This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
We live in a strange time, when many of our expectations involve networks, technology and innovation, and yet many of our most important institutions are creatures of paper, filing cabinets and bureaucracy and haven't changed much since the 1960s (at best).
Public services, however, are hugely important. Even without considering the ethical obligations we have to one another, a modern state which cannot provide essential services -- public safety, healthcare, education, a judicial system, care for the elderly and children, sanitation, etc. -- simply cannot function.
And yet, all around the world, public services are stressed to the breaking point, and in many places, beyond.
RED is a unit of the Design Council, the UK's official design agency. Their mandate is to "challenge accepted thinking" about important social problems and the way public services try to meet them by bringing design innovation and new visions to bear. They are widely considered to be on the forefront of public innovation.
Jennie Winhall, RED's Senior Design Strategist, says the need for such innovation is critical: "All the money's going into expanding services, or at best making them a bit more efficient, when what we need is new thinking," she says, sitting in the Design Council's low budget designer chic central London offices. We could be in any design company's offices in the developed world, for all the clean lines, sheet glass, modernist furniture and clever signage, but here all the posters on the wall are about making Great Britain a better place.
Take healthcare as an example, Jennie says, especially chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. In order to deal with the massive upsurge in these "diseases of affluence," we generally build more hospitals, or try to streamline administration practices, when what we need most is a means of helping people focus on wellness and prevention.
Some of the most needed measures demand structural changes, such as changing urban planning to encourage walkable communities. By and large, though, healthcare change cannot happen without people changing their behaviors as well.
That's where RED's work gets really exciting. "We're starting to learn," Jennie says, "how to make changing one's behavior attractive by creating desirable, compelling solutions that pull people into doing something they really want to do in any case, rather than pushing them into doing something they don't want to do."
One example? The Active Mob concept, which centers around getting people to sign up for some physical activity they already like to do (from dog walking to salsa dancing to Tai Chi to golf) and then hooking them up with both a group of friends or neighbors who share a liking for that activity, and a trainer who can help the group think about how to increase its exercise value.
In the pilot project, they've created a website to hook up Active Mobbers and share tips, launched a little magazine, and, most importantly, created a system whereby folks can track their progress.
"One of the biggest hurdles," Jennie says, "is that people get discouraged because they can't tell if their achieving anything." Subsequently, RED has developed a system which allows users to report their activities and get a bank statement-like report in the mail on a regular basis, documenting their progress. (This tracking also allows for the deliverables to be measurable, something of increasing importance to funders.)
All of this boils down to a simple concept: making fitness about spending time and having fun with friends, rather than pulse rates and personal bests.
The initial pilot, in the Maidstone area, has proven so successful that RED is setting up a social enterprise to take it over and run it. It's a win-win for everyone involved: people are healthier and happier, government costs go down, and clubs and businesses prosper.
And, of course, all sorts of public services are amenable to this kind of new thinking. Governments everywhere could use more innovation: a thousand REDs might help change the world.
RED, Active Mobs and Redesigning Public Services is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.