Dr Ingrid Burkett On Using A Systemic Lens To Unlock Barriers For Change


Dr Ingrid Burkett is co-director at the Yunus Social Business Centre (Griffith University) and previously Director of Learning and Systems Innovation at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation.

She is a social designer, designing processes, products and knowledge that deepen social impact and facilitate social innovation. She has contributed to the design of policy and processes in a diversity of fields, including community development, local economic development, disability, procurement and social investment.

Ingrid has worked in the community sector, government and with the private sector and believes that each of these sectors has a valuable role to play in social innovation. Ingrid was previously Managing Director of Knode, a social business focussed on design for social innovation. She has worked in social innovation and design positions in the community development finance sector and in overseas development. She is a Past President and Honorary Ambassador of the International Association for Community Development and is committed to fostering an international dialogue about designing innovative solutions with and for communities.   Ingrid has also held a number of University Fellowship positions, including most recently as Social Design Fellow for the Centre for Social Impact at the University of NSW and UWA. Ingrid is also a practising artist and graphic designer.

Ingrid has qualifications in Graphic Design, Social Work, Business and Community Economic Development. She has particular expertise in the design of economic processes and products and is recognised internationally for her work in community economic development and finance. Though these are particular specialities, Ingrid has the skills to design processes, products, services and systems in a wide range of fields and disciplines and believes that the design of social innovation requires a capacity to think in creative cross-disciplinary and systemic ways.


Ingrid discusses ways to create systemic change in some of Australia's most disadvantaged communities, shares thoughts on co-design and key skills required for both individuals and governments to effectively create social innovation.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to a career specialising in social design and social innovation? [3:03]

[Ingrid Burkett] - At the time I studied social work as my first degree, but also had an interest in arts and graphic design in particular, and couldn't really see how those two related to each other. I guess I started work in the social work area in community development, and I was a few years in and I thought, "Oh, my god. I can't see how I'm going to ever make a real difference in this space," and I looked down the corridor of my life and thought, "Is this is really what I want to do?"

Do I want to keep working inside these systems and organisations that really are just putting band-aids on things? And I decided no, that's not what I wanted to do.

I went off and I thought maybe business is the answer, so hence I did a business degree and spent some time in business. But it always ended up being small business, cooperatives, social enterprise, and I love that space, but I also consider limitations of that in terms of the scale of impact, which I'm really interested in.

So, eventually I ended up being in a position where I had the opportunity to invent my roles and they were always combinations of design, social work, and business. And so that's what I have found in the last decade or so to be a really good combination of skills.

As Director of learning and systems innovation at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, what sort of projects are you involved in which are creating positive social change? [5:02]

I read this question and I thought, "We're involved in a lot of different areas." Some really fantastic projects. Whether I can claim that they're currently already producing social change, I'm not so sure. We have the aim and the intention to create social change, but I'm very cognizant of the fact that that takes a lot of people and it takes quite a long time often for that social change to be realised. So, some of the areas that we're working in... We're doing a lot of work in the place space, the disadvantage space. But looking at places really as systems. 

So what is happening in some of Australia's most disadvantaged communities is that there has been the same sort of outcomes for about 30 years. Nothing much has shifted despite the fact that we've invested millions of dollars in those communities.

I'm interested in where that money flows, but I'm also interested in what are the systems that are operating inside those places that are actually creating barriers for change, and can we approach that place based work from that systemic lens to unlock some of those barriers.

So, that's one area that we're looking at. We're also looking at ageing and the future of ageing, so what does it mean for the new generation, the baby boomers, to age. Because they have very different expectations about what it means to age, and then the generation after them has different ideas again. So, our concept is changing and so we need to create the systems that will enable people to age well into the future. So, we're working on various processes, various services, various products in that space. So, going from ageing to children and families, we're doing a lot of work in the child protection space. So, we tend to focus on issues and areas that maybe other agencies, other people interested in human centred design think of as too risky. We're actually really fascinated by those areas and what human centred design can add to those very risky, really tricky issues like how do we actually ensure that children and families can thrive. And then there's some of what a colleague of ours calls 'the Boring Revolution'.

What's that?

The Boring Revolution is about trying to create change in those areas of society that are really considered quite boring. Things like procurement or commissioning that are actually central because that unlocks the flow of money and resources, but people say, "I'm interested in procurement." That's the best party stopper. Don't ever say that at a barbecue, but we're fascinated in those sort of things. The same with investment.

How do we unlock that money so that we can actually create more change?

So, that's a little snapshot of the range of things that we're interested in.

There's certainly a wide range of projects there tackling some really important issues. So, what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients necessary then when designing alongside communities, or with communities, to ensure the outcomes produce positive social impact? [8:45]

I think they're more intricate and probably less fancy than people believe they are. They're not particularly technical, but I would say things like curiosity...

Curiosity is a very remarkably underplayed quality that is fundamental to addressing some of these issues. If we're not curious, then we think we've already got all the answers. If we're not doggedly curious about creating change, then we're not going to be able to create that change.

Then things like tenacity. They are not simple issues and we need to be tenacious if we're going to create change.

And then the ability to listen and observe. They might seem like really simple things, but it always surprises me how difficult it actually is to sit down and really listen and observe what is happening in some of these places and how do we bridge the very different interpretations of how to create change.

Yeah, so without putting our glasses on and seeing it through our lens, right?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Then I would say some of the technical things like the ability to actually facilitate people and the ability to interpret data, and know how to use data to create innovation and change.

Some interesting qualities there. So, what processes, tools, or methodologies do you commonly use throughout your projects? [10:39]

So, we have been very focused on human centred design projects, and that has been because, really, design is a framework that you can use to rigorously create tested change, relatively quickly and with people.

So that's a really great framework. As we have developed further, we've come to recognise, though, that it's important to be a little bit method agnostic rather than dogmatic.

There's a lot of designers out there at the moment who are like, "I'm a designer so I can change the world," without recognising that that actually requires a lot of other tools and methodologies like ethnography; like the ability to really sit down and facilitate conversations and dialogue, which is a skill that social workers or practitioners bring into that picture.

I think it's important to recognise the tools that are in that can add, but to see those in a broader landscape rather than saying this discipline is going to change the world. 

That's said, I think the most important framework is that whole ideal of, "Let's try, test, and learn." So, having the capacity to prototype, for example, is incredibly important because that enables us to really move into action quickly and to really test out what is going to work and to maintain that level of curiosity.

What do you believe, then, are the most common reasons that these types of projects fail? [12:32]

For me, it's that people spend too long in planning before they get into testing the assumptions. So, if we spend all that time in planning we could be planning something that actually is not going to work.

So, how do we move more quickly to that prototyping mindset where we actually test in practise what the assumptions are that we're building into processes? So I think that is definitely one of the things that I see that needs to happen in order for those projects not to fail.

And then the other one would be not involving people, not respecting the expertise that lived experience brings. So not involving the people who are actually living with the issues and seeing those people as offering as much, if different, expertise as professionals, means that we are coming at these issues in a way that often is full of our own lenses or our own assumptions about what those issues constitute.

What advice, then, would you give to the budding social innovators out there who are keen to contribute to tackling inequality in our communities? You've spoken about prototyping quickly, about not using our assumptions when we view things, about getting experience of the people who are in a specific situation... Would you like to add anything else? [13:54]

I think those are really the core things. I mean, I would say, "Get out there and try but leave your ego at the door."

We don't need a lot of new heroes in this space. What we need is people who are tenacious, people who have a really well developed capacity to listen and connect people.

So, I think those are the core skills. Whether you can learn those in any other space than doing it, I'm not sure. You can certainly hone your skills as a social innovator through formal learning, but the best learning is on the job.

So, how then have you seen the design and social innovation sector transform and change over the last five years or so, and where do you see it heading? [15:03]

I think it's changed fundamentally in the last five years or so. Those of us who have been involved in social innovation, in Australia in particular, for longer than that, we were a fairly lonely crew. We knew most of the people who were also involved and interested in social innovation.

Now that has spread and people all over the place are very interested and passionate in innovation and learning and building capacity in that, which is great but it also creates a few challenges because suddenly everybody is innovating.

Everyone is a designer!

Everybody's a designer, and things like, we do a lot of co-design, which is really just a fancy word for collaborative design, designing with people.

Co-design has become the everything. Everyone is doing co-design and everything that involves any interaction with people is now called co-design. Well, there's a very big difference between co-design and consultation, and so the fact that there's much more interest in innovation means that we have to be really clear about what it is that we mean by some of these terms, concepts, practises, and tools, because otherwise we'll just end up with mush.

And if that aim is to really create positive change and positive impact, then we need a degree of rigour in how we apply these tools and methodologies.

I certainly agree. So, if we move towards government now... How do you believe government might most effectively engage communities in order to tackle these complex issues, is it through co-design approaches? [17:05]

Yeah, I think definitely co-design has a very big role to play.

Government is critically important in this process, both as a catalyst and a creator of the conditions for innovation, but they have to do this work in partnership.

I've seen lots of instances of government having the best intentions in the world, but because they're so tied to political imperatives, it is incredibly difficult for them to create innovation on their own, without being in partnership with both communities and people who work alongside communities. So, partnership in that innovation process for government is critical.

Yeah, certainly. So, are there any countries that you believe are doing this really well, that are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation in general, and if you do think there are any other countries what are they doing that we in Australia or other countries around the world can adopt? [18:08]

Certainly, social innovation has been around in places like the UK and Europe for much longer... It has a much longer history than it does in Australia, and I think we can learn a lot from those countries. We can also learn what not to do.

I think in the UK in particular, people got very caught up with the funding of government; using government funding to catalyse social innovation. And whilst that was good to start with, it also led to not very risky, not very creative, not very disruptive ways of thinking about systems, because you were really dependent on that tap of funding being left on.

When that got turned off there was a lot of cynicism about how do we create innovative environments, so I would say we can learn from that. I think we should look closer to home.

I've been really inspired by a lot of things that are happening in New Zealand, and they have been through some very interesting political times. They're a small country, so you can see what's happening systemically a lot more clearly, but there's also a fantastic spirit of social innovation and they've almost created curiosity at a cultural level that I think can be inspiring. And their bi-cultural approach to things like social innovation is also critically important for us to really think about. When we think about some of the most tricky, most difficult social innovations challenges we face are actually about aboriginal people and our relationship with aboriginal people as non-indigenous people.

learning from that bi-cultural approach to social innovation I think is critical.

Yeah, I think that's a fantastic insight there. So, what inspiring projects or initiatives then have you come across recently which you are really inspired by? [20:41]

I find this really quite difficult because I'm inspired by projects all the time and not to sound egotistical, but I'm inspired by all of the work that we're involved in across Australia. I'll go back to New Zealand. I'm really inspired by a lot of the place based work that they're doing. I've just reviewed some work that's happening in South Auckland with the Southern Initiative and the Co-Design Lab there who are combined, and I'm inspired by their rigour and their commitment to really using human centred design to look at some of the fundamentals of what needs to change, in order to close the gap between South Auckland and the rest of Auckland from a social and economic perspective. So, I think we can learn a lot from that sort of an approach.

We often shy away from social innovation.

I'm much more interested in the linkage between social and economic innovation and not separating out, as we have in Australia if we look at our innovation policies... Separating out commercial and economic innovation from social innovation.

It's critically important to our future that those be considered as a whole, not as two separate things, one of which, social innovation often gets left off the agenda.

To finish off then, Ingrid, what books would you recommend to the listeners? [20:31]

I also found this question hard.

Feel free to list 10 if you wish!

Oh, god. I could provide a whole library. I'd go back to some of the really fundamentals, so The Open Book of Social Innovation, coming out of Nesta, Geoff Mulgan, one of the co-authors from the UK. I think that's a really interesting and inspiring treatise on social innovation.

From a toolbox and methodological perspective I love the work of Liz Sanders, so the Conviviality Toolbox is one of my favourites. There's so many amazing resources out there for people to grab hold of. Just open Google and jump in is my advice.


Recommended books


You can contact Ingrid on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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