And when you don’t see the whole system, you miss important opportunities for change.
People with Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) make up about 2% of the general population in Victoria. But they are hugely overrepresented in Australia's prisons. An audit of Victoria's prisons in 2011 found 42% of male prisoners, and 33% of female, were diagnosed with ABI. The reasons for this are complex – support needs get overlooked, people with disability are stigmatised, and people get caught in cycles of disadvantage.
A complicated, embedded problem like this can seem intractable and ultimately unsolvable – but perhaps thinking about large scale social issues like this as ‘solvable’ is part of the problem in the first place?
Systems change means thinking less in terms of problem/solution, and more in terms of interconnected causes and effects. Through this lens, you quickly realise you don’t have to ‘solve’ all the problems in the system to change the effects of the system. You only have to find places where changes could reinforce positive effects and reduce negative ones.
By learning about the systems that lead to overrepresentation of people with cognitive disability in the prison population, we can begin to find those places and unlock change through relatively small-seeming interventions.
For example, cognitive impairment is often not immediately visible and so magistrates and and lawyers may miss it as a factor. In the Supporting Justice project, one of the interventions we suggested was the creation of a ‘Preparing for Court’ form – a physical object that a person with cognitive impairment can take with them to court. All they have to do is hand it over to effectively communicate their situation.
We know, by taking a systemic view, that this small change could create a cascade of effects that breaks the cycle of disadvantage and leads to better outcomes for everybody. This doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem, but it begins to shift it in ways that we couldn’t have if we didn’t understand the system in the first place.
This is not a ‘real’ revelation – Indigenous cultures worldwide have known that competition is not the only state of being for living things, and that nature cooperates at least as often as it competes.
This sort of thing falls into a category known as ‘settler epiphanies’ – where colonists ‘discover’ things that have been known by Indigenous cultures for tens of thousands of years (things often actively ignored or suppressed).
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ has been twisted to mean ‘survival of the strongest and fastest’ when it actually meant ‘survival of the best adapted to its environment’ (‘fit’ meaning ‘a good fit’). Some of the most effective adaptations involve the capacity to work cooperatively and pro-socially. Interdependence goes right down to the level of our cells, with mitochondria having originally been a separate, symbiotic organism.
This interpretation of Darwin wasn’t a simple misunderstanding – it was a deliberate myth built up by 19th and 20th century economists and used to justify harsh, austerity-style interventions. Under the influence of this myth, most of our systems end up being designed as competition for scarce resources – social sector funding competition is one egregious example that I’ve spoken about previously.
There is some irony in this. Why do we insist that co-design – cooperative, collaborative design – can work as a method, while also assuming that the systems we design using this method must be competitive?
Western culture has a massive, blinding bias that notices competitive behaviours and ignores patterns of cooperation. Nature is collaborative, and that suggests we can design systems that are too – but our cultural bias severely limits our capacity to do so.
Imagine what we could achieve if we could shake off that bias?
Carbon dioxide traps heat. When fossil fuels burn, it puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it tends to stick around for a while. This traps the heat of the sun. The world gets warmer, which affects the climate, which affects the weather. Which in Australia, means hotter drier summers, and more chance of catastrophic fires.
And now the country is on fire.
But, it is complicated. Why? Because our entire economic system – our entire society – is built on fossil fuel power and extractive industries that creates carbon dioxide. It’s essentially impossible to exist in this country and not use fossil fuels. And the most powerful people on earth – fossil fuel company executives, politicians, media moguls – have built their entire power structure on the existence of this industry and this economic system.
I turned 39 this year. The effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate have been known since before I was born. And – this is important – the people that caused this (not you!), they've known what to do to stop it for my entire life. They just chose not to.
And, my country, your country, our country continues to burn.
This time last year, Greta Thunberg said to the world “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic [...] I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” And at long last, with these fires, the politicians in Australia do seem to be panicking, but they are panicking about the wrong thing. They are panicking about losing their jobs, their power, their own imagined influential futures. When the sheer scale of this disaster forced the prime minister of my country to accept that something needed to be done about climate change, his response, after years of slow-walking and denialism, was “resilience and adaptation”. Nothing to be done, better adapt to the ‘new normal’. Those in power have gone straight from ‘too early to act’, to ‘too late to act’ without missing a beat.
What this tells us is that those in power have no vision for a world in which they aren’t the most powerful, in which our systems aren’t extractive, in which personal gain and profit isn’t the only motive behind their actions. The people that have the most power to choose, that you vote for to choose on your behalf? They have chosen themselves and their position over the rest of us.
Or, as my colleague McKinley Valentine puts it, “climate change is not something that is ‘just happening’, it is something that is being done to you, by people with a lot of money and power who would rather see your country burn than lose a cent.”
Unless you are a fossil fuel executive, or a media magnate, or a politician, you don’t need to feel guilty or responsible for this situation. It’s not your fault. Every action counts, but, as in any system, the actions of some matter more than others. The focus needs to be on changing the system itself. Your reusable coffee cup and your solar panels won’t do it; the world needs to transition to a carbon-free economy as fast as possible. Remember: people made this system, and people can unmake it.
This time last year, I lamented the myopia of ‘human-centred design’ as a solution to the world’s problems, because of the way it fails to account for systemic effects. If any issue requires collective, community, and system-centred action to change, this is it, this is the one.
Yes, the country is on fire. Yes, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But we still get to choose how much worse it gets. Vote, advocate, support those pushing for system change. Join groups doing this work, and help them in any way you can. Because we need to choose together.
Humans are natural pattern finders. We can’t help but search for similarities and differences in behaviour, events, data, so that we feel we can understand the world a little better.
We are also notoriously bad at it. Patterns we find often are biased towards our own worldview, and even knowing which data to consider valid is (and always has been) political.
2019 for us has been a year of attempts at pattern recognition. This is Paper Giant’s third full year in business, and we figured three times through the loop is enough to start connecting some dots.
In that time, we’ve noticed the work get more complex. We’ve noticed that rote methods to problem solving have stopped working, if they ever did. We’ve also noticed that people are growing more comfortable with complexity. Our clients still want and need answers, but they also want to learn how to listen more carefully to their customers and communities, so they can change with them. They expect the answers to their questions to be different to the answers they’ve always gotten.
We’re incredibly proud of the year we've had. In 2019, we opened a Canberra studio so that we can more easily service the complex problems of federal government. Through the year, we delivered over 50 projects across government at all levels, in financial services, and for the energy, disability, software and legal sectors. We delivered numerous training courses both privately and publicly, and hosted hundreds of people in our Melbourne studio to hear talks on accessibility, diversity and inclusion, and innovation in the justice sector.
Through all this, one pattern is clearest. Things are changing, rapidly. In order to continue to deliver on our purpose of helping organisations understand and solve complex problems, Paper Giant is going to continue adapting to the needs of modern problems.
2020 is the start of a vital decade, and we're looking forward to taking a rest, rolling up our sleeves, and staying with the trouble.
As we reach the end of 2019, I remember back to five years ago when all the organisations we worked with were developing their ‘2020 visions’. 2020 sounded sufficiently futuristic to open up creative thinking, and close enough to be just achievable.
I doubt many of us would have predicted the level of political, social and ecological change that we’ve faced in those five years.
Knowing now what was unpredictable then, you can ask yourself - how useful was your vision? How did you measure and learn? How did your organisation adapt and respond?
Paper Giant is leaving 2019 with some questions - questions about how design works within organisations, and how it helps them make decisions that lead to positive outcomes. If you work in design, or your job is to make change at the org where you work, chances are you’ve asked some similar questions this year:
What good are post-it notes, if they don’t help you to make your research and ideas tangible?
What good are personas, if they don’t communicate the intricacies of real lives, and the impact your services have on real people?
Why narrow your focus to customers, when we all live as part of complex communities?
What good are journey maps, when people don’t experience your service in a linear way?
What good are service blueprints if they are too big to start?
Why make grand claims about ‘transformation’, without thinking about who will be transformed?
Why make recommendations, without clear pathways or tools to use to put them to use?
Over the course of this year, we’ve been evolving and changing our work, because to create a world that is more just, more equal, and more sustainable, we need to think about design in a bigger way.
An interview with Stan Winford, RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice
People with mental ill health and cognitive impairments are significantly overrepresented in the Victorian criminal justice system. Corrections Victoria research in 2011 estimated that 42% of male and 33% of female prisoners had an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). Lack of appropriate supports for people with disability, coupled with stigma and discrimination, perpetuate cycles of disadvantage and lead to increased contact with the criminal justice system.
As just one example, a person with ABI may have memory troubles that make it harder to remember and comply with the requirements of a community corrections order, potentially leading to breach of the order which can ultimately result in imprisonment.
The Supporting Justice project, by RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ), aims to change how people with disability are treated and supported in the criminal justice system.
In 2019, CIJ partnered with Paper Giant to create SupportingJustice.net, a website thatprovides practical resources for legal and court professionals and people with disability. These resources help connect people with disability in the criminal justice system with support, creating the opportunity for fairer outcomes.
To create these resources, the team brought together 12 representatives from the legal profession, courts, the judiciary, the disability support and advocacy sector, and 4 people with lived experience of disability and justice system involvement, to collectively generate ideas for change. Many times, there were people sitting side by side who would typically be separated by a bar, a bench, and centuries of hierarchical protocol.
Paper Giant’s Kate Goodwin sat down with Stan Winford, the Associate Director of Research, Innovation & Reform at CIJ, to discuss the project.
Kate Why was it important to you that the project team included people with lived experience of ABI and justice involvement?
Stan First, because we want the justice system to be effective, and at the moment it’s very ineffective. In Victoria, 44% of people return to prison within two years, nationally the figure is up to 55%, and every year those numbers have been going up. In the last Victorian budget we spent 1.9 billion dollars on prisons.
If we want the justice system to work better, then something needs to change. And to us, the obvious missing element was the perspective of the people closest to the problem.
We can speculate about possible solutions, but they are the people who know what’s not working for them, who know what it’s like to be in prison and not understand what people are telling you to do, or not be able to remember when and where to go to get your medication, and all those sorts of things.
Kate What was the other reason?
Stan The other reason is that it can be transformative. The process itself actually improves the lives of the people involved. Thinking about how we undertook this project, it really changed me, it changed the people from the legal system who were involved, and it also helped give dignity to participants who had disability. It wasn’t just the outcome and the product that meant that we had a better response.
Kate You said the project changed you – can you talk about that?
Stan I always felt that perhaps it would be challenging, and hard, and yes, in some ways it was. But I think the practice also turned out to be even more important and valuable than I thought it would be.
That just comes from moving from theory into applied practice. A lot of the issues, and insights, and problems – you can’t think about them in the abstract. You actually have to test them and do them.
Lawyers think that we know all the answers because we know what the law is, but actually we don’t, and having different perspectives brought to bear on solving problems is definitely better than just having one lens to look at things through.
It can take a bit longer and involve a bit more work than you might anticipate. But you can get a lot more from it than you might think. And some of those things are not the things that you might expect.
Kate What were you expecting?
Stan I had a preconception about what a simple response to the problem would be, which would be a kind of services directory. And we do have that now, it’s one of several elements of the online resource. But what we found during the project is that people use information in funny ways, and in frustrating ways, and in human ways. You can design something that’s really good and accurate and useful, and people won’t necessarily read it because it’s not how they like to consume information.
So what I like is that, as well as the website, we have these physical documents, physical objects that a person can take with them, that even if it doesn’t have all the details on it, is a signal that something’s going on here that requires further investigation, and prompts that process. I think that sort of stuff is very clever, and what’s new and unexpected.
Kate I like that, because if you told someone straight out the gate that we were going to set about designing a PDF on purpose, they’d be like, “It’s not 1995, no one does that anymore.”
But it’s a literal signal – if I turn up to, say, a duty lawyer, and I have this Preparing for Court client form, it’s a signal to that lawyer. Even if they’re not familiar with it, it says on the front, “This has been filled out by someone on behalf of someone who is cognitively impaired”, or whatever.
Stan We’re not doing co-design because we want to try this cool new way of working with sticky notes and great visuals. We actually want to make sure that we’re achieving something for people – that there will be fewer people with ABI in prison.
To me this comes back to broader questions about the purpose and value of innovation – just because you do something differently, that doesn’t mean that it’s better. It’s still got to actually lead to an outcome that’s an improvement on what’s come before.
Kate Has the approach taken in developing the SupportingJustice.net resources carried through to any of your other work?
Stan The experience of working with people with lived experience in designing responses has continued, to the extent where we’ve now got a large group of people who have been trained by Dorothy, a woman with lived experience of ABI and justice system involvement. We’re now able to provide this kind of advice more broadly, not just in relation to developing a resource.
That’s continued, and having huge effects on the system, as far as we can tell.
Kate Who comes to you for that sort of advice?
Stan We get approached by the police, or by people involved in court services who are looking at design questions, or people in corrections who are undertaking a review of the treatment of disability within corrections, and they say, “Can we have those guys come and talk to our people about what’s happening, and what we should be doing?”
Another spin-off has been successfully getting funding to partner with SARU, the Self Advocacy Resource Unit, to develop a group of peer advocates called Voices For Justice. There’s a training program, and they’ve now formed their own group, and they’re now having an influence on people in the system.
We’ve also started work on a couple other projects around housing design, and on providing alternative responses to do with resolving conflict for people with disability living in group homes, so that where it’s not criminal offending, they don’t end up being inappropriately responded to by police. Lots of really interesting things have been happening.
Kate What would you say to someone who is interested in including people with disability in their design process, but is nervous about getting it wrong or being insensitive?
Stan One of the really interesting things that we learned right from the beginning is that people with disability, like ABI, are generally okay about disclosing what their issues are, and what support needs they have, if they trust you and they know that this information is going to be used in ways which are beneficial to them, rather than be used against them.
I think people can be a little bit too frightened of offending, or saying the wrong thing, or appearing to be insensitive. If your heart’s in the right place, I don’t think you can go too far wrong.
But the advice I’d give is to be aware that people in the justice system have been treated very badly, and had experiences of their disability being used against them. They might be quite cagey about disclosure, but if they understand why their information is wanted, and how it could be helpful, then they’ll probably be okay.
But again, here we are talking about them without them. You can ask them. That’s the key to it.
One of the very many profound things Dorothy said was, “When I went through the criminal justice system, no one asked me, ‘How did you get here?’ Nobody asked me, ‘What can I do to help you?’”
Just asking the question is a good start.
Read the full story of the project in our case study
Good design is often about asking the right questions. So when you hear ‘human-centred design’, you need to get more specific: Which humans? What human action, or relationship, or outcome?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately because of some work that Paper Giant is involved in around the consumer data rights legislation in Australia. The goal of the CDR is laudable – to give consumers of banking and energy services the right of consent over who has access to their data (such as their account information and smart meter data). The aim of legislation like the CDR is to make it possible for individuals to know who has access to information about them, to know what those people or organisations are using it for, and, crucially, to revoke that access.
In this example of human-centred design, we can ask:
Which humans? Consumers of banking products (i.e. just about everyone)
What action? Informed consent over who has access to my data, and how they use it.
Which leads us to a reframe: ‘What if we designed explicitly for consent?’
Real consent is informed consent – meaning it is not enough for people to click ‘Yes’. They have to understand what they are saying yes to.
Have you ever actually read the terms and conditions on a website or digital service you’ve signed up to use? What exactly are you agreeing to when you tick the ‘I agree’ box?
Informed consent is wilfully ignored by most software and service providers, because it benefits them to ignore it. Websites are designed to make it actively harder to know what you’re agreeing to. Often, the person ‘consenting’ is in the less powerful position. They may not actually have a choice at all, if they rely on the service, and it’s a case of ‘consent or be denied access’. It’s a classic case of ‘corporate-centred design’.
Fitness app Strava is an interesting example of a ‘consent first’ interface design: treating privacy like a nutrition label. Closer to home, Paper Giant recently had to think carefully about research consent processes while working with people with cognitive disability. We produced consent forms in Easy English and explained them in person to ensure that participants understood what we were asking of them.
I’ve only really talked about consent over data usage here, but you can quickly see how a simple reframe – ‘what if we designed explicitly for consent?’ – opens up new possibilities in how we think about design’s role in giving people the power to make decisions about their own lives and communities.
What’s your relationship to sovereignty and what’s your understanding of power?
These are the two hardest questions I am pondering as a facilitator at the moment. They are also the two questions that have most influenced my work since I first heard them.
To answer them, I’m currently playing with six questions.
My starting point is considering Who am I? and Where am I from? From there, I can consider How am I being in relation to... to humans, to non-humans, to history and place, to the topic I’m currently contending with, and so on.
I say I am ‘considering’ these questions, rather than ‘knowing’ because my answer – to who I am, where I’m from, how I am – is part fact and part contextual.
How I answer the first three questions depends on three further questions: Where am I? (in time and place), Who am I working with? (human and non-human beings) and What are we about to do? (for and with whom).
As you read this, imagine I am sitting in front of you asking you these six questions. How would you answer me as a colleague? as a client? as someone from the community you most identify with?
When considering my relationship to sovereignty, here is my current and incomplete answer: I am a first generation migrant. I was born in Kenya and raised on the land of the Wadi Wadi and Gadigal people. I live in Naarm and work as a facilitator on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurung people of the Kulin Nation. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) seem to be the latest in quick-fix silver-bullet technology – with businesses rushing to apply it to everything from online shopping and self-driving cars to medical diagnosis and criminal justice and sentencing.
Because AI and ML contain the words ‘intelligence’ and ‘learning’, it’s natural to attribute a science-fiction level of agency to this technology, but at its core, each AI is still a computer program, and its intelligence is strictly limited to what it has been programmed to do – run through a set of instructions (an algorithm) when it encounters a specific situation.
These algorithms are already being used to make decisions that have real impact on people’s lives. Dan’s link below speaks to one of the newer algorithms in use today (emotion recognition), but there are many others – and countless numbers of them have flaws that have either the potential for, or already documented, negative human consequences:
Or – and as a father with a son about to enter primary school, this is the most terrifying one for me – have your child’s emails, web history and social media use intensively surveilled by an AI that doesn’t understand teen sarcasm and has the authority to notify police?
If we step back from the AI angle for a moment, these are all examples of technological solutions to social problems. Which would be bad enough. But these companies are worse than just misguided – they barely even seem to care that their solutions don’t actually fix the problems. They are just exploiting problems for profit, using technology that is already known to have serious flaws and ethical concerns.
For example: companies that push school surveillance technology make the argument that “the technology is part of educating today’s students in how to be good ‘digital citizens’, and that monitoring in school helps train students for constant surveillance after they graduate.” Now, this might be true, as far as it goes. But statements like this just point out that our current workforce trajectory is one of privacy intrusion and corporate surveillance, something we should be fighting against.
Now – I’m not saying that AI is always or will always be bad, or that ML can never be used for anything positive. All I’m suggesting is that relying on companies that sell AI to fix things for us is a risk – one we need to be aware of, take an ethical stance on, and approach with caution and care.
Conversations around AI are extremely useful and enlightening, because they bring to light societal and political problems that need social solutions, not technological ones. Whenever you see AI put forward as a ‘solution’, ask yourself: What is the real problem that’s been identified here, and how might we fix that?
— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team
For this week’s newsletter, I stole most of my links from @hypervisible – please follow them on Twitter if that’s your thing.
The reason for this disaster? Managerial, design, and engineering decisions, within a system of constraints and a drive for profit above all else, that meant that in certain circumstances, the plane would automatically dive to the ground.
The Virilo quote is often read to mean that ‘any technology comes with unintended negative consequences’, but when thinking about things like what happened with Boeing, I like to read it as ‘decisions made about technology can have unintended consequences’, or to go more broad, ‘design decisions have consequences’.
Now, saying ‘decisions have consequences’ may come across as a bit glib, but in actual fact, making decisions that lead to good consequences isn’t always easy.
The information we base our decisions on, the systemic factors at play, can all make it really hard to make a good decision, or even just avoid a disastrous one. The recent Boeing example is sadly not a unique case – when I teach design research I regularly use the examples of both the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia, and the failures of data analysis, communication design, and management in those instances that led directly to their explosions. (The information designer Edward Tufte has written extensively about this topic).
Making good decisions is of course possible. None of the disasters I’ve mentioned were deliberate, so much as they were avoidable. What’s really positive is that we can learn from the mistakes of others, so that we don’t make disastrous mistakes ourselves – there is a huge wealth of methods available, to both create success and avoid failure. Use the tools and methods at your disposal, and make your decisions count.
Paper Giant acknowledges the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation, and the Ngunnawal people as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our offices are located, and the Traditional Owners of Country on which we meet and work throughout Australia. We recognise that sovereignty over the land has never been ceded, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.