Scope Q&A: Simon Smith

Scope Q&A explores the wide-ranging skills and interdisciplinary expertise of our team.
August 4, 2021

Meet Simon Smith, Scope’s chief executive, who is responsible for leading our organisation, executing the company’s strategy, and managing our overall operations. Based in Glasgow, Scotland, he has a background in advanced architectural design and a long career in advising companies, charities, and governments in designing world-class innovation solutions in the social impact and health fields. Having started in his position recently, we chatted with Simon to learn more about his vision for the direction Scope is heading under his leadership.

What makes design a great approach for accelerating social change?

I have worked across social, physical, and economic development all my career. I’ve measured the impact of green space in areas of high levels of deprivation, developed civic innovation programmes at a metropolitan level, and led Snook – one of the best-respected global service design companies. The key takeaway from my career is that making a change can be complex and messy. The words of Buckminster Fuller, a 20th-century visionary and systems theorist, resonate with me when he says: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Regardless of the outcome, every action we take in this space is a design act. The intent is to move the dial, even a little, by making a positive change. But creating successful and lasting change requires us to design for imperfect contexts. So often a problem manifests in a completely different domain from where the root of the issue lies, but the space between those two points can be entangled. We need to be adept at navigating organisational power structures, institutionalised ways of working, and embedded cultural traits. We need to be comfortable working between these different points of tension and act across policy, products, partnerships, and services. For change to take hold, we need to operate across these systems, using all the levers they have to hand.

What set Scope apart from other organisations that made you want to lead the company?

When I first started talking to the Scope board about taking on the chief executive role, I used a quote from designer Bruce Mau: “To undertake the challenges we face today, we have no choice but to be optimistic. It’s the only viable way to engage with the future we face.” The board’s reply was: “Ah, we have a word for that in Finnish – it’s sisu [meaning perseverance in the face of adversity]!”

I wanted to steward an organisation that embodies that value. Scope does this and more! It sits at the intersection of climate, health, gender, and equality. It’s a unique band of strategists, creatives, global health specialists, and designers. The work is complex, vital, and far-reaching.

I’ve been familiarising myself with the fantastic programmes that Scope is pioneering. First, the game-changing #formnigani, breaking taboos around contraception. It has created a movement that supports young people in Kenya to take agency in shaping their futures. Second, emergent work in Nigeria, designing the infrastructure to retrofit primary healthcare centres with reliable renewable energy of which we’re excited to tell you more about soon. This work has wide-ranging socioeconomic benefits in rural and peri-urban areas. Moreover, it offers broad benefits, including longer operational hours and stimulating new models of enterprise.

As the new CEO, what does the future of Scope look like?

To quote economist Kate Raworth: “Ours is the era of the planetary household.” 

As a global organisation, Scope has to respond to the emergent challenges of COVID-19 and the climate emergency. Already we see widening inequalities arising from the uneven pandemic recovery. In addition, education disparities, public health gaps, and weakened employment outlooks place pressure on the most disadvantaged groups already affected by COVID-19. It’s evident that the climate emergency will impact everyone’s lives. However, changes in land use, food and water scarcity, and pressures on primary healthcare will most affect those living in low-resource settings.

Complex systems won’t change with single-point interventions. Instead, we’ll need to operate across many sectors, interventions, and leverage points. Scope is well-placed to shape new ways of working and tackle complexity in a rapidly changing world. As new classes of problems emerge, we will create a networked portfolio of globally connected social research and development (R+D) testbeds. To enhance our work in key areas, especially in India and Africa, we will accelerate our efforts to build our creative practice across a globally distributed team. To embed learning and skills with the communities and funders we work with, we will leverage technology to scale the organisation and impact of our work. Scope is a brave and creative organisation and, through its deep engagement and partnerships, we will respond to these issues.

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