• Q&A
  • April 16, 2018
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

How can government solve its toughest challenges? Try better design

Q&A: Christian Bason on what he's learned from 10 years in public sector innovation

Christian Bason, CEO of government-funded lab the Danish Design Centre, is one of the leading voices in public sector innovation. He is the former head of Denmark’s oldest innovation lab, MindLab, and the author of seven books on leadership, design and innovation, including the upcoming second edition of Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society.

In this Q&A, Bason says that governments have reached a critical juncture. Faced with pressing transnational problems they cannot solve alone — such as climate change and the refugee crisis — their best hope is to collaborate with innovators to find solutions. In practice, this will mean integrating design principles into policymaking, investing in citizen engagement, and working more closely with the private sector to address complex problems.

This piece appears in our feed on government innovation.

You’ve said that design methods can steer government towards better policy solutions. Why is that?

Governments and the public sector organisations that they rely on have a hard time staying in touch with people’s lives. In order to create policies and interventions that are meaningful and ultimately produce better public outcomes, government organisations have to continuously engage with, relate to and invest effort in understanding their citizens.

Design, as a practice, is focused on making something that is useful, meaningful and attractive to people. But designers also have something profound to offer government leaders: their ability to come up with more innovative and creative answers to the most challenging questions of our time.

For any organisation to work strategically and systematically with a particular approach to innovation, it ultimately requires more than a handful of civil servants getting engaged. It also requires that senior management and leadership begin to dip their toes in this world of design.

The concept of integrating design thinking into government services has been around for a while. How much of an effect would you say it’s actually having on government?

I think we are at a pretty interesting stage, where a lot of public organisations globally have integrated design practices into innovation labs and teams. We’re at this critical point where we will see whether public organisations are able to embrace the more strategic implications of design, such as how it can organise and structure public governance.

With any approach to innovation and leadership and change, there will be some who have tried to embrace it and some who have not gone all the way in terms of funding and recruitment and so on. Because in the longer term, ultimately what we’re talking about is a shift in public administration’s cultural practices and habits.

How is your work at the Danish Design Centre different from what you were doing as director of MindLab?

When I moved from MindLab to running the Danish Design Centre, I was very concerned with practising what I had been preaching as an advisor.

I had the opportunity to, in a sense, create an organisation based on design principles that could be impactful in the world — which turns out to be more difficult than you might expect. It requires recruiting the right staff, defining competencies, building a set of processes and methodologies and ultimately finding out what a design-driven organisation looks like in the context of the public sector, especially because we are still governed and funded mainly by the Danish government.

I think we’re beginning to get there, but it’s something that actually requires quite a lot of iteration and learning. We’ve built now an organisation that, in its DNA, is based on three principles: experimentation, learning and sharing.

And now you help businesses sell to government.

We work with companies — everything from startups to large corporations — and many have an important relationship with government. Sometimes it’s about selling their services to the public sector, but often it’s that they rely on government regulation and business-friendly conditions for them to be successful.

Sectors ranging from mobility to telecoms to finance to energy and environment are highly regulated. We see a need for much more agile and open policymaking in order for companies in these fields to explore new business models. A key question is how can the public sector better facilitate businesses and allow them to grow, while at the same time respecting privacy, security, equality and good governance?

So, in some ways, we are less concerned with how companies sell to government than with the relationship between business and government. In order for society to thrive, we need a much more nuanced, fruitful, and collaborative interplay between the private sector and the public sector.

Is part of the reason you’ve shifted to private sector work because government can be unwieldy, bureaucratic, and at times, resistant to innovation?

The reason I changed is to try to practice what I preach. It’s one thing to advise government entities on how to apply innovation or design in policymaking, and another to do it yourself. So, for me, this was an opportunity to do so.

Advancing innovation through design in the private sector has been quite interesting, because there’s so much to learn in terms of how to embed design and innovation at a strategic level, how to engage and involve staff in innovation work and how to transform an organisation. There are ripe opportunities to work in a much more creative and open way in the interplay between the public and private sectors. That’s what we want to do.

Denmark is famously a design-centric society. Can the systems you’ve developed be applied in other countries?

That is both a strength and a challenge. In Denmark, we are very much a design society — we’re so used to great architecture, planning and products that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, which means we don’t necessarily reflect on how we got here. So part of my job is to show policymakers, citizens and corporate leaders how our design DNA can play out in the future of a complex society.

In many ways, that’s our quest — which I think is similar to a number of other countries. Every country has a design tradition of some sort. Japan, for example, has amazing design, as well as a long tradition of corporate engineering-led innovation. The challenge for them is combining the two — Japanese craftsmanship and culture and design are seen as quite different from corporate technological innovation.

To some extent, I’d say that’s also the role of government, to contribute to society becoming more reflective and self-aware.

Do you think current government systems are equipped to deal with the thorniest problems facing society, from climate change to urbanisation?

I think, in many ways, no. There’s still a very prevalent idea that government can fix or solve these problems, but I don’t think there’s enough humility and awareness that these emergent, complex problems will never go away.

We’re in a world where political figures don’t have the same stability and collaborative arrangements we used to have across the Atlantic. We’re seeing so many places where things are becoming less stable.

Understanding how to build more adaptive organisations that can be effective in that kind of context is a challenge — and I’m not sure I see any public sector organisation on the planet that has truly found the right model.

Who do you think are the three most interesting thinkers in government innovation?

There’s people like Geoff Mulgan from Nesta, who’s been in the game for a very long time and is still making very important contributions to the field.

I think someone like Mariana Mazzucato — at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL — has become a powerful force for painting a nuanced picture of how much government actually matters to the private sector and market-based innovation.

And finally, I continue to be impressed by James Anderson at Bloomberg Philanthropies, who has made an enormous contribution to cities in America and across the world by creating innovation competitions, funding innovation teams and addressing some of the most pressing urban challenges of our time.

(Picture credit: Danish Design Centre)

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