Raising awareness of poor air quality for Southwark residents

Southwark Council

Poor air quality is a pervasive problem, particularly in the highly urbanised, and densely populated areas of Southwark

dxw and Rooted by Design took an equity-centred approach to identify how to raise awareness of the effects of air pollution for communities in Southwark

Poor air quality has an adverse health impact on people, particularly priority groups such as those with respiratory/cardiovascular issues, older adults, and children.

These adverse effects impact communities in Southwark differently which can exacerbate existing health inequalities, particularly with Black and Other communities who populate some of the higher polluted areas of the borough.

Southwark currently helps residents reduce their exposure to poor air quality by offering airTEXT, an air quality forecasting and alert service that sends messages to subscribers when the forecasted pollution levels are higher than usual. However, airTEXT doesn’t reach the priority groups or ethnic demographics that would benefit from it the most.

dxw worked with Southwark Council for a 7 week period to help them with a discovery to look at how to raise awareness of air pollution and its impact. We organised our discovery into 3 stages: inception, research and analysis, and design.


dxw partnered with Rooted by Design to work on this project. Rooted by Design centre the experiences and needs of Black communities to create services and solutions to shape a more equitable future.

We were excited to be working as a partnership that brings complementary skills and ways of working. dxw and Rooted by Design have many years experience conducting research to inform service design across a range of digital services, from discovery to live. We were keen to learn more about an equity-centred design approach in practice, which Rooted by Design led on.

The Behavioural Insights Team were invited by Southwark to be involved in this project as support for the rest of the team. The team generates and applies behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services, and deliver results for citizens and society.


We engaged with a total of 94 Southwark residents through different research and design methods, and gathered a wide range of insights that generated over 50 ideas for improvements.

From the wealth of research and design that emerged from this project, dxw and Rooted by Design put together 7 recommendations for Southwark Council.

At a high level, those recommendations were:

  • accountability and community engagement to build trust
  • public facing health awareness campaigns
  • improving access and inclusion in green spaces/routes
  • creating opportunities for learning and engagement in schools
  • joining up with initiatives that address other forms of pollution
  • funding groups and events for Black communities
  • providing local air quality data in public spaces

What we did

We took an equity-centred approach to this project which drove the entire design process from discovery of insights to design of solutions and then recommendations. A large part of equity-centred design is leading with empathy, recognising identity and difference, recognising and owning privilege and disadvantage that exists, and being able to reflect. Ultimately it’s the acute awareness of the reality of systemic oppression.

As we were in partnership with Rooted by Design, our approach on this project was to conduct research with residents of Southwark who were non-Black (Other communities) while Rooted focused on the Black community.

Throughout this project we used a number of different research methodologies to engage and interact with people around Southwark for research and design:

  • community immersion
  • in-depth interviews
  • pop-up research
  • co-design sessions

What we learned

Time is golden when working on projects in an agile way

We can sometimes forget that some very complex social challenges can’t be solved in short sprints over a short period.

Design is political

Design can often fail to address root causes of inequity and can reproduce inequitable power relationships.

Not being extractive

Making sure that research isn’t extractive by giving more than we take by making sure that participants of research have the autonomy to carry on being involved with the project even after we’re no longer on it.

Leading with empathy

By taking the time to build relationships and giving participants ownership to take the research to a place where they feel comfortable can reveal rich insights that make for stronger future recommendations.

You can find out more in this video presentation from one of the dxw user researchers who worked on the project.