Change by design: design thinking and what it holds for the public sector

I read Change by design, a book by Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, who introduced design thinking to the world beyond Silicon Valley, over summer. Although I thoroughly enjoyed most of the insights and examples in the book, it also left me with an unnerving sense of frustration. Here’s why in this book review.

The coming of age of design thinking?

A recent post in the Harvard Business Review announced that design thinking had now reached an almost mainstream status in business. While I would love this to be true, I think it’s not the case, at least we’re not anywhere near mainstream over here in Europe. But let’s start with the beginning and get back to design thinking as epitomised in Tim Brown’s book.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a methodological approach to innovative product or service design that puts people and their needs first. The methodology can be summarised in 6 words used by Tim Brown throughout the book: insight, observation, empathy, ideation, prototype, synthesis.

But more than a methodology, design thinking is a mindset that pervades an organisational culture. Why? The core values of design thinking are:

  • to find a balance between desirability, viability and feasibility in any innovation
  • to shift from a problem to a project
  • to emphasis the fundamental human needs
  • to move from convergent thinking (making choices) to divergent thinking (creating choices), or to phrase it differently to move from analysis to synthesis
  • to design for experiences, in space (using prototypes) and it time (using storyboards and scenarii).

Why is design thinking so appealing to certain people, including me? It embodies the values of the free internet, the fundamental shift from organisation-centric  to user-centric world views, from hierarchical to networked structures of power, and the strong belief in the intelligence of crowds (or teams).

In the first part of the book Tim Brown skillfully describes the process and the steps to introduce design thinking into product or service design, but his book is not meant as a practical guide, more as an invitation to think about how to put in practice some of the ideas he puts forward.

Government, the next frontier for design thinking?

Tim Brown wrote this book in 2009. He makes an interesting personal statement in it about what (American) people expect of public service:

We might resign ourselves to the ponderous workings of government bureaucracies, but we should not forgive the companies we patronize for their lack of imagination” (p. 191)

Actually, I find this statement sad because it sounds like Tim Brown has given up on government and its capacity to innovate and modernise. Luckily since 2009 many governments and public sector organisations have shown us that innovation, design thinking and the public interest can go hand in hand – in fact, where would design thinking be more appropriate if it’s not in government organisations to serve the interests of ever-demanding citizens? Examples of existing innovation labs working in or for governments can be found on this great map created by the Parsons DESIS Lab in New York.

But to be quite honest, design thinking is still so marginal in government organisations that if you’re a civil servant reading this, there a good chances you’ve never heard of design thinking before, or not in your offices at least. Am I right?

I think there is great potential for design thinking in government or whatever you want to call the idea of putting people first and testing your ideas before you roll them out on a massive scale. The reasons why it’s not picking up yet are numerous, but I can think of three which may have motivated the negative feelings of Tim Brown towards public sector organisations:

  • There is huge inertia in public sector organisations, and radical change does not happen overnight (if ever they happen). Design thinking (putting the user at the centre) is one such radical change.
  • Design thinking requires skills that are extremely rare among civil servants today, and will most likely mean hiring external expertise to kickstart the phenomenon in the early stages of its spread across the organisation.</li>
  • A start-up culture – accept failure, work in small cross-functional teams, agile mentality – works best with design thinking. While some public sector departments demonstrate these traits, we are still light-years away from seeing these traits prominently engrained in public service culture. I’d love to be proven wrong though!

In the second part of his book Tim Brown shares examples of how design thinking can help solve the world’s ‘wicked problems’. But here, I’m not sure it’s the design thinking approach or methodology that’s really key in ensuring we respond to the pressing issues of our times. I think it has more to do with letting citizens themselves participate and engage in the exercise of identifying solutions to problems that politicians are having a hard time dealing with.

At a smaller scale, this is also what innovation labs in the field of development aid are attempting to do. Take USAID’s Global Development Lab, the UNHCR Innovation Labs or the UNICEF Innovation Labs.

So for anyone interested in innovation and human-centered design, I definitely recommend Tim Brown’s seminal book, and if you’d like to talk more about innovation in the public sector, you know where to find me.

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