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Creating Real Impact: Why We Must Work Portfolio-Based With Missions

16. Nov 2023

If we as a society want to create long-term, sustainable impact and maybe even solve some of the wicked problems we face, it is crucial that more people dare work portfolio-based and insist on seeing both the problems we are facing and our systems in a new light. It is part of our mission-driven approach at DDC – Danish Design Center

Long reads

By Anders Erlendsson & Sara Gry Striegler, DDC – Danish Design Center


For the past year, we have been able to read terrifying headlines and stories about gang-related violence, explosions, and shootings in our neighboring country Sweden. When we read the analyses, there appears to be a realization in the Swedish population: something radical must be done. The violence must stop. The killings must end.

Danish media report that Swedish politicians recognize that they have been naive in their approach to accepting refugees and, perhaps, particularly in their effort to enable people to integrate into Swedish society. The Swedish politicians squint at Denmark and highlight Denmark’s harsh immigration policy, legislative changes – which make it easier to set up surveillance equipment – and the introduction of visitation zones as best-case examples of how to deal with gangs.

But the question is, is Denmark the right place to look? The Swedish decision-makers could use several examples of hands-on and successful approaches from past comparable complex challenges.

It remains unclear what reasons underlie their decisions, but we are tempted to ask: Are knowledge and know-how too difficult to access and too difficult to translate? Are the solutions, services, or interventions too complex and too long-term for the politicians to implement and use the expected positive outcomes in their next election campaign? 

Is it too uncertain to invest in innovations that are trying to address issues with a level of complexity that makes it impossible to demonstrate causal effect using traditional impact measurements, or is it something entirely different?

The number of people killed by gunfire in Sweden has exploded, reaching 63 in 2022. In 2007, 63 young men died in gang-related killings in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the city known as The European Capital of Knife Crime. It is startling that the number of dead is identical, but even more glaring is the degree to which the underlying situations and social dynamics resemble each other.

Where Swedish politicians look for and invest in solutions traditionally associated with crime prevention, such as surveillance and higher prison sentences, Glasgow did something radically different – and with significant success! Over a 10-year period, the number of murders was reduced by 50 percent, while cases of weapon possession and gang-related violence decreased by 85 and 73 percent.

So what did they do in Scotland, led by former nurse and psychologist Karyn McCluskey, that was so successful and groundbreaking? How does it differ from what the Swedish government is currently doing?

They invested, and probably without even realizing it, in a portfolio of collective and holistic care.

The Wicked Series

This article is the fourth and final piece (so far) in the Wicked Series:

Sara Gry Striegler

Photo: Anne Ravnholt Juelsen

Points of reference in DDC’s work towards impact

In this series of articles, we try to demonstrate how we understand and work with large and complex problems, wicked problems. The problems highlight paradoxes in our social construction and articulate the necessity of fundamentally changing the way our systems are designed and operate if we are to succeed in creating long-term and sustainable impacts for people, society, and, ultimately, our planet.

We keep coming back to three important realizations in our work: 1) that we will never succeed in solving the problems completely, 2) that they are deeply rooted in and cut across existing administrations and systems, and 3) that they are amorphous and change expression, character and form as we influence them.

These three realizations guide our change work in DDC to:

  • Mobilize for change – because no stakeholder can solve the problems themselves
  • Build capacity in the existing systems – so that the systems can be changed and, in some cases, closed down
  • To set direction based on the knowledge and learning we acquire through our work – so that we together iterate and co-design even more effective expressions of the solutions as we become smarter.

In the first article, How to Turn Wicked Problems Into Ambitious Opportunities, the concept of the material of systems was introduced, inspired by Jennie Winhall and Charles Leadbeater from System Shift’s green paper on systems innovation.

The concept highlights how the composition of a system’s material, consisting of its purpose, power, relationships, and resources, defines the system and maintains its functionality. Simultaneously, changes in this composition are what bring about systems change.

The second article highlighted how we work with scenarios and alternative futures as a method to uncover blind spots and become aware of our own hypotheses and assumptions in order to spot new opportunities. The third article presented our perspectives on what it takes to initiate, launch, and drive missions.

In the final article in this series, we explore what it means to work portfolio-based and how each intervention in the portfolio contributes to fulfilling the common mission. We will discuss how changing the purpose of systems will allow us to reframe the problems we are facing and open up new possibilities.

The example from Scotland is very interesting in this context because there are obvious overlaps between the strategies, approaches, and methods presented throughout the series of articles and what unfolded in Glasgow.

Over a 10-year period, the Violent Reduction Unit in Scotland, led by Karyn McCluskey, succeeded in changing the material composition of the Scottish police force. As a result, the unit prevented the premature death of many young men.

Just as Swedish politicians are currently investing in more surveillance and harsher penalties, authorities in Glasgow tried to address the problems in a similar way without significant effect. The traditional solutions had been depleted.

The sum of the portfolio creates the impact

It can be difficult to see that systems are changing when they are in the midst of change. It’s always easier in retrospect. The accounts from Glasgow suggest that many ideas, new initiatives, and collaborations arose more or less by coincidence. That the process was emergent and chaotic. Fifteen years later, it is clear that the positive changes cannot be solely attributed to Karyn but are the result of the sum of various initiatives, partial solutions, and people who made it possible for young men to choose a different path in life.

In other words, the sum of initiatives in the portfolio.

Although the approach and process may not have been planned from the beginning, not originally intended as a portfolio approach, but emerged along the way and were influenced by the people involved, we see it as a prime example of what it means to work portfolio-based and the impact it can bring about.

What truly enabled new responses to emerge as part of a portfolio was a shift in the system’s fundamental purpose. Where the traditional system viewed gang crime, violence, and murder as crimes to be punished, McCluskey insisted on viewing the problems in a different light – as an epidemic. The objective of stopping the violence and the killings remained unchanged, but the shift in the way problems were perceived significantly changed the system’s purpose, its logics, and what responses and solutions which were considered legitimate.

 

Illness logics

  • Illness is something you try to prevent. 
  • You try to detect illness as early as possible so the chance of complete recovery is the best.
  • Illness is something that is treated holistically and involves many actors.
Crime logics

  • Committing a crime is the individual’s choice. 
  • Crime should be punished. 
  • Punishment will deter further crime.
New logics when violence is perceived as a illness

  • Violence is something that should be prevented. 
  • Violence is something that should be detected as early as possible to maximize the chance of complete healing. 
  • Violence should be treated holistically and involve many stakeholders. 
  • Violence is not the active choice and responsibility of the individual but has its roots in a series of events and contexts around the individual.

In our mission, Thriving Youth, we have taken a similar approach to create a future where young people thrive. We started out by exploring what has influenced the development of the mental health system, why it looks and operates the way it does today, what discourses and logics it is built on, and what is characterizing the system’s material composition.

Just like in Glasgow, it was clear that the existing system could not meet the challenge and counteract the increasing distress among children and young people. The system was stuck in the medical paradigm, which defined what legitimate responses and solutions and what human and organizational resources could be utilized.

The dominating logic from Denmark’s mental health system is in many ways identical to the logic in the text box above: To detect, diagnose, and treat people when their symptoms are severe enough to qualify for a diagnosis.

Every third woman and every fifth man between the ages of 16-24 experience anxiety, stress, and loneliness in their everyday context. In other words, unhappiness is experienced collectively. Several people in the research world are working to change our view of mental health, and in this relation, Jonathan Schaefer’s research is interesting: a study from 2021 shows that a large part of us will experience mental illness, and only 15 percent will avoid mental illness in our lives.

With inspiration from the ground-breaking work from Glasgow, we started, in collaboration with the ROCKWOOL Foundation’s Intervention Unit, to identify overall shifts in the traditional and dominating understanding of the problem, which could turn the problem into an opportunity and thus release unutilized resources and disrupt the existing power dynamics.

What is well-being?

According to the WHO, health is, by definition: A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease, pain or other infirmities. A definition that individualizes the concept of health and makes health the responsibility of the individual.

At the same time, the definition underpins an unfortunate trend that one of the authors of this article, Anders Erlendsson, experienced while conducting fieldwork in a previous job at the ROCKWOOL Foundation’s Intervention Unit: That a great many young people understand and describe well-being as a state one can only reach if one performs 100 percent on all parameters in one’s life at the same time.

Therefore, it is perhaps not so surprising that young people in various well-being surveys express that they do not thrive. 

Life is never 100 percent on all parameters. Difficult situations shape us and influence who and what we grow up to become. It develops our inner compass and helps us to understand and navigate failures, disappointments, and worries.

At DDC – Danish Design Center, we believe that well-being is the notion of being able to navigate the complexity we encounter in life. Well-being is a state of balance that gives one the experience of surplus, courage, vigor, and joy in life. Well-being is expressed through interactions between life, structures, frameworks, communities, and social relations. Well-being is neither constant happiness on all parameters nor the absence of diagnoses.

Because we see well-being as a contextual phenomenon, it made sense in our mission work to shift the focus from mental health to a focus on mental well-being. And because well-being results from interactions with life around us, it does not make sense to see well-being as the individual’s responsibility but as the community’s.

Therefore, our mission, Thriving Youth, aims to design structures that actively promote well-being. But also to revise the basic narratives and understandings of well-being in society, to nurture the collective imagination, and to shape our systems to open up more possible and meaningful paths through life. 

It is no longer only health professionals who can contribute to promoting well-being, but a responsibility and an opportunity that resides with all people in our society.

We are currently working on launching an inter-municipal partnership program to kickstart this intent. In this program, municipalities will collaborate to develop, support, and operate a portfolio that provides opportunities to create frameworks where young people thrive.

A portfolio of opportunities

As described in this series of articles, we are working to influence and address the complex and difficult – even wicked – societal problems in our society. In this work, we believe there are key tools and approaches that can be put into play to initiate the transformation of broken systems. Once the work has been initiated it’s about maintaining the alternative direction, using it as a benchmark for new initiatives, and as a compass for the overall portfolio.

Briefly, if we return to the situation in Glasgow in the early 2000s, we find strong examples of exactly that. The redefinition of the system’s purpose and the alternative logics challenged the dominant understanding of the problem and made alternative solution models and opportunities legitimate. 

Suddenly, people in professions not traditionally associated with the prevention of violence and gang crime played a key role in successfully achieving the system’s redefined purpose. New relationship patterns were established. New resources were utilized.

Anders Erlendsson

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

A new effort that emerged in the portfolio was that veterinarians treating injured animals could inform social authorities if there was suspicion that the injury was due to violence or neglect. Simply because it could be an indicator of violence in the home. An indicator that was suspected and later proven to have a strong influence on whether boys themselves would commit violence later in life.

And professions that previously worked to solve gang crime in the traditional ways got completely new functions. For example, police officers who used to spend most of their time solving and proving crime were given another function due to the shift in the system’s purpose – namely, to prevent crime through building relationships with young men in the gang environment and by insisting on inviting dialogue and cooperation.

Remember to turn on the light

In Denmark, wicked problems are hot stuff. It’s a good thing. It is necessary to see the major societal challenges, wicked problems in a different light and to give us a language so we can insist that they require collaboration across the board.

At the same time, there are voices that state that precisely this shared ownership makes decision-makers passive and paralyzed. Some believe that a narrative is spreading: “If the problems don’t live within my domain, I can’t do anything anyway.”

It is true that wicked problems are neither easy nor quick to solve. And changing systems will inevitably meet both systemic and human resistance. For obvious reasons, very few have the courage and desire to tell other people to change the approach they feel they are good at and have been practicing for the past 30 years.

Even fewer have the courage to relinquish the power that needs to be relinquished so that new relationships can be established, completely new organizations can gain influence, and new resources can flow – for the systems to ultimately change.

In our work, we meet passionate individuals who make a difference for people in vulnerable positions every day and succeed in hacking the systems that, according to them, are broken. They talk about how they experience decision-makers being passive and appear to be lagging behind the development and innovation that sprouts in many places locally. 

These stories make us all easily tempted to point the finger at the government, making them responsible. But the issue is significantly more complex than that.

Firstly, it is as good as impossible to scale zealots – at least as long as the announcement of the act on cloning and genetic modification of animals, etc., is applicable – and secondly, the frameworks, arenas, and contexts in which passionate individuals operate are rarely comparable.

Therefore, we also believe that both zealots and national politicians have essential roles to play in creating long-term and sustainable change. Where the narrative for change arises from the problem, the people, organizations, and companies show another possible path for dealing with them.

Politicians have an essential role to play in supporting the work and creating the space for change. At DDC, we believe that mission work – the common narrative – can bring together all stakeholders and thus both drive change top-down and bottom-up.

In recent years in Denmark, we have seen examples of how some foundations, including Bikubenfonden, have fundamentally changed their purpose. They have become impact-driven. This means that they are concerned with the overall change for people in particular situations rather than focusing on the change that is created for individuals through activities or events.

Most recently, through our partnership with KS Kommunesektorens interesseorganisasjon PRI – Partnership for Radical Innovation in Norway, we have experienced that the work of redefining the system’s material, exploring alternative futures and establishing a common direction and mission has contributed to two Norwegian foundations fundamentally changing their way of understanding and investing in impact.

In article three of the Wicked Series, we described the Mission Manager’s role and responsibility to succeed with the mission’s long-term objectives and not with the individual interests of companies or organizations. We sincerely believe there is a need for this new type of leader who, like Karyn McCluskey, can create connections and collect and distribute experience and knowledge across the portfolio. A leader who can and will insist on the concrete change of purpose and thus also works to change the way we understand and measure change.

Last but not least, we believe that it is central that new cooperation models are established in our political system, which enables long-term investment – beyond an election period of four years. The mission-driven approach is like running – not just a marathon, but an ultra race. It calls for constant adaptation to pace, terrain, and weather changes. It is the long, cool move and the persistence that is absolutely decisive.

It is neither easy nor cost-free, but the question is, can we afford not to?

These four articles are our attempt to shed light on how we work to create positive changes – from identifying systemic problems and developing scenarios and a common mission to establishing a portfolio and learning mechanism.

In our belief, working to create positive change requires that we insist that the future is bright for our children, our society, and our planet.

 

The article is available in Danish here.

Sara Gry Striegler

Director of Social Transition

Mail sgs@ddc.dk
Phone +45 6110 4778
Social LinkedIn

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