May 3, 2021

PG #80: The Deficit Myth

Illustration by Farhana Ismail

Governments around the world have increased spending dramatically to support economies affected by the pandemic.

This rapid and necessary shift shook loose conservative ideologies that seemed rusted on, and made us rethink the foundations of the old arguments around economic progressives and economic conservatives. In Australia, the traditionally conservative Liberals designed and implemented massive spending programs (JobKeeper, etc.) that would have previously been unimaginable for them.

These policies were widely successful, keeping millions out of poverty and the economy intact. But the fact that this unprecedented expenditure didn’t end up sending us broke raises some questions: why was government debt ever a problem? And where does money even come from?

Without a background in finance, I have to admit that I never really knew the answers to these questions. That is, until I read Stephanie Kelton’s book, The Deficit Myth

Here’s what I learned: governments in charge of their own sovereign currency can never run out of money. (That is, countries like Australia. It’s a different story for countries on the Euro.) They don’t borrow the money from the ‘world bank’, and it long ago stopped being directly tied to gold deposits.

But if Australia’s currency doesn’t come from a bank, where does it come from? Well, we print it. (It’s slightly more involved than that, but there isn’t space to go into the detail here.) 

In that case, why can’t Australia just spend whatever it wants and have the RBA print all the money it needs to fund everything?

The traditional answer was that if you engage in too much money printing, you’ll end up with too much inflation. Print too much money, and the value of that money goes down. This, the popular theory goes, is how you end up with trillion dollar notes (as happened in Zimbabwe). 

There’s a competing economic theory gaining favour though, which shows that the inflation story is not so simple. This theory – Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT – states that inflation will not occur while there is spare labour capacity in the economy. 

So you can print all the money you want until an economy reaches full employment. As long as there is spare labour capacity, the money printed will be paid to workers and fed back into the economy when they spend it, so its value won’t decrease. Once a society reaches full employment, printing more money dilutes the value of it. One way to think about it is that our dollar is now on the ‘labour standard’ instead of the gold standard.

I’ve left out a lot of nuance, so if you want to learn more, you should read the book. (This article will get you started in the meantime.) But we are essentially in a moment where central banks, and most progressive governments (including Biden in the US) are embracing the central tenets of MMT: spend like you never have before, to get employment low.

The Liberal Government has achieved significant economic success (and political kudos) for embracing previously unthinkable economic policies that go against their ideological grain. They spent (and thus created) vast amounts of money in order to keep people employed and the economy intact. 

That money is still circulating in the Australian economy, and the value of the dollar hasn’t spiralled. 

With the worst of the pandemic seemingly over, the government is now backing away from these successful policies. If we want to tackle the far larger problem of climate change, our governments are going to have to get comfortable with massive spending programs and increasing debt. Their economics will have to evolve.

–– Dr. Chris Marmo & the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #80 here

May 3, 2021

PG #79: Thinking Cyclically

Illustration by Jess Allison

I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles lately: the moon, the seasons, life. Their phases have distinct characteristics and are useful for different things. (Spoiler alert: it’s not always to get stuff done.)

Farmers are hip to this. They must prepare the soil, sow the seeds, fertilise, irrigate, harvest, and store. Our Traditional Custodians of land understand this too. Where I live, we’re in Gwangal moronn, or honey bee season, characterised by cooler mornings, golden evenings, berries ripening, and flocking birds.

When planning a project or our week, it’s easy to consider all hours equal. We expect to feel our best at all times, for nothing to go wrong. Last year was the extreme case, when our work lives were up-ended and, if we were lucky enough to keep our job, many of us then had to navigate new software (hello, Miro) and new ways of working with each other, alongside the ever-looming feeling that we didn’t know what was coming next. We still don’t.

But we’re getting there! If 2020 was a time of upheaval, then 2021 is feeling like a time to renew, dream, plan and prepare. It might be a time to change jobs, start a new hobby or self-care routine, or take time out to reflect. At Paper Giant, we’re striving for slow improvement, rethinking how we work together, what our physical offices are for, and how to accommodate team members all over the world (shout out to the Ireland studio!)

We’re far from perfect, but we try to learn from our mistakes, and have a few cycles of our own:

  • During every project we run weekly internal WIP meetings, to share our work in progress and flag any concerns.
  • We encourage ~fortnightly ‘care chats’ with someone from outside the project team, as a prompt to check in with each other.
  • At the end of every project, we hold a retrospective to find out what went well and what we could do better next time.
  • And we are about to restart our studio-wide Reflect sessions, which are a chance to raise issues or questions that aren’t project-specific, and agree on the next steps together.

By making time for reflection, we hope to give our ‘doing’ time its best chance of success – for ourselves, and the people our work impacts.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m off for a walk in the sun.

–– Jess Allison & the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #79 Here

April 23, 2021

PG #78: Reframing a crisis response

Illustration By Reuben Stanton

Back in December, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an article that really caught my attention. It was about how we might rethink the ‘costs’ of carbon drawdown. Yes, it might be expensive and technically complex to actively pull carbon from the atmosphere, but so are many other things that we need to live in a modern society, and we happily pay for them to maintain our way of life.

The sentence that caught my attention was this one:

“Everyone would benefit from a stabilized climate, but if the market remains the only way to calculate value, there’s no way to charge people appropriately for keeping the biosphere viable. The solution here is simply to consider [carbon drawdown] technology a public utility creating a public good, like roads, national defense, fresh water, or sewage disposal—and pay for it as such.”

This is a perfect example of ‘reframing’ – a technique used a lot in strategic design – to open up the conceptual space to think of solutions that don’t fit within a dominant ideology or paradigm.

For a short time, I noticed a similar reframing happening in response to the global pandemic. The economic responses in some countries reduced poverty dramatically, effectively sweeping away the idea that a government can’t address a crisis like economic hardship or homelessness. Of course we can pay people a living wage and prevent loss of dignity during an economic crisis – if we want to. The very idea that any solutions to a crisis must be driven by market forces is actually ridiculous. 

A new framing allows you to reconsider where you are now, where you want to go, and how you might get there.

We are currently stuck in a variety of unhelpful frames. “Capitalism and market forces are the only ways to run society.” “It’s normal for politicians to make decisions in the interests of soon-to-be-extinct industries, not in the interests of the whole of society”.  Those two lead to a third frame: “We have to wait for private markets, and carbon drawdown is not profitable, so we just have to wait.”

If, like Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, we could shift to a frame of “Carbon drawdown is a necessary cost of living in the society and future we want, so just like the sewerage system, we’ll pay for it” we might get somewhere. We could view carbon waste like any other human waste, and treat its removal as a public good. This reframing is both clever and obvious, and opens conceptual space to propose new solutions to our rapidly advancing crisis. 

For this crisis, time is of the essence. Major societal, economic, and structural change is possible, and necessary in the face of a crisis this large. We can do this. But it’s clear that our dominant economic framing is holding us back. We need to reframe our thinking, before it’s too late.

– Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #78 here

April 6, 2021

PG #77: Royal Commissions are systems thinking in practice

The last few weeks have seen the release of two landmark reports out of multi-year Royal Commissions – the first into Aged Care, the second into Mental Health.

It’s rare that we get two reports released more or less concurrently, and I found myself drawing some natural comparisons between them. While it’s impossible to summarise both reports, they do detail common policy failures, chronic underfunding and the consequence of deliberate deskilling of workforces.

  • Both of them show:
  • Funding models that are completely mismatched with the desired human outcomes; incentivising care providers for the wrong things, with little regulation or oversight to ensure care goals are met
  • Undertrained and unprepared staff, stressed and stretched themselves, unable to deliver the care they want to (but, also,  sometimes actively abusing those in their care)
  • The systemic overuse of sedation as a coping mechanism for care providers, who chose to keep people in comatose states because care is easier
  • A lack of respect for the agency of those people in care – human rights being ignored to meet logistical and financial constraints

Together, they paint a bleak picture of how Australian society cares for some of its most vulnerable. They also contain hopeful, clear recommendations for improving these systems outcomes. 

Up until the 2017 Royal Commission into the treatment of children in custody in the Northern Territory, I’d never read the actual reports. I’d only seen the news coverage, or maybe read an article about the political appetite (or lack thereof) for acting on recommendations.

Over the last few years though, I’ve made sure to read as much of them as I can in between work and life commitments. I’ve come to recognise them as touchstones, both as snapshots of a system in time, but also as our society’s best attempt to compel itself to change. 

As objects, they combine economic analysis and quantitative lag measures of various kinds with multi-year community engagement and witness testimony to paint a holistic picture of a system and its leverage points. They make recommendations, often hundreds of them, and these recommendations themselves are consulted around and vetted by experts.

In fact, they’re fairly similar to what we produce as research reports and design roadmaps, except at a far larger scale. 

Like much of the best research and design work, however, they are often ignored.

As designers, we’ve all got examples of our best work falling on deaf ears. If Royal Commissions are the best tools we have as a society to influence systems, then why is their impact so limited?

– Dr. Chris Marmo & the PG Team

Read the full issue here

March 15, 2021

PG #76: Tackling short-termism

Illustration by Iain Phillips

Australian governments have a problem with short-termism in policy-making. This isn’t entirely their fault. If the past year has shown us anything, it is that it’s very hard to explain the consequence of something happening to a person who has never experienced it.

When you’re at home, sweating through a 35-degree day, it’s hard to imagine the experience of sitting in the same room, feeling freezing cold. But that experience is coming in three months. You’ve felt it every year of your life, yet it’s still hard to imagine the tangible experience of being cold.

We know effective communication about complex systems is a difficult problem: look at the last four decades of increasingly frantic climate advocacy and the political establishment’s stubborn refusal to do much of anything. We live in the moment, and unfortunately, so do politicians.

Recently, we saw this manifest in some work we did to understand a system of service provision and policy-making, including the points in the system where a government makes decisions about funding allocation.

Inevitably, funding decisions are influenced by discrete interests trying to bend the system to a particular purpose, and this purpose includes the interests of those making the decisions. People in government aim to get re-elected, and they can use the power available to them to enact policies that are likely to get them re-elected. 

Politicians in power want to do things that generate impact (or the appearance of impact) during their term in government, because this helps their re-election prospects. So, the focus narrows and the intended system of long-term policy planning suddenly has a horizon for results of about three years.

This might seem like a cynical way to look at policy-making. But, as Reuben so frequently reminds us, the purpose of a system is what it does. If the system for making decisions about our survival over the next hundred years has myopia, how do we get glasses onto the faces of people with the power to change the system?

These are the questions we’ve been asking policy-makers: 

  • How might we build consideration of whole-of-systems-outcomes into the process for proposing (and securing funding for) new policies?
  • Which parts of government have developed new ways of targeting policy design that consider the whole of the system? How do we learn from them?
  • How can we better support policy-makers with tools to understand systems, generate their own evidence, and push back against short-termism?

Policy-making is, itself, an extremely complex and fundamentally interconnected system. What other conversations do you think are needed to unpick it? I’d love to know, drop me a line via email or on LinkedIn.

– Dan Woods and the PG Team.

Read the rest of issue #76 here

February 16, 2021

PG #75: Looking beyond the barriers

Illustration by Wendy Fox

Barriers to a healthy, fair, just, sustainable society are often held in place by deep structures that have little or nothing to do with the defined problem or desired outcome.

We are currently doing some work with some philanthropic organisations in the ACT, working to understand the links between family violence and youth homelessness.  

This work is all about revealing those deep structures so that we can work with them, or even change them.

For example: 

  1. Funding for social services that help people in need tends to be focused on short-term, measurable, crisis services – because crisis is where the problems are most visible, and where people are in the most need – it makes sense!
  2. But this means that community services prioritise crisis-response capacity, and de-prioritise longer-term, holistic, whole-of-family, person-centred approaches to preventing violence.
  3. So holistic needs aren’t met, and family violence crises aren’t averted – just mitigated. 
  4. So crisis demand goes up.
  5. So funding gets focused on crisis services.

Then overlay that with a competitive funding environment: services compete with each other for the money that’s available, which limits coordination, information sharing and cooperation, which means less holistic health responses, which, again, means more crisis demand, which means funding tends to be short term and crisis focused.

The system reinforces itself, and family violence keeps happening, and young people keep ending up homeless and unsupported on the streets of Australia. The surface problem is homelessness, but it’s held in place by all these other deep structures.

We’ve heard people in the sector talk about “standing at the bottom of a cliff catching people as they fall, not preventing them falling off in the first place”. So the sector knows this is happening, but they might not have the language – the visual language – to connect it to everything else that is happening and holding them in place.

‘Systems mapping’ shows this structure, in a shared way, to everyone – so that they can see it. Once everyone agrees on what’s happening, and only then, can we design interventions, or change structures, to address the real needs of society. 

Ask yourself: what are the deep structures that hold in place the ‘problems’ that you are facing as a designer, or a manager, or an executive, or a CEO? What is really happening and why?

–– Dr. Reuben Stanton & the PG Team.

Read the rest of issue #75 here

February 16, 2021

PG #74: The future of work is hybrid

Illustration by Wendy Fox

In 2020, I spent most of my time thinking about the future of work – first, understanding how COVID-19 was forcing us to work differently inside Paper Giant, and then through global research and design project work with Atlassian and other clients. 

The task of researching and working on such a shared global experience (and indeed, a global experiment in remote work) was deeply rewarding, but uncanny. Uncanny in that, unlike many of our projects, we were also experiencing the change ourselves. 

As the year progressed, we worked with other clients and ourselves to understand what about that shift would remain temporary, and what was here to stay.

What we learned is that the vast majority of people prefer working remotely to working from an office. In our data, we found that only 20% of people want to return to a majority office-based experience of work. For that 20%, they primarily want to return to the office because they assume their colleagues will be there too. This raises two questions:

  • What happens when your colleagues aren’t there? 
  • What happens if they’re only there on a different day to you?

There are some significant design challenges and opportunities in making this work, but they’re not impossible to solve. 

The shift – to remote and hybrid working models – has profound implications for our concept of the ‘office’ (let alone cities, housing prices, talent attraction and retention, and career opportunities), but also deep implications for the ways in which we work together and collaborate.

It’s an opportunity for organisations to further differentiate themselves from their competition. The organisations that understand how to work in this environment best will be at a significant advantage. 

Flexible work policies and better systems and processes for supporting remote work were already competitive advantages for attracting staff and talent. With even the most conservative organisations forced to adopt these practices for the first time, organisations will have to continue to improve systems and processes to remain at the forefront of employee experience. They’ll also need to build new listening mechanisms into their organisations so that they can understand and work with the newly diverse set of expectations and needs of their workforce.

Every leadership group is probably thinking about office implications, figuring out which teleconference technology to invest in and so on, but the best leaders will also be doubling down on employee experience design – looking to understand the needs of their workforce in a hybrid context, and improving the equality, trust and innovation potential of their teams through better, more personalised supports.

–– Dr. Chris Marmo & the PG Team.

Read the full issue here

February 8, 2021

PG #73: Looking back to look forward

Illustration by Ian Phillips

The month of January is thought to be named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is depicted as having two faces – one looking forward and one looking back. One eye on the past and one eye on the future.

In January 2021, we could all be forgiven for not wanting to look back, but instead staring straight ahead into the new year and hoping that it brings something better or at least closer to what we feel is normality. But, if we do that, we could lose some of the big changes that we want to keep.

2020 was the year that:

  • Services became more accessible than ever before, with remote access – previously deemed too hard to implement – now being commonplace across healthcare, government, the justice sector, culture and more.
  • Remote work became normalised, opening up opportunities to people who couldn’t reach them before and improving the work/life balance for many others.
  • Social media and technology companies started taking (slightly) more responsibility for the environment they are creating, as their role in society continues to increase.

We realised what services are truly essential and how much more we should value and support the work that teachers, nurses, doctors, scientists, cleaners, delivery drivers, warehouse workers and retail workers do.

Our ability to forget can help us move forward. The ability to put bad things behind us, to contextualise the emotions we feel, to make things ok in our mind, is essential to living day to day.

However, that ability to put things behind us can let us down when it comes to tackling the big systemic issues. The sense of returned normality can make it feel like things are fine. But if you were to ask any historian, climate scientist, or biologist about their outlook for the future, they wouldn’t paint a rosy picture.

So, let’s not sleepwalk into going back to normal as we set out into a new year.

Let’s look back on last year and decide which positive trends to accelerate.

Let’s use our momentum to reverse the negative trends with renewed vigour and dedication.

Let’s make 2021 the turning point towards a better future.

– Iain Phillips and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #73 Here

December 21, 2020

PG #72: Staying with the trouble

Illustration by Bonnie Graham

"The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world’s present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain."

–– James Baldwin, No Name in the Streets

In January 2020, our CEO Chris Marmo wrote here in this newsletter:

“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.”

I doubt he could have predicted the sheer scale of ‘trouble’ 2020 might bring.

In Australia, 2020 started with bushfires – our fossil fuel dependence and climate change chickens come home to roost. Dangerous smoke blanketed the country; lives and homes and habitat were lost, while our senior government officials literally went on holiday. Little did we know that our cursory attempt at mask-wearing to cope with the air quality was just practice for what was to come.

There is not much for me to say about the pandemic that hasn't been said elsewhere. The pandemic is a thing that was, and is, and will remain for some time. This year I learned to casually throw around phrases like, “well, everything is going well, apart from a global pandemic” into casual conversation. It’s just part of the water we all swim in now.

Chris’ prediction did come true of course, in that 2020 meant plenty of “staying with the trouble.” 

Here are just a few of the 34 projects we completed this year: 

  • We co-designed strategy with Beyond Blue to help them respond effectively to mental health needs during the pandemic
  • We worked with the Supreme Court of Victoria to help them respond to the increase in self-representation at court, and the coming waves of litigation that tend to follow a recession
  • We worked to make it easier to deal with fines in NSW, and easier to apply for the Disability Support pension in Victoria
  • We conducted research for Atlassian that looked at the sheer scale of the impact of the pandemic on knowledge workers
  • We helped a cemeteries trust understand the impact of lockdowns on funerals and grief
  • We worked to make it easier to apply for the Disability Support pension in Victoria
  • And we won a good design award for our work to improve justice system outcomes for people with cognitive disability.

These projects were all conducted in the midst of a year filled with uncertainty – uncertainty in the future of our communities, our society, and our planet. Considering the uncertainty of 2020, what might 2021 bring? 

As I write this there have been no active coronavirus cases in the state of Victoria for 30 days. But even with the virus effectively eliminated (here, if not yet in much of the world), the last thing I would want to see is a return to ‘normality’.

Why? Because 2020 was the start of a vital decade, and now we are a whole year in.  It’s clear that the trouble in our society – the inequities, the injustice, the unfairness, the unsustainability that needed responding to prior to 2020 – are all still with us.

Some issues have been brought starkly to light by the crises of climate change, the global pandemic, and the resultant recession. Some people and organisations are clearly more responsible than others for these problems. But regardless of the causes, I think we can all take this moment to confront the past, fix the present, and shape the future. 

2021 will be about coping, managing, responding to, predicting, and creating change. At Paper Giant, we believe the world can be better, and we hope you can join us in making a better world a reality.

–– Dr. Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #72 here

December 21, 2020

PG #71: Design changes the designer

Illustration by Jess Allison

My year has been characterised by two projects. Both involved co-design within two vastly different, but equally complex contexts: mental health and education. They left me more enamoured than ever with this approach to design, but more importantly, they asked me to look at my world through a different lens. 

Co-design has a few closely connected themes:

  • Facilitators need to understand and acknowledge the power differentials that exist within groups, in order to better facilitate collaboration.
  • Creating and maintaining an inclusive environment is crucial. Every participant must feel valued and be able to participate in a meaningful way. 
  • The safety and care of all participants throughout the co-design process is absolutely paramount. 

Exploring these themes has made me a different designer and it’s not a stretch to say the impact on me has been profound. They will continue to influence and characterise my approach to my work into 2021 and beyond.

I believe that co-design, if understood and implemented correctly, can impact organisations in the same way they’ve impacted me personally.

– Ernez Dhondy & the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #69 here

 

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