Hilary Cottam: Fixing social services through design

Hilary Cottam, a social entrepreneur and "accidental designer" from the UK, talks about how design and technology can be used to fix serious social problems.

“I call myself an accidental designer, because I did accidentally stumble upon the power of a visual way of working and how really important that is for honest conversations and discovering a new way forward.”

British social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam has a background in anthropology and history, and found her way into design by a stroke of fake and genius. She works with a small team of designer thinkers in London, working on projects that aim to reinvent systems and put individuals before institutions.

“Hope for social change is built on relationships, I think it is only through coming together that we can solve the big problems,” says Cottam.

The process of innovation for Cottam and her team is intense. They spend at least three months fully immersed with the people they are designing for and trying to truly get the bottom of what the problem is. 

“Generally the problems that I am presented with are not the cause of the problem, they are the symptoms of the problem. The first part is uncovering really what the problem is,” explains Cottam. “What is the real issue, it’s rarely what you think it is.”

One of the projects Cottam has been working on recently is how to deal with unemployment in the UK.

“In Britain you have this expression ‘shit jobs’, because even if you can find work it’s poorly paid, it’s very difficult to learn on the job and move up the skills curve. I am really interested in how we can change the economy to help young people find good work.”

Another issue is how we can use technology properly to trigger social change. In the UK technology is used to prop up systems that are old and need updating. Prisoners are tagged instead of educated; the elderly are given monitors that bleep when they fall over but do not address the lonely or isolated living conditions that might lead to a fall going unnoticed. 

“Digital is going to be absolutely the spine and the core to a new way of solving social problems.”

In order to use digital tools more effectively, they should be led by social strategies.