped by 70 per cent, because many of these visits – especially amongst elderly patients – came out of a need for human contact and a bit of a chat. 

The second project Cottam shares address the problem of unemployment in the UK. Cottam’s team discovered that eight out of 10 jobs are never formally advertised: most jobs are found word of mouth. Therefore your chances of finding employment are vastly increased by an expanded network. 

“Social transformation only really happens when you include the space for individual people and human connections.”

Cottam and her team have created a remake of The Welfare State document, calling it Beverage 4.0. It has four principles at its core.

It is human; it starts with people not institutions. It’s creative; it doesn’t just manage the problem - it starts to build people’s capabilities. It’s pragmatic; even with scarce resources you work with what you’ve got. It is distributive; it is all about networks. 

Above all else it is all about relationships and building systems that foster deeper connection.