The urgent issue of homelessness

How Social Labs is bringing a systematic approach to solving complex problems

by Martin Stewart-Weeks, Lisa Main, Jacqui Jones, Rosalie Wilkie

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On any given night in Australia, 1 in every 200 people is homeless. For those aged 19 to 24, that number doubles. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ten times more likely to be homeless than non-Indigenous Australians. They account for 20 per cent of the 116,000 people who are homeless across Australia. These are sobering statistics for a wealthy nation that prides itself on a ‘fair go’.

The drivers of homelessness are known. They include the high costs of housing, financial stress, domestic violence along with a lack of access to appropriate dwellings.

A more recent trend is that older Australians, particularly women, are increasingly finding themselves without a home. While their overall numbers are smaller, they are experiencing the fastest-growing rate of homelessness. Many of them are couch-surfing or sleeping in their cars.

Homelessness is not just rooflessness. The greatest increase in Australia’s homeless figures is in people living in severely overcrowded houses and apartments where occupants might share bedrooms with many others. They have no quiet space and little privacy. This ‘overcrowding’ trend is hiding the true extent of homelessness.

Despite many great individuals and organisations working on potential solutions to this problem, Australia’s homelessness rates continue to rise. The Constellation Project believes that coordinated, cross-sector collaboration is required to work towards ending homelessness. However, this will take time. That said, it will likely lead to more impact by channelling diverse skills, resources and networks in a coordinated way.

Homelessness is now an urgent issue. That’s why the founding members of The Constellation Project: Australian Red Cross, Centre for Social Impact, Mission Australia and PwC Australia, decided it was time to try a new approach. Their ambitious vision is to be part of a concerted effort to end homelessness in Australia within a generation.

The Constellation Project will not duplicate work already underway. Rather, it aims to connect, amplify and grow the impact of existing efforts to address homelessness as well as develop practical solutions.

The project's work is structured around three levers of change

Over the past six months The Constellation Project has been cultivating a network of people across states, sectors and organisations who are committed to sharing insights, learning, leading and acting together. This all comes together in The Constellation Project’s ‘social lab’ process.


Each day last year, 261 requests for homelessness assistance were not met

The Constellation Project: Social Lab

An innovative approach

Initiatives like the Policy Lab in the UK Cabinet Office1 and the early work of Mindlab in Denmark2 have resulted in a proliferation of ‘lab’ structures within governments.

One recent EU study3 listed over 70 lab-style ventures whose work was described in these terms: ‘Policy labs are dedicated teams, structures, or entities focused on designing public policy through innovative methods that involve all stakeholders in the design process.’

In the lab setting, proven modes and methods of convening and collaborating are used across complex, disparate groups of stakeholders and interests to shape policy.

After proposals are formulated, they are tested and validated with the market.

In addition to co-creating and re-imagining policies and public programs, policy labs undertake a wide range of activities such as preparing prospective studies, organising creativity workshops, and instilling a sense of empowerment in civil servants through training and other learning activities.

The Process

The Constellation Project has adopted the social labs4 methodology, which has been widely used to bring a social and systemic approach to complex social problems. The work is done by bringing together a diverse group of 30–40 people across sectors into a lab team that dedicates at least 20 per cent of its time to solving a specific ‘lab challenge question’. The challenge question is designed to focus people on delivering practical outcomes – prototypes and/or economic models – ready to test in the market.

The first lab challenge question for The Constellation Project Social Lab was: ‘By 2022, how might we make more 100,000 homes available to Australians that need them most?’

In this context, ‘homes’ are safe, affordable, appropriate, accessible and secure, and those who ‘need them most’ are Australians on low-to-moderate incomes.

Delivering practical outcomes in this case means, among other things, finding ways to increase the flow of capital from governments, corporates and philanthropy. It means understanding and influencing the way the current system helps or hinders that objective. It means understanding the planning and development system, and it means listening carefully to people with lived experience of homelessness to ensure solutions are designed with them, valuing their experience and knowledge.

The social lab cycle runs for nearly four months and the work is broken down into five separate teams. These five lab teams will each address one of the following aspects of the challenge question:

Lived experience at the centre

There is a growing interest in user-centred approaches to service design. These put the end users at the centre of each stage of the policymaking process. People who have experienced homelessness are embedded at every level of The Constellation Project’s approach and process.

The Project has mapped many homelessness-related services and advisory groups so that it can connect with existing and diverse networks. From this, a toolkit was developed to help those working within The Constellation Project to determine how best to engage people with lived experience on homelessness.

The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are also represented across all dimensions of The Constellation Project. Their unique and urgent housing needs are a priority of The Constellation Project and are informed by National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples5 which provides leadership and oversight to the work.

The Constellation Project’s first social lab is already prototyping a First Nations housing model, based on community context that will be led and managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The best available data about causes of and trends in homelessness will inform cycles of learning and improvement. The Constellation Project is also investing in collaboration infrastructure: funding a dedicated backbone team to enable the joint effort. This team convenes face-to-face events and uses digital platforms to enable collaboration across geographies, sectors and organisations.

We need more homes for people on low and moderate incomes to meet demand

Where to from here? The role of government

We cannot solve homelessness with the same thinking and systems that helped create it. A new cross-sector approach that focuses on practical solutions with an all-in mindset is what we believe will help. The Constellation Project is founded on the principle that we all have a role to play and that when we combine our knowledge, intelligence and experience, and leverage our networks, systems can change.

Early ideas emerging from The Constellation Project’s social lab include the development of models that will enable private capital to create more affordable homes, inclusionary zoning measures that are sustainable for developers and new approaches to state/federal funding to reinvigorate investment in social and affordable housing.

Our social lab is proving that there is tremendous power in the connectivity of ideas. When you bring people together, those who differ – often greatly – in how they approach the problem, new pathways are forged. There is a particular alchemy produced in the social lab that unlocks the potential for new ideas to emerge. The challenge is to refine and test them quickly, because one more night for people experiencing homelessness is one too many.


Contact us

Rosalie Wilkie

Partner, Social Impact, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 2 8266 8381

Martin Stewart-Weeks

Specialist, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 2 8266 3736

Jacqui Jones

Director, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 2 8266 5985

Lisa Main

Senior Manager, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 2 8266 3187

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