Hilary Cottam: Social problems can be solved by using new digital solutions

Social designer and Design Indaba Conference speaker Hillary Cottam posits that digital tools are the key to innovative solutions to modern social problems.

Hilary Cottam is a pioneer and an innovator in the field of social design. Cottam has used design and technology to facilitate social change in Latin America, Southern Africa and Europe. Cottam’s Design Indaba Conference talk touched on a selection of the work that she’s done to redesign the British welfare state over the last ten years.

In this interview, Cottam said that “digital [is] absolutely going to be the spine and the core of finding new ways to solve social problems.”

Using digital tools, Cottam has designed several tools to cure some of society’s pressing problems such as the socially isolated elderly population and unemployment in society’s youth. Circle, Cottam’s tool to address loneliness among the elderly, brings older people together using technology. The participants offer to socialise, help, and support one another and through this practice, the tool facilitates the growth of natural relationships. Using design, Cottam has also created a prototype for a developmental service for young people, which helps them gain employment.

“It’s an area where we’re only just beginning to work, it’s extremely difficult. On the one hand, what we do in the UK is use technology to prop services that are too old and shouldn’t continue,” says Cottam.

“And the other is that its very early in the world of technology and my experience is that it’s quite difficult because people who are kind off offay with technology – it's their world – they see things from a digital way out, they don’t see things from a social way in, and so we have to kind of think of the digital through the social and rather than the other way round.”

Cottam was the first "non-designer" to win the UK Designer of the Year in 2005. Her work shows how design thinking can be used to improve governmental systems. 

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