Getting to Zero: Strategizing a Validation Process with Mobilise
We met with Pivotal Labs earlier this week to discuss our community spaces project. Here, Rosemary King explains the insights that emerged from our discussion, cross-posted from the Pivotal Labs blog.
How do you get started? This was a question that was being asked on both sides of the table at Pivotal Labs London’s inaugural office hours. Our Associate Director Robbie Clutton, Associate Director of Design Martina Schell, and I sat down with an organization called Mobilise Public Ltd to help them hash out their product hypothesis and potential strategy for an MVP launch. Mobilise asked us how these sessions usually went, we replied that the session really shapes itself and asked them to start describing the problem they are trying to solve.
Mobilise is a public sector company that is in the process of transitioning from service delivery to product delivery. Mobilise has extensive experience working with public and community sector in underserved areas and a deep understanding of their various users’ needs and desires. This wealth of experience means that Mobilise has many ideas of what products could be useful. This shift in business model was instigated when Mobilise spotted an opportunity to capitalize on underutilized public spaces that could help raise engagement in local communities. So their question for us was how they should best get started.
Their hunch on how to best evolve their business is building a platform that breaks down the barriers to using community spaces, while simultaneously giving small entrepreneurs an opportunity to engage directly with their own communities. Our aim during the session was to understand what Mobilise’s product hypothesis is for this product. Once you have a clear hypothesis the path to validate that hypothesis emerges. All product hypotheses should ruthlessly eliminate as much complexity as possible and drive to the core idea.
Mobilise’s hypothesis boils down to a simple concept: If the community spaces in question were easy to access and easy to use, then people in the surrounding community would be eager to use them.
After discussing the hypothesis it was clear that Mobilise would be well served by leveraging their existing relationships with community organizations and groups in order to help define the MVP. We identified several opportunities for research and discovery that should help them understand how their core user groups were completing these activities now. These included shadowing and interviews with organizations that have successfully built active communities with minimal help from digital products. It is also crucial that Mobilise get an understanding of what other tools to do similar work, and where gaps exist and what folks would like to see automated vs. what they would want to continue to do themselves. Lots of companies view this type of intensive discovery work as overkill but with complex problems, unclear user needs, and premium development costs, making sure you validate your hypothesis with specific answers carries its weight in gold.
Sometimes the first step is discovering the first step.
Activating spaces for active communities
Community halls should be an asset for neighbourhoods – yet often the reality is very different. We’re exploring how app technology can help people get more from their local spaces.
Earlier this year, a housing association contacted us about their 21 community halls. Instead of being lively hubs of local activity, many were under-used – a drain on finances, with little to show for it.
At the same time, we were working with a neighbourhood where residents found it difficult to access their own community facilities; the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association were hard to contact, and had set prices for hall hire that shut out many local people.
It’s a complaint that’s echoed across the country. Existing ways of managing community spaces have often left them severely under-used – a huge waste of resources. Supporting residents to look after their own facilities can be costly, and while the aim is community empowerment, this approach risks empowering one group in the community to the exclusion of others.
We’re developing a new way for people to use these spaces; one that’s more accessible, and a better fit with the way we manage other parts of our lives. Inspired by websites like Airbnb or Liftshare, we want to use peer-to-peer technology to connect people with each other and their local spaces. Anyone will be able to use the app to find a community venue, set a price and start putting on an activity, or search and book activities near them that match their interests.
Residents know what activities will work in their community and at what price. We’ve learnt that requiring a voluntary commitment doesn’t work for everyone, but that local entrepreneurs will come forward if they can earn some extra money by meeting a need in their community.
One such need is for exercise and wellbeing classes; demand for these, and for better information about what’s on, comes up frequently in public health consultations. Opening up community spaces will lead to more affordable opportunities to get active close to where people live. As well as physical exercise, the health benefits of more social participation are well-known.
Using apps to help provide local services isn’t a new idea. However, this isn’t a project that relies on technology alone; a social enterprise will help with vetting providers, maintaining the facilities, and making sure that those without smartphones can still take part. Nor is technology the focus; what we’re hoping to do is change how people and spaces interact, and crucially, make this change from the bottom up.
Local authorities talk about co-production and co-design of services, but acknowledge that even in areas with a strong sense of community, asking citizens to become co-producers of services is a challenge. With decreasing resources, the demands of the infrastructure needed to support this can seem unrealistic.
This idea allows genuine co-production to happen at low cost. By creating an accessible tool for using spaces, it will encourage residents to respond to local demand and create a programme of activities that suits their community without commissioning or top-down management.
This approach also suggests an alternative to the problems of working in a joined-up way at the local level. Often, different targets and funding sources cause inherent difficulties for initiatives that cross departmental silos, as ventures like neighbourhood management, total place and community budgets often demonstrate.
In contrast, while this project has benefits for public health, adult social care, housing, community regeneration and the local economy, we won’t need to know in exactly what proportions. Disputes over who manages and pays for it will be limited by its light-touch, community-led and increasingly self-funded operation. Departments will also be able to promote their individual agendas by subsidising activities they wish to promote or ensuring personal budget holders can tap into the new activities.
In May, Penny Osborne called for an open marketplace in social care; similarly, a marketplace in the use of community spaces lets residents expand provision of activities to suit their specific needs. We’re talking to three local authorities about the potential to pilot the idea. Like us, they want to unlock not only the potential of their community assets, but the potential of citizens to create services from the bottom up.
Youth Bank Project
Would you like to get young people further involved in your Big Local area?
Mobilise have developed a Youth Bank Project, find out more.
Councils and Parking – The Relationship Test
The BBC’s Inside Out London this week did a follow up to their report last year that investigated whether two London boroughs were setting unlawful parking ticket targets with their contractors. This week they suggested that more London Councils are doing the same. Inside Out say that their conversations with serving and former enforcement officers suggest the pressure to give out tickets is so much that sometimes they make up the evidence, or ‘constructively create PCNs’. They showed on the programme how this is done and got a ‘disgusted’ enforcement officer to demonstrate. The handheld computer’s 5 minute constant observation mode is begun before a contravention has been observed so that instant tickets can be issued when a contravention is found. They pretend the car has been observed for 5 minutes, when it hasn’t. This is commonly known as ‘cooking’ and the enforcement officer interviewed claimed that thousands of tickets are given in this way which is illegal. The claim is that the pressure is so great to produce enough PCNs that these are the kind of tactics the enforcement officers need to resort to. Worse still, there is no way the driver can prove what has happened. The example in the programme from Lambeth showed a butcher unloading his van ticketed incorrectly but given no choice but to appeal and when rejected by Lambeth, to go to the independent adjudicator. The written evidence from Lambeth at the appeal reported that there was no evidence he was unloading when photographic evidence provided by Lambeth itself clearly showed he was. Of course, the PCN was thrown out.
In these austere times, local authorities are having to be creative about how to increase income and reduce spending. Parking is clearly a bit of a cash cow. The programme reported that last year Bromley made a £5.7m profit form parking, Hackney £7.9m, and Lambeth £12m. However there is creative and there is ‘arguably unlawful’ when it comes to raising revenue.
This time the government is on the side of the driver and both Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis at DCLG have attacked local authorities for raising cash through parking fines, come out against ‘spy car’ cameras, and even suggested 30 minutes free parking in towns as a measure to boost our flagging high streets. Though this often feels like rhetoric with little action taken to change the way things are.
As a Londoner, I’ve fallen foul of parking enforcement on many occasions. However hard I try to keep to all the different sets of rules, mistakes are made, or as Inside Out suggests, you’ll be ticketed unfairly. This is so regular, I began to budget for PCNs annually as part of my personal financial planning – and don’t forget this is on top of what we pay for Council Tax, parking permits and hourly parking in car parks and on street! Although I’m often successful on appeal, the time this takes and stress it causes is hardly worth it, and Councils know this. Once I tried to contact my local council about it. Even when getting a local Councillor on side, their rebuffs were astonishing.
There is a another side to this parking fiasco I feel Councils don’t consider. In order to deal with the huge cuts in funding most Councils are also now looking at ways they can reduce demand for services, change behaviour to reduce the burden on services, and increase levels of community activity and volunteering to fill the gaps where services can no longer do what they used to. They need the community to work with them, co-create, co-produce and do more for themselves. Though, often when the Council reaches out, they find an angry public. I suspect few politicians or senior council officers think much about how overzealous or unfair parking enforcement could impact on the Council’s relationship with its public and whether the benefits of increased revenue might be far outweighed by the costs of citizens being unwilling to behave in ways that are helpful to the Council. As Councils continue to seek the public’s help and cooperation over many areas of service delivery, they are going to have to consider these issues more and more. I call it ‘The Relationship Test’. All Council practices need looking at from a different point of view. Will the way we work, this policy, or that practice help build trust with the public, engender a better relationship with citizens, encourage positive behaviours or volunteering? Or the opposite – will it damage the relationship we have with the public and cost us dearly later. Without this rubric, Councils run the risk of becoming increasingly sneakier about revenue raising and laissez faire about the impacts these kinds of activities have on their relationship with the public whilst scratching their heads about why citizens get angry at public meetings and often seem unwilling to get involved.
The Power of Networks
This RSA Animate explores the power of network visualisation to help navigate our complex modern world.
Citizens UK – What is Community Organising?
You can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
Careful Not To Turn Good Ideas into Bad Policy
Help-to-work will be populist and perhaps even a vote winner for the Tories. However, its an old idea that’s been about for some 10 years. In the days of Neighbourhood Renewal, the NDC’s and Neighbourhood Management Pathfinders we asked Government to consider the idea though coming from a different perspective. Why couldn’t people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods who were not working be encouraged to get involved in their local communities and work significant voluntary hours for the benefit of the community without affecting their availability for work as seen by DWP and therefore their benefits. It was a potential win:win:win – the state because the claimant would begin developing skills in readiness for work; the community because an army of capacity could be released helping make neighbourhoods better places; and the person through skills development, social contact, and self esteem. Now its coming from the Conservatives but framed in a negative way making the community sector wary. If you make someone have to undertake community work (or sign on daily or undertake training) with the threat of losing benefits if they don’t, this is clearly a different proposition. At best, an army of disgruntled, unwilling ‘volunteers’ will emerge who are difficult to manage and motivate. And community organisations will be unwilling to report non participation that would lead to benefits being being docked.
What kind of dynamic does that create between the local community organisation and those in need of support anyway? Tough love? More like bad psychology. What next?
Study Visit Day at Blackfriars Settlement & St. Mark’s Community Centre
As part of the work Mobilise is doing for Family Mosaic to support the development of a new community facility and trust, shadow trust residents were taken on a study tour of similar facilities
Work with Only Connect
Micah, Mobilise’s Director, at sea as part of Only Connect’s training residential for OC West’s Community Researchers
In preparation for Only Connect’s new OC West initiative, Mobilise supported the recruitment and training of a group of young people from the White City Estate to lead on the community research