As an increasing number of young people admit to feeling anxious and unsure about their future, we must foster connections, confidence, and a sense of belonging.
The Civic Journey programme explores how young people navigate their way through life. It focuses on the ties that bind individuals to communities and seeks to address elements that drive people and communities apart. It does this through a focus on ‘social scaffolding’, and by examining how support structures need to be redesigned to fit the needs of young people as they navigate different challenges and transition points. It is a pragmatic and solution-orientated approach, in contrast to the fragmented patchwork of policies and support services that currently exist. It seeks to deliver a more integrated system, and it facilitates flexible design.
But where is ‘scaffolding’ needed to support young people and what should it look like? In the past, this question has been answered by policymakers and politicians designing policies for young people. The civic journey rejects this and adopts a youth-led approach.
Human-centred design thinking
‘Design thinking’ – which generally involves working through five main stages to understand the nature of a challenge – is a human-centred approach to innovation and creative problem-solving. It’s a particularly good way of trying to get to grips with complex challenges. At its core is a focus on the people who will ultimately be affected by the innovation or changes under consideration.
There are lots of different design-thinking frameworks, and all share a common focus on asking, trying and doing (or ‘hearing’, ‘creating’ and ‘delivering’). Asking is about exploring the nature and roots of the challenge. Are people interpreting ‘the problem’ differently? Is it possible to agree on a clear definition’? Trying revolves around testing the viability of different solutions or innovations – whether minor adjustments or a fundamental rethinking – learning from failure and be sensitive to feedback. Doing is about implementing the conclusions. A new approach to delivering public services or providing care might be effective in one town or village, but can that innovation be successfully ‘upscaled’ on a national basis? What works for a specific community may not work for others, and so ‘design thinking’ embraces a willingness to go back to the drawing board when required.
Key questions for the Civic Journey
In this programme, ‘design thinking’ is applied to three inter-related questions:
- How might the stages in Figure 1 apply to the civic journey?
- What ‘problem’ is the civic journey is seeking to address?
- Is the civic journey tackling a ‘super wicked’ issue?
Empathy is the centrepiece, so the asking stage here focuses on listening to people, acknowledging their feelings, and inviting them to tell their stories. This requires emotional intelligence and respect for different views – and it is critical because it exposes the complexity of the Civic Journey topic while also opening space for fresh perspectives. But to achieve this it’s vital to craft a specific and actionable statement on the nature of the challenge. This ensures clarity of focus in addressing the core questions and prevents ‘mission creep’ and confusion. It also provides the launchpad for identifying solutions. This stage is concerned with generating fresh ideas that look beyond the obvious – whether ‘big’ (radical or system-wide) or ‘small’ (refining what already exists).
This leads to trying – where ideas are tested in the real world to assess their value, benefits and costs – and then the final doing stage, when insights and lessons are rolled out at scale. Although Figure 1 presents this as the final stage, in many ways it is part of an ongoing process.
A ‘messy’ process
Design-thinking is messy. It revolves a willingness to listen, define, experiment, fail, listen again, adapt, experiment, and on it goes. Even when the results are implemented the ‘law of unintended consequences’ will generally ensure that new challenges emerge. Design is an ongoing process of refinement and adaptation. Scaffolding is built, extended, removed, replaced, rebuilt. But – as a broad set of tools and insights – ‘design thinking’ ensures the project starts with empathy with and definition of the issues as young people see them, and this is reflected in the programme’s youth engagement activities.
Understanding the problem the Civic Journey seeks to address means talking about ‘the civic challenge’ and the increasing evidence that young people feel alienated from society and anxious about their future. They feel disconnected and unsure about how to navigate a fast-paced and uncertain world. ‘The solution’ might therefore be seen as supporting young people to achieve a sense of belonging and equipping them with the skills and knowledge to reach their full potential as both individuals and members of a broader community.
Two issues flow out of this approach. First and foremost, we don’t know what the challenge is because no one has taken the time to empathise with or understand the position of young people or how they feel. The problem might be different, when viewed from the perspective of a young person.
A second issue is that different people may have very different views. They may even disagree that there is ‘a problem’ at all. Young people are not a homogenous group and channelling this diversity into a shared ‘problem definition’ may prove a challenge.
Fresh thinking and windows of opportunity
Design challenges come in many different forms – and the Civic Journey (or more precisely the issues and problems it seeks to expose and resolve) represents a ‘super-wicked’ issue. This is because the challenges it raises cannot be easily solved by any single government department, agency, or politician. It highlights issues that touch on policy areas including education, social security, youth policy, sports, culture, health, housing, community relations, immigration, and beyond. This cross-governmental dimension demands a level of ‘joined-up government’ that is very difficult (but not impossible) to achieve.
This is where our focus on scaffolding adds a novel ‘design-thinking’ dimension, providing connecting capacity that has been largely absent in the past. Existing provision – for example, citizenship education in schools, and the National Citizen Service (NCS) – is not the result of carefully connected strategic design thinking, and too many young people have felt either unsupported or have fallen through the gaps. But there are signs that policymakers and politicians now recognise this problem. The Declaration on Government Reform that was published in June 2021 included an explicit commitment to working across institutional boundaries to address major social challenges. The levelling up white paper of February 2022 included a specific focus on youth policy and equality of opportunity. A window has opened that may allow the Civic Journey programme to influence government thinking. And that presents a real chance to drive transformative change.