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Less analysis, more design

This article has also been published in Mandag Morgen

Former American Secretary of State and peace mediator Henry Kissinger is an active man. At the age of 91, he has just published his latest work, World Order, a comprehensive mapping of the world’s problems and challenges. I have not yet read the book, but according to The Economist, it amounts to a fairly depressing experience: there is war, conflict and instability wherever you look in the world, and no prospect of things tentatively improving. All the more surprising is that Kissinger uses 400 of the book’s pages analysing all the problems and only about four pages of suggestions and recommendations. Obviously there is not much of substance to get hold of here.

In the same issue of The Economist you can read about a pretty much equally depressing book, namely the prestigious Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf’s analysis The Shifts and the Shocks, on the financial crisis and its causes. This is another massive tome, which admittedly allocates a bit more space to recommendations. The reviewer nonetheless notes that the proposals would have benefited from significantly more detail.

We’ve gone analysis-crazy

The two book reviews prompted me to think about how we live in a time and a culture that have, in a sense, run amok with analyses. We spend incredible amounts of resources conducting investigations, collecting data and disseminating analysis results. This applies to public institutions, such as those I deal with on a daily basis, but also to private businesses and not least the media that willingly disseminate “brand new” figures and results at an ever-increasing pace. And it applies to our university researchers, many of whom them see themselves exclusively as knowledge-producers. It is up to other stakeholders to put their research into play in practice, if they discover that it exists.

Even insightful writers such as Messrs. Kissinger and Wolf – when they analyse such crucial issues as our military and financial world order – choose to expend a very great preponderance of their intellectual energy on analysis and its dissemination.

It often seems as if the analysis itself is the goal. Over the years I have met quite a few officials who gladly spend a year on an analysis project and preparing a comprehensive report, after which they will be completely convinced that they now have a final “result” in their hands, and then move on to the next analysis.

The same trend applies to the infatuation we currently see in many private enterprises with big data. Many managers are preoccupied with the large amounts of data available via new sources such as social media, and are curious about how they are collected and analysed; a lot fewer are concerned with how the insights on gathers are then translated into specific actions and value for your customers and your organisation.

I believe there are at least three reasons for our insatiable appetite for analysis. First, employees in both the public and private sectors increasingly are highly educated and schooled in traditional university environments, where the ability to acquire an extensive material and analyze it – i.e., to separate its elements, break it down to its components and different types of knowledge and data in certain ways – is in focus, and is rewarded. Second, analytical work is relatively harmless for the organisations in which it is implemented. It is not a matter of deciding to do something, it is simply a matter of becoming smarter – and fortunately, dangerous analyses can always be shelved or neglected. Third, analyses have become easier to carry out. Anyone can manage to retrieve data or conduct surveys and get the results summarised with the help of various digital tools. It quickly becomes a lot more difficult to come up with thoughtful, effective and convincing solutions for what we should do about the problems that are revealed.

The problem is just that we thus keep thousands of people busy making themselves (and sometimes others) smarter and not much else. Faced with the many analyses one generally feels like asking: “So what?”

Creating a better future

I myself come from an analytical background and cannot say I am immune to going through large amounts of information in order to create order and clarity. But at the same time, I am absolutely fascinated by design and design processes as a second and more forward-looking way to relate to the world. Most designers I know are more concerned with finding possible solutions to problems than to chew through them from end to end. In fact, many designers take a fundamentally different approach when they need to understand the world and its problems: instead of collecting data sets, they quickly put unfinished solutions – prototypes – into play in a specific context in order to be able to see the reactions of customers, users, stakeholders and decision-makers.

Designers’ proposals are often quite specific, for example, in the form of graphic sketches or physical models; thereby they gain insight into something that is often only uncovered at low levels of traditional analyses. They gain insight into the experiences and opinion formation that a given solution will potentially trigger and how it will affect human and organisational behaviour. Thus, they systematically explore the possible futures and apply what they learn from prototypes to improve ideas, concepts and solutions. Design researcher Joachim Necks calls the process evocative visualization in Design for Policy, a new book I have edited.  So the ability to make abstract, strategic concepts – such as we find in the world of politics and in business – so concrete that we can experience them and engage with them. In the book he illustrates this with complex energy and waste systems that are made more sustainable and efficient through the use of visual dialogue tools in workshops with all the stakeholders in the field. A central notion in this context is that new proposed solutions can thus be created together with those who can help to make a reality.

A new balance

It would be interesting to see how Henry Kissinger’s book about our world order would have ended had he spent half of his time and energy trying out potential policy ideas in practice. He could indeed draw on the vast network of current and former decision-makers he still has by virtue of his role as former statesman as well as via his active work as an adviser and consultant.

By the same token, it might have been interesting for Martin Wolf to have engaged the financial sector pressure in a thorough pressure test of his radical new ideas about management reform for our financial institutions.

Of course, it is not that the ability to understand and analyse problems is not important. In fact, many designers themselves say that the way a problem is represented often contains the seeds of its solution. I just fear that today the production of knowledge has to a great extent become a goal in itself. The objective – in the short or long term – must be to improve our world. It is a much-needed activity – a design activity – to which we all can give higher priority than we do today.

Find the problem before you solve it

We all know that it can be very difficult to know what to do when you receive mail from the Tax Authority.  Dennis, a young guy in his early twenties who was becoming an auto mechanic definitely thought it was difficult. As he said: “I have absolutely no idea about it and what it means to me. Nobody ever told me”. Everytime he got a letter from SKAT, the Danish Customs and Tax Administration he drove to the nearby citizen service center for help. He had never used the online digital platform that SKAT had developed and when we asked him to try, he was completely lost and confused. The first words he faced were “Interest payments to the bank?” and “employer-administered pension capital?” As he said: “I don’t have a clue what that is about!”

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Read the feature about Dennis.

Why are the citizen’s stories important?

You need to know what problem you seek to solve before you design your solution. SKAT had a lot of young people calling. By stepping back and taking a closer look at the problem, MindLab found out that the young generation actually lacked basic knowledge about tax. They needed a person to translate the complex tax vocabulary in order to understand their own situation. Few used the digital platform – it was not intuitive and smart. Read the case about SKAT.

Many organisations fail to address the central problem when they develop the public solutions. We often have knowledge about what causes the problem but way too often we do not know why the problem exists. Working as an Anthropologist in MindLab that is what I am helping our owners to find out and incorporate these insights in the development of new public solutions.

Put yourself in the citizen’s place

The first step is to understand what is going on out there. We have to listen and explore the citizens’ stories and let them tell us about their frustrations. We need to put ourselves in their place. I often invite colleagues from the ministries to participate in the fieldwork. It is my experience that it is an eye-opener every time. The problems become very concrete and real.

Engage with the organisation you work with

To design a solution you need to engage with the organization you work with and understand what triggers change in the organisation. If not, the stories from “the real world” remain outside and irrelevant to the organisation.

Give the citizen a voice 

It is crucial to communicate the user’s experiences in the organisation. As an anthropologist I am really focused on giving the citizens and companies a voice in the organisations. In MindLab we do that through several methods: through pictures, video, sound bites, quotes. Dennis’ story became a reference point in the organisation and in the development of the digital platform.

A holistic approach to public sector development

The close look into the user’s experience and perspectives does not replace statistics and surveys. It is a serious supplement which has dramatic consequences for the way we design public solutions. By taking on a different attitude to developing public solutions which involves a broader scope of people and a closer ethnographic insight into the user’s life, MindLab helps facilitating a systematic process of creating new solutions with people, not for them.

What did MindLab and the anthropological and design-driven approach do to Dennis and to SKAT?

  • SKAT found out why young people called instead of using the digital platform
  • Dennis became a reference point in the organisation and in the development of a new solution
  • SKAT developed a better solution

What do you need to do?

The next time you have to develop an initiative, then go out and talk to citizens and companies – put yourself in their place. Find out how their daily life is, take pictures and share with your colleagues and start the discussion on the basis of the citizens and companies. I am sure you will design better public solutions if you do so.

Watch and be inspired

Watch the presentation on how to involve citizens in development of the public sector. The presentation was held in Paris at the 13th edition of the International Public Management Symposium (RIGP) focusing on alternatives to new public management. The symposium was organized by the French Institute for Public Management and Economic Development.

Inspiration for service design

Service design places the user of a service at the center. If you look at the process from supplier to end user as a service journey, you get an accurate picture of what your service design should look like. Read the most important advice and inspiring case studies here.

In our daily lives we avail of services constantly. When we check our online bank with our mobile phone, deliver our children at kindergarten or school, or when we book a flight to our next holiday destination, we use a service. Often we do not think about our increased consumption of services – mostly we do it only when something goes wrong or when we’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Kforum 12A service journey in paper clippings.

Look at the entire service journey

The service industry is growing and growing. In Denmark it represents approximately 75 percent of our gross domestic product. More and more private and public institutions and companies are becoming conscious about designing services which put users at the center, ensuring that quality is as high as possible. In this article you will find the most important points that are worth considering if you need to give your service a service inspection.

A very useful point of engagement is to look at the full service journey. So that you can identify where you do too little or perhaps too much, where to begin and where to end your service, what you should do yourself and what you should leave to others.

1) Have you got hold of your most important users?

Often we focus exclusively on the end user when developing services. A one-sided focus on those who will use the service, however, can block our ability to see significant development potential. We simply overlook the most important people.

When working with service journeys, we talk about what happens front stage, where the consumer is in direct contact with a service. And what happens backstage, that is, the underlying processes, which can be crucial when a successful service is being designed. Sometimes the most important users are, in fact, backstage.

When the lead character is a supporting character

Case: Frederiksberg Health Center

Frederiksberg’s Health Center developed, in collaboration with the design firm 1508, a rehabilitation process intended to help people with COPD, also known as emphysema, remain in the labor market. Lifestyle changes are often seen as a daunting task for the chronically ill. Just finding the required resources for the necessary changes can be difficult. Therefore, patients alone were not the sole focus in the design of a new service process.

Employees at the health center, doctors and relatives turned out to be centrally important in order that COPD sufferers could create a better life for themselves with the disease. The composition of the new service was not, therefore, aimed directly at the front stage, meaning the patients. It was instead aimed at the backstage processes. When the new solution took shape, the starting point was the many actors around the patient.

For example, a plan of action was developed in which employees of the health center could help patients to identify goals for their rehabilitation. Thus, the health center could prioritize which offers patients should be given.

The lesson being: Be aware that the main actor may well be quite different from the person who is in direct contact with your service. Identify those actors surrounding the recipient of your service, and consider whether they might really be the most significant.

2) Service starts before and ends after your contact with the user

A service consists of many touchpoints. The experience often starts before and ends some time after the company’s product or service has been in contact with the user. It is precisely here that a service journey can be a useful tool for uncovering the entire process from the user’s perspective, and help identifying which periods are most important to your user. When does the service experience peak, seen through the eyes of the user?

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Virgin Atlantic discovered that good service is not limited to a good experience on board the plane. A quick and smooth check-in when flying is at least as important for the overall service experience.

Guides from start to finish

Case: Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic planned to re-design their flagship area at Heathrow Airport. They wanted to develop some services that could get people to choose their company over other airlines. Previously, they had primarily focused their efforts on services aboard their aircraft.

The British design company Engine was hired, and they chose to investigate the users’ service journey from the moment they left home for the airport, to when they had actually landed, collected their luggage and were sitting in a taxi on the way to their destination. By shadowing the travelers and interviewing them about their experiences, they were able to map the passengers’ ‘journeys’ through the terminal.

As a result of this process an effective and efficient service flow was designed. For example, a series of self-service stands were set up in the check-in area, supplemented by Virgin staff who functioned as guides at key entrances to the terminal.

From prison guards to advisors about life after prison

Case: Singapore Prison Service

For the Singapore Prison Service, one of the major challenges they faced was that many former prisoners returned to crime after being released. In fact, nearly half ended up in prison again. One of the first steps in tackling the challenge in new ways was to rethink how the public service process for prisoners ended.

Previously prison security had been the sole focus, now prison services looked at how to empower inmates to get out of crime. Resources were invested in educating families and other relatives so that they could best help the inmates when they were released from prison. Also, at the central level, interest groups and representatives of the administration were brought together to strengthen cooperation. The project ran over a ten year period, and over that time it proved possible to go from 45 percent of prisoners being given another prison sentence to the today’s figure of just 27 percent.

The lesson being: Good service consists often in seeing the product or public service process in context and from the perspective of a longer time period. Sometimes it pays to end contact later, so that the user is helped further along.

3) Identify the time periods that matter

On a service journey, the starting point is to get users to map their experience and identify the points on the journey where it is difficult, unsatisfactory or incomprehensible. You can work with so-called moments of truth, heart points or pain points. Meaning those parts of the service that hold great emotional significance for users, both positively and negatively. Once you know them, you can deploy resources to where users need it the most.

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Denmark has a hard time holding on to highly skilled foreign workers. Pain points during the journey were identified. It became clear that it was not just the foreign experts’ but their entire family’s level of satisfaction which was the crucial factor in deciding if they would remain in the country.

Keeping on foreign labor is a service that encompasses the whole family

Case: Ministry of Business and Growth

While Denmark lacked highly skilled foreign workers such as biotechnologists and engineers, the challenge lay not in attracting foreign experts, but in the fact that they left the country too quickly again. And that is expensive for both companies and public authorities.

In the past, resources were used to optimize the service offered to highly skilled foreign workers. But a service journey conducted by MindLab on behalf of the Ministry of Business and Growth made it clear that the most important thing is really how families experience the new country. Are there places available in an international school? Are there opportunities to meet other accompanying spouses in the same situation? Failure to thrive for the spouse or children often being the crucial reason why the family quickly leave the country again.

The lesson being: Be attentive to whether your service is targeted at the places that are most important to recipients. Identify the pain points and determine if your service has been designed to help in the right places.

4) You are not the only one who offers a service

Providing a good and effective service requires that we systematically turn our attention to what kind of alternative or experience we would like to achieve. Often, there are many actors involved along the way. We have seen examples of companies or public bodies who have set up an excellent and efficient service line that, unfortunately, just does not answer users’ actual needs. A service journey can help to ensure that you look at the overall experience and identify where there is potential for better interaction between the elements.

kforum 4Businesses no longer need to contact a range of different authorities in their search for the correct code for their industry. Authorities viewed their new service from a users’ perspective and adjusted the procedure so that all involved delivered a coherent service: A new self-service solution enables companies to find the right code in one place.

Industry Codes: A service that transcends

Case: Danish Business Authority

When SKAT, Statistics Denmark and the Danish Business Authority wanted to improve services for companies seeking to find their proper industry code, a service journey revealed that there was great potential gain in thinking about service across authorities.

A service journey was the impetus as MindLab helped develop a new self-service solution and an official site for the case officers working with industry codes. The new solution transcends the authorities and makes it easier for companies to find their industry code in one place. At the same time streamlining the regulatory procedures in the field. (Read about industry codes in an international case study from Helsinki Design Lab)

The lesson being: The recipient of the service does not distinguish between the various entities that make up the service. Look at who, besides yourself, participates in the provision of the service. Can you work together in new ways?

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In Australia, authorities worked with service packages for vulnerable families who encountered a plethora of public services. Here it became clear that it was a good idea to work on integrating all the various services across authorities.

Service across systems

Case: Vulnerable families in Australia

There proved to be great potential to work across authorities when the Australian service design company, ThinkPlace, examined service journeys in relation to some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

These were people who faced a variety of challenges, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, financial problems and mental health issues. For this reason, families interacted with a variety of public services, which in themselves were well-run and had skilled social workers or other professionals attached. The challenge was that the variety of services were not integrated and therefore unable to budge the core of the problem. They each addressed only one part of the problem or only one family member.

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Outside of the vulnerable families a variety of actors, organizations and institutions hum with activity. But within the vulnerable family itself the status quo remains the same. The various authorities only view the challenge from one angle and fail to provide a comprehensive service.

The service was put together based on the system’s premises and not on how users can best be helped further across systems. In this project, the service journey proved a helpful tool to turn the view from the system’s angle to the user’s angle.

The lesson being: The basis for a good service must be to place oneself in the users’ situation and view the service from their angle. Otherwise, there is a risk that you end up optimizing a system service which doesn’t address the user’s actual problem.

5) Have you chosen the correct channel?

Service journeys can be a good starting point for evaluating if you have communicated with the right target groups at the right time and place. Did you choose the proper channel to carry the content of your service?  New target groups arise and new communication channels are added. So although satisfaction rates may be high among your users, and your choice of channel seems obvious, it pays to rethink the communication channels utilized and get ahead of latest user behavior trends and media use.

New channels led to greater satisfaction

Case:  Midwife Center

The Midwife Center at Aarhus University Hospital found that too many clients weren’t showing up for planned consultations. Surveys of users and occupational professionals showed that pregnant women were unsure of the purpose of the midwife appointment.

The mothers to be were craving information, and the internet was their preferred channel. Therefore, the midwife center chose to consider alternatives to face-to-face consultations. In cooperation with design firm, Designit, they developed, for example, a digital appointment book for pregnant women. Here the woman can log on to her own page, view scan pictures, coordinate midwife appointments, read educational materials and chat with professionals and other pregnant women.

The lesson being: To think about new communication channels and media when designing your service. Maybe you’ll meet your users’ needs much better utilizing new methods.

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A digital solution will complement traditional consultations at the Midwife Center at Aarhus University Hospital, so pregnant women experience a seamless service course.

6) Look at users – they have already solved it

Sometimes a new and improved service is right in front of our noses and in this respect the observation of users can be a great source of inspiration. Users often follow their own path and find creative solutions in the attempt to avoid bother or achieve a desired effect quickly. By observing their self-invented solutions, you can learn more about what needs are expressed through their unintended use of products or services.

It can be seen in urban settings, a good example being when architects at CBS established a beautiful path system, where gaps in the paving, however, caused cyclists and baby carriage owners to experience an uneven passage. In response to which users established their own paths in parallel to the architects’.

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When finely landscaped footpaths are not user friendly, users find new paths for themselves in parallel to those laid down by the architects.

The positive deviators have already found the solutions

Case: Prison and Probation Service, Køge Local Prison

The Prison and Probation Service has implemented a determined strategic approach and worked to resolve the tough challenge of growing conflicts between staff and inmates by systematically disseminating users’ existing solutions to problems.

The method is called positive deviation and relies on the recognition that there are always individuals who find sustainable behavioral strategies that enable them to succeed better than others in the same situation. Employees have often already identified a workable solution.

By working to reveal positively divergent behavior and apply it to other situations Køge Local Prison has achieved a concrete, significant reduction of conflicts between inmates and staff, a fall in the use of force, violence and threats plus a far higher level of satisfaction among personnel.

And it is the small deviations that matter. It makes a difference to the relationship, for example, if an officer remains sitting with his feet up when an inmate calls for help, or if he hurries to assist. Or if he knocks on an inmate’s cell door and waits for a moment before he sticks the key in the door instead of tearing the door open.

The lesson being: It is important to look for positive deviations. And they are always there, just as long as you look hard enough.

7) Good service is not always more service

To rethink and optimize a service is often postponed because both companies and public authorities associate good service with multiple touchpoints, more communication, or more attentiveness on the whole to the customer or citizen. And that is both expensive and difficult – and consumes resources that you do not have.

But in fact the exact opposite is often the case. It may be that a simplified and more focused service is much more effective. And here the visual mapping of a service journey can be the first step towards pointing out how a service could be simplified.

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A mapping of the communication from the National Board of Industrial Injuries showed that they needed to simplify their communications. In fact, there were far too many letters sent and at the wrong times. The Board of Industrial Injuries now works on prioritizing their communications.

Less service is more service

Case: National Board of Industrial Injuries

MindLab observed this at the Board of Industrial Injuries, who wanted to know how they could make the process for young people with injuries go more smoothly. At that time, the Board was in the habit of posting many letters to those with work related injuries. And there were many others who did the same. Among others, the municipality, labor union, medical specialists, insurance companies and many other players who had a share in the process.

Which added up to an awful lot of letters. A young social and health care worker received, for example, 25 letters, only four of which required a reply. Often written in difficult to understand legal jargon.

A service journey showed the potential gain in finding a simpler service, where a clear prioritization of information transmitted to the injured person was made.  Instead of sending many letters, the board now works on prioritizing their communications while at the same time writing in language that the recipient can understand and relate to their own situation.

The lesson being: It is a good idea to look at each individual step in the service and consider whether it can be simplified. Too much communication which is difficult to understand is often a source of frustration and uncertainty for the user.

8) A good service journey can save time, resources and money

When services are designed to meet user needs and perceived challenges, it is done, of course, to generate significantly improved user satisfaction. But it is just as much about streamlining and optimizing. Service design can help to ensure that an organization or company offers the appropriate and relevant services and tools for its users – and can therefore also dispense with the elements or services that do not create additional value.

Simple and straightforward design solutions make a difference to the emergency room

Case: PearsonLloyd

A good example of how the proper design of a service can actively contribute to efficiency can be seen in a project design duo, PearsonLloyd, implemented at a London hospital emergency room. Here the patients grew so frustrated as they waited to be treated that it led to verbal and physical violence against employees.

This obviously created a poor working environment and too many resources were expended on chaos handling. It was found that patients felt they had a right to be angry because they lacked knowledge of how things worked.

PearsonLloyd developed a number of solutions. For example, signage information indicating where patients were in the department, and how far in the process they had reached. This was a matter of simple solutions that were easy and cheap to implement. The initiative resulted in a reduction of aggressive encounters and a subsequent business case revealed that for each pound invested in new solutions the return was threefold.

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An investment in simple solutions which are easy and inexpensive to implement can give rapid and visible results on the bottom line.

Read more:

Many, both in Denmark and internationally, are already working with this method. Many happily share their tool kits. Here is a list of the best and most useful tools you will need if you want to work with service journeys.

ServiceDesign Tools

New Ways of Visualizing the Customer Journey Map

ServiceDesign Toolkit

Documentation Tool

Engage Costumers and Engage the Organisation

Design Thinking for Educators

Human-centered Design Toolkit 


Spread and Scale: What and How?

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen.

Prompt #3: There is a lot of talk about spread and scale. We think it is about spreading processes, not scaling products. So what does that mean?

This is our third response using the same process; we each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. You can read our responses to the first and second prompt.

Jesper’s Response:

The ability to spread the process rather than the product is key in much government planning. Notions of ‘blueprint’, ‘manual’ or ‘best practice’ have done much damage in mismanaging the expectations to what could actually be expected of the ‘solutions’ that are supposed to create change in public systems and services. A common and reoccurring question amongst decision makers and civil servants is: why are there so few solutions that actually scale?

This is seen as a huge problem – mainly when seen in economic terms. But also in relation to the role of the public sector more generally. Many civil servants see their role as one of standardization and replication. “We can’t let 1000 flowers blossom” is a common phrase. Instead, there is a desire to find the ‘best practice,’ to analyse every aspect of it, and then to scale it – as a product that is able to change its contextual environment. In practice, this logic is reversed when dealing with social change.

Sarah is pointing our attention to the notion of ‘tacit knowledge.’ This is important. In particular when working in contexts where the dominant epistemological position is based on one of its counterparts: rationalized, stable knowledge.

In MindLab we are currently assisting the Ministry of Employment to implement some ambitious reforms focusing on, among many other things, reinventing the role of the social worker. The Ministry realises that in order to create better outcomes for vulnerable citizens of society, they must let the social worker work more flexibly with the citizen to explore and learn what kind of activities, interactions, and service offers will make sense in the given context. The political intention is that the case worker has to be allowed to break free from the current rigid management systems and trust her or his own professional judgment. So that they can support the citizen in creating a better life for herself – a better life that includes a productive work life.

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MindLab visited a Job Centre as part of our work with the Ministry of Employment

In other words, the reforms are deliberately attempting to localize employment services. Ways of dealing with citizens should inherently be local, contextual, and based on a specific professional expertise applied in the particular situation. In this sense, this process entails a kind of centralized decentralization where ‘solutions’ constantly have to be discovered in particular contexts. As an intent, this is very much in line with what social workers have wanted for years.

Surprisingly, as the implementation process of the reform unfolds, social workers are increasingly calling for ‘tools’, ‘methods’ or even ‘manuals’ to work in this new way. As they are ‘set free’ in their professional work, they are actually asking for more restrictions. This partly highlights the significance of this kind of change in the employment system. Where meeting specified targets, exercising certain procedures, and managing a portfolio of cases was (and still is) the norm. But it also reveals the challenge of spreading or scaling the process. The problem of intangibility is not only apparent on the level of policymaking, but is also something that is experienced on the ground. It creates a significant paradox of wanting a more open process when exercising your role as a social worker, whilst wanting assurance that what you are doing is actually ‘the right way’ of dealing with the citizen in the particular situation.


This brings me to talk about outcomes. It seems to me that any talk about either product or process does not make sense unless it is contextualized in relation to the outcomes that they are creating. So when attempting to make processes visible – in this case the challenge for social workers to learn what is good when dealing with vulnerable citizens – it is essential that in order to really understand the process, it needs to be part of a narrative that ties it to the outcomes that are expected. So while the process may include various possible recipes, tools, principles or methodologies that should be applied accordingly in the local context, the risk of spreading or scaling the process lies, among many things, when it becomes detached from a conversation about what is actually to be considered as a good outcome.

Sarah’s response:

Spread and scale. Most of us ‘social innovator’ types use these words. Arguing to funders that investing in innovation methods – be it ethnography, co-design, or prototyping – will be efficient. Because you can figure out what works at a small-scale, and then spread what emerges at a large-scale. The question is: what should we be spreading if we want to prompt systemic change? Should we be spreading the product - the new app, the new service, the new network? Or should we be spreading the underlying principles and process?

I believe it is the principles and the process that prompt change. But, this is a step away from work I did as Co-Lead of the Radical Redesign Team in Australia or as Project Lead at Participle. Where we looked to grow and profit from the solutions we ourselves created. Loops, Family by Family, Weavers, Care Reflect. That meant productizing the solutions. Creating an identity and a brand; specifying each interaction in a blueprint (think: how-to manual); and ultimately creating a new organizational infrastructure with staff to do ‘sales’ and ‘delivery’. But, had we sold the process, what would we have codified?

That is what we are asking right now at InWithForward as we start work in Burnaby, British Columbia. Where success for us is not one scaled solutions. But multiple prototypes taken forward by local teams – with lots of folks (inside and outside of public systems) mobilized, trained, and taking ownership over explicit and shared outcomes. It is more in the spirit of ‘Collective Impact’ than ‘Lean Start-up’ - although there’s plenty to learn and apply from the latter.

So, what will we actually be making? And, what will be selling? Products are so much more concrete. When you go to a bakery, you buy the nice looking cupcakes. With the chocolate frosting. If we are not selling the cupcakes, then, are we selling the instructional recipe to make the cupcake? Are we selling the cupcake making tools – the icing pipettes, the baking tins? Are we selling the baking school experience – unfolding in the pastry chef’s context? Or are we selling the cooking TV show – for DIY learning in your own context?

The challenge, of course, in selling the recipe is that you can follow all of the steps, and still get a pretty lousy result.  You might not have any prior reference points. So when the cupcakes are not rising, you do not know what to do. And if you are missing an ingredient, you cannot easily adapt. You do not realize you can make buttermilk with two squeezes of lemon in a cup of whole milk. You see, key to making things good, is tacit know-how. It is that extra sense of how to tweak as you go along to get a good result. That is darn hard to communicate in a stand-alone recipe. You are much more likely to learn that through watching your grandmother, through practice, through trying lots of different recipes and seeing what works and what does not for yourself.

Selling tools is fraught with similar difficulties. I can sell you the baking tins. But that won’t help you figure out what to fill the baking tins with. And you can easily put the baking tins to a different usage. That is not necessarily a problem – if you are able to make something yummy using the tins. But if I am trying to prompt intentional social change, then peddling the implements, probably won’t get me to coherent implementation. And it definitely won’t get me towards fidelity. When we do one-off workshops and create method card sets, we are really in the tool business.

Then there is the baking school experience. So in-context project based learning. With the right instruction in baking chemistry, exposure to different baking methods, guidance and a lot of feedback, you could learn to be a pretty competent cupcake baker. But this is time intensive. How much learning do you need to be competent, versus be good? And how do we actually design our processes in such a way that more and more people can be immersed in the doing? So that it’s not just tight project teams – from social labs – doing all the work? Plus, how do we find and up-skill the instructors? The key to teaching baking is actually having made a lot of cupcakes yourself, and being able to extrapolate transferrable concepts. But who in our field has actually made a lot of what we are talking about? The rhetoric often feels ahead of the practice.

Finally, there is what I will call the Jamie Oliver approach. Developing a mix of inspirational and learning content – so a TV show which exposes you to new kinds of cupcakes and to somebody else’s tacit knowledge. Along with a magazine with stories, and embedded recipes. As well as product partnerships – so ‘quality approved’ tools to use in your home contexts.

How could we create a similar mix of content to bring more and more people into our processes? Indeed, what is so compelling about Jamie Oliver is that he has managed to build a movement alongside a set of products. And he operates at differing levels of fidelity. Go to his restaurants, and get the full Jamie Oliver quality-approved experience. Use his books and tools, get a taste of the Jamie Oliver experience, and add your own spin. Of course, whether you go to his restaurant or do-it-yourself at home, key to a good experience is a shared idea of what constitutes a good outcome: is it taste, health, speed, value, novelty, or some combination?

Anna’s Response:

In the program “La Transfo” of la 27e Région, one of the main difficulties was precisely that there were different outcomes expected, without any hierarchy between them. Was a ‘good’ outcome to train and empower a core team of civil servants? Was it to create a new service embedded within the regional administration, who was then in charge of spreading this approach at the end of our program? Was it changed mindsets and ‘aaah’ moments amongst a large number of civil servants and elected representatives? Was it radical changes in one or several specific policies, with a visible impact on citizens’ lives?

As long as we did not prioritise what the main outcome was, the process stayed really opaque, even for regular participants of the program. If the beauty and value of our jobs resides in the way we are browsing together, we needed, at one point of the process, to clarify the direction we were taking: in the case of “La Transfo,” we chose in the middle of the program to prioritise the creation a new service and a trained team that could continue the work of transformation after the end of the program. This decision make the process more understandable for everybody.

We spoke about the outcomes, and about the process… but we should also be careful to look at the entry point: if the whole process of training and empowerment requires contact with tacit know-how, we have to make it understandable and pretty clear the way to enter the process and connect with this tacit know-how.

This implies intelligent viral communication to those who are interested, appealing entry-level experiences, and clear instructions about how to engage. In fact, after two years of programs, only a small part of civil servants of the regional administration were aware that “La Transfo” was taking place in their building or even in their service directory. How many times did we hear, “If I knew, I would have come earlier…”.

And for those who were aware of our existence, we found they were often reluctant to come and try, precisely because some people do not like and feel threatened by what they cannot easily understand. Even for those following our program regularly, the information about next appointments and workshops sometimes came too late for them to re-organise their calendar. This experience points out the fact that our inter-disciplinary and highly-trained team of designers and sociologists have their own timelines and way of working (e.g – they like working under pressure) which can sometimes be incompatible with the time of civil servants. It also points out we paid too little attention to investing in the whole space of the building, to going to meet the different services, and to communicating what was happening.

We have certainly found that a good process – that is, a process that will create a good solution to one problem at one moment of time in one particular place – cannot be defined and generalised as easily as a cupcake recipe. However, that should not keep us from clarifying where we are going so people don not get lost. And we should be careful to indicate the pathway and make it desirable enough for people to walk with us until they reach the “aaah” point. That’s the point where there is no way back because your mindset is too transformed to return to the routine.




There is increasing talk of replacing the classic ”hard” reform tools such as regulation and inspections with “soft” tools such as involvement, support and facilitation. But this is not an either-or situation:  the challenge lies in finding the right balance of reforms between top-down and bottom-up.

At a seminar last year with Danish experts and public decision makers, the British writer and advisor Charles Leadbeater used the power station as a metaphor for municipal reform. His argument went along these lines:

When ministries, authorities and municipal departments carry out reforms, they do so by channeling energy from the centre outwards towards local institutions and actors.  The reforms are directed uniformly at all interested parties, and at the central level, one gets a pleasant feeling of control.  But a large amount of that energy is lost when it makes contact with the local reality. It is sent in all possible directions – and often right back to the sender.

What if instead, one carried out reforms in a way where local units or institutions became their own power centres, which did not only create new energy but also shared it through a local network, thus boosting the positive dynamic further?

The first model focuses on rationality, uniformity, predictability, overview and control.  The other focuses among other things on forming opinions, differences, unpredictability and the opportunity for ongoing learning and adjustment.

On the way to a new reform model

It does not require that much imagination to see how many of our domestic reforms over the past years have had a similar impact to that which arises, according to Charles Leadbeater, when one seeks to channel energy exclusively from the top to the bottom.

In the Danish Parliament at Slotsholmen there is also a broad recognition that attempts to create concrete changes for citizens and businesses, as was the intention with the reform makers, have failed.  Perhaps the classic central reform attempt does not work as well as we thought when society is still becoming more manifold, more complex, technologically developed and globalised?

It is in this spirit that we have begun to test out new “soft” models of reform. A central example of this is the New Nordic School, where the Ministry of Education has motivated 350 institutions towards innovative learning and well-being through networking and professional associations. Last year’s partial agreement on seven principals for the modernisation of the public sector comprises many of the same ideas about being a framework, but not a direct management, for local development potential.

Across the country, in local government and institutions, I also get the feeling that people are considering the potential: now, the public officials have finally got the message that they should stop meddling and let local powers find the solutions themselves by bringing professional expertise and experience into play. Should there be a need for new development, we’ll do it locally ourselves – perhaps with a view to sharing ideas or principals.

Unique state role

I myself am a staunch advocate of reforms that make sense and create energy at a local level. To ignore the role that the central level can play, however, is not only naive (the government will always have a need for an overview and a feeling of control, regardless of how much of an illusion this might be), it is also ineffective: the state continues to have a crucial role in the process of making the “soft” reform attempts work in practice at the local level, it is just a very different role than that public officials are used to.

Here are four proposals of how this new role will challenge the ministries:

* Reform as sensemaking. I recently heard a municipal director say that if only the state would explain to his bosses what was meant by a reform initiative, it would all be so much easier.  Reforms are not only about telling people what they should change, but also about helping them to understand why. A crucial prerequisite for the success of bottom-up directed reforms is a shared understanding of what the point of them is: not only from a political viewpoint, but also the specific changes one hopes to achieve to a citizen or a company’s working day. It demands ministers and public officials becoming far more skilled at communicating their intentions, including via new digital and social media, and it requires a far closer contact at local level so one knows how this “point” is being perceived among those who will actually be carrying out the reforms on the front line.

* Reform as a prioritisation tool. We know from MindLab’s work over recent years that reforms can lead to a great deal of confusion locally, because new demands are simply laid on top of old ones without any guidelines of what is most important. Effective reforms are thus not only about telling institutions what extra work they need to do. Ministries and authorities must have a far deeper understanding of which local dilemmas and challenges arise as a consequence of the new initiatives, and actively help the local leadership in prioritising. This could for example be done by dosing a reform into different stages, so everything does not need to be implemented all at once, by signalling quite clearly what is not important any longer, and by distinguishing between “should” and “could” in the reform’s individual elements. Finally, one can support dialogue and networking between local leaders, so they can learn from each other which priorities work best under which conditions.

* Reform as competence development. Some years ago I asked one of my colleagues, a civil servant, how she could be sure that local government would be capable of accommodating a number of new reform demands. Her prompt reply was: “Well they’ll just have to.” But the future’s reforms are not about threatening or aimlessly demanding that institutions do what we say. We should invest in their ability to translate the reform’s intentions into new forms of organisation, new work processes, skills, professional competences, etc. Again, this places demands on a very precise dialogue between the central level (where the resources are) and the local level (where the task is to be carried out).

* Reform as shared data. An undervalued strength of central departments is their ability to gather and analyse data across the sector or sectors they are responsible for. But this data – on efforts, activities, results and impact – is all too rarely made available, when it could be made into a pivot for actual dialogue among local actors or across local and central levels.  It is precisely because future reforms are more open and unpredictable that they require looking more sharply, closely and more frequently at the data in order to see how the development is going and what needs adjusting. Here, I’m thinking not only of quantitative data, but also of observations, interviews and other qualitative data that can provide early indications of whether something is going in the right or wrong direction.

Tracing the contours of the ministry of the future

What then do these ministries and authorities look like, that are capable of creating reforms in this way?

I think that, over the next 10 years, we will see many experiments with a large number of initiatives: earlier, deeper and more committed involvement of end users and local actors in the design of the reform itself. Launching and testing of “reform prototypes” in order to learn what works – faster and more cheaply. New organisation reforms that support a more adaptable, learning-friendly organisation. More outbound, communicative and listening activities in relation to sectors and interests. Strengthening of interaction across departments, both vertically and horizontally. Smarter and more transparent use of data to give value to the entire system, and not only inspection or management tools.

These initiatives are not easy, but really, really hard. Finding the balance and getting all that’s soft to succeed – that’s the hard part.

Are we ‘using’ users?

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen.

Prompt #2: For all the talk of user-centered design & citizen-centered policymaking, what is the actual role of everyday people in our work?

This is our second response using the same process; we each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. You can read our responses to the first prompt here.

Anna’s Opening Statement

La 27e Région began its experimentations in a high school about to be renovated in Revin, in the East of France. At this time, things looked pretty simple: students, teachers, maintenance and administrative staff were all users of this high school, and the project – called the “Résidence” – was made for those users, with those users, every single day of the project. It was at a local scale, with a concrete object of interest – the high school – and using a methodology strongly inspired by service design and participatory urban planning. La 27e Région replicated this process twelve times in different places, with different people, all over France.

With our second program called “La Transfo” the question of the “user” became central: in this program, we were installed in the heart of four Regional public administrations, in a landscape of offices, computers and coffee machines, precisely where policies are manufactured, with the double desire to transform those policies in a more “user-centered approach” and to transform the people making those policies. In a way, we had the ambition to rethink the entire conception cycle of public policies. The place for the “citizen” – and which citizen? – became difficult to find in our program, more easily involving public servants from different agencies than every day people.

civil servants

 Civil servants ‘in action’ as part of La Transfo.

Ethnographic approaches, field work or immersions were used as tools to make civil servants feel the reality of others, to approach day-to-day life in a sensible more than a quantitative way, and to test and improve our ideas… but the “user” in this case was more a tool than a partner to co-create the policy with.

So the burning question is: should we do differently? Can we do differently? As a laboratory of the future of public administration, should we claim to do “co-creation with citizens”? We think that what we teach civil servants through our program “La Transfo” is still better than the alternative: letting them think that they are making a process participatory just because they have planned two public conferences. We don’t think that everybody has to be involved at every step of a process, but we do think civil servants have the right to create, that is to say, the right to be imaginative without having to be consensual or to please someone. Of course, making them realize they can be creative is already a hard part of the change! Yes, real fieldwork would be way more instructive, and way more accurate… And yes, creativity has to be inspired by sensible experiences and correctly reframed questions, but the intrusion of “real people” into civil servants’ work and the development of their imagination is already a small victory.

Sarah’s Response

Anna raises the age-old conundrum: is it better to do something incremental or nothing at all? In this case, is it better to bring the citizen or end user into the policy process as a reality checking tool – whether through an ethnographic story, a photograph or a persona – or leave them out?

I would argue the question isn’t what is better, but what is right? Is it right to engage every day people and use their stories for our ends as designers, social scientists, and innovators? Is it actually ethical to door knock in a neighborhood or meet a family in front of a grocery store, invite them to tell us about their life, and then use what they’ve shared as our prop? To be politically contorted behind closed doors? Without them in the decision-making room? Without any clear value accruing to the folks in the neighborhood and the family in front of the grocery store (beyond a one-off payment or gift)?

I ask these questions because I have done just that. I have spent hours with older people, young people, families in crisis, women in domestic violence shelters and listened to their huge stories. I’ve gone away and written-up what I learned. And I’ve used that material in presentations and workshops. All with what I thought was a decent enough goal: to enable people in decision-making power to have an ah-ha moment. So that they just might make some better decisions.

Sarah shulman

Sarah spending the evening with Dana, eating McDonald’s and swapping photos.

But therein lies the rub. By using users in such an instrumental way, I fear we are perpetuating the same old, same old power structures. We are not confronting the distribution of authority. And it’s the distribution of authority that I believe underpins many of the nasty social challenges we are trying to address.

Like domestic violence. The subject of InWithForward’s current project in Apeldoorn, in partnership with Kennisland. At its core, domestic violence is about the woman’s loss of decision-making authority. Her partner has violated her autonomy.  She shows up to a domestic violence shelter, and the social workers decide what kind of help she receives. The child protection system determines if her kids are safe with her. The state figures out if she is eligible for benefits, and how much she should be able to live on. She has very little meaningful control. And then we go in, collect her story, and try to use it to help her social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system understand her needs better. But we’re not actually confronting the elephant in the room, which is, should the social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system have that kind of decision-making power in the first place? Should these institutions really exist in their current form?

Of course, this is a pretty darn radical proposition. And it’s unlikely we’re going to get the system to sign-up to dismantling itself as a precondition for engaging every day people. So what’s the alternative?

One alternative we will soon try in Burnaby, British Columbia is to collect stories with a different purpose. So rather than as a tool in a public design process, we will collect stories as the first step in building a local movement. A movement that we hope will be owned by the people who are the ‘subjects’ of the stories. This means we will do ethnographic field work and partner with people to develop their stories. In written, film, and podcast form. Folks will give us permission if and how to use their story. Whether only in the local context – to help attract resources, champions, and partners for prototyping ideas they believe in. Or whether we can also use stories outside of that local context – to help build a broader narrative and shape public servant thinking.

No doubt, as we try this out, we will encounter ethical dilemmas. And we won’t always get it right. It’s all too easy to appropriate somebody else’s story, and make it your story, with little notice. The best we can probably hope for is to be critically conscious and constantly mindful of our values: to redistribute power so that we can shake-up entrenched inequalities. And just maybe, improve life outcomes.

Jesper’s Response

What is better when instrumentalizing people’s experience in developing public services? And how can it be rightly pursued as ends to achieve our goals as designers, researchers or innovators? These questions could be supplemented by a third: how do you justify this kind of project in the first place?

There are certainly ethical issues to consider when going about making people subject to intense learning and more or less accurately translating their experience into knowledge foundations to be used in a change-making effort. In particular if it is done when claiming to be doing ‘co-creation’ or ‘user involvement’. People do become instruments for people in power and will risk being (mis)represented for political purposes or economically fuelled argumentation for certain decisions.

In employment services in Denmark, the major development agendas revolve around being citizen centric and empowering citizens to take responsibility of their own life and progression. Here, the constant question is: what can actually be expected from the citizens when attempting to build the personal and local resources? There are certainly huge risks of expecting capabilities among citizens that are unrealistic seen in relation to their everyday lives and their experienced capability and motivation. What MindLab attempts to do in this context through citizen-centered research is first and foremost to provide a vivid reminder of who the targeted people actually are. What could their living situation actually look like? What characterize their journey through the service system? What do they feel and experience? And what makes their lives meaningful?

This task is at once both fulfilling and extremely dissatisfying. Because, yes, it does create ‘aha’ moments and a sense of all the possible unintended consequences that employment reform are likely to have for the targeted publics. On the other hand, it inherently does not represent all aspects of actual experiences of people. And it is not only the process of simplification that hurts – reducing human experience to sound bites or video clips – but the people are also often left behind after handing over their struggles, fears and secrets to you. You certainly want to give something back. A desire that is rarely fulfilled in any significant way.

However, what we are also talking about here is the nature and scope of the knowledge that informs decision-making processes. In this perspective, it does make sense to remind the Ministry of Employment about who the citizens are when they are changing their system practices or about how social workers are already struggling to implement many other development initiatives and therefore cannot be expected to create the politically intended outcomes by next month. Being citizen-centered in this project is about making practice more visible and tangible to illustrate the premises, scope and implications when targeting this group in employment reform. The consequence, in the end, will hopefully be a renewed and more dynamic relationship between policy and practice.

mindlab team

The Mind Lab team bringing the ‘citizen’ into the policy process.

But whether you can call this being ‘user-centric’ or ‘human-oriented’ is certainly a relevant discussion to have. Especially when these approaches are tied to what is often called ‘participatory design’ and ‘user-involvement’. Neither of these are automatic products of doing ethnographic or qualitative research. Just as inviting citizens to participate in an ideation workshop does not legitimize labeling a project ‘co-creation’ or ‘co-design’. To be actually designing with people requires much of what Sarah highlighted as important premises and discussions.

What I do appreciate about the movement of ‘user-centrism’ is that it contributes positively to changing the ways in which the state goes about continuously rediscovering the public and its problems. It adds a perspective and nuance that is currently missing. It not only enables the creation of professional empathy among decision makers to actually recognize the character of the lives of people as well as some of the consequences of their interventions. It also creates a vivid and useful reference point to mobilize and work with the relevant constellation of actors around a particular issue. In fact, the user perspective is much less a direct involvement of the citizen and more a way of motivating and involving the people responsible for the problem to address it more productively.

What are your reactions? How do you ‘use’ users in your own work?




How can a magic straw be a tool for Service Innovation?

- Prototyping as a method in Service Design.

Putting what we do not know into words can be a challenge, and can mean exposing on our blind spots. Design games, scenarios and prototypes can guide us into this unknown area and allow us to retain an open mind to ideas that can be crucial.

A prototype is an early sample, a model or an exemplification, which is constructed for the testing of a new design, a concept or process. MindLab uses prototypes in order to gather citizens’ understanding of issues that affect their everyday lives.  By using prototypes, we can investigate the idea’s impact on affected parties at an early stage and implement any adjustments ahead of the final implementation.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education MindLab facilitated a process where we gained feedback from teachers in state schools about how a simplification of the ‘Common Objectives Programme’ in state schools would best support the teachers in their planning, so that ‘Common Objectives’ could become a dynamic tool . ‘Common Objectives’ is a plan for the overall aims of learning and skills to be achieved by state school students, it is a tool for planning, organizing, and evaluating everyday teaching.


First we asked ourselves: What do the users really need? And how do we gain insights? Not into what users say they do, but what they actually do when, for example, teachers form a plan for the year.  We developed a design game that translated the teachers’ everyday language as well as their technical language into a tool that aroused curiosity and that motivated teachers to experiment their way towards ideas that were usable. At the same time, the teachers’ professional skills was incorporated into the actual tool, because we, based on field work, had selected the terms and potentials for development that had the greatest impact on teachers’ daily working routines.

The game included words familiar to the teaching staff, such as learning objectives, students, grades and teaching plans. In addition the design game pushed forward a number of overall functionalities that teachers were able to use according to their needs. For example ‘the magic straw’ was introduced, which gave access to all sources of knowledge in the world. A funnel was used as another metaphor for the functions and dynamics that allowed teachers to cut corners in their work with the ‘Common Objectives’ . Another one was a fork used as a metaphor for the extraction of relevant material from a given topic in order to make it easier to continue to working with it. All in all, well-known factors and open metaphors, which stimulated the participants just enough for them to begin to build and invent content and dynamics on the website based on professional needs.

The task was: ‘together, you are now going to build a website that helps you prepare an annual plan based on ’Common Objectives’ – anything is possible‘. ‘The magic straw’ turned out to be a distraction that was just playful enough to enable the co-production to be experimental at a highly professional level. Through the design game we were able to access professional knowledge and the Ministry of Education continues to work on the ideas that were developed. The involvement of the teachers in the development process enabled the current needs of the profession to be the focus, and the process was based on the teachers’ professionalism and insight into their own practices in relation to ‘Common Objectives’ usage.

As a designer, I am often asked how to design a prototype. Made simple, I have sketched a model describing the general workflow:

Fieldwork + Research > Insights and Ideas
+ Communication Design * including semiotics and empathy with users
> PROTOTYPE > Coproduction
= tested insights and ideas, anchored to the needs of users

Prototypes are developed uniquely for each process and actual needs. Such irregular factors as humour, provocation, the interview situation, and the participants’ readiness come into play. In my example the state school teachers were motivated to participate in the co-creation based on a large degree of professional commitment. They had the opportunity to contribute to the development of tools that they themselves use actively when planning their teaching.

Through prototypes we can support the relevant factors, by carrying out contextual features in the design game itself. In addition we can take into account that co-creation is also experience design, as the prototype implicitly implies the conversation based interview. Just as the experience of co-creation is designed by taking into account the target audience with aesthetic and dramaturgical leverages, such as storytelling and process design , thus, the prototype will become an actual and usable tool for the exchange of opinions and a catalyst for the development of ideas.

The design game was created with help from Jakob Schjørring. Read his blog about prototyping.


Social sciences in action

Debate writing between Sarah Schulman, Anna Lochard and Jesper Christiansen

This past Friday Sarah Schulman, InWithForward, Anna Lochard, La 27 Region, and I explored some of the current challenges of public design. We convened in Copenhagen, amongst other things, to develop and test out a new approach to answering questions. We have called our approach Debate Writing, and these are the questions we will be answering.

1. How do we put social sciences into action? And not just design thinking?

2. What is the role of every day people in our work?

3. How do we spread and scale processes, not just products?

We are pretty good at posing questions. As the ‘social scientists’ on our teams, we are often in critical thinking mode. But sometimes we can get caught in rounds and rounds of conversation, where we talk about what we already think. Rather than actually challenge and advance our collective thinking.

So we decided to put our pens to paper. Well, our fingers to the keyboard, and force ourselves to actually debate the questions we set out. Of course, what we came up with was not definitive or polished. But it did open up some new arguments and ways of conceptualizing issues we each face in our day-to-day practice.


Here is how it worked:

•  We brainstormed three prompts relevant to our everyday work.

•  Each of us took one prompt, and wrote an opening statement for 45 minutes.

•  When the alarm buzzed, we turned over our writing to the person sitting on our right. Who responded for 45 minutes.

•  We repeated the process once more. Until we had compiled three perspectives on each prompt.

•  We printed out our drafts, and looked for the thread. Where did the argument end up?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll publish all three of our written debates. And we would love to hear what you think. Here is our response to the first prompt. This prompt comes from a feeling that while design thinking is often lauded as the ‘new’ addition to public sector redesign, social science thinking is not well understood. It is assumed to already exist within the public sector. We challenge that notion here.

Prompt #1: Social sciences in action

Jesper’s Opening Statement:

Public organizations cannot merely adopt a strategy of survival by adapting to their environment. The fundamental consequence of being legitimized by a democratic system and run by political leadership is that, as a public servant, your purpose is to actually shape the environment. Not through politics or political ideas, but through applying a political epistemology that take the nature of the problem seriously. Political epistemology has to do with the nature and scope of knowledge and processes in which the state (or other relevant institutions of power) is rediscovering the public and its problems in order to make interventions in the everyday lives of citizens.

The social sciences has a critical role to play in this respect by influencing (and perhaps changing) how to understand public problems. The common role for social sciences is explore, frame, theorize and illustrate how social reality can be grasped and dealt with. In relation to public policy and reform, social science mostly serve as cultural and historical critique. It is yet to reveal a significant productive forward-oriented value.

This is where the very concept of design enters. Design and design-thinking seemingly takes ownership of both the reflexive approach of social science while combining it with forward-oriented processes of making the future accessible through experimentation and iteration. Often, practices of policymaking still assumes linear models where knowledge, actions and outputs have to be represented as in direct connection and where the plan for change has to be specified in advance. Design emerges as a challenge to this often inefficient way of dealing with social change in public sector contexts. But is it promising too much? And is design just a way of talking about social sciences in action?

The challenge of putting social sciences in to action in a context of public decision-making is quite immediate in a current MindLab project that aims to rethink the practice of policy development in the Danish Ministry of Employment. This project has the purpose of improving the capacity of the ministry to create politically intended outcomes. It aims to ensure successful implementation through the establishment of a practice policymaking that allows for a more dynamic relationship between policy and practice in the implementation of central labour market reforms. But what this project might really be about is embedding approaches of social sciences in order to enable the ministry in better ways to continuously rediscover and understand the consequences and outcomes of its interventions and reforms.

As the ministry is working towards developing a new ‘implementation strategy’, they are trying to reinvent their current culture of decision-making as well as their theory of knowledge acquisition in the processes of realizing political intentions. It is perhaps not ‘social sciences in action’ per se, but this process is drawing on principles from social sciences to transform the processes of envisioning and formalizing social reality in order to enable a more open, responsive and adaptive approach to public policy and reform. They are attempting to recognize the changing conditions and unpredictable developments of social reality while at the same time working in a bureaucratic context idealizing pre-composed scripts and plans.

This paradoxical premise, I think, makes the concept of design appealing because it promises both a better understanding of the problems and processes of public development while maintaining the ideal that we are able to design solutions, processes, services, and even systems. The ever-looming risk is that design, as many other ‘instruments of government’ before, becomes another instrumental way to deliver ‘the product’. The failure of design-thinking in government would be to not challenge existing ideal of coming up with perfect ‘solutions’ that ‘solve’ the public problem rather than fuelling the processes of re-discovering and addressing it.

This is why the tendency to squeeze social sciences under the umbrella of design is a risky one. My contention is that the value of social sciences in action, with the multitude of different approaches to the understanding of human behaviour, motivation and culture, can be seen in relation to not only their ability to rediscover and nuance the problem at hand. Social sciences also offer perspectives that illuminate how public problems, as multi-sited, multi-faceted and dynamic entities, can be addressed in various different ways. The goals of public organizations are complex, ambiguous and even contradictory at times. In this light, it is risky when design (human-centred or other kinds) promises innovative solutions as an automatic outcome of designing.

The role of social sciences in action is at least to remind us that often what is possible when dealing with the employment systems or other complex service systems is not the creation of consensus or one ‘best practice’. Instead, renewed knowledge about the social world often sparks more contradicting perspectives and complexity where the main outcome is a new debate about what characterize the problem and what would be a good way of dealing with it.

This debate should also be about what is useful to know about the public, how this knowledge can be acquired, how it is established as legitimate in formalized systems of justification and what kind of outcomes that would create public value in which contexts. Social sciences in action thus have a role to play in establishing a useful political epistemology and ensure that politics remains an actual and legitimate part of public development.

Anna’s response to social sciences in action:

What can appear as contradictory in the sentence “social sciences in action” would be that this action is usually not explicit when it is happening. Usually, the chronology is the following: a social scientist participates in a project, and we discover new conceptual concepts, framing and formalisation of this project once an article is published, that is to say way after the time of the project.

We have the feeling that social sciences are a way to document and share things that already happened, but it is difficult to understand how it could help us to enlighten things that are about to happen. The social scientist, usually specialist in only one field, seems to use his academic background as general culture and personal intelligence to adapt to different situations of a project, but is usually quiet in difficulty to explicit the theoretical frames he is using without even knowing it.

However, social sciences have a rich and broad history of documenting and explaining changes in human organisations. Every discipline such as sociology, philosophy, management sciences, anthropology… present various theoretical frames – sometimes contradictory – that could become tools along the way of a project to understand what is happening, describe situations and drive the changes that we hope for. How to discover and understand those various theoretical frames without having to be an expert in every field? How to choose the most appropriate one for a precise subject? And finally, how to popularise and use them without making them meaningless because they are over-simplified?

Social sciences are embedded for a long time in administrations, agencies, services etc. and have documented their changes, their evolutions or their cultures. Who could remember that in the 80’s the French government began to speak about “experimentations”, “users”, “self-determined objectives” or “incremental modernisation” if there were no social scientists to documented those changes? In many ways, social sciences play the role of memories of our administrations, tracing new worlds, new theories, new philosophies of how to reform and make them work better… That could also be a great tool for designers or professionals that have to work in this context.

In one of our projects, a designer asked civil servants in the room, on the first day of the project, what was the meaning of those three letters “D.G.S.” – that is, a General Director of Service. This simple question reveals how some professional circles lack an understanding of the magical world of public administration, which is radically different from the private sector and cannot be treated in the same way. We have to change the way public managers and civil servants are treating citizens and are creating new policies, that’s for sure… but those who help this change happening should be careful to understand the history of those beautiful institutions.

Sarah’s response to social sciences in action:

“What are the social sciences?”

It was in the second semester of my second year of university that I was finally asked the obvious question. Here I was a budding ‘social scientist’ and I didn’t really have a good definition of the discipline I was on the precipice of entering.
Luckily, I had a book. Roger Trigg’s Understanding Social Science. And on page 1, he answers that very question, writing:

What is social science? This is a characteristically philosophical question, examining the assumptions and presuppositions of an area of human activity. It seems easy to give a list of would-be social sciences. Sociology and social anthropology would inevitably be on it, as would such subjects as politics and economics. History has a claim there to be there too… It certainly studies the interactions of humans in society.

The main difference between it and the others is that it confines itself to the past. Psychology, even social psychology, should probably not be there as it concentrates on the individual rather than on his or her place in the wider group…. It is already obvious that the notion of social science is not as clear-cut as might be first imagined.

It’s precisely the lack of boundaries that I’d contend gives social science such power in our work re-imagining and re-making social systems with and for every day people. Because it enables us to look at those every day people (and ourselves) in the round, in context, and over time.
Anna and Jesper both give persuasive accounts of the value-add of the social sciences in social innovation and public sector redesign. They note that the social sciences help us to:

– Understand human behavior, motivations, and culture

– Project the consequences – intended and unintended – of a line of action

– Remember the past

It’s hard to disagree. But how do we extract this value and put it into a live, quick moving design process? And how do we build our capacity to actually unearth and examine the assumptions and presuppositions of our activities? All the while forming new assumptions and presuppositions to test? In other words how do we become creative & critical thinkers & doers? All at once?

Design tends to make creative thinking & doing pretty accessible. There are games, materials, post-it notes, markers, crayons, clay. That serve to externalize our thoughts. Social sciences tend to make critical thinking & doing pretty darn intellectual. There aren’t so many gimmicky tools. Just a lot of journal articles, books, and maybe a neon green highlighter, if you’re lucky.

There’s also this belief that civil servants, social workers, and other professionals working in the social space are already adept at social science. That design is the thing that’s new. In our work, I find that rarely to be the case. Because so many social workers and professionals have been trained in a vocational way – learning applied theory without first gaining the liberal arts foundation – the philosophy, the history, the humanities that helps you form an opinion of what’s a good theory.

Let me try and get super practical. In the work I co-led in Australia, that eventually led to Family by Family, it was diving into philosophy, history, and empirical psychosocial studies that gave us a fresh way of making sense of the ethnographic field work. A re-read of Aristotle’s work on human flourishing as juxtaposed with the all too common psychosocial literature on resilience helped me to realize these two concepts were not the same. Where resilience was about bouncing back, thriving or flourishing was all about being present, looking back, and moving forwards.

With this ‘critical lens’ I was able to take the stories from families and from professionals and see something I hadn’t seen when I was in the field.
Anna smartly asks: how do we discover and use these different theoretical frames without having to be an expert in the field? How do we choose the most appropriate one? And how do we popularize them without making them meaningless?

Here, I can only point to my own experience. I wasn’t an expert in family systems, or in eudaimonic ethics (that’s Aristotle), but I was able to take these frameworks and test them against our on-the-ground data. I believe it’s less about choosing the appropriate framework. And more about prototyping frameworks in our on-the-ground contexts. It’s this capability set I’d like to learn how to build in my teams going forward.

How do you go about gauging the effect of development work?

What difference do we make for the businesses and citizens who ultimately pay our salaries? And how do we gauge the difference that we make? For the last seven years, MindLab has been very keen to gauge the effect of the work that we do and it goes a long way back. Already back in 2007, while we were in the process of defining how MindLab would conduct its work, we were paid a visit by David Hunter. Hunter is recognised for his work on the gauging of effect and on change theory in the U.S.A. He has also worked with a number of organisations in Denmark. He helped us to develop a theory of change as well as indicators and the tools to with which to measure them. The result was an impressive chart.



But once this chart was to be to be transposed into a measurement of the effect of the work that we do, it became clear that we are not always able to accept full responsibility for whether our contributions are translated into real change for citizens and businesses. When, for example, we are working towards improving existing services or developing new ones with an agency, we are typically developing a concept of how the new progression through that service would appear to its users. Whether the agency involved then prioritises whether to follow all our recommendations or perhaps just uses the work as a springboard to rethink aspects of their services, is not something over which we have any direct influence. It all depends on political developments, the agency’s prioritisation of resources and the participation of other stakeholders, all of which make it difficult to isolate MindLab’s efforts.

The difference MindLab makes for citizens and businesses is often just as much about helping our colleagues towards a more precise understanding of who their users are and how they can best organise efforts towards those users. Back at the Agency, it often turns out that the reason why a particular service can not be improved initially is rooted in more strategic challenges, such as the choice between the delivery of a service and being a controlling authority. It may therefore prove to be the case that our most important contribution was not the improvement in services, but the insights we brought to the table along the way. Insights that can be helped to change the agency’s core understanding of its role in relation to its users. We have therefore had to redefine our own understanding of the nature of the value we create.

– If we are to gauge the effect of the work that we do, then we need to gauge that for which we can take responsibility and how we provide our owners with value. This could, for example, be when we are helping to clarify our owners’ perception of how they make a difference in the world.

– We are helping to ensure that new knowledge leads to new strategies, new policies or new ways of working.

– We help our colleagues to implement solutions in a way that creates a bigger effect.

Obviously, it is important to stay in tune with the idea that the ultimate goal of what we are doing is to make a difference for citizens and businesses. If we only focus on the processes for which we can accept responsibility, we risk forgetting what will really make a difference to citizens and businesses.

It is my impression that many others who, like us, are not responsible for implementation, are faced with the same challenges. Therefore, it could be interesting to hear about other people’s considerations and experiences .

2014 will be the year of experimentation

This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.

Public sector leaders around the world are trying to make experimentation into a more systematic, integrated part of their organisation. There are indications that 2014 will be the year in which the innovation laboratory becomes more mainstream. But the strategy is not without its pitfalls.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in her New Year’s Speech that “if we make changes to our country and give it the right resources, there will be the funds for pensions, home help and hospitals.” Very few people would disagree with this. But the question is how do we find the best ways of changing Denmark and giving it the right resources? Which investments should we make if we are to get real change for the money that is spent?

One possible answer is not to invest in actual new solutions, but to invest instead in the ability to experiment with potential future solutions. By first of all undertaking experimentation, we can find out more quickly what works. We can also increase the likelihood of achieving the effect we want to attain politically. This is where the idea of innovation laboratories (or “labs” in short) comes into the picture.

Experiments with people as the central focus

There is no clear definition of what a “lab” is within the context of the public sector, but a range of organisations have made some good suggestions. Some years ago, the EU Commission published a vision statement, which defined labs as being temporary or permanent organisation forms with the following characteristics:

They involve users in a process of innovation (co-creation) by, for example, implementing idea workshops with patients at a hospital ward or with the unemployed at a job centre.

They bring parties together from the public and private sectors, as well as civil society. For example, private companies might put forward innovative ideas for welfare solutions or volunteers might rethink tasks that are out of reach for the public sector.

They bring together professional disciplines such as technology, social science, the Humanities and design, perhaps with engineers, public servants, high-level academics and designers collaborating as part of a project team.

They establish a dedicated (physical and/or virtual) space for the development of ideas and for experimentation with possible solutions, such as a physical workshop area with materials, frameworks and media to assist creative processes and the design of prototypes.

More sophisticated definitions are indeed conceivable, but most people agree that laboratories put people in the central position, which means a development process that is experimental and inclusive. I have also pointed out that, increasingly often, labs are closely linked to design methods, which is a subject that Canadian organisation MaRS has published a rather good pamphlet about.

A new movement

The thought of creating environments in which it is possible to experiment under controlled conditions with new public-sector solutions is not in itself a new one. The notion of “the experimenting society” goes at least as far back as social scientist Donald Campbell’s 1971 essay of the same name and, as likely as not, is even older than that.

What is new is that laboratories are being set up as formalised structures by governments all over the world. The ability to innovate is thus being anchored organisationally, often at a completely central level:

In the summer of 2012, the American government’s Office of Personnel Management set up The LAB @ OPM as a platform for rethinking Office services for over two million American state employees. In the same year, Singapore’s Ministry of State opened The Human Experience Lab. In December 2013, the British government announced that it was looking for someone to be in charge of an Open Policy Lab, which will belong to the Cabinet Office. And right now, the EU Commission is investigating whether to set up its own lab, in line with recommendations in a new report about strengthened public sector innovations in Europe.

Calling this a trend would be an understatement. Developments are so extensive that you would need a map of the whole world to be able to see the overall picture. Parsons School of Design in New York has drawn up such a map.

Here in Denmark, where MidtLab and MindLab have already existed for a good number of years, the Danish government has, in its municipal and regional agreements for 2014, added a new dimension to lab-thinking, with its ambition to launch a number of “governance laboratories”.

The idea is that these laboratories should contribute to the development of new governance forms in the public sector, focusing on trust and co-operation and crossing such boundaries as administrative levels and professional skills etc.

Fragile machines of opportunity

Despite growth in laboratories both at home and world-wide, developments are not all headed in the same direction. In June 2013, Helsinki Design Lab (part of the Sitra fund for innovation) closed down in Finland. The Australian government also recently mothballed its own DesignGov.

Precisely because focus on experimentation is the reason for their creation, the continued existence of laboratories is uncertain. Labs are often set up in partnership with a host or operating organisation for the purpose of helping it to facilitate new and as yet uncertain futures. In his book “Partnerskabelse” (“Building Partnerships”) CBS-researcher Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen characterises public and private sector partnerships as “fragile machines of opportunity”. From my point of view, I also think that this is a very pertinent way of characterising laboratories. Just as with a public and private sector partnership, a laboratory is the expression of a mutual promise of potential future value creation between two very different partners.

The actual creation of that value is far from guaranteed. It presumes that at least four dilemmas which pose a risk to the laboratories very existence are able to be dealt with.

1) The laboratory is highly dependent on its host organisation, but must at the same time challenge its core tasks.

2) The laboratory holds the promise of future value creation, but may find it difficult to document that value creation in the here and now.

3) The laboratory must support and facilitate the work on innovation being done by its host colleagues and must therefore not take the credit when something succeeds, but must often act as lightening conductor when it does not.

4) The laboratory must promote experimentation and uncertainty within a culture that is increasingly biased towards knowledge and predictability.

Most of all, laboratories are fragile because they need to keep changing all the time if they are to continue to give the host organisation any added value. Laboratories that do not survive in the long run include those that are unable to reinvent themselves at the same rate at which the host’s demands are changing.

Paradoxically, the prerequisite for a successful laboratory is therefore that it should take its own medicine and behave as a continual experiment. Even though it might seem apt to do so, it is a perfectly deliberate choice that leads me to call 2014 the year of experimentation, rather than the year of laboratories.

Experimentation is what both host organisation and laboratories alike need more of if we, like the Danish Prime Minister, want to “get Denmark ready and give it the right resources”.

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