Innovation through collaboration: Co-designing mental health systems

blog | Words Siobhan Edwards | 19 Jul 2023

Building connection, empathy and relationships with Thrive Edinburgh.

I work as a freelance Senior Associate for Innovation Unit based in Edinburgh, while my colleague Daisy is a Service Design Consultant based in London. Together we have been working on a short, intense and transformative project which took us from the dark days of November 2022 to the ‘white nights’ of Scotland’s mid-summer in 2023 – with the goal of developing a more localised and integrated mental health system in Edinburgh.

“… if we want to find a better way of responding to the UK’s mental health challenges, we need to invest in building a radically different environment of collaboration in our places across the UK.”Living Well report
May 2023

The project built on the existing Thrive Welcome Team model, created through an extensive and intensive co-design process, as part of the The National Lottery Community Fund Living Well UK programme (2018-2022).

Above all, this work was about creating a space for collaboration.

To do this, we had to focus our time building connection, promoting empathy and fostering relationships across Edinburgh’s mental health system.

Daisy and I worked closely with colleagues in Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership to design and facilitate a series of engagement and co-design sessions focused on enabling staff to get to know each other, to develop an understanding of the system they are all working in, as well as gaining first-hand insight into each other’s roles, experience and contribution to mental health services in Edinburgh. We drew upon Service Design approaches, including personas and blue sky ideation, to generate empathy around existing problems, and shift perspective on possible collaborative solutions.

We then brought the four locality-based design teams together with colleagues from the voluntary and community sector, and people with mental health lived experience, to reflect on the design thinking to date.


From an Innovation Unit perspective, the work involved – as it so often does – planning, designing and facilitating workshops, but our main learning was that we had to listen really hard and watch closely what was going on in and beyond the sessions we ran. In the end, our work came down to focusing our energies on the important but basic task of creating space for people to meet, talk and connect around a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities in mental health in Edinburgh.

The work surfaced key insights including:

  • Making space to connect and build understanding of work from different perspectives, across systems, is essential – not just nice to have.
  • There is no magic wand of funding or other resource, but there are resources to support and enable this process, and accelerate existing work.
  • Relationships are key to the success of all new services – in a newly integrated, developing service, this is more the case than ever.
  • Commitment and energy to test, share and learn together is what we need.

Crucially, we found that what we really had to do was support relationships through effective communication, including building a shared narrative that everyone could own. We worked through this initial process at speed, but turning the dream into a reality will take time.

In June, Daisy and I had the pleasure of attending a follow-up ‘Thrive Welcome Team 2’ event in Edinburgh’s community-owned Heart of Newhaven. What was really special about the event was not only the mid-summer light, but also that we got to hear and see for ourselves transformation in action – not as the facilitators of the process, but the audience for stories about a whole range of innovative approaches being tried and tested across Edinburgh, including:

  • Open access trials in all four localities
  • General Practice champions
  • A ‘Places & Spaces’ pop-up prototype 
  • Shared training opportunities, e.g. Decider skills
  • General Practice and voluntary sector colleagues leading joint sessions for people to manage their anxiety and distress local trusted place
  • Joint training and supervision.

What’s more exciting still is that the work is continuing over the summer – and Daisy and I have been invited back to another learning and sharing event in Edinburgh in December. We are looking forward to hearing about how the connections and relationships between Thrive Welcome Teams and primary care mental health have developed and thrived on the ground and the difference this is making to people needing support with their mental health across Scotland’s capital city. This is the start of the journey, not the end.