How can design thinking and practices contribute to reconfiguring society and public projects? Government’s are increasingly developing design and policy ‘labs’ and local government and public sector projects are increasingly being planned, developed and organised using design. If you’re interested:

Armstrong, Leah, Jocelyn Bailey, Guy Julier and Lucy Kimbell (2014). Social Design Futures, University of Brighton and Victoria and Albert Museum.

Design and Social Impact White Paper’, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Design Commission (2012). ‘Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services’, Policy Connect.

DESIS Network. (2013). Public and Collaborative: Exploring the Intersection of Design, Social Innovation and Public Policy.

Mulgan, Geoff, (January 2014). ‘Design in public and social innovation: what works, and what could work better’, Nesta.

Puttick, Ruth, Peter Baeck and Philip Colligan (2014). i-teams: The teams and funds making innovation happen in governments around the world. Nesta/Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Parsons DESIS Lab. Government Innovation Labs.

I was invited to an AHRC ‘sprint workshop’ as part of the ProtoPublics project, held at Imagination – Lancaster University with the aim of advancing this agenda and advancing our understanding of these processes and practices.

ProtoPublics builds on Mapping Social Design conducted for the AHRC in 2014 by Professor Guy Julier, Dr Lucy Kimbell and Dr Leah Armstrong of the University of Brighton and Jocelyn Bailey (see http://mappingsocialdesign.org). Among other recommendations, the final report urged research councils to set up collaborative projects in which arts and humanities and other researchers become active participants in crafting new services, experiences, projects and policies that address contemporary issues. Rather than specifying how this should happen, the AHRC is supporting the prototyping of new collaborations between researchers and practitioners through such activities as the ‘sprint workshop’.

As an interloper from education I did have some misgivings that education might yet again be identified as an object of transformation to be reorganised or re-disorganised again, where once it was business and managerial logics then this will be given the sheen and shine of design practices. (At one seminar DfE policy was held up as an effective example of professionalised policy making. I’ll just leave that there.) Design is a broad and diverse set of practices but I’d be worried that and not surprised if design practices or at least the most appropriate ones are used as an expert form of knowledge and practice as part of apolitical ‘problem solving’ in education… but anyway.

As for the workshop, it’s kind of great to get outside your discipline and talk to interesting people but there is always a sense of not quite understanding the directions that conversations go. There was a lot of talk about ‘probes’ and I didn’t know what that meant… and ‘crits’ which means ‘critiques’ – I think.

It was a sandpit/ sprint workshop so we all spent a lot of time developing and pitching ideas…. and there were some amazing ones:

The project I’m part of is called ‘Design Research Get Lost: young people self-organising to make and do.’ We’re trying to challenge and explore the way adults/ researchers/ practitioners contrive inclusion with young people to get them to work on what ever agenda the adult cares about. Even at the event there was talk of ‘getting’ groups of children to participate in our research, to be empowered to transform their contexts. So we want to explore how groups of young people from particular groups work together to decide, plan and do. The particular groups we are thinking of are the Woodcraft Folk because they come from a deliberative and co-operative background and hackers/ makers because there is an idea that by making/ coding etc then you have generalisable skills for being a better adult/ citizen. By bringing these two groups together we want to see how they self-organise but also whether they approach problems as Woodcraft Folk Hackers or any variation of this.

Basically we’d set a challenge: you have to collectively, decide and plan and do something that involves other children. You have £5k. We’d also like you to report the process, using videos or paper or whatever. Get on with it.

We’re going to interpret what they are doing from co-operative education, Ranciere (the Ignorant Schoolmaster) and design thinking perspectives.

There’s always a bit of ‘hold your breath and see if it happens’ about developing ideas at these sorts of events. It’s a bit like the academic equivalent of a one night stand. Nevertheless, fingers crossed…

James Duggan


MMU’s pilot project ‘EVERYBODY LOVES ROBOTS’ came to a close on 1st April. Pupils from three local primary schools brought their robots to the ‘show and tell’ celebration event. And they were AWESOME! Check them out…

The Everybody Loves Robots launch event was on 25th March at MMU. It brought together 24 pupils from four local schools, escorted by teachers and code club members, umpteen MMU students willing to jump in the deep end and work with the schools, and support from Manchester Regeneration Team who gave each school a tech goody bag, Kevin Tan for bringing the NAO robot, Robogals for just being awesome, and Yasemin Allsop who brought along lots of fun stuff and helpers. The purpose of the day was to get everyone excited about digital technologies and making robots together.

Over the next four weeks MMU student participants went into local primary schools, in groups that mixed skill bases and expertise, to work with the pupils to develop a robot. (Check out the activity sheet, produced by the awesome Liz Smart here to guide the students and pupils along the way.) The pupils in Wilbraham Primary’s code club have documented how they got on at the launch event, during weeks onetwothree and then this wonderful video of the whole process…

The purpose of the project was to provide some focused activity to launch Learning Hive Manchester – ‘more hack and less yack!’ – and also be part of internal discussions and processes to help MMU figure out how it can develop an innovative and effective offer to schools and communities to help young people thrive in the economy and society of the future.

We’re proud and enthused at how well the project went. We had a clear and stated intention to just get on and do it, ignoring the absence of funding and various forms of institutional inertia and all the reasons to wait. The project was unfunded and relied a lot on students to take the initiative and deliver the activities. We want to be open about what went right and what didn’t go so well. We wanted to run the pilot with 6 schools. We were adding schools to the list at the last minute. However, we started with 6 schools but only 4 completed. A great achievement and testament to the commitment and enthusiasm of the Hive people, MMU students and those in the school… but one school felt a little let down and I don’t want to minimise that. On the whole the project demonstrates that even when everyone is incredibly busy we can make significant contributions to get young people enthused about technology and learning to use it.

So what else have we learned? Students are a great resource but where some are ready to get on and go into schools, others need a bit of support. We offered and ran support sessions for the students to learn more about the tech and teaching.

Next time though we’re going to invest more in the students before the project starts, forming groups and running training sessions a few weeks prior to students engaging with the pupils. We’re also going to look for funding and try and move it onto a more sustainable footing.

So… next time, what’s the project going to be about? Well, we asked the pupils what they want to do and they suggested a mind-boggling range of projects including bird houses with cameras (fireproof!), stop-motion animation, a shoot movie made out of Lego… and then building a car, a hologram, and a time machine. So watch this space for a stop-motion Lego movie coming to a cinema in Hulme sometime last summer. It’s going to be AWESOME!

If you’ve got any ideas or questions about what we can do next time then please get in touch.

James Duggan

This was originally posted on on the HiveManchester site.

The impact of educational comics on feelings and attitudes towards health conditions

I’ve recently completed a small project funded by the Wellcome Trust to explore the impact of educational comics on feelings and attitudes towards health conditions. I interviewed 11 people who either had a health condition (physical or mental) themselves, or had a close relative with one.

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The findings confirmed previous research that educational comics can support understanding of factual health information through providing simple explanations free from jargon and through the effective use of images. However, they it also suggested that they can have an equal, or perhaps stronger, role in helping patients and their families to deal with the social and psychological issues associated with illness. There were many examples offered in the interviews illustrating how comics can offer reassurance, empathy and companionship through the use of narrative, humour, images and characterisation. It was also evident that comics can offer patients opportunities for greater self-awareness of their own attitudes and behaviour, as well as alternative viewpoints on their condition.

…it brought things up into my mind that were in my mind but…suppressed. Definitely has helped in that way… I try to think that I haven’t got it, so I was like, “I have got it and this is what I’ve got to deal with”. It made me realise that I’m doing alright considering…

Among family members, comics can lead to a better understanding of the issues their relative is facing and may prompt them to reflect on the ways in which they might best offer support.

It did make me think more about my dad’s experience at that age, ‘cos he was at university when he was diagnosed, so the impact that would have had on him at that point, how that would have changed…

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However, using comics for health information isn’t unproblematic. One barrier is the lack of knowledge of, and access to, such comics. Even people who have been actively investigating their condition for a number of years were unaware of the availability of comics. Another problem is the common perception that they are only suited to light hearted or fantastic stories, or are just for children. But, although initial responses were often dismissive, it was evident from this research that opinions can quickly be changed through reading health education comics.

…comics can be more informative because in the past I’ve just seen them for entertainment, but I definitely think they can be more informative and be used in a really positive way…portraying serious information, but in a light-hearted sense.

A report of the findings can be downloaded here:

Sarah McNicol