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Space for dissent

We need to create more space for dissent and contestation in the discourse around ‘design for government’ – otherwise we are in danger of straying into groupthink (and worse).

As part of my PhD, I’ve recently completed a literature review looking at research studying the phenomenon of ‘design for government’ – and I think we have a problem. With a few notable exceptions, there seems to be a single conversation going on – circulating through research, grey literature, blogs etc – and which goes like this: government is in trouble/ can’t do ‘x’/ must innovate/ reform/ transform/ be more efficient/ deal with complex problems > design can help with that > here’s how to do it. I’m paraphrasing somewhat, but there is a certain pattern that emerges, and a very instrumental way of talking about design (i.e. focused on what it achieves).

This is not a particularly critical discourse. Rather, almost everyone who says anything on the topic of design seems to be in the business of promoting it, more or less subtly – and there isn’t a great deal of clear water between academic research, and actual design promotion by the sector. What research there is seems to be preoccupied with explaining back to designers, public managers and policymakers what design for government is about and why there should be more of it. As a research community, it’s a very narrow set of questions we are asking and answering, repeatedly. And consequently, we’re not moving the conversation forward much beyond what the Design Council’s RED team said in the ‘Transformation Design’ manifesto that kicked it all off 11 years ago. All the major memes were there – in 2006.

This disciplining of how we talk about design in the context of government happens in practice too. You can quickly find yourself in the minority by asking awkward questions, or taking a different view – and I think this is suppressing some healthy debate. Certainly for me, disagreeing and biting my tongue has become something of an everyday experience: at work, or attending industry events and design research conferences, in reaction to hyperbole on social media – others broadcasting platitudes on twitter, or postulating on Medium. (If I see another primary-coloured slide with a five-word truism about users in helvetica font I might scream).

I hesitate to voice my criticism, because my sense is it either won’t be welcome, or worse – really heard or understood. And I know others have had similar tongue-biting experiences. A colleague recently spoke of fundamentally disagreeing with a fellow panellist at a public event celebrating service design, and feeling unable to express herself, because it would go against the ‘tone’ of the discussion (which she described as ‘women nodding and smiling and agreeing with each other’). A fellow academic recounted some highly questionable assertions made during the recent Service Design Network Global Conference (some of which I also spotted being regurgitated on twitter in a little echo chamber of design cheerleading), that yet went uncontested. As I write this, I’m having a conversation with another academic about how to present a critique of service design to a conference of service design practitioners and researchers without offending anyone.

This squeamishness about giving offence is a problem, because it creates a situation where there’s no comeback. In the absence of any clear source of authoritative knowledge or expertise (because who can really claim that much expertise in an emerging field), anyone who says anything loudly and confidently enough can present as an expert, unchallenged. This isn’t a healthy or helpful situation.

Surely this is a field that – both in development, and highly entangled with questions of politics, social ‘good’, governing etc – demands some healthy and spirited debate. What’s going on? Is everyone being terribly polite? Does everyone really agree? Are we all trying to curry favour with each other by nodding and clapping? Or is no-one thinking very hard about whether some of these assertions actually merit ‘applause’ or retweeting? I wonder if, having for so long campaigned to be taken seriously by government, there is a tacit agreement within the design community – practice and research – to not spoil it by bickering amongst ourselves in front of clients. Or perhaps design discourse, with its almost dogmatically optimistic rhetoric, simply doesn’t have a register with which to express uncertainty, misgivings, scepticism, etc. Whatever the reason, we seem to be creating a discourse space with little room for critical voices, and that needs to change, because we’re not learning anything new, and we are smothering criticality in practice. And criticality is an essential faculty in people who are in the business of proposing new possible futures.

From a design promotion point of view, job done. The single-track message has helped design practice elbow its way into government. It’s time to be a bit more critical about what we’re up to there.

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Prototyping in policymaking: the pros and cons

Based on our respective experiences at work and in our research with the UK government, Lucy Kimbell and I recently co-wrote a paper for CoDesign on the use of prototyping – a practice that comes from the world of industry and design – in policymaking.

In it, we try to do two things.

First, to set out clearly what we think the functional added value might be to policymakers of incorporating prototyping into their practice. At face value, it promises some uses and benefits, which we assemble into a framework of ‘logics, pace, objects, uses and participants’ that we hope further research (our own and others) might build on.

“We propose that prototyping in the context of public policymaking can be a flexible practice within the policy cycle, which closes the gap between policy intent and delivery. Prototyping enables organisational learning by anticipating responses to public policy issues through making models of, and materialising, aspects of provisional solutions, enabling assessment of their delivery, acceptability and legitimacy. Prototyping can assemble and bring into relation a diverse constituency of actors involved in a policy issue, with distinct expertise, perspectives and knowledge. It can co-constitute a situated understanding of issues and how future policies might play out, foregrounding people’s experiences of a policy intervention via their material engagement with devices, objects and sites of action, making the practical and political implications of a policy graspable and meaningful.”

However, we also bring forward a specific critique of this ‘new spirit of policymaking’, which you don’t hear very often, but which we think prototyping is highly emblematic of.

Which is that it represents the further infiltration into the highest reaches of government of capitalist logic and modes of organising. As one interviewee pointed out, design methods were born into a specific worldview, with particular ends in mind, and by introducing the method into government we might also (perhaps unthinkingly) be importing the worldview and aims – and this deserves some scrutiny.

“Prototyping presents as-yet unresolved questions about how a processual, materialised and local understanding of problems and solutions intersects with formal democratic structures and processes. It is unclear how small-scale prototyping can relate to concurrent forms of democratic participation producing ‘mass’ policies that can be delivered at scale… Further, as Boltanski and Chiapello argue, the flexibility and provisionality associated with contemporary organising has the potential to absorb critiques of capitalism. Adopted as an organisational practice in government, prototyping can downplay challenges to the dominant neo-liberal consensus, dilute differences in political agency, and mask the politics inherent in deciding who, or what, co-emerges within a prototyping assemblage. Prototyping enacts a local—and possibly temporary—agency for participants in a policymaking process. But, as von Busch and Palmås argue in their discussion of applying design thinking to public problems, prototyping may also serve to reinforce existing power structures and elites.”

You can read the full paper here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/YsHBjZ37CPVu7GybZpQy/full

Or there is a pre-publication draft here: https://jossbailey.wordpress.com/essays/

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Impact fixation

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Image taken from the Design Council’s ‘Design delivers for business‘ report (2012)

Clive Dilnot has a nice line on criticality in design: in theory designers should be the most critical of us all, because designing means being able to discern between different possibilities and choose the best one. However in reality (he says) the choices we make in design practice have been long disciplined by the logic of the market – which in turn shapes the language of design, much like that of management in general, to focus on impact, effectiveness, productivity, growth etc. And it’s always delivered in normative terms: how design should be done to achieve the best results. This is to be seen everywhere in commercial design practice – fair enough. But I’m starting to worry about how much of a grip it has on design research and academia.

Ezio Manzini recently lamented that ‘mechanisms and effectiveness’ seem to be the only basis on which people are capable of researching and discussing design. There are some exceptions: this doesn’t apply so much to design history, and there is a growing ‘design culture’ field that seeks to embed contemporary practice in a wider socio-economic and political framework. But if you happen to be researching in that mode it seems you are apt to be constantly misunderstood by others.

I’ve had the experience three times recently, on submitting three different papers (one to a conference and two to journals) of being told that I (or we in the case of one written with Lucy Kimbell) haven’t done enough to say what should be done, or what designers as readers should take forward or do differently. I’ve been warned against taking the ‘barren position’ of critic standing outside of practice.

Why, I wonder, is critique such a problem? And why can’t a thought-provoking critique, or an exploration of possible theoretical interpretations, stand on its own?

The papers in question all reflect in different ways on what might be going on behind the use of design in policy – exploratory pieces that draw on theories of capitalism, neoliberalism, governmentality, politics, etc. My favourite case of misinterpretation concerns a paper that builds on Boltanski and Chiapello’s idea that capitalism absorbs and defuses critique/ dissent, to suggest that the infiltration of design into policymaking might be seen as an example of that mechanism. The reviewer’s criticism implied that they thought we were promoting the absorption of dissent as a selling point for design in policy.

Maybe we weren’t clear enough. Or maybe the paradigm of design research providing prescriptions for design practice is just that strong. But why should all design research end in ‘implications for design practice?’ Isn’t that just another example of the absorption of critique? Not all problems can be so easily solved. It makes me even more defiant, to want to say ‘no you can’t just disable this with some platitudes about reflective practice – it’s uncomfortable and you have to live with it’.

The broader point here is that there’s not nearly enough critical research going on if, when confronted with it, design academics don’t know how to read it. As part of thinking through my PhD, I’ve sketched out the framework below as a short-hand for distinguishing between different kinds of design research. There’s not much of the fourth column going on, and I’m curious as to why this is.

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There is admittedly a large overlap between researchers and practitioners – many people do both, which encourages a certain perspective. If design is about problem solving for an organisation, institution or system, then design research also seems to be predominantly asking questions about how well it does that job, rather than reflecting on the container within which design activity sits. And when design research identifies a problem the designerly brain wants to solve it. Perhaps the design mentality can’t brook the idea of not doing, not acting – which is what critical discernment implies. If you really thought about it you might choose not to act – but if you stop does that mean you cease to be a designer? Reflecting on whether to act might trigger some kind of identity crisis.

A final point: as a design practitioner I find that the thing most design research is useful for at the moment (when it’s not just a show-and-tell of design projects) is in providing some theoretical underpinnings that help articulate to clients why this isn’t all just playing with post-its, but is serious work. In other words, we co-opt research – sometimes even critical research – to keep selling. What’s visibly lacking, given the increasingly confusing times we live in, is anything that sheds some light on what’s going on in public life and the political sphere at the moment and how designers are implicated in that. More of that sort of thing would be very welcome.

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Reflections on designing a public and social innovation lab in health

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Over the last year and a half I’ve been working with the Health Foundation, supporting a team (led by Tracy Webb) designing an innovation and improvement lab that will work with the Q community, exploring systemic challenges in health and care in the UK. Designing an innovation function in an organisation or system is no straightforward task, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned through the process.

But first… why a ‘lab’?

There is a long history of corporations and organisations hiving off the innovation function, creating dedicated teams solely focused on R&D and coming up with new ideas, an experimental space freed from the limitations of day-to-day business. Applying the same logic to public and social innovation problems is becoming increasingly popular – only in this case, it’s not corporations trying to invent new products, but governments, public bodies, charities, and foundations, who recognise that their standard operating model is no longer sufficient for addressing complex social and public problems.

‘PSI labs’, as they are known (Public and Social Innovation labs), are proliferating rapidly across the world, and for good reasons. In the past, ‘experimentation’ used to refer mainly to scientifically minded people testing theories in a closed system. While that undoubtedly still happens, there is also a sense now that some of the big problems we are facing defy being solved at a laboratory bench.

The 19th and 20th centuries have left us with an incredibly complex ‘designed’ world: ‘the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer’. We have created complex assemblages of people, structures, objects, meanings – and we have to find ways to tinker with these to create change. But that’s not to say we want all of government (for instance) to throw everything up the air and start experimenting, there needs to be a balance between exploration and exploitation: finding the ideas that work, and spreading them.

There are various reasons you might want to initiate or explore the idea of a PSI lab:

  • You need to find ways to collaborate across a system, or with a range of different players and interests
  • You need to create a safe, dedicated space within an organisation or system for exploration, experimentation and innovation
  • You need to find a way to bring together multi-disciplinary groups to work on complex issues

And if you’re minded to start a lab of your own, here are a few reflections on the conditions for success.

1. Establish a clear aim

As Zaid Hassan (one of the forerunners in establishing and writing about Social Labs) told us – you need to work with the willing. To do that, you need a clear aim and set of values that resonate with people and draw them to your cause. And be honest. People will spot the ulterior motive hiding behind a more worthy-sounding goal.

2. Confront your own assumptions about knowledge

Many people and organisations – consciously or not – like certainty: there are facts that we can know, best practice we can establish, knowledge that we can harvest and spread. In some cases certainty is possible, but, as demonstrated notably by Dave Snowden with the Cynefin framework, complex problems don’t lend themselves to the establishment of objective truths, or even to being solved. In the context of social and systemic change, ‘facts’ become slippery and elusive. The appropriate response is instead an ongoing and imperfect process of exploring, proposing, probing. The concept of the PSI lab rests on this belief about the nature of working with the infinitely evolving question of the public and its problems. And it can be difficult for many organisations – used to being able to ‘know’ things with certainty, and dealing in specific forms of ‘evidence’ – to get comfortable with that.

3. Design it yourself (but learn from others)

There is no off-the-shelf model for a lab – the entity in itself needs designing in response to the thing it’s trying to do (as we did with the Health Foundation). But there is plenty of experience you can draw on. Much of it exists in the heads of practitioners, some of it is in blogs and online. Less exists in the academic domain, although there is some. Luckily, the practitioner community tends to be very open and willing to share – and it’s well-networked. Follow #psilabs on twitter to find out who’s doing what, or contact us for a few pointers.

4. Build the right team

In an exploratory inquiry process, which is the kind of process most labs would advocate, it’s important to have a team that can work flexibly together, holding a goal in mind but improvising around how to get there. As Prof. John Clarkson put it to us, ‘you need to build a team that knows what to do next’. Finding those people can be tricky, and they pop up in all disciplines – although creative disciplines tend to produce more of them.

5. Invest and be patient

Systemic change is a long game – so the sooner you start, the better! Zaid Hassan suggests that investment in tackling a challenge ought to be proportionate to the ultimate cost of the challenge. While that scale of investment just isn’t realistic for many organisations, giving a team (even if just a small one) the time and space to explore challenges and potential fruitful directions does require some resource. And although keeping momentum is important, projects can only proceed at the pace that relationships and trust develop. But by being clear about where you think you’re going, and using design approaches such as prototyping, you can find ways to create impact even within short spaces of time.

Blog originally published by Uscreates.

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Perspectives on method from design and other disciplines

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This post was originally published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: Should design be integrated with other disciplines and methods to enhance validity and impact, or does that fundamentally disrupt what design has to offer?

 

“What passes for theoretical generalizations are really only context specific insights produced by particular discourse communities.” Stephen Brookfield

We live in a world where disciplines and expertises are understood as crucibles of knowledge and authority. Deep disciplinary expertise has helped solve many of the ‘problems’ of the 20th century. It would be hard to imagine putting a man on the moon without long-term investment in a select number of brains and institutions becoming deeply expert in aerospace engineering. The term ‘rocket science’ exists because we think there are some things that a lay person has little hope of understanding.

There have been critiques of disciplinary and professional authority. Political ones, that suggest the boundaries constructed around expertises and professions serve to reinforce a particular world order, and that the ‘problems’ of the 20th century have been so-defined by the powerful. And more practical ones, that suggest silos of expertise may not suit all problems equally. Interdisciplinarity is required. Hannah Arendt has a lovely phrase about training the mind to ‘go visiting’ in other disciplines. Nate Silver’s theory of the failure of prediction draws attention to the value of ‘foxes’, who know many things (as opposed to ‘hedgehogs’, who know one big thing and cling on to it fiercely). Being open to more than one way of understanding allows ‘foxes’ to entertain and evaluate a broader range of possibilities. The kind of knowledge that is useful also depends on the kind of problem in question: it’s hard to apply ‘knowledge’ to new or emerging problems. Interpreting such complex problems* through the lens of single disciplines or professions will almost always lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

In the last year or so, consulting with a community of ‘QI’ (Quality Improvement) experts in health and care, but coming from a design perspective, I’ve been wondering whether the same critique would apply to method. In a literature review of theories of ‘implementation’, Nilsen (2015) finds around 60 different theories, models or frameworks for making change happen in health care systems. 60 different ways that people have codified, and sought academic authority for, a way of proceeding. This is ‘method’ as something to be developed, tested, evidenced, and enshrined in the knowledge system of higher education institutions – and then advocated to other people so they can replicate it. I’ve noticed that people with this worldview can be quite defensive about ‘their’ method being the best or right one.

By contrast, at Uscreates where I work, (an agency that to date has built a practice on a blend of service design, participatory design, behaviour change techniques and innovation strategies) I think we see methods as something more malleable – never definitive, relevant only according to how useful they are in the moment of need, and the choice of method is the selection of one out of many ways of proceeding. To appropriate a social science term, we have I think a kind of inventive practice: constantly designing the way in which we are going to address the problem. This means we are fairly agnostic about method, often splicing things together and borrowing from other fields. More interested in experimenting quickly to see what happens than seeking out pre-existing ‘evidence’.

These two beliefs about method are somewhat at odds. The first sees the second as lacking evidence, reliability, authority, and bound to produce imperfect results. The second sees the first as inflexible and unable to respond to new challenges, and seeking perfection as a fool’s errand. One way of overcoming this chasm is to say that each is useful for a different type of problem. Sometimes there is a known optimum approach to dealing with a problem, and creativity is unwelcome. Not everything needs to be worked out from first principles. But being inventive with method is probably the only way of tackling messy, complex, emerging problems.

But perhaps this is still to mask a deeper epistemic chasm: between an understanding of knowledge as something that is extractable from situations and people, and an understanding of knowledge as intrinsically linked to the ‘know-how’ of an individual or group. The second position would see the idea of creating a knowledge bank of 60 codified ‘methods’ as pointless – because what matters is the ability of people to respond creatively and manage challenges in their own contexts. So, to return to the opening question, it may be impossible to integrate design with some other ‘methods’, because of fundamentally opposing underpinning epistemologies. Rather, there is much to be gained from an ongoing productive dialogue between the two.

*Complex problems are described by Reos Partners as ‘social’ (involving diverse range of actors with different perspectives), ‘dynamic’ (enmeshed in systems that make it hard to relate cause and effect), and ‘generative’ (constantly changing and leading to new situations)

Thanks to Tom Ling for pointing me in the direction of Nilsen, and Alan Boyles for comments on this draft.

Read other responses to this question here.

 

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Effecting structural change through design? Not in the day job.

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This post was first published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: ‘Is it possible for design to address big structural issues, like inequality, or is it destined to the incremental tweaking of existing experiences?’

 

The analysis of the referendum – surprising, momentous, painful – is still unfolding. However one thing seems clear: the Leave vote was an expression of popular discontent. And though the target may be misplaced, we can’t tell people they’re wrong about feeling unhappy. The genius of the ‘Leave’ campaign was to tap into a set of latent frustrations and channel them into a single action.

The reasons for this brewing discontent are only murkily understood as something to do with unequal power dynamics between the corporate world and ‘ordinary people’, between the intellectual elite and the working class, between outward-looking progressives and nostalgic conservatives, between the haves and the have nots. In short, some very long term conditions, difficult to perceive, grapple with and affect.

What can design possibly offer here?

There are already some socially-conscientious designers out there, attempting to make public services more user-friendly, or helping policymakers think more creatively about a particular problem. But in the shadow of challenges such as years of entrenched inequality, this kind of design work can feel like merely tinkering with a broken system. So what is the alternative? Is there anything design practice can do when it comes to the bigger picture? How could it position itself to make a difference? Is there a halfway house between the radical’s ‘design activism’ and the consultant’s ‘design in the service of government’?

In principle, design has some practice that might be useful. For example:

  • Form-giving and representation – the ability to make intangible things (like governance) manifest in media other than words – can be used to question norms, to make invisible things visible and therefore contestable, and to depict possible futures. This is an important task: many Leave voters were expressing their discontent with the status quo, inspired by a narrative and vision spun by politicians and the media. But that desire for agency could be engaged in other more constructive ways, if an alternative vision and set of possible actions existed.
  • And design has different models for grappling with problems – for synthesising needs, resources and opportunities into new scenarios and configurations. Such approaches can go deeply into underpinning themes and conflicting viewpoints, and help move things forward when the right direction isn’t clear: a way of starting to think about many of the complex structural issues that governments struggle to deal with.

However it’s the position of the designer in the system that is the real challenge: the radical’s dilemma. It is always difficult for anyone employed by a system to be overtly challenging to it. So we shouldn’t rely on the design industry to deliver this as part of the day job.

Instead we might want to think about designers taking their skills into other roles – becoming politicians, public managers, business leaders, etc. But I would argue that we also need a new class of critic. Perhaps the 21st century’s public intellectual should instead be the ‘public practitioner’? In fact the design community is on the verge of offering up to the world a community of public practitioners: people with one foot in the system and a critical mindset, mixing thinking with practice with participation in public debates. We can help by opening up dialogue on what this kind of politically-engaged practice means, and could be.

Read other responses to this question here.

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What I learned from losing my phone. (A handwritten blog).

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