Belonging feels like your stale blue jeans. So soft, so comfy, such a good fit. Until they start to fade, to tear. And you find yourself naked, in a harshly-lit dressing room, with too many or too few options, trying to find that right pair again.
Greg doesn't wear blue jeans anymore. His last pair was in 1987. So was his last girlfriend.
Mike's got just one pair of worn blue jeans. No need for redundancies on the street.
Greg spends his days in a kind-of solitary confinement. Not of his choosing, but of his continual re-making? The world is so inhospitable. Everyone buried in their cell phones, consumed by anything but the present moment. Not like in the 80s. When time wasn’t such a marketable commodity. If only Greg could figure out how to profit from his seemingly endless hours. He struggles to get out of bed: what for? He cleans his cats' litter box. He vacuums the rug. He pays the cable bill, the phone bill, the rent. He goes to Subway for three hours. He watches an episode of the Mod Squad. He drinks a glass of red wine, or two, or three. He talks to his mom, now tucked into a nursing home, or to an old friend. They’ve all moved so far away.
No one moves far away in Mike’s world. Unless they die. There have been 20 something deaths in his community over the past year and a bit. “I don’t know no one doing good,” he tells us between swigs of Listerine. He told himself he’d never drink that poison. But that was then. He doesn’t want nothing different no more. That would mean leaving his friends, his protectors, his entertainers, his enemies, his entire eco-system.
"I don't know no one doing good." -Mike
Greg and Mike aren’t obviously alike. Where Greg is an obsessive worrier, Mike is a rabble-rouser. Where Greg internalizes disappointment, Mike externalizes it. His knuckles bare the scars. Where Greg has been diagnosed with a cognitive disability, Mike has been diagnosed as an addict. And yet Greg and Mike are experiencing the flip side of the same construct: belongingness.
Greg has little sense of belonging to a group of people or to a place. He longs for feedback, for validation, for intimacy. Mike’s got a deep sense of belonging to a group of people and to one particular place. That validates his drug & alcohol usage, and exchanges sex for intimacy. Both men are stuck in a rut, attached to informal social networks and formal social services from which there is no clear exit. Where there are no meaningful prompts to move-on.
And what happens when day-to-day life centers only on movement? And very little standing still? When putting up a mirror to others’ sense of belonging and place, it’s hard not to steal a glance too. I exist in a constant state of choreographed displacement. There is no one home.
For the past 10 years, I’ve lived & worked in 3 continents, 6 countries, and 14 neighborhoods. Urban, suburban, rural. Wealthy, poor. White, black, and all shades in between. I’ve immersed myself in literally hundreds of people’s lives: teenagers-at-risk, women escaping domestic violence, families in crisis, older people in care, folks living with a disability, people struggling with drug addictions, former offenders, social workers, teachers, aged care workers, youth workers, life skills workers, case coordinators, employment specialists, and community workers. One might earnestly ask how I have space for my own stories, when my head is so crowded with others’ stories.
We’ve gotten to know the stories of Greg, Mike, and ourselves in the last three months. Greg, as part of our Burnaby Starter Project in the Vancouver area. Mike, as part of our Toronto Stories Project in the downtown core. Both projects were designed to test InWithForward’s methodology and business model. Our hunch was that self-financing ethnographic fieldwork would pave the way for prototyping new service delivery models inside and outside of public systems. That meant that, unlike in prior projects, we would use the fieldwork as a platform to build a local team and a local movement of users and service providers. Who would commit to seeing the hard work of actual change continue.
Has our hunch proved correct? Knock on wood, Yes. There is palpable momentum. There are chief executives putting their own time and money into prototyping. There are government funders throwing their hat in the ring. There are users - like Greg and Mike - asking us to come back and keep working.
Doing the fieldwork also spawned plenty of new hunches. As much as we talk about ethnographic stories as the source of new ideas, little of what emerged was new. What was new was learning how to give these ideas shape and texture in a particular context, with its history and language, openings and nuances.
Indeed, when I look across my last decade of project work - whether redesigning preventative health programs, youth services, child protection systems, carer supports, domestic violence interventions, homeless services, or community living systems - I see the same disconnects re-emerging, along with variants of the same solutions.
So starting in August, we’re going to re-frame our methodology. As less about bottom-up discovery. And more about grounded change. About testing which change mechanisms work, for whom. Doing so is bound to effect the length and intensity of our fieldwork, the questions we ask, the tools we use, how we talk about and fundraise for what we do, along with our metrics of success.
Of course, it’s not just the disconnects and solution types that keep reoccurring. But the team dynamics and personal dilemmas. Because this work is invasive. And darn confronting. It demands that you be utterly present. To allow for things to emerge without a preset plan or structured schedule. And that makes the rest of your life, well, exhausting and hard.
When you honestly permit yourself not to know, and to learn as you go, it’s easy to feel inadequate. You start to wonder: will I be able to extract something useful, insightful, actionable from my time with Greg or with Mike? Will this be enough to prompt change? Couple that with being part of an interdisciplinary team, where people have skills you just don't have, and it’s super common to have a crisis of confidence. For each of us to question our individual value add. And therein lies the trick: how to craft a collective identity - where success and disappointment truly feels shared - whilst developing our own opinions and spark.
I wish we could say we’ve stumbled upon the winning formula. Our approach has been to call out these tensions, right from the start, and to frequently invite folks into our team for the day to observe and to critique us. But there’s never enough breathing room to fully take on board what others see. Or to adequately process the emotions we're feeling. We’ve got a hunch that staggering our work weeks more like doctors - with 'on call' days and nights and clear 'off' days and nights - might be the way to go. As well as making our work more episodic: periods of fast-paced intensity followed by phases of more predictable regularity.
But in our moments of (relative) predictability, when we can pause to learn at our own paces, where do we go? Which communities does our work belong to? After spending much of May on the social innovation & social design circuit, it’s clear we don’t quite fit there. Our values, our approach, our transparency relegates us to the extreme fringe. For us human-centred design isn’t a methodology, it’s more a way of life. People like Greg and Mike, with their stories of living (a)part, aren’t tools for triggering empathy. People like Greg and Mike are our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, and our mirrors. Even if only for a short, concentrated time.
Looks like we’ll just have to keep on searching for our place.
Here's a taster of 6 disconnects and 6 types of solutions that have repeatedly surfaced across all of our projects in the last 10 years. You can read about how they manifested in the Burnaby Project on pages 10-11 of The Idea Press. Starting in August, we’ll refresh our approach. To zero in on these change mechanisms. What do you think?
Disconnect: People and professionals don’t know what they don’t know. They cannot ask for what they haven’t experienced. And yet, most social services are predicated on planning and goal setting upfront, followed by signposting and referrals to existing programs & supports.
Solution Type: Catalyzing the supply of surprising experiences in communities, creating lots of micro taster opportunities, and curating media to widen people’s exposure.
Disconnect: People learn through observation and imitation. And yet because social services are targeted to those most at-risk, users tend to only interact with those worse than them.
Solution Type: Connecting users to people a lot like them, but at a further stage of change. Creating new kinds of non-professional roles to draw on people’s know-how and personal experiences. Setting-up interactions in people’s own environments for modeling and feedback.
Disconnect. Behavior change isn’t linear. Nor is everyone motivated by the same things, or at the same stage of readiness. Yet service offers tend to be differentiated according to risk (i.e high needs versus low needs), rather than segmented by the levers for change.
Solution Type: Re-segmenting services according to motivations & aspirations; more systematically varying the duration, intensity, modality, and types of interactions.
Disconnect: People are motivated by success & recognition, not just by guilt & punishment. The absence of a risky behavior does not equal the adoption of a healthy behavior. And yet social services focus so much on risk mitigation that staff and users often only know what bad practice looks like, not good practice.
Solution Type: Identifying and recognizing positive deviant users and staff. Creating stories, tools, and databases to capture the good stuff, not just the bad stuff.
Disconnect: To get help, people have to meet eligibility criteria. They need a diagnosis and a label. When you are forced to use the language of the system, it’s hard to be in control of your story, or shift self-perceptions over time.
Solution Type: Enabling people to share and revise their own stories over time, drawing on autobiographical & narrative therapies, and measuring change in a visual and compelling way for people to see.
Disconnect: There’s a lot of talk in social services about strengths-based and person-centered approaches. And yet nearly all services are resourced according to the hours of care delivered from a professional worker to a client/consumer/patient/user. There are few mechanisms for drawing out or exchanging non-financial resources: people’s skills, know-how, experiences.
Solution Type: Spotting people’s skills, brokering specific connections, and facilitating reciprocal relationships.