When to call it quits?

When has a prototype failed? When do you stop iterating and call it quits?

For the last month, I’ve wavered on what call to make. Four months into our Toronto In/Out project, and there’s little traction. Our ambition was to co-develop alternative models of support with and for street-involved adults. But the profound resource scarcity of the homelessness sector, coupled with the immense forces at play – poverty, addiction, trauma, racism, violence – can render the day to day seemingly impervious to intentional change. So many of the individuals, staff and managers we interact with see their circumstances as outside of their control. And, lots of it is.


Two weeks ago, that same “lack of control” narrative featured as a prominent backing track to our conversations with federal civil servants. We went to Ottawa to learn how to influence some of those outside factors. We were testing what it would take to add ethnographic data to policy briefs. How could we give people in power direct access to the experiences of street-involved adults, and how could they use this information in the decision-making process? An oft repeated response was, “We can’t use stories. That’s not what we are asked to provide up the line. I wouldn’t even try to get it through the approval process.”


Testing the uptake of ethnographic data
Testing the uptake of ethnographic data

This sense of powerlessness and futility is what psychologists call ‘external locus of control.’ Outcomes are attributed to factors that the individual cannot influence. Why make a change if the end results will be the same? If forces bigger than you will dictate what happens, planned action makes little sense.


Given that civil servants and street-involved adults are embedded in cultures where individual agency can feel meaningless, what can we possibly prototype to unstick things? How might we break through the dominant discourse, which focuses on past habits and present day urgencies, and promote more meaningful future talk? That’s talk where growth and change are celebrated.

​An anthropologist’s take

The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai offers a compelling account of why future orientation is missing from so much culture. “For more than a century, culture has been viewed as a matter of one or other kind of pastness – the keywords are habit, custom, heritage, tradition…Economics has become the science of the future, and when human beings are seen as having a future, the keywords such as wants, needs, expectations, calculations, have become hardwired into the discourse of economics. In a word, the cultural actor is a person of and from the past, and the economic actor a person of the future. Thus, from the start, culture is opposed to development, as tradition is opposed to newness, and habit to calculation…”

The vocabulary of economics has overtaken other aspirational vocabularies. Many street involved adults like Dustin talk about the future in terms of getting on benefits, securing a house, and purchasing things like a TV, a portable DVD player, a good dog breed. Many civil servants like Amanda talk about the future in terms of finding efficiencies and cashable savings. For all the new-age fads around happiness and wellbeing, we are not seeing such existential language reflected back.


Shadowing adults and seeing all the money-oriented objects on them ...
Shadowing adults and seeing all the money-oriented objects on them …

​An (enlightened) economist’s take

This narrow conception of the future has an economic term, “aspirational poverty.” Economists like Debraj Raj show how financial poverty clogs the process of making and attaining dreams. Could we extend the argument beyond financial poverty to other types of poverty – time poverty, experiential poverty, informational poverty?


Raj outlines what contributes to aspirational poverty, “The starting point, then, is a view of the individual that isn’t standard in economics, but should be: individual desires and standards of behavior are often defined by experience and observation; they don’t exist in social isolation as “consumer preferences” are so often assumed to do. This simple remark has strong implications: if a person’s behavior is conditioned by the experiences of other individuals in the cognitive neighborhood of that person, these may be all-important in driving group interaction and group dynamics, in a way quite different from what the simple aggregation of individual ‘preferences’ would lead us to believe.”

The question, then becomes, how might we shape the experiences of a person’s cognitive neighborhood? How do we help street-involved adults, frontline staff, and civil servants find reference points a little less steeped in financial scarcity and no exit, and a little more abundant in learning and giving voice?


Concepts of ‘exit’ and ‘voice’ are drawn from Albert Hirschman’s seminal book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Appadurai uses Hirschman to argue that cultural affiliations are frequently stated in terms of loyalty, sometimes exit, and rarely voice. Loyalty – or attachment – is a deeply held value. Dustin has struggled with his addiction for nearly 30 years. Drug culture has both a physiological and psychological pull. He doesn’t really know who he was before the drugs. Other identities have made guest appearances – like truck driver – but they’ve been easier to exit. Voice – the capacity to contest, inquire, and participate reflectively and critically in the present and future – has remained far more illusive. Aspirational discourse around the ‘good life’ takes a back seat to immediate wants and needs. You could argue the same is true for many long-term civil servants, where loyalty is also a deeply held value. Continuity and stability are prized before exit. Voice has more often been the domain of the political, rather than bureaucratic layer.

​Is design the wrong methodology?

So, what to do? On the one hand, our project work is sparking some voice. We’re receiving some hefty critique from frontline staff and civil servants who question our approach. Why would we raise questions about individual aspirations & practices when the issue is the lack of money, the lack of treatment beds, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of representative data, the lack of…?


On the other hand, we’re creating a defensiveness that is clearly a block to imagining alternative realities. Our messy, fast-paced prototyping style feels poorly matched with the deep-rooted culture at hand. Our young, fresh-faced team is naively (and no doubt, sometimes carelessly) poking and prodding in an environment where many already feel victimized, or at least disrespected.


Does this mean that prototyping – which is inherently about rehearsing the future – is the wrong methodology when there isn’t yet a future narrative? Or does it just mean we are prototyping the wrong stuff? What would it look like if we weren’t simply prototyping new kinds of programs and services, but new kinds of culture? New stories, motifs, symbols, and routines? How would we build on and elevate those elements which both afford a strong sense of identity, and create an expectation of growth and development?


One of the things that makes the project work we’ve taken on in Canada different from our prior portfolio is the absence of any developmental theory. In the UK, we worked with young people. In Australia, we worked with families and kids. In the Netherlands, we worked with women and children leaving domestic violence, along with homeless young people. The presumption was that change was possible. After all, children and young people weren’t to blame for their situation. With the right kind of investment, we could see a shift in outcomes. Educational and behavior change theories – on concepts like self-efficacy – were a bit more commonplace. Over the past two years, we’ve worked with adults, those living on the streets and those living with cognitive disabilities. Gone are words like “learning” and “milestones” and “opportunities.” Instead words like “safety” “needs” and “risks” dominate.


In the past, we’ve been able to work in the space between where people are now and where they want to be. That’s how we’ve defined user-centered design methods: developing solutions to bridge disconnects between what people say, want, and do. Interventions like Family by Family and Loops have been about enabling youth and families to reach their self-set goals using some novel resources (e.g other families, business owners).


Now that we are in a space where there are few articulated goals, we find ourselves ethically challenged. We do have a point of view about what a ‘good’ future looks like. We’re not design consultants here to satisfy our client. Indeed, when street-involved adults tell us all they want is a house, and they aren’t attracted to anything about making connections or building capacities, do we drop these ideas OR do we try and make these offers attractive? When civil servants tell us all they want is aggregated data and they aren’t attracted to rich narratives of people’s lives do we drop these ideas OR do we try and make them attractive?


We’re leaning towards the latter – though, in the eight weeks of remaining project funding, we’ll have to adjust expectations about what indicators of change we’re likely to see. Cultural change is a long-term game. Short-term innovation funding is far more geared towards programmatic solutions versus cultural ones.


What if, over the next couple of months, we

  • Collected more stories of the positive deviants, of the street-involved adults and civil servants who are seeing growth & development?
  • Fed back stories of change to individuals and groups across a range of channels to see what ideas spread?
  • Made different value sets more visible and contestable?
  • Introduced a fresh theory, concept, case study, or piece of inspiration as part of daily routines with adults and with staff?

If anything, perhaps our role is to do what Thomas Kuhn – the great philosopher of science – says is the eventual basis of paradigm shifts. And that is: to make the anomalies visible, to place value on the stories that don’t fit the dominant culture. As he puts it, “Scientific development depends in part on a process of non-incremental or revolutionary change… The usual prelude to changes of this sort is, I believed, the awareness of anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that result therefore require putting on a different kind of thinking-cap…”


So, can the same be true for social development?