A crisis like Covid-19 requires urgent emergency responses. With crises come feelings of panic and we see lots of people running quickly towards the problem to help. But we know those feelings of panic tend to inhibit us to short-term thinking only.

There are various practical ways we’ve been addressing just getting on with the work we’re already doing at Snook.

We’re conducting remote user research with control room operators — designing a rapid response to emergency calls seems more pressing than ever when the volume of calls they’re handling is unprecedented. We’re also continuing our work with British Sign Language communities and the National Citizen Service to improve their services. We’re running workshops using video conferencing-delivering a training session in service design for NHS National Services Scotland and convening with 100 designers and charities to look at ways to combine forces in their response to Covid-19.

But it’s not just approaches to working remotely. There’s a bigger picture emerging of a world that may have to be restructured radically and will require a considered, long-term strategy to solving all the challenges which we will face globally in the wake of this.

Setting our response principles

We’ve been holding working sessions to discuss our response as a team to Covid-19.

At first, we all felt a sense of panic — what can we do to help now? Apart from staying indoors and joining our local volunteer networks, where can we help? The usual questions came up, like asking if civic society needs an app to better organise themselves or building smart emergency response services? The answer was, and is, no.

In the second week, we started to understand the scale of the challenge hanging over us and help clients organise and think through their emergency response.

As we hit our third week of working in this ‘new normal’, we recognised we needed to set some principles about how we can support our clients past and present. We need to move from a crisis response state to being a calm supportive partner who’s looking ahead.

Our principles and approach to designing in times of crisis:

1. Show what’s possible


Person shouting through a megaphone

There are a huge number of things that need to be completely rethought right now, but bringing about these types of changes can seem overwhelming. For example, making internet access universally free to all those who are currently classified as vulnerable seemed like a pipedream.

But we’re taking an approach to change a small thing and seed the bigger idea.

We worked quickly with Nominet to get mobile phone operators to zero rate access to nhs.uk, so everyone can access accurate, up-to-date health information during the pandemic. A small win — and now they’re stepping up to provide access to a whole host of sites with new data packages.

But this is just the start of a wider job of ensuring everyone is included in a world where there’s a growing assumption that just putting everything online is the answer. It’s not that simple. An estimated 1 in 10 households in the UK have no access to the internet. There are school pupils and students who are currently being told to do their lessons online and are simply unable to. Many elderly people feel they lack the skills to use computers, and the number of homeless is steadily rising, and while some may have phones, they frequently run out of data. These people are being allowed to fall through the cracks right now. But, with this challenge, many small prototypes working in the open can seed the change, and we’ll continue to press for these, linking them to wider positive agendas.

2. Balance immediate needs with the long-term view

Covid-19 will have a dramatic impact beyond the next week, and the month after. Not only specifically in the new normal of physically distancing that has been forced upon us but also in our ability to think, connect and live differently in the future. Who would have thought that in a matter of weeks, we could house everyone who is homeless? Or reduce our C02 emissions so quickly?

In the short term, we’re supporting organisations to rethink service delivery with new Government regulations in the now — to support the people at highest risk (the elderly, the immunocompromised). But with this, we must ensure we also take a longer-term view and consider what might come next.

There’s then the medium term. What’s coming in the next 4–6 weeks. Data from some of the most highly affected areas in the world such as Italy, shows us that the coming month is about to get much worse and we’ve heard from clients that workforces are depleting by up to a third in vital services like children’s social care. How we staff and continue to deliver vital services needs to be considered now and over the next few months as staff self-isolate or go off sick due to the virus.

In the longer term, we’ll see much bigger impacts. How will people who’ve been in self-isolation for months feel? What are the long-term mental health impacts? How will a frontline workforce working in emergency mode feel in six months time after experiencing death, sickness and fear every day? What will happen to our food chains when we rely on much of our produce being imported and transport has been halted? What happens to homeless people we’ve housed in this period when the curve flattens? There are so many questions that need a longer-term view but need to be considered now, so we can start designing for these new needs and scenarios before they arrive on our doorstep.

3. Listen first, look second, build last

Our perspective is to listen first, understand needs, look at what exists then build if needed.

We don’t know best. There are vast networks of grassroots efforts, civic sector organisations and charities that know their people and areas well. There are service providers who are experts in what they deliver and the people they support.

We’ve seen a host of new services spring up, sometimes outside the organisation’s core expertise, because they saw a need and tried to fill it.

We’re keen to help organisations understand their specific skill sets and how they can be put to use alongside others, stopping them from pivoting everything to solve the immediate crisis. If there’s a clear need for something new which no one else can meet, then build it. But listen first, and find out whether someone already does what’s needed and connect them up.

Developing a new product or service at this time isn’t needed unless it helps with convening safely or delivering an existing service online. It will just add to the noise.

4. Meet immediate needs safely

Where there is a need, and something does need to be built, it must still meet regulations and good design principles.

Yas, research and design will need to move at pace to meet new daily Government announcements or emergent societal needs. But a crisis doesn’t mean throwing out all data, ethical, privacy and accessibility principles. We have basic accessibility guidelines and tools to build quick services that work for people. We have data ethics workbooks to help us ask the questions we should ask to ensure that what we’re doing safeguards users.

Organisations like the Information Commissioner’s office have provided supportive statements to help organisations get online at speed — assuring them that they won’t be penalised, but careful to ensure privacy and data standards are not dropped entirely.

Even in a crisis, we should not ignore safeguarding and ethical data practice. We must think through our service designs to ensure we put no one in harm’s way.

5. Shape challenges, convene responses

Through our listening, we’re hearing common challenges from all types of organisations. Some of the simpler questions are how to deliver a support programme online. Or get digital access for the people they support. Or figure out how to support people paying for goods delivered to them who aren’t online.We can help by finding common problems and shaping these, convening the right people to solve them and publishing this knowledge.

We’re about to bring this principle to life in our work across the Catalyst. This is an alliance of civil society organisations, funders, and digital agencies, incubated on behalf of the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology. We’ve been working with them and Futuregov to build a list of common transactions that charities and civil society organisations might deliver and how these might be delivered online. We’re going to convene groups of service providers to discuss, share and publish how they’ve taken their services online so others can learn from this, in a series of patterns.

6. Stimulate learning loops

In a crisis, we have a tendency to deliver at speed then rush off to put the next fire out. But many of us are delivering services in ways we have never delivered before. We are learning what works, what doesn’t and what to do differently. We have a role to play in stimulating learning cycles and sharing them with others. Only together, can we learn how to meet the present and near-future needs well.

We’re encouraging our clients to keep a short learning log during this time so they can look back and share what’s working and what needs to change.

Last week, we held an online conversation involving charities, digital experts, designers, change-makers and commissioners. Someone said after the call that they’d been inspired to make sure they document their learnings, as they’re trying out lots of new ways of delivering their service remotely. Let’s keep inspiring those learnings.

Looking further into the future

We’re mindful of how often great shifts in society can happen after upheavals like this. The NHS was founded in the wake of the second world war. It cost an enormous amount of money — but aren’t we grateful for it now? It also took a great long-term vision and a commitment to the common good.

The belief that things can be different and that we can design them to be better for everyone and everything on the planet seemed like a fantasy only a few weeks ago.

But in the past two weeks, people are having to face a new reality that’s being foisted upon them. There’s a future to plan for beyond the pandemic. We need to reflect on what we want to keep from how we used to live and what must change to make a fairer, more sustainable future for all.

We’ll be considering this in a series of posts soon. In the meantime, do get in touch if you’d like to get involved in designing the best response to the present — and the future — together.