Hilary Cottam believes that design can help change society for the better. Her pioneering work on transforming social problems through putting design at the heart of the problem solving process has earned her Designer of the Year 2005.
While most designers obsess over company logos or cartoons, Cottam is more concerned with turning around problem schools or stopping criminals re-offending.
"I see myself as part inventor, part problem solver and part facilitator," she says. "I think these are the core attributes of any designer, but in my case I try to apply these skills to some of the more intractable social problems of our day." For example, Cottam helped redesign the Kingsdale School in South London with a view to tackling truancy.
She was delighted to be named Designer of the Year. "I am deeply honoured to have received this recognition from the design community," she says. "What I hope most of all is that it leads to a national debate on what design and the design process has to offer public life in Britain.
On a practical level, I hope the prize will make it easier to work and to raise funds for the projects - we usually operate on a shoestring."
Her role as a designer is an unconventional one, but Cottam believes good design is at the heart of her work: "All the projects are developed by a team, which includes designers, other professionals, and members of the public - potential service users. We use the design process to co-create something new and beautiful that works."
Founder of School Works, a secondary school design initiative, Cottam wanted to collaborate with teachers, students, and designers, to identify what society needs from its schools, and try to deliver it - in terms of the curriculum, management systems, and the buildings.
The government invested £10million to test her ideas in a pilot project at Kingsdale School in South London. The results helped earn Cottam her Design Museum accolade.
"The projects aim to develop both tangible outcomes and new thinking for policymakers based on practical experience," she says. "Our ideas have been turned into reality in over ten schools, and most recently in our health work with our partners in Bolton and Kent."
Cottam believes any social blight can be helped by design. "With our most recent work at the Design Council, we have put the problems of chronic disease under the design lens. One in five Britons suffers from a disease such as diabetes or an aging-related illness.
"Tackling these issues demands new services that address lifestyle issues and the underlying emotional factors that motivate individual behaviour change.
"We have been designing simple tools and platforms to enable professionals and service users to co-create these new services. So far our work has resulted in a pack of playing cards - a deceptively simple tool for diabetics to self-diagnose, enabling professionals to spend their time on problem solving."
Cottam's work involves a lot of conceptual thinking about spaces and places, and she acknowledges that she needs political will to turn her ideas into reality.
"Things are moving in the right direction, but it is slow going. A lot of my work involves campaigning on behalf of design - demonstrating to those in government and those with the purse strings that they are failing to capitalize on the wealth of superb design talent in Britain.
"We have had some notable successes - in the case of schools, the wider lessons of School Works have informed the government's investment in future schools. Most people now believe good design can have an impact on learning and that this cannot be delivered by architects alone, without the wider school community.
"All too often however, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the public sector continues to be driven by short term calculations of cost, and procurement processes ask the wrong questions.
"Prisons are a case in point - we should be asking not how we can build a prison for the least cost, but how we can design a prison that reduces re-offending, thus delivering wide social benefit to those who are the victims of crime and reducing costs in the medium term."
After setting up School Works, Cottam set up a second not-for-profit organization - Do Tank.
"I was looking for an organization where we could combine hands on work - the practical doing - with big thinking, and where professionals could work as an inter-disciplinary team in a collaborative fashion," she says.
"There seemed to be a lot of appetite for this work but few organizations that created the space for it to take place. Starting something new seemed the best option, and the Do Tank then followed. Ultimately I am driven by the possibility of delivering real social and economic change, and not-for-profit organizations seemed the best vehicle."
Cottam is trying to start a design revolution. If the authorities get behind her, maybe creative thought can change the world.
Who Hilary Cottam
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