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Freedom to Tackle the Big Problems

Human-centred design thinking is a mouthful. But it’s a mouthful worth getting your head around because it ‘s a way of thinking that is particularly suited to problem solving complex societal issues.

Since early September Clunes Neighbourhood House and local community members have been going through a process of exploring the issues that exist in Clunes, and experiencing each of the steps (see below) involved in human-centred design thinking.

Photo: Human-centered design thinking process

Recently we did it as a sprint. Two days of fast paced stages that when put together highlighted the strengths of the process and as you can see from the post-session discussion (hear what we learnt here. If you need a passcode to watch, it's 0ZF+7g8Y), clearly got our minds working.

Clunes Neighbourhood House is by nature, human-centred. Our job is to build relationships and connections across our community to nurture possibilities and help problem-solve. Over the years we’ve developed our capacity to do this by creating a culture amongst our volunteers of adaptive leadership and change making through our programs and operations that’s served us well during COVID.

But this mouthful - human-centred design thinking - can help us take that to the next level and that’s why we invited more than just our committee members to be involved.

Let me explain further?

The first step of human-centered design thinking is to empathise. All good problem solvers think we do this, so focus heavily on getting all the voices in the room, to make sure they are reaching everyone. But this first step is more than that, and the sprint (because of it’s fast pace) highlighted that. It showed that empathising is more than just hearing what people have to say, internalising it via your own perspective, and then responding. Instead it’s an immersion. Repeating back what people say and feeling how it ‘feels’ to say those words in their way, instead of yours is incredibly liberating. It helps you step back, literally into someone else’s shoes.

That led us to step two, three and four - synthesising and hypothosising to define the problem. Because we were already in another’s shoes, these steps proceeded very differently to how it might have travelled if we’d inserted our own filter/perspective into the discussion. Instead we focused on asking questions to better define the problem rather than moving to finding answers. More liberation, because as we discovered, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or all over community issues to help people explore their problem deeper. You just need to ask the right questions until together you feel that you have enough insight to progress to the fifth step - ideation.

Ideation is a fancy word that is about creating options or solutions. In design thinking you use creative processes; like drawing and design to articulate those and then challenge the assumptions within. It’s uncomfortable using a pencil and pictures to explain an idea, but in doing that, the struggle seems to help you better explore your thinking. We did it fast, so stick figures ruled, but the benefits of not conforming to typical ways of presenting solutions freed us up. It made us see that even simple issues like those we were practicing with, had beautiful and varied solutions.

Conceptualising and prototyping these solutions were the next two, creative steps. While in just two short day sessions we didn’t dwell on this stage, one startling outcome became clear. Prototyping is not static. It’s an approach to a solution that is inherently adaptive, rather than an end point. Something made of movable parts, literally in our case as we used plasticine and pipe cleaners to craft them. Moveable parts that we understand enough to tweak continually if the outcome we seek is not yet forthcoming - and that’s important for two reasons.

It enables us to deal with particularly complex societal issues that we mightn’t have had the confidence to tackle before. And it enables us to do so resiliently, saying up front, we may not have the right prototype yet (which is the last step, test test test) but that’s ok, because we have the humans and the thinking tools to keep refining it until we do.

So what are our reflections?

Well, for Clunes Neighbourhood House this is a journey - a learning journey that’s bigger than just undertaking some training now to help us map out planning in the future.

We suspect this mouthful - human-centered design thinking - is another one of the key pillars that will inform how we operate as a house and part of the evolution of how we work with community. Key pillars, such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that we use for programming. Human-centered design thinking is likely to be a tool we use to not only problem solve, but build trust and ultimately resilience. It's an approach we'll use in different ways across community, gradually building momentum and empathising with multiple perspectives as wider and wider cross sections of our community get involved.

When put like that, this mouthful provides us with the freedom to think about the big (and little) problems that impact on our lives - and that sounds like an outcome worth getting your head around!

These discussions are part of a place-based lab undertaken in partnership with Ten community members and committee members of Clunes Neighbourhood House have been part of this lab, which has also been informed by a series of dialogue interviews with a cross-section of the community.

AUTHOR: Lana de Kort.

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