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How to bring design to the public sector

André Schaminée trained and worked as an urban designer for several years. He also had a parallel career in the music industry founding two record labels. After spending a few years working as a project manager for large infrastructural projects, and 15 years managing his record labels, he decided to quit: it was time to try something new.

How did you get into design thinking?

I work for one of the leading consultancy firms in the Netherlands, Twynstra Gudde.

Although I really like being a project manager for large projects, I noticed that many of the societal issues we were dealing with demanded different approaches that I did not find within the consultancy field.

I brought in designers and artists, with the aim of doing artistic and design research; this received a positive response. It was all pretty intuitive though, and we didn’t really have the language to explain what we were doing.

Then I came across design thinking, and especially the Frame Innovation method by Professor Kees Dorst of the University of Technology Sydney.

After this discovery we fully embraced design thinking as a method and way of enhancing our portfolio and capabilities. That was eight years ago.

How is it used today where you work?

I now lead the social design department of Twynstra Gudde; we’re one of the first big consultancy firms with a dedicated social design team. We work on big transformation challenges, such as climate change, energy transition, agricultural transition, and public governance.

Over the last decade I’ve been researching design and artistic research as a field. I really wanted to understand how it works within organisations, because understanding how design works is one thing, but understanding how it operates in different contexts is another question altogether.

Can you explain what design thinking means to you?

I mean a broad spectrum of disciplines ranging from fine arts, industrial design, urban design, and much more. More crucially though, there are three key capabilities to this type of work that make it very new and different to the public sector.

Firstly: the ability of doing empathic research on a very deep, intrinsic level. Not to understand what one’s position is, or what one’s interest is, but what one’s intrinsic motivations are.

Secondly: coming up with a totally new perspective to issues. If you consider ‘Wicked’ problems, usually the way that we approach them actually maintains the issue. Sometimes a problem is framed as an economic challenge and it turns out to be social in nature. If you don’t reframe it, you keep thinking in that economic framework, you will never find a solution.

Thirdly: the mechanism of prototyping and testing. The more complicated an issue is, the more hungry people are to find that silver bullet. Finding a definitive solution and implementing it everywhere hardly ever works. Prototyping and testing is necessary.

Can you give us an example of where design thinking made the difference?

I discovered the potential of design thinking through one of my first projects.

The A9 highway, which runs along the South East of Amsterdam, was being widened from six to 12 lanes including a new 3km long land tunnel in the Bijlmer neighbourhood. This is a densely populated area with a large migrant community.

A few hundred people showed up to a ‘participation night’ to learn about the six year project. Traditionally these conversations are framed around the nuisance that constructions create, and how this might be minimised. We also noticed that very few migrants attended, so we weren’t reaching a group of people representative of the area.

We partnered with local organisations to reach those who didn’t attend and carry out empathic research. We found out that this part of the city dealt with unemployment, poverty, and school drop-outs. Many efforts in the community were aimed at talent development.

There was clear opportunity. The project would bring in material, knowledge and machines, but also demand for services for six years.

We started the social enterprise, ‘Buurbouw’, which is a Dutch word that combines the words ‘neighbour’ [‘buurman’] and the verb ‘building’ [‘bouwen’]. The organisation helps people from the neighbourhood to develop their talents through the temporary economy created by the construction project. It was founded by the construction companies involved, the local government, and the Ministry of Infrastructure.

What kind of skills could people develop?

Five years of construction created many opportunities to develop talent. For example, wood from the construction site was used by a social enterprise to train youngsters in carpentry. They created the furniture for the park that sits atop of the 3km tunnel. The construction project generated a circular economy driven by the local community.

Do you have any advice for how to incorporate design thinking into the day-to-day of public sector workers?

Just introducing people to the methods and instruments of design is usually insufficient.

One way to go beyond this is for civil servants to work closely with designers. This stretches them into doing something that doesn’t come naturally, and to reflect on the experience.

When doing design thinking in organisations who are not familiar with it, we work closely with them to ask: what do we need to adjust in the ways of working to incorporate design approaches? How do we have to intervene in the organisation’s main processes to get these methods to work?

Are there any pitfalls to design thinking?

One of the most complicated things that we still have to learn more about is how design relates to power. The transformational issues or ‘wicked’ problems I mentioned, have huge vested interests or ‘force fields’ attached to them.

When you start designing and you come up with new perspectives to look at an issue, you also start to question the ‘force field’ around that issue. Many parties might not have an interest in the way you’ve reframed the problem, or in the solution you propose.

You have to be aware of this. You have to understand the political context, the tension design thinking might bring, and how people might respond to that.

How does this affect designers?

Most of the responses that I get - from all over the world - to my book is that people get frustrated when they’ve done a decent, thorough design process. Their ideas seem to work in the real world and then something happens and it never gets implemented, or they get removed from the project.

In many cases this is because they’ve disturbed the ‘force field’ and it’s a natural response from powerful people who aren’t interested in the alternative future. You have to learn to navigate all of this. My book aims to provides insights and tools for this.

André Schaminée is the author of Designing With and Within Public Organizations:

Building Bridges Between Public Sector Innovators and Designers. The book explores how design practices increasingly appeal to public organizations as a new and promising approach, but asks: how can we make collaboration between designers and public sector innovators successful?

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