A Radical Advocate for Inclusion
13 June 2016 at 9:00 am
Liz Forsyth has two business cards. She is both executive director of Northcott Innovation and the general manager of customer experience at disability Not for Profit Northcott. Forsyth is this week’s Changemaker.
Northcott Innovation creates new and unexpected solutions for people with disability.
Forsyth, who is inspired by a passionate commitment to social justice, spends her time using technology and innovative thinking to help people with disability, and level the playing field for all people.
She is proud to engage people, who may never have been exposed to thinking about disability, to stop and think about the ways that we enhance inclusion and accessibility.
In this week’s Changemaker she talks about chatting about really crazy ideas, the importance of sex toys and why you should “just give things a crack”.
What made you want to work in the Not for Profit sector?
In terms of my background, I am a social worker and for me it is really important that I work in a context that is committed to principles of social justice. So, I never imagined that I wouldn’t work in maybe the Not for Profit sector, but it is all around a commitment I guess to social justice and to actually having an impact on people and principles around equity and rights.
How did you start out?
I started out working in a child protection context and spent some time working in statutory roles.
I also worked in out-of-home care and post adoption and inter-country adoption work, so lots of work with kids and families. And I fell into that as a result of just a progression through university and then placements in context that then led into job opportunities. I then took a bit of a sea change and left Sydney for a little bit and thought I would take a nice little part time job as a family support worker in Coffs Harbour, and that was where I first started working for Northcott and that was my first role in disability, but that didn’t last very long because the manager there left and I had previously been in a management capacity, so I acted in that for a bit and then kind of never left disability and never left Northcott, and just continued through a range of management roles within the organisation.
What does a typical day for you involve?
I am actually fortunate to wear two hats, so I don’t know if I ever have a typical day. So I am executive director of Northcott Innovation and I am also general manager of customer experience at Northcott. So I have two different business cards, with two different logos, so I maybe have two different typical days.
Northcott Innovation usually involves chatting about really crazy ideas that might well have some legs to them. It often involves conversations with people from, certainly from outside the disability world, and it involves I guess exercising my mind to be thinking much broader than what I always think about in a day to day management capacity, which I might do more so in my general manager role which is a bit more focussed on operating a certain part of Northcott’s business.
At Northcott Innovation, board meetings happen in interesting places like nice restaurants with wine and cheese, as opposed to maybe Northcott meetings. So it is quite different, it is much more relaxed, certainly we have a broader approach and threshold for taking risks, and that is really important for us.
We set up Northcott Innovation as a wholly owned subsidiary of Northcott, as a separate entity, to enable it to take risks. So our parent company Northcott provides a lot of support for people with a disability that we don’t want to undermine the credibility and the safety that families and individuals would feel, so we don’t want to compromise that, but we needed it to have a whole lot of momentum and energy around innovation.
So we set up a subsidiary which is staffed by people that have dual roles within Northcott and Northcott Innovation, and we kind of took our people across, and it was important for us that we remain embedded in our parent company because we take a design innovation approach, or a human centred design approach to our work, and that involved having a really close understanding and focus on our end user or our customer, so for us that is people with a disability. So, there is no point Northcott Innovation running off and doing crazy, fabulous, innovative things if we are not actually connected to knowing what the needs of people with a disability are and furthering their inclusion and engagement in the social world.
When it was launched last year Northcott Innovation was described as a “radical” organisation do you think that is a good description?
I do think it is an accurate description. An example was at a board meeting this week I had an agenda item called sex toys, and our chair was saying “look, I am on lots of boards and it’s probably the first board papers I have read that has a sole section on sex toys” and I put a budget up which has a project item called sex toys, and that’s because we are particularly passionate about the accessibility of customised sexual aids for people with a disability because really it is just about enabling people to be people and sexuality is a part of who people are. So yeah we do get be a little bit radical in that sense.
How does your organisation make a difference to the community?
I think we make a difference to the community, often through the relationships and impact we have of the work we do, so I think we don’t take an approach in terms of being an innovation start up or doing R and D work, around wanting to result in solutions, that are directly just contained around Northcott Innovation, so we actually want to spread and have a catalyst for change, so in working with other organisations, and that might be through fee for service work we do in terms of consultancy, or even running design thinking approaches or working on government contracts around inclusion and accessibility, we actually have an impact far broader through the relationships we create.
So because we engage so broadly in everyday businesses, you actually start to change people’s minds and thinking about disability. So, it’s not just about the impact we can have in terms of great products or new services but actually the impact we can have in engaging broad enough so that people who may never have been exposed to thinking about disability start to go “hang on a second, these are just people like everyone else, and it is actually incumbent upon all of us as a community to think about the ways that we enhance inclusion and accessibility”.
And that can be done in really crazy, fun ways, like you can talk about sex toys, or it can be done in really mundane ways around simple things, not just building accessibility but accessibility in terms of forms of communication and those kinds of things. So I mean the impact we have in that sense I think is far greater because we come from a place of understanding disability, but being real radical advocates for inclusion and having a really broad understanding and I guess commitment to that.
We have also had an impact back into Northcott, so into our parent company. The ability for us to influence thinking and to actually shift people’s minds when they are going about doing disability services, helping them to stop and think a bit differently about that. So we’ve run a range of internal campaigns, or activities or training, to what I call kind of screw with people’s heads a bit. So get their brains to think differently about what they are doing, because they are really, really focussed on actually understanding their end user. And if we can do that well within Northcott, that means Northcott can offer better services for the people that they currently support.
What are your current priorities?
As an organisation we have a couple of projects that we want to really move to the next phase of commercialisation. So we’ve been looking at an adaptation of a wheelchair that enables it to climb a single curb step.
People think “well, don’t you want to climb a flight of stairs”, but people don’t understand the biggest barrier is often a single step, and most wheelchairs can’t do that. If there is more than one step there is usually a ramp or a lift, and there are some really heavy duty kind of wheelchair tanks out there that will charge up and down flights but they are hideously expensive and they are tanks, so we’ve been working on that project for many years in partnership with University of Technology and we are keen to progress and actually try and commercialise that in the wheelchair manufacturing market, not just within Australia but overseas.
We’ve got another project that’s an app around people who have vision impairment, that looks at how we integrate not just understanding the navigational aspects of environment but how we integrate the social understanding of environment, so rather than just having an app that might read out navigation of turn left here or go up there and it’s 50 meters up the road, it is actually going well, there is this business on this corner and they are actually having a sale for these types of items and you might want to go in there, or did you know your friend has just checked in at this cafe through the Facebook app, so an integration of that, so we are wanting to progress those projects to really secure some additional funding but actually then commercialise and get them out there and get people using them.
Then there’s some broader projects that we are focussing on this year that are kind of incremental innovation. So, looking at the issue of young people in residential aged care, and alternative housing options for them or an alternative housing future, the issue is disability housing is a massive problem and everyone wants to solve it. We don’t think we can solve it, but we can certainly pull apart what the problems are and start to try and bite them off one by one, so we are looking at addressing that in an incremental way, looking at how we do modular adaptation in homes using simple technology like 3D printing, we are looking at how we create a matching platform to enable people who have accessible housing and support to match people who might need that. As well as try to actually tackle structural issues in terms of the funding system and government regulation and policy.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
I think the challenge we face is that, I think people think doing innovation is really easy and really fun, but it actually takes a lot more time and effort than people realise, so I think for us there is a time commitment and a resource commitment that can be challenging, particularly as our parent organisation, which has essentially feed funded us, enables us to operate, is under constraints around the NDIS and how that happens and pricing constraints and all of that, how we actually build a strong enough base for ourselves as an organisation to continue to do what we do.
I think there is great possibility in the disability sector for innovation and to think differently about disability. I think the challenge for us, besides from having enough time and resources to do it, is to find the right like-minded people who have enough enthusiasm to go along with us. So it is really critical that we don’t just work in isolation, and we found great partners along the way, in really unexpected ways, and we just fell into arrangements with them and off we go. I think it is a challenge to keep and maintain those and to build upon them.
The other thing I would say is commercialisation of our concepts is really challenging, so to actually see the impact in terms of getting something out to market that someone is using or a new way that they’re doing things takes a long time. So a challenge for us is really how do we actually get through all of that process as a really small start-up that just likes to kind of sometimes jump in and give things a crack.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
It’s a difficult one. I think the greatest achievement of Northcott Innovation has probably been the impact we’ve been able to have even though we are so small and such a start-up. And I think to me impact isn’t about having the finished product ready to go and making huge amounts of money that we can reinvest in further R and D work, it’s actually about finding partners and ideas that we’ve been able to get off the ground quite quickly, and actually changing people’s thinking.
I think the impact we’ve had in such a short time in terms of changing people’s thinking around their perception of disability and inclusion and actually coming together and working in a disability space where maybe they haven’t before, is probably our greatest achievement. And that we maintain our enthusiasm.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I think the most rewarding part of my work is to actually – I guess it does come down to impact really – I guess it is to see the impact of it, and that’s not always in really profound massive ways. I think the impact when someone says “wow I had never realised that before” or “jeez, I never knew that was a lived experience of a person with a disability” or “wow, yeah, sex is important to me, I didn’t even think that there would be barriers to people with disability,” you know, those kinds of really simple things that I think have quite a profound impact, and I think it is really rewarding to be able to work in an environment where I can lead that, and I have a lot of fun in my job to be honest, in both my jobs actually.
So it is really enjoyable for me to work in a context where I am actually having fun while I am doing something that I hope is making an impact in terms of social inclusion and I guess levelling the playing field for all people.
Do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?
I can’t imagine not working in some cause related to furthering social justice broadly, so you can do that through working in government and you might be working in a for-profit environment that might have an arm that is focussed on social outcomes, so I guess I don’t go the Not for Profit sector is the only place but it is certainly the place for me, that I think we can have great impact and I think there is great potential.
The Not for Profit sector in Australia is I think often misunderstood, people often think it is full of small, little charities that just want to make a difference in the world and don’t really mind about having really savvy business models and don’t really worry if they have to cobble something together, but I think there are lots of fabulous business minds in the Not for Profit sector and lots of impact that they can have collectively then working with the for-profit sector or with the business community. So I guess I am open minded but certainly I have no intention of particular moving on any time soon and I do enjoy the context in which we operate.
Is there anything that frustrates you about the Not for Profit sector?
I find some of the stuff a bit patronising. I was on an innovation panel around a particular thing and the first question was “we understand why innovation is important in a for-profit environment but why is it important in Not for Profit?”, and my answer is for the same reasons! We need to be viable businesses, we need to remain relevant for the customer base for the purpose that we’re there for, we need to make money, we make that money to reinvest and do more purpose. But I think there is just a perception and that frustrate me sometimes. Because it seems like a bit of a “we know it better outside of it and we can help and tell you Not for Profits” and I think there is great energy and intellect and enthusiasm and cutting edge ways of doing things that happens in the Not for Profit sector.
What is the future direction?
Well for me, and for Northcott, I guess the big thing for us is the NDIS, there is the roll out for us as an organisation in terms of the impact on our customer base but there is also the opportunity for us to really, we are really re-engineering our business to be a customer focused business, that we’ve gone from government funding to having to move to essentially a competitive environment, like any other business has to when you have got to win customers over and keep them.
So that is a big challenge for us as an organisation but it is also a really exciting opportunity both for me and the organisation to not only weather that storm, and it is challenging and there are constraints and issues around pricing, but it is also really exciting because there is more funding in the system, the NDIS is really a rights based system that will enable people to get the supports they need and it frees organisations like us to come up with new ways of doing things. So we’re actually not constrained by government program rules and constraints in that way, so I think capitalising on the opportunities while still remaining a viable business through quite a challenging time of change is really the focus, certainly for me professionally and for the organisation over the next couple of years.
Do you have a favourite saying?
I do. Often I’m saying “let’s just give it a crack”. I think that’s a principle of innovation that has served us well and certainly Northcott Innovation has lived by that. I think spending a lot of time engineering the perfect solution to what you are facing is not always useful. You learn and understand along the way if you can just get in and “give it a crack” and see where it takes you. So, that’s something I’m always telling my staff. Just give it a crack!