Adapting how we think about social challenges can affect our approach to solving them
In 2005, Scotland had the second highest murder rate in western Europe and the World Health Organisation named Glasgow the murder captial of the continent. Scotland saw 137 murders in one year alone, with deaths often linked to the drug trade, alcohol use and a culture of knife carrying in certain parts of the country.
From this shocking nadir, a radical approach emerged. Strathclyde Police founded the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in Glasgow which took a public health approach by treating violence as a preventable disease. The unit was expanded nationwide the following year and the murder rate in Scotland has since more than halved. There are now similar units in cities across the UK.
How we think about and talk about a problem can change the way we approach solving it.
At Nesta, our missions reflect some of the biggest collective challenges faced by society today: reducing persistent health inequalities, closing the gap in life outcomes for children and cutting the carbon from the way we heat our homes as we strive to address the climate emergency.
More than two-thirds of the adult population are either obese or overweight. Obesity is now the leading cause of death in Scotland and is linked to 23% of all deaths, contributing to stalled life expectancy and a widening gap in length of life between rich and poor.
Home heating contributes 15% of total carbon emissions in Scotland. This is largely because nearly 80% of Scottish people heat homes with a gas boiler and a further 5% use high-emitting oil, directly burning fossil fuels to warm our homes and heat our water. For Scotland to reach its legally binding target of net zero by 2045 will require replacing at least one million boilers with low-carbon alternatives in the next eight years.
Children living in deprived communities in Scotland start school up to 13 months behind their peers from better-off communities. That gap will widen as they progress through school. The persistent poverty-related attainment gap means those same children are consistently less likely to go into further or higher education and then employment, missing out on earnings across their lifetime as well as being more likely to experience poorer health.
Telling different stories
We are under no illusions about the seriousness or scale of these challenges. We also know these issues have been on the Scottish public policy agenda for decades. To solve these problems needs new, bold ideas and innovative approaches. And, like the work of the VRU, that means a seismic shift in how we frame these problems and how we design solutions.
The first five years of a child’s life are widely recognised as the most important for their development, yet, as a society, we tend to see early learning and childcare as a preliminary or preparatory stage ahead of schooling where the emphasis is on “childcare”. But what if we changed that and spoke of years 0 to 5 with the same weight of importance as we give to formal schooling? What impact might changing the way we frame and understand these early years and the importance of elements such as play have on home learning and uptake of early learning opportunities?
What if we moved away from blame and shame and looked at Scotland’s national weight and obesity health crisis as a product of the environments we live and work in? If we recognised that what surrounds us every day shapes our ability to eat healthily and saw that communities and public spaces are flooded with unhealthy food options, maybe then we could invest in policies that prioritise increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food for everyone.
“If we begin to tell different stories about the problems we face, we can shift our perspective and articulate a more positive and inclusive narrative on how to solve them.”
What if we saw an opportunity to address the challenges of the climate emergency, fuel security and the rising cost of energy while getting rid of the most environmentally damaging technology many of us own – our gas and oil heating systems? We could also look at the enormous task of decarbonising the heating in millions of homes, not as a mountain to climb but as a path to building a thriving green industry and creating good, secure and sustainable jobs.
The way we think about and talk about the challenges we face can play a part in determining how we go about fixing them. Recent projects from Nesta’s arts practice – working with National Gallery X in London to commission immersive experiences that engage the public on switching to low-carbon home heating or working with the video games sector in Dundee to explore the use game engine technology to understand local food environments – both have changing the narrative on complex social challenges at their heart.
If we begin to tell different stories about the problems we face, we can shift our perspective and articulate a more positive and inclusive narrative on how to solve them. If, instead of an arduous challenge of personal willpower for some, we see a problem shared across society that we can solve together; or instead of insurmountable problems that we’ve grown too accustomed to, we see opportunities to take action, improve lives and make Scotland better, then we open the door to novel, innovative ideas and foster a greater willingness to try them.
More space for experimentation
A more structured and deliberate approach to developing innovative solutions could help Scotland solve social problems more effectively