'Design Thinking' in the public sector context
When considering the design confidence of a country, many would consider Germany to be amongst the best. Alongside a strong and highly competent design sector, it has a global track record of high quality engineering and industrial design expertise and this often means we think they have it cracked.
When Design for Europe was approached to participate in Munich Creative Business Week by the Macromedia University, our first reaction was to ask if they really needed the support of the programme, given that our ambition is up-skill and build design capacity in the public sector. This was quickly followed by our second concern – whether we would we get the right audience in the room.
This highly sophisticated design culture existed primarily around products and tangible artefacts. Design Thinking hadn’t yet made the leap into services and systems.
Having researched, discussed and dissected some of the key factors with practitioners and academics in the Bavarian region, it became clear that despite our perceptions, this highly sophisticated design culture existed primarily around products and tangible artefacts. Design Thinking hadn’t yet made the leap into services and systems, let alone the public sector or policymaking.
Collaborating with the Macromedia University was an interesting and positive experience, as the university is working to introduce design thinking and approaches across a range of sectors. The event was called ‘Design Thinking for the Public Good’ and was well marketed alongside a wide variety of activities during the week-long design festival in February. The leadership team worked tirelessly to establish links and push the agenda amongst hard-to-reach public sector professionals, and we were confident that it would be the quality of the conversation and not necessarily the quantity of participants that would matter.
Registration was high and the event kicked off with a great preview of the day’s debates. It soon became clear however, that the people we needed to inspire – those critical people designing and implementing public services – were not present in any significant number. What we did have though was an audience of academics and design practitioners keen to learn more about how they could engage.
Our challenge became to shift the day’s agenda to capitalise on the knowhow in the room.
Often at these conferences it can feel like, we are either preaching to the converted or talking a different language altogether. With this particular audience, our challenge became to shift the day’s agenda to capitalise on the knowhow in the room – to ask them to tell us what barriers they were were experiencing and why they were struggling to introduce design and innovation principles in the public sector.
Working with Sabine Junginger from the Hertie School of Governance, and Daniela Sangiorgi from the University of Lancaster, we facilitated a session exploring these factors. The issues raised in the debate that unfolded were familiar to all of us.
Some of the critical questions raised were:
How do we demonstrate the social good design can do?
How do we better articulate the value of design to the public sector?
Can we design tools to support intermediaries to help them tell the story?
How can the design sector help to improve the skills of the public sector?
Does the design sector complicate things by using jargon and creating a barrier?
How can the public sector procurement processes be changed to support the buying in of design services?
We also debated whether the terminology used for the conference actually might have put off many public servants. ‘Design Thinking’ is a phrase widely used across the design sector, but there are varying interpretations of its meaning. We came away from the discussion with the sense that ‘Design Thinking' in a public sector context is not something that needs a rigid definition but is more a state of mind. It simply implies the space, confidence and freedom to just try something out and do things differently. And at the very least, that’s a great start!