Extending the Circle

Amongst the responses to the previous blog from the Relationships Project (Talking a little, learning a lot), which discussed ‘circles of support’, Arvinda Gohil made an important point:

“We must not assume that families automatically sit in the inner circle, they are often a source of pain for people and may even sit on the People we Know circle.”

This is an important reminder that we need to consider the quality of our relationships, as well as their presence. Public services in particular are often planned for a smooth process but not designed for the best outcome. Systematic transactions are plannable but warm relationships cannot be so easily reduced to recurring algorithms – people defy easy categorisation. This is why real relationships – as opposed to transactions – are necessarily responsive, organic and personal.

That’s why we’re so excited about a collaborative design process for the Relationships Project. We believe it will help us understand how people actually behave and accommodate variety. Models like the ‘circles of support’ can begin to structure our thinking, but it is only when we start to populate them with real people, and open our minds to messiness, that we will reveal the deeper value of relationship-centred design.

In his own response, Charles Owen made a useful suggestion about extending the ‘circles of support’ to the point where we reach people that we hardly know. He points out that we need a baseline from which to measure any increase in ‘relational capital’ which is, of course, the purpose of the exercise.

Perhaps it might look something like this?

Thinking about this reminded me of a conversation I once had with the head of an Adolescent Mental Health Unit. He told me that his patients typically had six to ten names stored on their phones and, more importantly, that most of these contacts were professional helpers like himself. In the diagram above, their phone contacts would be placed in all in the outer circles. The doctor observed that social isolation might be a cause and/or a consequence of his patients ill-health, given it was clearly a common characteristic among them.

Absolute numbers aren’t especially important. Rather, it is the qualities and the characteristics of the relationships that really matter and this is what the circles help us to understand: every contact has network of its own. Close to the centre of the model, these networks will overlap and interact and they will be shared. We meet friends of friends; they introduce us to their friends. This organic process becomes less and less likely as we move into the outer circles. In our recent example, it is very improbable that the young patient will be introduced to the friends of the doctor. So it follows that a relatively dense inner circle can grow the entire network very quickly whilst a relatively sparse one will hardly grow at all.

If, as Charles highlighted, our focus is on increasing ‘relational capital’, we need to think about the qualities of activities which have this kind of growth potential. What might be added to the GP’s diabetes group, or the local Big Lunch, or the supermarket café, that can draw an initial outer-circle contact closer to the centre and so, over time, yield a further round of connections?

It is important to stress that tackling such isolation isn’t the only purpose for relationship-centred design. As we illustrated in the ‘bubbles’ chart in our last blog, entry points and initial objectives can be very different across the spectrum of sectors and spaces. Is thinking about how to strengthen and increase relationships in the inner circle useful in furthering other outcomes?

In developing a set of design considerations, the Relationships Project team are thinking about these kinds of questions. We welcome your thoughts and insights, so please do get in touch.