May 23, 2024

Designing systems that care

By Hannah Webster, Co-Founder at Care Full

Care Full – a new organisation launched this year by myself and co-founder Ruth Hannan – explores what a system that enables us to care for ourselves, each other and the planet, by design, looks like.

This is a contrast to the design of our current economic model, within which care is pushed to the margins; with five million unpaid carers left to manage with very little support. This approach to care is hardwired into our economy, which favours profit and productivity over our collective wellbeing.

The impact of this choice of priorities plays out in figures relating to poverty. JRF’s most recent Poverty in the UK report shows that poverty is disproportionately high amongst those with larger families, lone parents, disabled people and unpaid (or as they say ‘informal’) carers. Given that so many – with varying relationships to care – experience hardship, we believe the system needs to change, not just the responsive support we offer out.

When we were asked to join Resolve Poverty’s The Power of Place in Tackling Poverty conference earlier this year, we used our time to explore what localised caring systems could do to challenge these inequalities. By zooming out from place-based support for carers to localised caring systems, we are afforded instead the opportunity to consider the conditions for us all to live well, rather than the reactive sticking plasters to patch up a system that only works for the minority.

Change on this scale is ambitious, but we believe it is essential to ensure that we all have the opportunity to live well. To deliver on true systemic reform, we must first understand the roots of care based experiences buried within everyday systems. Only then can we look to change the structures that mean those of us who care face disadvantage.

At the conference, we offered four narrative shifts concerning care. By changing these narratives, we hope to unlock a motivation for systemic transformation and a direction of travel that will allow us to centre care.

Firstly, we suggest care is a collective experience which has been individualised. If we return to caring collectively we might see the way we shape our communities, public services and relationships with work change. Emily Kenway – author of Who Cares – is doing some great work in exploring and compiling resources on the different faces of a commons of care in the 21st Century.

Secondly, what if we stopped considering care as a minority experience and instead saw it as something faced by the majority? In part, this means acknowledging the breadth of different caring relationships we all hold, but it also means considering care as part of human nature. Unpaid carer Laura Barnes talks about there being three relationships we can hold with care, as we are all one or more of unpaid carers, soon-to-be-unpaid carers, or the people requiring the care”.

Thirdly, we explore a reframing of care from something which happens in addition to our economic lives, to something which is foundational to it. The Social Guarantee campaign builds from the starting point that the economy fundamentally exists to meet all our needs. Through this lens, care – be it social care or the acts of care we all demonstrate daily –  should be seen as the motivation of our economy, not just a way to perpetuate productivity.

And finally, we considered what it would mean to move care away from a descriptive activity to something which we all have experience of – and draw expertise from. My understanding of the world around me has sharpened and focused through the care I give. We need ways of democratising decisions about our lives that build on this experience and expertise.

In the room, the discussion naturally shifted to the practical – how do we start to shift the debate on care to something broader, like this, within the current political climate? We know it won’t be easy, but there are some opportunities afforded to us. Responding to the world around us with collective ambition and a shared narrative will allow us to start making caring systems a more realistic expectation. That could mean anything from challenging the limits of existing policy discussions – such as new flexible working rights – to responding to unfolding crises – such as the Carers Allowance debt scandal currently unfolding. It will take many voices and many entry points to make change happen. If you’re interested in exploring these perspectives more in your work, we’d love to hear from you.

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This article is featured in our 1 May newsletter.

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