How can design help identify and resolve systemic problems in the public sector? And what are the benefits and value that design can bring to this area? These were some of the opening questions at the recent Design Driven Society event on systemic problems in cities and government at Helsinki Design Week. This event was part of the Design for Europe programme hosted in partnership with Design Driven City.

Based on my research and practice within the Service Design Department of the Royal College of Art and the recently created Laboratorio de Gobierno inside the Chilean government, I’m one of the supporters of the idea that design – as a way of thinking and doing – can not only help to identify and resolve systemic problems in the public sector, but can go much further: it can help to change the way in which we think about public problems, develop public policies, and deliver public services.

Recent literature argues that linear models and processes of policymaking, public administration and service delivery cannot cope with either the ‘wicked problems’ of a complex world, or with the increasing demands and expectations of citizens. This means that governments need to innovate and do things differently by looking for alternative approaches and opening the boundaries of traditional theories for governmental action. Research has shown that design as a discipline can be a powerful alternative approach for public sector innovation and can be systematically used at different levels inside public institutions.

In my view, the main value of design for public sector innovation lies in its alternative way of understanding and responding to our contemporary ‘wicked’ public problems. There are four keys elements to this:

1. The focus on people

Contemporary design is human centred, and this changes the focus of policies and public services away from ministers and towards the needs of users. Through a citizen-centred mindset and a diverse set of user-centred techniques, design can be a powerful tool for co-creating with users and stakeholders, putting people and their communities at the heart of service design and delivery. This complements the traditional top-down approach with a bottom-up perspective, combining big data at a national level with small data from people’s lives – considering citizens as co-creators and co-producers of services and policies.

A co-design workshop with CESFAM, Chile’s network national network of family health centres.

2. The practical capacity for changing situations

Both policymaking and design have the aim of producing intentional change in existing situations. While traditional public policymaking does this through establishing boundaries for the action of others and expecting preferred outcomes, design takes a practical approach by shaping ideas into concrete propositions for users with the power of changing specific situations for better. The difference is that while traditional policymaking is done from a normative standpoint and based on robust facts of the present, design uses a practical and experimental approach – based on a holistic analysis of discrete qualitative facts, engagement with people, creativity and prototyping. This is particularly valuable in a context where uncertainty rules and there is a need to create practical evidence that can only be achieved through experimentation and learning.

A Family Health Centre in Recoleta, Chile where Laboratorio de Gobierno have been working.

3. An alternative language of communication

The concrete and visual nature of design brings a new set of communication tools to the table. It can help visualise complex problems, scenarios and experiences, letting policy teams identify opportunities and flaws, and then communicate them better to non-expert users. While traditional public policy works with words and facts, design works with stories and images, helping to build narratives based on people’s experiences and contexts that can help policy teams understand and communicate insights, ideas and propositions in a more engaging and interactive way.

Mapping user journeys with Laboratorio de Gobierno.

4. A focus on implementation

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, argues that central governments function as big publishing houses, more focused on producing laws, reports and documents rather than implementing solutions. The problem, he argues, is that laws by themselves don’t solve public problems so a practical approach is needed. Design can help because as we’ve said, it puts practice at the centre of the policy process. Through prototyping, testing and learning, we can speed up the learning loop between what is theorised at a policy level and what actually happens on the ground. This loop lets us kill off bad ideas before they become political problems, or lets us refine the good ones so they can have a greater impact when implemented.

The value that design can bring to public sector innovation is complementary to both traditional policymaking disciplines and the diverse set of emergent science-based approaches that are currently being considered, fields such as behavioural economics, data science and complexity theories. Its potential can only be harnessed if it is considered as a supporting feature of public action.

The question is how to combine these creative, experimental and people-centred processes to imagine, co-create and prototype whilst still maintaining the rigor of evidence-based policymaking and managing risk.