Are we increasing inequality?
It’s the ethical question I ask myself most.
1 year on, we’re learning that Family by Family works really well for sharing families – the families who have come through the other side of tough times, and help other families do the same. Family by Family seems to be working well for some, but not all, seeking families – the families who want things to change. But if the rate of change is greater for sharing than seeking families, are we continuing to perpetuate the inequality gap?
It depends how we measure inequality.
There’s outcome inequality. There’s opportunity inequality. There’s political inequality.
Outcome inequality is why I got into this work – but redressing it comes with some very real, and very serious, moral dilemmas. Whether you measure outcomes by income, or by our far more ambitious standard – thriving, unless the rate of change for the ‘bottom’ is greater than the rate of change for the ‘middle’ and the ‘top’, then outcome inequality will only increase. Should you hold down the rate of change for a segment of the population that’s motivated and hungry for more? That has expendable income? That has a history and culture of taking up opportunities?
Rather than ‘hold down’ the middle and top, the solutions we’ve co-designed attempt to leverage the resources of the ‘middle’ and ‘top’ for the ‘bottom’. To put the connections & capabilities afforded to the ‘middle’ and ‘top’ to a different and more social use. But, at the end of the day, will redistributing connections & capabilities change outcomes and close gaps? We don’t yet know.
What worries me is that there is so little discussion in the ‘social innovation’ community on redistributive mechanisms – or other mechanisms for redressing inequalities. If anything, most of the ventures I see coming out of so called ‘social design’ processes have no mechanisms for engaging the hard to reach, let alone meaningfully closing inequality gaps.
Social ventures like Hour School out of Austin Center for Design or The Amazings out of SideKick Studios in London come from a well-meaning place. Hour School came from a project on homelessness. But it’s a platform for well-connected, motivated people with expendable income to learn from each other. Money can be raised for a few projects with homeless charities – but the scale of the benefit for the ‘middle’ and ‘top’ clearly outweighs the ‘bottom.’ Similarly, The Amazings leverages motivated, self-confident retired folks for the benefit of well-connected younger people with expendable income.
Both of these ventures are nice – and will do good things for people. The question, is what people? They cater to people like me, and my parents. They aren’t catered to the people we’ve gotten to know in our latest ageing & caring project. People like Barbara, the 75-year old Scottish woman who never leaves her house, is 10K in debt, and depressed. People who don’t sign up to things. People who don’t think they have anything to give. People who have very real barriers to participation. People who don’t own a computer, or a smart phone.
Our challenge is to find ways to engage, and prompt meaningful change with and for people like Barbara. It can be incredibly frustrating work. There’s always ‘another’ barrier in the way that needs designing out. And designing out these barriers takes time, persistence, and focus. We’re fortunate to work in an environment that gives us the space to do so. Sometimes it means saying ‘no’ to offshoot opportunities that emerge, that are easier to monetise and scale. Most of the time it means solutions that are a bit clunky, that aren’t as simple as online platforms, that require different revenue generation models. That require making a clear and compelling moral case for change – for investments from those institutions with a clear interest in averting social problems & addressing inequality, or from institutions who are part of the problem. Indeed, we need to innovate the way in which we make the case for fundamental change. Change that’s not just a nice add-on, but change that disrupts and dismantles things.
In a couple of weeks, our Radical Redesign Team will release our latest attempt to do that. For the past 2 months, we’ve been working with Barbara and 40+ folks in caring roles & relationships to co-design 6 solutions. 6 solutions to enable great living for people far from great living. These 6 solutions come from our analysis of what capabilities & resources people who are far from great living lack – open mindsets, motivational relationships, vibrant networks, and developmental services. Our goal is to build those capabilities & resources.
Whether we can is a question for prototyping – and beyond. Whether doing so will redress outcome inequalities is the big, still unanswered question.