Design by Doing

On Saturday, we met with Shannon, a woman who lives with debilitating injuries that came from years of repetitive strains at work. We also met Clay, an aboriginal single father who has trouble holding down work in the construction industry due to the recession as well as interpersonal conflict issues. Finally, at the Action Lab, we became acquainted with two moms: Ling and Kim, who have an infant daughter and two adolescent boys respectively.  Life is not easy for either of them, given Ling’s difficulty in having her foreign credentials and work experience as a teacher recognized in Edmonton while Kim’s eldest son’s mental health issues and a lack of accessible transportation options keep her from looking after her family better.

All four live in poverty in Edmonton, with large and interlinked personal challenges. By the day’s end however, each of them had hope, tools and networks to move forward with.

But here’s the thing: Shannon, Ling, Kim and Clay aren’t actually real people. Rather, they are all too real. Make sense?

That’s because all four are composite personas, created to represent real Edmontonians who face numerous hurdles in trying to escape poverty.

They met a mixed group of service designers, non-profit employees, community builders, front-line workers, lived experience folks and others who came together at the Action Lab for an experiment known as “Design by Doing”. The idea, which is one of the actions in the End Poverty Edmonton strategy, was to bring a bunch of smart, passionate minds into a room for a day of sharing, experimenting and creative strategizing on how to remove the barriers those living in poverty face in understanding and accessing the services in the community that could help them. These conveners included the Skills Society (our gracious hosts at the Action Lab), as well as Make Something Edmonton, the Government of Alberta’s CoLab, End Poverty Edmonton, Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op and the City of Edmonton.

Inspired by the stories of Shannon, Clay, Kim & Ling, we looked at not just the external circumstances that shape people’s lives, but also delved into their feelings, frustrations, fears and aspirations.  Next, after a series of brainstorming sessions, we co-created some possible responses with people who had first-hand experiences of poverty and its attendant impacts.

Finally, we moved into the rapid prototyping phase, where we tried to create viable solutions to these problems. Ling, for example, has language barriers to overcome to get the services she needs. So we prototyped a system that not only recognizes but values the contributions newcomers can make in avoiding poverty. Kim was wracked with loneliness in trying to take care of her family, so we created a community contact system that helps her get to know her neighbours better.

Of course, we knew that we were not going to solve every (or even any) problem these four personas face in one day. We know that making effective systems change requires more resources, money, strategies and consultations than can be mustered in just a few hours. But Design by Doing gave us a chance to bring a bunch of bright and committed minds together to envision how some of these conversations — about real-life people, with real-life problems — might start.