The public sector and design ~ Abaster

13 February 2009

The public sector and design

A number of luminaries in the design world attended the World Economic Forum in Davos this year to find, contrary to prior years, that design had taken a back seat (see Nussbaum) due largely to more pressing topics such as recession, reform of the global finance sector and Gaza. Understandable, but what did surprise them was the lack of interest in discussing innovative, transformational and/or forward looking responses to these issues.

Of course when a politician or public servant is faced with crises of this magnitude there is a tendency to revert to the "let's just get through this" approach – after all, the collapse of banking systems and economies is an all-consuming matter. The “design approach” is far more complicated, typically taking a "let's rethink and re-architect how we address these challenges" approach. The first response is band-aiding/quick-fixing the economy; the second is to look at what can be done to address current challenges while creating a foundation for future growth. Perhaps the first is necessary in the immediate term, but the second is essential for the longer term.

The design community's approach is, however, further challenged. While the public servant probably does recognize that innovation in public services is important for greater efficiencies, effectiveness and individual and community welfare and wellbeing, receptivity is low (right now) to this kind of terminology. There is much skepticism about "innovation" – it has been unfortunately over-used and abused. The fact that design was marginalized in Davos confirms that it is unlikely that it will be seen as a vehicle for substantive public sector change without putting it in a “relevant” context.

So how does one get government leaders beyond the “let's just get through this” approach? One probably needs to speak the language of the moment and get in their frames of reference. These times are about economy, society, financial meltdown, unemployment, shortages, etc. So the design community needs to talk about these challenges (and less about design methodologies, at least to start with). For example, what new “transformational” initiatives and approaches need to be taken to kick-start economic recovery and revitalize society? What can be done to ensure that the fixes that are implemented now will contribute to building a platform for growth and competitive advantage when the upturn comes? How can education, infrastructure, etc., be revitalized to contribute to and facilitate recovery? Answering these types of questions necessitates a discussion of the strategic enablers of economic success and societal well-being, and that, in turn, will necessitate a discussion of the role of innovation and design.

TED followed Davos, and a number of Davos attendees traveled to California for the event. Some commented that it was a far more forward looking, optimistic and celebratory event, wondering why the character of the events was so different and why the influencers (in Davos, the politicians; at TED, the innovators) held very different views. Perhaps the difference between Davos and TED was a divide between necessity (governments that have to muddle through the crisis, prevent further financial disaster and mitigate unemployment, etc .) and invention (the innovators and optimists who see beyond the present). The missing link in Davos was that there has been very little invention born of (or indeed in response to) the particular necessity(ies) being discussed.

The public sector/design divide is also exacerbated by a paucity of understanding of (transformation) design among public servants on the one hand, and a lack of communication of the (measurable) impact of design on public services by the design sector on the other. Innovation in and transformation of services, organizations and infrastructure is still a nascent (and negligible) segment of the design business - much more needs to be done to demonstrate its value to public authorities, governments, etc. Undoubtedly, transforming education, infrastructure, public services, etc., will be essential to growth and competitive advantage, and there is no doubt that design has a significant role to play.

For the moment, governments are focused on the bleeding out of their economies and don’t have an ear to lend. But the design sector has a big task ahead of it to make a credible case for itself. Advocates of its role in transforming the public sector are articulate but few. A much greater focus on this challenging and important design opportunity is needed, and indeed warranted considering the catalyzing role that design could have for economic growth and competitiveness.