Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


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Learning from mistakes: reflective learning in social work

No one likes to talk about their own mistakes. They are an inevitable part of the human condition, highlight our flaws, inabilities and limitations and can place a spotlight on what happens when resources and people are stretched too thinly.

In certain professions, including frontline social work, mistakes – however innocent or unintentional – can have potentially life-changing effects for service users. Keeping them to a minimum is of paramount importance. And it’s important that if mistakes have been made that they are not only rectified but also analysed to consider what went wrong, and what can be done to avoid the same thing happening again. For social workers the stakes could not be much higher – people’s lives are in the balance. So how can social workers not only recognise, reduce and rectify mistakes, but also use them as learning opportunities to improve performance and decision making in the future?

Making the most of our mistakes

It is important that practitioners and their managers know which strategies are most effective for them and their team when it comes to extracting valuable insight from mistakes. This only comes from having a strong and secure working relationship, where people feel able to talk openly and reveal insecurities and inadequacies, as well as recognising the positives within their practice.

Working out the correct strategies for each occasion and for each team member will take time. However, some tools and strategies include:

  • learning how to generate effective questions to explore not only how a mistake happened, but why and what steps can be taken to prevent it from happening in the future
  • adopting a strengths-based approach, rather than a deficit-based approach to staff and any mistakes they made
  • reflective frameworks that can be formally incorporated into everyday practice
  • encouraging staff to find a “critical friend” to offer an external perspective and extend personal reflective capacity
  • encouraging staff to take up reflective writing (in everyday life, not just at work) including journals and diary entries
  • training staff on creative models of reflection and on how to give and receive constructive feedback
  • finding ways to feed back to an entire organisation regarding the lessons learned from mistakes and how they can shape practice in the future.

The reflective cycle

One of the traditional models of reflection for social workers is Gibbs’ cycle of reflection (1988).

Among social workers, reflective practice is often promoted. Personal experience and participation should be seen as a positive and an opportunity to develop new skills, learning or approaches. Reflection should be focused on professional errors, asking questions like “why”; “what went wrong”; and “what did I do wrong.”

Reflection can happen at three levels:

  • personal
  • one-to-one with another person (a supervisor, colleague or family member)
  • in groups (at organisational level)

It can be useful to reflect at all levels, where possible, in order to get the most out of the experience and have the biggest impact with regard to what can be learnt from mistakes and how this can be passed to others to avoid them making the same ones.

Taking and giving constructive feedback

Although it may be uncomfortable at the time, social workers and people from other professions should welcome feedback from colleagues and service users as they can be powerful sources to drive professional growth. However, it is important to distinguish constructive feedback from blame. Highlighting helpful advice and using it in a constructive way is not the same as finger pointing and fault picking, and managers must develop the ability to distinguish between the two.

Final thoughts

Mistakes happen, and although we don’t like to talk about them, they can sometimes provide some of the most useful insight for learning and improvement within an organisation. Beyond the organisational level, personal reflection on practice and taking time to consider how you approach certain situations is a vital aspect of the self-aware, continual improvement that social workers must strive towards, even if they don’t always meet the exacting standards all of the time.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also find the following article of interest:

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Getting to grips with planning law and with neighbourhood planning … New books in our library

Anyone who reads our blog will know that our research team care about supporting the use of evidence in practice, whether that’s in social services, in housing, or in planning. And one of the unique resources we have to help do this is our very own library!

Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in the library collection, as well as hundreds of different journal titles. Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the organisational membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

While quick reads – such as the briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, there’s still a place for real books. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal development or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.

Supporting professional CPD

We’re regularly adding new books to our collection and two that caught my eye recently are in the field of planning. We’ve a lot of members who work in planning across the UK, including the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) themselves, and as a profession, planners commit to maintain and develop their expertise through Continuing Professional Development.

Using our book loan service is one way that our members can access new publications and stay up-to-date with current thinking in their sector.

  • Localism and Neighbourhood Planning

Neighbourhood planning was one of the rights and powers introduced under the Localism Act of 2011, and was expected to offer ” a new way for communities to decide the future of the places where they live and work”. Six years on, a new book edited by Sue Bronhill and Quintin Bradley, reflects on whether neighbourhood planning has succeeded in increasing democratic engagement with the planning system.

In particular it examines how localism has played out in practice, especially given the legal and technical skills that are required in planning. As well as exploring the situation in England, the book also looks at how multi-level governance is being applied in the other parts of the UK and in countries such as Australia and France.

It raises interesting questions about whether neighbourhood planning has changed the institutional structure of planning and the power relations involved. It also asks whether an even more progressive form of localism within planning might emerge.

  • Essential Guide to Planning Law

With the planning systems and law devolved within the UK, a book which provides an overview of how practice differs in each nation is much needed. This book covers all the core areas, from development management, planning conditions, planning control and enforcement. It also addresses the planning arrangements in specialist areas such as minerals planning, waste planning and marine planning.

The book serves as a useful reminder of how and why planning decisions are made, and the legal frameworks that underpin planning practice.

The Idox Information Service

As Dr Mike Harris, Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, has said, it’s important that the planning profession is able to access and use evidence and research.

“Research and theory can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning. It can also help us better to defend planning from those who would seek to erode it further.”


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

The economic impact of international students in the UK

by Stacey Dingwall

A key concern following Brexit has been the status of international students (and academics) in the UK. Going into the general election, Theresa May has declined calls from universities – and some of her most senior colleagues – to remove students from her government’s target to cut migration by “tens of thousands”.

International students in the UK

In 2014-15, 437,000 students came from overseas to study in the UK, making up 19% of all UK university registrations that year. In February, the Office for National Statistics released net migration statistics which showed that long-term immigration to the UK fell by a “statistically significant” 23% to 134,000 in the year ending September 2016 – the lowest estimate recorded in almost 15 years. The number of international students coming to study in the UK accounted for much of this decrease, at 41,000. The majority of this figure was made up by students from non-EU countries (31,000).

In January, HESA released figures on students enrolled in higher education in 2015-16 which indicated that the number of students coming to the UK from EU member states had increased by 2%. These figures were collected before Brexit, however, so it will be next year’s edition before any impact, if at all, can be identified. Figures from UCAS published at the end of March, however, indicate a 6% decrease in the number of university applications from EU students on the previous year.

The ONS migration figures also showed that students from Asian countries made up 68% of the estimated 87,000 non-EU citizens who came to study in the UK during that year. While the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students in the world, after the USA, this is a fall of 23,000 on the previous year.

An economic impact worth billions

So why are some of Mrs May’s most senior colleagues rebelling against her decision to maintain international students within her migration reduction quota? One major reason is clearly the economic benefits generated for the country by the students. In March this year, research conducted by Oxford Economics for Universities UK suggested that in 2014-15, on- and off-campus spending by international students, and their visitors, generated a knock-on impact worth £25.8 billion in gross output to the UK economy. The 2014-15 international student cohort accounted for £10.8 billion of UK export earnings that year.

Tuition fees account for £4.8 billion of the total figure. The research also found that spending by international students supported over 200,000 jobs in UK university towns and cities and that the economic activity and employment sustained by international students’ off campus spending generated £1 billion in tax revenues.

Conservative rebellion and public opinion

Conservative MP Anna Soubry has pointed out that the economic contribution of international students continues even after they have completed their studies, in the form of “goodwill towards our country”, which “ often results in business deals as well as improved international relations and understanding”. It would appear that the public shares her sentiments: a poll conducted by Comres following the publication of Universities UK’s research found that 74% of those asked would like to see the number of international students in the UK either maintained or increased, after being told of the economic benefits they generate.

Despite this, the Prime Minister’s only concession so far has been to allow the newly created Office for Students to publish separate figures on overseas students, although they will still be recorded as part of the overall migration figures.  It has been suggested that a potential Conservative backbench rebellion over the government’s decision to remove the House of Lords’ amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill on the issue was only defused by the decision to call a snap election – although MPs from both the Conservative and opposition parties have vowed to continue to fight the government’s stance. The Independent has launched a campaign – Drop the Target – supported by Soubry, which is demanding answers from the government on why they are continuing with the policy, which they argue is economically and socially damaging to the country.


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Metro mayors – what is their worth?

market_townBy Heather Cameron

As voters went to the polls once again on 4th May for the local elections, six combined authorities in England saw directly-elected metro mayors chosen for the first time, as part of the government’s devolution agenda.

The six areas – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – account for almost 20% of the population of England. This means a third of the English population, including London, now have a directly-elected metro mayor.

Advocates of the role believe metro mayors have the potential to transform both local democracy and local economies. However, not everyone is as supportive.

What are directly-elected metro mayors and what are their responsibilities?

Directly-elected metro mayors are chairs of their area’s combined authority, elected by the local population. Their role involves working in partnership with the combined authority to exercise the powers and functions devolved by central government, set out in the local area’s devolution deal. In contrast to existing city mayors, who are also directly elected, or local council leaders who make decisions for, and on behalf of, their local authorities, metro mayors have the power to make decisions for whole city regions.

The devolved powers predominantly focus on strategic matters, including housing and planning, skills, transport and economic development, with the exception of Greater Manchester, which also has powers and funding related to criminal justice and health and social care. Each devolution deal is very much tailored to the local area however, so the combined authorities will have varying powers and budgets.

The aim of metro mayors is to support local economic growth, while providing greater democratic accountability.

Concerns

While the government believes the role ensures clear accountability over devolved powers and funding, concerns have been voiced within local government itself about the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of the incoming combined authority mayors. And democratic support for the role has always been weak.

In terms of accountability, metro mayors will not be accountable to an elected assembly, as in London, but only to their cabinet made up of other council leaders. This, and their potentially wide-ranging powers have been highlighted as a concern in terms of back-room stich-up deals being created between mayors and individual authorities“.

Their introduction has also been described as “potentially worrying” as the local people were never given the opportunity to have a say on the new roles and that, instead, they are products of ‘deals done behind closed doors between councillors and representatives of central government.’

It appears rather ironic that this proposal of greater devolution may actually reflect an imposition from central government of its own policies and desires on local government.

Nevertheless, the new metro mayors do enable greater local control over local matters and have been argued to represent the best chance yet of ensuring devolution is sustainable over time. It is also likely they will get increasing powers over time, as in London.

But the question remains whether they will facilitate local economic growth and help to re-balance the English economy.

Final thoughts

Whether the new metro mayors will succeed in this aim or not, only time will tell. There has been little evidence of improved performance under elected mayors in England so far, although it has been suggested there is some evidence that their introduction has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues, and that there was improved relationships between partners.

Some of the successes of the London mayor have also been suggested to be an indication of the potential impact of the directly-elected mayor role.

As has recently been argued, their success, or otherwise, “should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better”.


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Scotland’s space sector: a launchpad for economic growth

Discovery space shuttle on launchpad

By Steven McGinty

In March, the UK Space Agency announced it had awarded £50,000 to the University of Strathclyde’s Scottish Centre for Satellite Applications (SoXSA) for its work with Glasgow City Council to attract entrepreneurs and start-ups to Glasgow’s innovation hub, Tontine.

Six companies will benefit from the support, which includes space industry specific business support, dedicated workshops and expertise, and administration and accommodation costs for two years.

The award is another sign of faith in Scotland’s burgeoning space industry, which has seen it become a global leader in the ‘New Space’ economy.

The development of New Space

The space industry, like many other technology fields, has been traditionally dominated by nation states, often in terms of national security.

But now, a new space industry is emerging, where private companies and entrepreneurs are developing innovative products and services in or for space. Reasons for this include reductions in funding to national space agencies, such as Donald Trump’s recent cuts to NASA, as well as the private sector’s success in innovation. For example, the company Space X has managed to launch rockets that had previously been into space – a practice which has been estimated to reduce the first stage of space flight from $60 million to $500,000.

Scotland’s role

Within a few miles of Glasgow’s city centre, a small number of research groups and private companies have gained international reputations for their work on space technologies.

For instance, Glasgow – a city more known for its heavy industries and shipbuilding – has found a niche in manufacturing low cost nanosatellites. This has led to Glasgow being crowned ‘Europe’s Satellite City’.

Glasgow’s first satellite company, Clydespace, has been tremendously successful over the past decade by developing CubeSats (a satellite the size of a wine bottle). These have been used in a range of missions, including UKube-1, the first mission to be commissioned by the UK Space Agency as a demonstrator for space technologies.

The city has also seen investment from Spire Global – a satellite powered data company headquartered in San Francisco. Spire’s satellites, which are used to gather data on weather, maritime, and aviation, were built by Clydespace. Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire, explains that:

We have up there about 20 satellites, all exclusively built here in Glasgow.”

Mr Platzer highlights that Scotland’s confidence in Spire was one of the reasons that they opened their European office in Glasgow’s Skypark. The company received a £1.5m Scottish government grant through the agency Scottish Development International (SDI).

Scotland’s low cost base and universities with strong interests in engineering and space technologies were also highlighted as key selling points.

Young innovators have also sought to get involved in Scotland’s space sector. For example, Tom Walkinshaw, founded Alba Orbital from his bedroom when he was unable to secure a job in the space industry. His company provides PocketQube satellites (based on a design of one or more 5cm cubes) and now employs 10 skilled employees. Alba Orbital’s first satellite, Unicorn-1, is backed by the European Space Agency and is due for launch later in the year.

In academia, the University of Glasgow’s LISA Pathfinder team won the 2016 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for “Space Achievement in Academic Research or Study”. The award was given for the team’s work on developing the Optical Bench Interferometer (OBI) for the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft – a demonstrator aimed at measuring gravitational waves in space.

The future of Scotland’s space economy

A report by London Economics investigated the potential benefits of a spaceport in Scotland.

Prestwick Airport in South Ayrshire and Machrihanish, near Campbeltown, are currently competing to win a licence from the UK Government.

London Economics have set out three main advantages to having a local spaceport:

  • Spaceport operations – The activities associated with a spaceport will lead to the direct creation of jobs in commercial spaceflight or providing satellite launches, as well as indirect benefits for local suppliers.
  • Space tourism – Tourists visiting space stations or taken part in space travel are also likely to spend money in the surrounding areas and on other attractions.
  • Space-related education – Spending will increase on research and development due to the creation of a spaceport.

Tom Millar, managing director of DiscoverSpace UK, has also stated that sending small satellites into space would be a ‘viable revenue stream’. A local spaceport would reduce the costs for Scottish satellite companies as at the moment they currently have to ‘piggyback’ onto launches with larger satellites.

The report concludes by finding that a spaceport in Scotland would increase growth from 9% to 10% of the UK’s space economy in 2030.

The implications of Brexit

The results of the 2016 EU Referendum has caused uncertainty for the Scottish space sector. For example, many companies will be concerned for the rights of EU national employees, as well as their ability to recruit from this workforce in the future.

The Financial Times has also reported that changes in terms could keep UK companies out of lucrative European space contracts, such as the €10bn Galileo satellite navigation system. The European Commission are looking to change the terms of the Galileo project so that contracts can be cancelled if a company is not based in a member state. They also require companies to pay the costs of finding a replacement. If these terms are approved, it would effectively rule out UK-based companies bidding for EU projects, which would have a negative impact on the sector’s growth.

Final thoughts

Scotland’s space sector is estimated to be worth £134 million and accounts for 18% of all UK space industry jobs. Its success has been built on a combination of government support, talented entrepreneurs, and a supply of skilled engineers.

As the industry continues to grow, there will still be an important role for government, particularly in supporting innovation centres and granting licences for UK spaceports. The promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will also be crucial, as we look to develop a new generation of space entrepreneurs to keep us ahead of this new industrial space race.


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How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


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Zero suicide cities: learning from Detroit in the UK

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Yet people still experience stigma when seeking help for mental illness, despite high-profile discussions of mental health issues such as those by members of the royal family and sportspeople. And a report into the Government’s suicide prevention strategy in March 2017, suggested that although 95% of local authorities now have a suicide prevention plan, there is little or no information about the quality of those plans, or whether adequate funding is available to implement them.

The lack of progress made on improving suicide and general mental health provision has led to a growing frustration among professionals and resulted in attempts to create new approaches to tackle mental health issues, and in particular to improve access to support for people in crisis or at risk of suicide.

The idea of a “zero suicide city” was first adopted in Detroit in the late 2000’s, with others following its lead in subsequent years. With reports finding that around 14 Londoners a week took their own life in 2015 (735 in total), an increase of a third from the 2014 statistics, a report in February 2017 by the London Assembly Health Committee suggested that London too should take this approach.

So what can London, and other areas of the UK, learn from Detroit’s approach? And how can services act to reduce the number of people taking their own lives?

Zero-suicide cities

Poverty and high unemployment in Detroit are contributing factors to high levels of depression among city residents. As a result of these high rates of depression and very high suicide statistics, Detroit-based mental health professionals adopted a new approach to tackle the stigma around mental illness and use identifiers to highlight cases of crisis, or potential crisis. The focus is on preventative care, encouraging professionals to act upon signs of mental illness before a suicide or attempted suicide takes place.

Patients attending health clinics for other illnesses, including diabetes or heart failure, are also now screened for depression and other mental health issues before they are released. This allows people deemed to be ‘at risk’ to be identified as soon as they come into contact with medical professionals, who can then refer the patient to a mental health specialist if needed, rather than reacting to mental illness once it reaches crisis point.

In order to support this approach, a centralised IT system was created which means results are traceable, and surveys and information are standardised so they can be used and accessed across clinics throughout Detroit. Coordination with non-medical practitioners, including social workers, employers and family members, has also been key in identifying people at risk and signposting them to help at every possible opportunity. There has also been additional training for staff to improve recognition of identifying factors. Patients can email their clinicians or liaising staff directly and attend regular drop-in appointments. Up to 12,000 patients using mental health facilities are tracked each year in the city and some statistics suggest that the clinics reduced suicides by over 80%.

There have been some criticisms of the system however, despite the reduction in the number of suicides in the city. Critics highlight the fact that many of the poorest and most severely in need of help are not reached as they do not have health insurance and so do not attend those clinics involved in the scheme.

Ultimately, however, the scheme seeks to provide better preventative, coordinated and targeted care to those who are at risk or show some signs of mental health crisis. And some in the UK have suggested there are lessons that could be learned from this approach.

Whole system approach to suicide prevention in the East of England

Four local areas in the East of England (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Essex and Hertfordshire) were selected in 2013 as pathfinder sites to develop new approaches to suicide prevention based in part on the Detroit model.

Since then, Mersey Care, Cambridge and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group and Teesside councils have also become aligned with the programme and are continuing with their approach towards improved suicide prevention. The Centre for Mental Health evaluated the work of some of the sites during 2015.

The evaluation found there were a range of activities that had taken suicide prevention activities out into local communities. They included:

  • training key public service staff such as GPs, police officers, teachers and housing officers
  • training others who may encounter someone at risk of taking their own life, such as pub landlords, coroners, private security staff, faith groups and gym workers
  • creating ‘community champions’ to put local people in control of activities relating to promoting positive mental health and signposting to help services
  • putting in place practical suicide prevention measures in ‘hot spots’ such as bridges and railways
  • working with local newspapers, radio and social media to raise awareness in the wider community
  • supporting safety planning for people at risk of suicide, involving families and carers throughout the process
  • linking with local crisis services to ensure people get speedy access to evidence-based treatments.

However, subsequent research also highlighted some of the challenges. The marketing of the pilots was seen to be damaging and misleading with regards to creating “zero suicide areas”, rather than suicide prevention areas. It has also been suggested that although the campaigns serve to raise publicity and awareness, there is little evidence that the schemes actually reduce the number of suicides in an area any more than “traditional campaigns” to better signpost people to available support.

In addition, many of the projects struggled past the initial implementation stage to have long-term impact, as the buy-in from local GPs and other service professionals was not as high as was expected.

Final thoughts

Widening and improving access to support and services for people at risk of mental ill health or suicide is a big challenge for health and social care professionals. Identifying those people at risk is one of the key barriers and taking inspiration from schemes like those trialled in Detroit is one way for professionals in the UK to adapt their approaches in order to overcome these barriers.

Providing more opportunities for people to get help, and better training for professionals who may come into contact with people with mental illness are some of the ways that current schemes are trying to address mental health and suicide in particular.

However, as many of the evaluative studies from test sites in the UK have found, going beyond that to take mental health into the community, in order to create whole system pathways of care across multiple settings and professions, remains a challenge.

As the London Assembly report pointed out, another key aspect is creating an open environment for people to talk about how they are feeling. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 and the theme is ‘surviving to thriving’ – and emphasising that good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem. Whether in the workplace or in the home; with friends, family or colleagues; it’s important that everyone feels that they have a space where they can talk, and to cultivate resilience and good mental health.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles on mental health in the workplace.

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Idox sponsors RTPI Research Excellence Awards

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2017.

The awards are intended to recognise the best spatial planning research from the Royal Town Planning Institute’s accredited planning schools, and to highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice. In addition, the awards recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research and promote planning research generally.

Submitted research and its potential implications for planning policy and practice can relate to anywhere in the world (not just the UK and Ireland).  The five award categories are:

  • Academic Award
  • Early Career Researcher Award
  • Student Award
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement
  • Planning Consultancy Award

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. Here at the Idox Information Service, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence, and we are proud to be playing a part in these awards to promote academic, researcher and student excellence in this area.

This is the third time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. In 2015, and we sponsored the Student Award, won by Emma Thorpe, a student in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University. Idox also sponsored the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement Award, won by Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Paul went on to write a guest blog post for us describing his innovative project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

Last year, Idox again sponsored the Student Award, which was won by Adam van Heerden, of the University of Cape Town, for his research engaging with a marginalised group – the ‘Skarrelers’ in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – who survive on the margins of prime urban spaces by either selling or re-using discarded waste material with value.

The Wider Engagement award was won by Place Alliance – a national movement campaigning for high quality places. In addition, we sponsored the 2016 Planning Consultancy award, which was won by Ryden (lead consultants) along with WSP and Brodies, who delivered the Planning for Infrastructure Research Report for the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland.

In 2017, Idox is pleased once again to be sponsoring the Student, Wider Engagement and Planning Consultancy awards.

Further details on the five award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 19 May 2017. The finalists will be announced on 24 July, with the winners being named at an awards ceremony in Belfast City Hall on 12 September.


The Idox Information Service is the first port of call for information and knowledge on public and social policy and practice. For 40 years the service has been saving its members time and money, and helping them to make more informed decisions, improve frontline services and understand the policy environment.

For more information see: http://informationservice.idoxgroup.com

In partnership with RTPI, the Idox Information Service has introduced an individual membership offer, which provides a 30% discount on the normal price.

Inventive eco-solutions to the planet’s environmental challenges

Nappies made from jellyfish; drones that make electricity; a flame-free alternative to cremation. Unlikely as they may seem, these are just three of the ideas that are emerging to tackle some of the environmental challenges facing the modern world.

Those challenges are many and growing. Climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, rising levels of waste, and dwindling energy supplies all pose threats to health, wellbeing, quality of life, and even to the existence of humanity.

While national and local governments have responded to these challenges by passing legislation and investing in sustainable initiatives, entrepreneurs are coming up with some intriguing eco-friendly ideas.

Taking the sting out of waste management

An Israeli company has found an inventive way to simultaneously tackle a growing global menace in the world’s oceans and a pernicious waste issue. Increasing levels of ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – have resulted in an explosion in jellyfish populations. Now, scientists working with Tel Aviv-based startup, Cine’al, have found a way to turn jellyfish into a super-absorbent material called “hydromash”. Within next year, the company plans to market nappies, tampons and bandages made from hydromash, which takes less than a month to biodegrade (compared to the hundreds of years for synthetic disposables to break down).

Will consumers take to products made from jellyfish?  Cine’al’s chairman thinks so.

“I’m not worried about this, and in many products it’s likely that the consumer won’t even know about it, similar to many other products with ingredients that are derived from animals and plants.”

 Lift-off for airborne energy

In March of this year, wind farms in Scotland set a new record for the amount of electricity sent to the national grid, generating the equivalent of 58% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the month. In recent years, Denmark has also reported impressive achievements from its investment in windfarms.  Such examples demonstrate the potential of wind power, which is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.

But conventional wind power equipment is expensive to set up, with the foundations and towers for the turbines making up around 30% of the capital required. However, an alternative may soon be breezing onto the wind power scene.

In April, German energy giant E.ON announced plans to invest €3 million in developing the commercialisation of autonomous flying drones to produce electricity. The technology – which uses a kite-like sail to harvest the energy of high-altitude wind currents – is still in its infancy. But E.ON clearly believes in the potential of airborne power. Last year the company invested €5.9 million in a Scottish developer which plans to create a kite-driven power station.

 Ashes to ashes – without the global warming

Benjamin Franklin, famously observed that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world. As a prolific inventor with an interest in energy conservation, he might have been cheered to learn that 21st century entrepreneurs have discovered an eco-friendly way to deal with one of those certainties.

Resomation (also known as biocremation) is a process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to break down organic materials within a few hours, but without the environmentally harmful greenhouse gases generated by conventional cremation methods. The resulting water can be funnelled into municipal water treatment facilities, while the ashes are returned to the family of the deceased.

The idea has already been applied commercially in the United States, and is now set to be introduced to the UK. In March, the Rowley Regis crematorium in the West Midlands received approval from Sandwell Council to install resomation equipment. The council noted that:

“…resomation allows individuals and families to express their environmental concerns and values in a very positive manner with one of their final actions in life.”

Innovative remedies for a planet in need

While these examples may seem odd, and even unnerving, it’s worth remembering that ideas once considered implausible, dangerous or downright daft are now becoming more widely accepted.

Forty years ago, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. Today, it’s seen as imperative for households, businesses and local authorities. Similarly, vegetable oil has advanced from a purely experimental fuel to a cleaner alternative to diesel.

It seems that, when it comes to the environmental challenges facing the world, necessity really is the mother of invention.


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