Case Study

Improving Singapore’s social services through design

15 Aug 2019  •  10 min read

To help social service agencies innovate and respond faster to challenges, NCSS set up an innovation lab that uses design thinking approaches to better understand and uncover pain points faced by stakeholders. The result has been encouraging, with one project receiving the President*s Design Award for its ground-breaking work of using design to improve the experience of caregivers.


In an increasingly globalised and fast-paced world, social issues have become more complex and multifaceted[1]. The social service sector is hence also under increasing pressure to transform and adapt to present and future challenges.

As social service agencies work with service users directly, they need to respond more nimbly and with more immediacy when it comes to emerging needs and gaps. To provide niche and customised solutions to meet the diverse and unique needs of their service users[2], social service agencies are encouraged to constantly innovate and collaborate with others, in order to generate innovative person-centric solutions. 

Caregivers were one of the groups of people that NCSS wanted to understand better in order to
meet their unique needs.

In 2016, a survey conducted by NCSS showed that 8 in 10 people, mostly from the social service sector, suggested that more needed to be done to grow an innovative culture in social service agencies[3]. To better equip social service agencies to innovate, NCSS saw an opportunity to apply design thinking methodologies.

NCSS saw a potential in the use of design thinking methodologies and decided to form an innovation lab ... by hiring people with design thinking backgrounds to complement existing staff who were familiar with the social service sector.


Pumpkin Lab is a team within the Service Planning and Funding Group in NCSS. Established in 2014, it aims to catalyse innovation in the social service sector by inspiring possibilities through design, testing, sharing and scaling best practices across the sector, with technology as an enabler. Pumpkin Lab partners with stakeholders from the People-Public-Private sectors – from non-profits, social and healthcare organisations, government agencies, enterprisers, designers and individuals to turn these possibilities into reality.

Keeping in line with Singapore Government’s move towards a Smart Nation, constant innovation is regarded as key to ensuring that the social service sector remains relevant while being impactful in protecting and enhancing the wellbeing of those they serve[4].
Back in 2013, NCSS saw a potential in the use of design thinking methodologies and decided to form an innovation lab to focus on this. NCSS started by hiring people with design thinking backgrounds to complement existing staff who were familiar with the social service sector, as this would help to bring new viewpoints and perspectives as well as different “ways of doing” into the organisation. Pumpkin Lab was also given the space to experiment and learn, using an iterative approach on different projects then sharing the learnings with the rest of the organisation. 

Design thinking consultants and NCSS staff discussing the caregiver journey during a design thinking workshop.

In the initial phases of a project, Pumpkin Lab worked with several social service agencies and service users through a design ethnography process to understand their issues, identify current trends and uncover their pain points. This approach helped Pumpkin Lab to ascertain the key issues that resonated with the stakeholders, and to dive deeply into these issues and challenges. They then worked with organisations that were keen to prototype some of the concept ideas from the project and facilitated the process via linkages with potential partners and resources, as well as through developing relevant indicators, metrics and evaluation to assess the efficacy of the solutions.

The process included design ethnography to better understanding user needs, to co-creating concept solutions, prototyping, iterating, evaluation and sharing of knowledge. It presented a continuous learning journey and engagement of social service agencies and partner agencies to build a connected and collaborative ecosystem of support to address user needs.

Ventillator App, which enables caregiver to vent emotions and find support, was one of the outcomes of the Who Cares? Transforming the Caregiving Experience project. 

An example of a Pumpkin Lab project using a design ethnography approach is Who Cares? Transforming the Caregiving Experience in Singapore.

Impact analysis

Who Cares? Transforming the Caregiving Experience in Singapore
NCSS commissioned a strategic design ethnography project to design a better caregiving future for Singapore. The challenge of caregiving was a timely and universal topic that is relevant in Singapore and beyond. It is said that you either are a caregiver, have been a caregiver or will be a caregiver at some point in your lifetime yet the role of caregivers is largely invisible. In Singapore, an estimated 210,000 people aged 18 to 69 provide regular care to family and friends, and this number is expected to rise[5]. 

The We Care! notebook helps social workers to support caregivers better.

Who Cares? Transforming the Caregiving Experience in Singapore was named one of the nine Designs of the Year at the President’s Design Award 2018 for outstanding social impact and using design methodologies to create toolkit for caregivers. Since the launch of the project, NCSS has been working with social service agencies to share the key project learnings and insights, and inspire new projects and approaches to innovate new services for caregivers in Singapore. As a significant impact of the project, the 3rd Enabling Masterplan for Persons with Disabilities in Singapore included caregiver support as one of the four key strategic directions.

You can read more about Who Cares? Transforming the Caregiving Experience in Singapore at

1 Ministry of Social and Family Development. (n.d.). Social Insights: Innovation in Social Services. Retrieved from

2 Tai J. (April 2016). All hands on deck needed for social good. Retrieved from

3 Goy, P. (20 July 2016). VWOs should be called social service enterprises. Retrieved from

4 Tai J. (April 2016). All hands on deck needed for social good. Retrieved from

5 Basu, R. (2013, September 2017). Singapore’s caregiver crunch, Straits Times.

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