shenzhen in detroit@civilla

After the Contested Innovation Symposium at the International Institute, U of M, organizers Silvia Lidtner and Irina Aristarkhova brought participants on a full day, full on tour of Detroit. We visited Civilla, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Henry Ford, and the Heidleburg project–one day, (potentially) five blog posts super tour. Today, I’m reflecting on Civilla’s practice, with an eye toward understanding what it might mean for my practice at Handshake.

As its case study–indeed as a prototype of what social design can do–Civilla has undertaken the problem of unlocking government services. They start from the perspectives of residents and caseworkersMillions of Americans struggle to access critical government services. For residents, navigating complex bureaucracies feels overwhelming and de-humanizing. For caseworkers, providing these services produces feelings of inadequacy and a tightening of the heart. And yet. The public benefit system impacts 25% of Americans each year. This means improving access to these services would potentially benefit 750 million people, or 1 Billion, which is the name of the Civilla pod cast that introduces their work.

So. What did I learn?

First, creating empathetic experience matters. Adam Selzer and Sam Brennan guided us through their process in a straight-forward and hands on way. We unrolled the 64 pages of the application that 2.2 Michigan residents have had to use to access money to help them pay for food and medical care, education and workers’ compensation. Questions include: where was your child conceived? Here’s the thing. Unrolling the application brought home how absurd the situation was in a way that simply putting up a powerpoint could not have. Moreover, this shared experience actually allowed for empathy not only for citizen applicants, but also for caseworkers who need to deal with this cascade of information and policy makers who want to make positive change but face entrenched habits.

Second, mapping an entire process is more effective when transformed into a story. The story of how residents approached the application, how the application entered the system, and how caseworkers were positioned to fail in responding to citizen needs was told on a scroll that reproduced the format of the application scroll, bringing home the point that an application is not simply an instrument of administration, but also functions in a social ecology that shapes human lives.

Third, the design ideas are simple: make better applications–shorter, simpler and more relevant, but implementing ideas is, at the end of the day, a political process. Civilla has succeeded because they have partnered with talent people and government officials. Indeed, an important part of their vision is working with government officials in order to positively impact people in ways that have ripple effects. And they have succeeded. In January 2018, after roughly two years of research and prototyping a new form, the State of Michigan will unroll a new application form, which has been positively received by residents and caseworkers.

Civilla’s practice and commitment shed light on why Handshake 302 has been able to reach a diverse people throughout Shenzhen. First, we are interested in bringing the experience of migrating to Shenzhen via Baishizhou (and other urban villages) through experiences and stories. Second, we are not as concerned with the content of those stories as we are with creating contexts in which we can hear the truth of each other’s stories even (and especially when) we disagree about what those stories might mean in terms of policy. Civilla’s practice also reminds us that change takes time and doesn’t always take the form we want it to. Moreover, the cultural specificity of political environments means that engagement in one setting will look different in another setting. What for example, do bottom up initiatives for change look like in Detroit in contrast to Shenzhen?

Images from the tour, below.

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