Social impact and unintended consequences

Social impact and unintended consequences

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we create true social impact in digitally enabled transformation – not just for individuals, families, services and communities but at a societal level too. I blogged about it not so long ago, and when FutureGov asked me to facilitate a group session at their Designing 21st Century Government event in Leeds, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to the theme.

I was fortunate to share the conversation with a range of interesting minds from diverse backgrounds and multiple sectors, including a university, council, journalism, British Library, design consultancies, housing association, Government Digital Service and HMRC. We deliberated on the topic, shared experiences, asked questions and generated ideas – some of which I summarise below:

Fairness – explicitly holding up fairness as an organising principle to all our work so that it is at the forefront of our thinking at all times

Equality impact – using an approach similar to public sector equality impact assessments to bake in an assessment of impacts and consequences to our design process

Telling stories – creating space within design processes to create narratives and tell stories of the best and worst possible impacts for the products and/or services we are developing – a creative means to anticipate possible futures – both good and bad

Critical thinking – designing in critical thinking to our user research process by explicitly encouraging participants to imagine positive and negative impacts beyond the immediate use of a product of service

Diverse teams – creating diverse teams who can bring multiple perspectives both in backgrounds and disciplinary expertise (including social scientists, humanities scholars, ethicists, regulators and philosophers)

Diverse participants – using data to understand whose voices are not being heard and taking active steps to seek them out

Business models – considering the wider implications of sustainability and business models from the outset of any project.

A participant from Calderdale Council shared a fantastic example of an unintended consequence which she was happy for me to share in this post: the council introduced key safe boxes to allow healthcare assistants quick access to people’s homes in order to increase efficiency. Whilst the introduction of the boxes increased convenience for assistants, it had the unanticipated effect of reducing activity in residents who no longer had to get up to answer the door. The negative implications for health and wellbeing soon became apparent, and the council scrapped the key safe boxes, whilst adding extra time for healthcare assistants to do their visits – more power to them for realising an unintended consequence and finding a different solution to a problem.

At mHabitat we are experimenting with exercises to elicit potential unanticipated consequences in the early design phases of projects. In a recent discovery workshop with a group of looked after children we used a simple ‘best/worst’ exercise which generated lots of ideas about the possible impacts of their prototypes which would not otherwise have been apparent.
If you are interested in baking in critical thinking to your design projects, you can do worse then try Doteveryone’s consequence scanning tool and the data ethics canvas from the Open Data Institute. If have experience of using these or other tools please do get in touch and I’ll share them here for others to find and use.

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