Design thinking and techniques can help create radical innovations needed to meet the challenges facing local communities and services, says Philip Colligan.
Philip Colligan is the executive director of Nesta’s public services lab. Nesta and thinkpublic have recently published a framework for prototyping in public services
I recently met a bright young policymaker on the local government graduate development programme. I was in full flow explaining the important role that design will play in creating the public services of the future when he interrupted, politely but firmly, and asked: “So what do you mean by design?”
It’s a good question. Lots of our work in the public services lab is about how design thinking and techniques can help create the radical innovations needed to meet the challenges facing local communities and services. I’m not a designer (nowhere near cool enough) but I’ve started to learn something about how their skills can be put to use in public services.
My first lesson was that there is no such thing as neutral design. It seems a bit obvious, but the way that public services are organised inevitably influences the outcomes they achieve. Policymakers and managers are taking design decisions all the time, too often without realising it.
It’s a point illustrated by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge, which introduced the concept of public services as “choice architects”. How a school canteen manager arranges the presentation of food influences the choices children make about what to eat. The civil servant who designs a driving licence application form influences how many people choose to donate their organs. If we’re all designers, perhaps we should be a bit more conscious of what it means.
The second lesson was that design in public services is about engaging people – the users, citizens and professionals working at the front line. It starts with their lived experience, not something that is always available to policymakers and managers.
Take the children’s centre in Whitley in Reading which, as part of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts’ transforming early years programme, interviewed 32 families and learned that they weren’t getting the support they wanted or needed. It wasn’t that the service was poor – quite the opposite. It just didn’t address the needs of the people who most needed its help. It has since used design methods to create a new model that does meet those needs, including a new role for expert parents (one to watch).
The third lesson was that innovation comes from deliberate and planned processes more than you might think. The discovery of penicillin is famously attributed to Alexander Fleming keeping what frankly sounds like an unhygienic lab. But don’t let that fool you. While serendipity, surprise and, in Fleming’s case, sloppiness can be important elements of innovation, it’s much better to allow at least the first two to happen within a structured process.
Tim Harford’s new book, Adapt, provides a coherent argument for systematic experimentation, failure and learning as both the source of history’s great technological leaps forward and the key to future prosperity. But other than the vital lessons that Archie Cochrane taught the world about clinical medicine, Harford draws on relatively few cases of public and social innovation. Why?
One reason is that no politician was ever elected on a campaign that admitted they didn’t know the answer, but would try out some stuff, fail, learn the lessons and hope to find a solution during the term of office. Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can” not “Yes we’ll try”. Public service processes embody that same heroic model with commissioners and managers expected to specify the exact service that is needed to solve an ever-changing and increasingly complex range of social needs.
It can be different and design can help. Barnet council has been experimenting with the concept of prototyping, which embodies Harford’s argument of trying lots of things, failing quickly at low cost, iterating and learning. It’s a design method that common to manufacturing, but yet to gain real traction in public services. The Design Council’s excellentpublic services by design programme is a notable exception.
James Dyson famously created 5,127 prototypes before bringing the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner to market. His is an extreme story of one man’s commitment, but I wonder how many investors would back an inventor if all they did was a quick consultation before launching their best idea on the market without any testing.
What we’re now learning is that there are low-cost and low-risk ways to apply design techniques like prototyping to innovation for even the most sensitive of social challenges. We’re also finding it’s possible for public servants to learn those techniques and that has got to be a priority for any organisation trying to find innovative solutions to big social challenges.