• Opinion
  • March 29, 2019
  • 5 minutes
  • 2

Colouring outside the lines: creative design for public good

Opinion: Design opens a new horizon of possibilities for policymakers

This piece was written by Anna Schlimm, a Designer on Nesta’s Global Innovation Policy Accelerator. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Which disciplines would you expect to find working on a project called The Global Innovation Policy Accelerator, a capacity-building program for senior innovation policymakers from around the world? Perhaps a mix of policy experts and academics, peppered with a few venture capitalists? Would your guess include a designer? What if I told you there are two of us?

Design is having a moment in both public and private sector innovation. Companies like Apple, Airbnb and Google use “design thinking” to understand our wants and needs in order to then creatively manipulate us into using or buying their products — in other words, to create corporate financial value.

But applying the design process to innovation policy, as we do on our program, has the potential to create a different kind of value — social value for the public good.

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We apply a design mindset to The Policy Accelerator on different levels. For example, we treat the program itself as an ever-evolving design project. Since our work spans 11 different countries, we adjust the curriculum content and delivery to the cultural context of each cohort. To avoid making assumptions, we are constantly observing, collecting feedback and iterating to improve the design and the overall experience of the program.

The program’s structure is also deeply rooted in design methods and mindsets. During the nine-month program, participants complete a collaborative project that follows an adaptation of the Double Diamond, a model based on the diverging and converging thinking at different stages of the design process.

Design is having a moment in both public and private sector innovation

The curriculum corresponds directly to this structure and covers methods such as user research, systems thinking and policy prototyping. The idea is to help policymakers connect and collaborate with the citizens and stakeholders they are designing for.

It also gives the participants permission to experiment and learn from failure — to move from a linear process to an iterative one that allows time to re-frame issues and test assumptions. The aim is to help policymakers design less obvious and more effective, evidence-based policy solutions.

Applying the design process to a policy context isn’t an entirely new idea. PolicyLab, for example, has been introducing design-based tools and techniques to the UK government for a while now.

What is new, however, is applying the design process specifically for international innovation policy. This means our design decisions have the potential to shape future policy and to impact citizens’ lives on a global scale. With this in mind, it is worth noting a few caveats when applying design approaches in this context.

For instance, while we work hard to eliminate assumptions, we’re limited to designing the program from our own, UK perspective. This means we have to rely on participants to adapt learnings from The Policy Accelerator to their own — arguably very different — policy context.

It’s also essential to measure the real-world impact of applying these approaches, but that’s easier said than done in the often abstract world of policy.

Design offers a more conscious, creative, iterative and inclusive process

The impacts of introducing design to policy may not be immediately quantifiable by traditional means. One thing design certainly does offer, is a more conscious, creative, iterative and inclusive process, to replace or transform traditional, top-down policymaking.

Granted, adopting an entirely new mindset always requires time for “fermentation”. But when successful, it is amongst the most powerful ways to catalyse systemic change.

The core missions of innovation policy and design are not that different: both strive to re-imagine the status quo. Embracing a design ethos merely opens up a new horizon of possibilities for policymakers to colour outside the lines of current paradigms. — Anna Schlimm

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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