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What is life like on Planet Smoke? Innovative ideas in social change

Uscreates is a social change agency. We work in partnership with local authorities, charities and businesses to tackle the big policy challenges facing the United Kingdom and many European countries – smoking, rising obesity, over-consumption of alcohol, increasing rates of cancer, sustainable transport and so on.

Our approach

Uscreates was founded in 2005 by Zoe Stanton and Dr Mary Cook. They wanted to see whether design thinking could generate solutions to social problems. Chiefly, this involves a collaborative process that puts people and communities first, rather than one that is led by experts or policy makers, with little involvement of the people affected. We use a methodology that enshrines the involvement of users, audiences or the public, as well as that of the stakeholders who will be crucial to the project’s success.

Asking about life on Planet Smoke

We worked with the National Health Service on a pilot project to reduce smoking among women. To build understanding of the women and their issues, we used a three-stage approach:

  1. Our target audience were manual workers, so we initiated brief chats about smoking with women at their workplaces during coffee breaks. This gave us a broad understanding of their issues
  2. We then held ‘discussion picnics’ during women’s lunch breaks to explore some of the issues in greater depth. Our techniques included asking women to map their stress levels on a typical day, and using visualisation – asking women to imagine themselves as non-smokers or living on ‘Planet Smoke’, then getting them to describe it – to explore their emotional perceptions of smoking. We also carried out in-depth interviews with some women at their homes
  3. Finally, we provided women with video cameras to create video diaries of their lives and where smoking fitted in

This approach gave us a thorough understanding of the complex issues that affect women’s motivation to smoke. We were able to draw on this understanding in subsequent workshops with many of the women - recruited during the engagement work – to co-create intervention ideas with them. You can find out more here.

Why do it this way?

Ensuring the audience – that is, those affected by the issue in question – are active contributors and, where possible, owners of social change projects, greatly increases the chances of making a positive and cost-effective impact. In our smoking pilot, 44% of participants increased their intent to quit in next three months and 17% of participants initiated a quit attempt.

Our challenges

It can sometimes be tough to persuade organisations to put aside their assumptions about what will be effective in engaging an audience and encouraging change – particularly when the techniques offered instead are innovative. Luckily, it is increasingly considered less radical than it used to be. In the UK, there is greater acceptance of this approach. However, there is still a way to go in persuading stakeholders in other policy areas and from the business sector of the benefits of engaging and being led by the audience.

Find out more about our work at