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  • Rie Maktabi
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Make Room for Innovation

How do we create the ideal setting for exploration, creativity, and innovation? And why doesn’t it automatically happen in our offices during a regular workday? Our work setting has a huge impact on how we think and interact, and by changing it we can make an ideal environment for innovation.

This was one of the ideas behind the Design for Europe seminar “Immersion in Public Design” that MindLab co-hosted with La 27e Region in Paris. We invited co-workers from ministries, a municipality, and innovation experts to work together on projects in the garden of the French Ministry of Public Affairs.

By changing the atmosphere and surroundings, a setting was created where civil servants could reflect on their projects without restraint or pre-assumptions. As it turns out, there is a lot of potential for innovation when one leaves offices, daily tasks, and even phones behind. By taking the time to ignore routinized approaches to challenges, a new sense of enthusiasm and perspective arises. As the civil servants are very familiar with their field, there is a potential for them to explore it in new ways and make better solutions for citizens. Our experience is that this potential is realized in the right atmosphere.

An important insight regards the way we work with several projects simultaneously, jumping from one to another. Continuously switching from one assignment to another is unproductive and lacks a clear direction. Taking two days away from the desk and directing focus towards a single assignment turned out to enable new kinds of in-depth discussions. Hence working on projects sequentially instead of simultaneously enhances focus and provides a new perspective.

Taking the trip to the seminar from Copenhagen to Paris meant that day-to-day office culture was left behind for a while.  The question is how far the culture extends? To exemplify, MindLab works side by side with civil servant, and our lab is located within the building of the Ministry of Business and Growth. If we host a one day workshop at our premises, co-workers and participants would still answer their phones and check their email. In Paris however, this was changed as everyone were out of office in an unfamiliar setting. An experience of being away from daily tasks creates focus and makes room for innovative thoughts. Does it mean that you have to travel abroad? It’s not necessary to flee the country, but leaving the office culture from time to time gives space to approach tasks differently.

In summary, a potential arises when you create room for creativity and innovation. Not only a physical, but also a mental space is created, where there is time for immersion and to leave other assignments behind. It enables a possibility to approach questions and challenges in a new way, and similarly to consider solutions innovatively.


In June, MindLab hosted the Design for Europe seminar, “Immersion in Public Design”, with the French innovation lab, la 27e Region. MindLab reflects on thoughts prior to the seminar and how to host an event with civil servants and leading experts in fields as innovation, design, and public sector innovation.


Using a Seminar as a Lab

In the planning stages, we decided to make an attempt of creating a seminar that functioned as a lab in itself. We wanted to engage participants to work together in more exciting ways by exploring and creating hands-on prototypes for future practice of public policy and decision making. By using participatory design methods, we encouraged the experts to work with civil servants and designers discussing on-going projects. Hence the design tools were meant to provide and develop a common language where experts, civil servants and designers can discuss current projects and investigate in future visions.


Process Matters

In MindLab, we often use “user journeys” as a method to visualize a citizen’s contact with authorities. It provides an understanding of how a group of users experience the progress through the system, and not just the end result. It’s a central point to design that the procress is just as important as the result.

In spite of it being a commonly used method in our projects, we have never applied it to our own projects. We did so initially at a MindLab strategy seminar. In a Danish forest, the MindLab team created physical project journeys using a variety of materials such as dock tape, colored leashes, paper, stickers, etc. This inspired La 27e Region to test one of their project journeys in a park in Paris. After these sessions, we decided to develop an event focussing on the process.


Testing Design Tools

We created journeys based on projects that MindLab and La 27e Region had picked out with civil servants and designers; some are already finished while others are going to be central for future work. In the light of user-centered design, experts and project-owners worked closely together asking themselves questions like

-How did the project develop?
-Who was involved?
-What was challenging?
-Was the end result innovative enough?
-Is the organization ready for new ways of working?

They mapped their answers on a physical timeline and used the questions to map all steps, potentials, and pitfalls. The questions facilitated the visualization of the service journey that has been undertaken throughout the project. We experienced that by making projects visual and tangible, it became more engaging and easier to understand the scope and potential of a project. The possibility to physically walk around the process or see years of work illustrated is a vital tool in using project journeys as a method.



We experienced a great portion of honesty and engagement from the participants. This helped us pointing out where the most interesting parts of the journeys were, and how we could learn from them in order to improve future projects. An insight among many was that a lot of documents are seemingly written and sent from one office or desk to another while lots of meetings are held without creating any or very little actual value. Maybe we could write fewer emails and talk face to face in involving ways?

It was also clear that location matters. The event took off in the inspiring and mythical garden of The Ministry of Public Affairs in the heart of Paris, where Marie Antoinette’s dog is allegedly buried. There is a saying “the problem is hidden where the dog is buried” which help encouraging us to create an event where we dared to talk open about the problems needed to be solved. We believe that the space and the fresh air that we worked in has a huge impact on our mood, and it sets an ideal scene for a hands-on approach. It created a fruitful atmosphere for innovation labs, civil servants, public managers, academics, and designers to work together and join forces to inspire and exchange knowledge. The location was a framed expectation for something big/great to happen.


Altogether, we had some exciting and educational days in Paris, where design tools resulted in fruitful conversations and exciting investigations of future scenarios. This was also the aim of the seminar; to dissect and understand tricky moments of current development practice and get inspired by similar problems from participants from around the world, in order to develop new approaches and tools in public policy.


In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the complex character of public problems, whether we look at reforms in labour markets, healthcare, education or social services. But have our institutions and their development practices evolved alongside our understanding of these complex problems?

To address this question, there has been an increasing focus on how do you build human-centered methodologies into the core functions of government. One potential way of going about this has been the use of human-centered design labs. But embedding the explorative and experimental approaches of design is a hard challenge and requires an ongoing learning process about how to transform public service systems and bureaucratic structures from a human-centered approach.

To facilitate this shared learning process, MindLab has – with helpful support from Design for Europe – developed a dialogue tool inspired by service journeys often used to illustrate the concrete interaction between the citizen and the system. But rather than zooming in on the citizen as a user, we have made the public design lab itself the ‘user’ of the journey to learn about the evolution of a public design lab. This focus is meant to enable a forward-oriented assessment of the usefulness of public design lab. In particular, it is a way of exploring the purpose, role and mandate in order to learn about the factors and conditions that expand the space of possibility and legitimize the methods and contributions of the lab work.

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Consequently, viewing (and reviewing) the whole journey of a public design lab can reveal a number of constructive insights about and forward-oriented reflections on future attention points and possibilities. These include

1)  Challenges and premises. Identifying the main challenges and premises of the establishing and supporting the lab work.
2) Decisive moments. Concrete moments, situations and factors that had a decisive importance the opportunity space of the lab.
3) Enabling conditions. Illustrations of under which conditions and in which contexts that lab work is carried out – and the strategies and actions that could be used in that light.
4) Context analysis. Exposing the organizational and structural challenges involved in setting up and running lab work in public sector contexts.
5) Expected outputs and outcomes. Expected outputs and outcomes of the lab work – and the processes needed in order to make these possible
6) Legitimizing factors. Factors of legitimization to ensure government support and the ‘uptake’ of new ideas and concepts as well as enabling the ongoing process of capacity building
7) Future scenarios. Shared understanding of useful reference point from which to imagine the future journey of the design lab and create strategic scenarios in order to formulate realistic potentials and goals (including vision, purpose and role of the lab).
8) Strategic considerations and decisions. Illustrating the concrete change and transformation processes that need to take place in order to ensure the labs existence and value-creation (including reflection on the governance model, methodological approach, activities and impact assessment for the lab).

This method could easily be used for the journey of any design lab to learn both about its own evolution and potential as well as enable illustrations of variety of different processes (positive and negative) that should part of the collective reflection in this field.

By embedding human-centred design in the central administration of government, there is a significant potential for public sector design labs to systematically improve and transform the core change capacity in government. The lab journey dialogue tool can contribute to a collective learning process focusing on how labs can provide dedicated spaces for discovering and applying new ways of addressing problems and turn new ideas into practical outcomes.

For inspiration, see MindLab’s journey as a design lab here.


Redesigning the culture and functionality of government

Previously posted on Design For Europe

What does pursuing the common good as a public servant actually entail? In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the complex character of public problems, whether we look at reforms in labour markets, healthcare, education or social services. But have the working practices of public servants evolved alongside our understanding of these complex problems? And what happens to the legitimacy of our democratic decision-making processes if public policies fail to deal with public problems?

Working as an internal cross-governmental design lab, MindLab has experimented a great deal in recent years with the human-centered design of public services, policies and governance models to create better outcomes, productivity and democratic value. Design approaches offer a practice-oriented, human-centred and holistic perspective, as well as an iterative process of learning-through-action. This enables a more dynamic approach to public policy that involves citizens and frontline workers, as well as local authorities and communities, in a collective effort to develop and implement policy ideas.

By embedding human-centred design in the central administration of government, public sector design labs can play a part in systematically shifting the culture of decision-making and public policy. A lab can provide a dedicated space for discovering and applying new ways to address problems and design processes to turn new ideas into practical outcomes.

In particular, a lab carefully examines and considers the context, experience and circumstance to be influenced and then explore and experiment with new solutions. At the same time, the lab is systematically providing new insights and learning to inform existing decision-making processes. Over time this helps create a new professional approach to change-making activities.


To work in this way, the dedicated space of a lab must cut across different levels and aspects of government. At MindLab we combine a number of different approaches in each project. These include:

1. Service design
Changing the ‘front-end’ of public services – using the lab to  explore how different outcomes could be created in the interactions between citizens and the public sector.

2. Policy design
Working with public policy – using the lab to allow for experimentation in the development and implementation of large-scale laws, reforms, policies, regulatory efforts and other change-making initiatives that target the public.

3. Governance design
Working with the back-end governance systems – using the lab to explore and rethink system logics and relationships of accountability in order to create a more outcome-focused operation and support of public service systems.

4. Capacity building
Improving the design and change-management skills of government through project collaborations – using the lab to rethink new decision-making practices and knowledge management processes.

5. Scaling labs
Learning about and experimenting with local solutions in order to understand how to create large-scale impact – using the lab to enable what works locally to have systemic impact.




MindLab bringing the citizens into the policy process

These different aspects of change-making activity represent ways of enabling experimentally proven societal change to occur as a consequence of public interventions. Change should not be ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’, but should create and build on a productive dynamic between ideas (or policies) and their potential impact (practice).

Using design thinking and design methodologies as part of government interventions not only aims to develop new human-centered service systems, but it also becomes a process of experimenting with the very functioning and culture of government itself. This includes procedural, administrative, political and democratic processes and practices, the failures of which are talked about far less than the ‘solutions’ at the frontline.

A significant part of the functioning of government is the culture of decision-making and the professional expertise of public servants. Whether government interventions come in the form of laws, reforms, policies, regulations or the like, they have to be dealt with on the basis of their actual functionality: different processes of creating change in society. Consequently, public servants are ‘change agents’ (not solely analysts) responsible for enabling and processing political intentions and ideas in ways that will increase the likelihood of their intended impact.

We need to understand the role of the public servant in this light. And design approaches, methodologies and attitudes have the potential to influence the culture of planning, leadership and management of public servants. Design can leverage a new kind of knowledge management based on experimentation and prototyping that enables public policy to systematically research, rehearse and refine new concepts, ideas and/or intentions. All of which – I would argue – allow political intentions to become more human and practice-oriented, and thereby increase the legitimacy of public interventions.

Creating better service in France

MindLab’s Rie Maktabi is blogging from the French innovation lab “La 27e Region” in Paris. The point of the collaboration between the two labs is to exchange ideas and knowledge and to inspire one another.

My first project is part of the program: “La Résidence”. It takes place at “Hôpital  Nord” which is a public hospital placed in the North of Marseille. A team of Service Designers, Sociologist and Urban architects that goes three times for one week during six months, to discover better innovative solutions, by prototyping possible solutions with the users…


This is week one.


And this is week two, where the prototyping in the hospital begins.

Reflections on week 1 at “La Résidence” at “Hôpital Nord”:

When we came to the hospital entrance, people were standing outside to get fresh air, call a relative or simply wait to be consulted. As I entered, I stepped on a marble floor with long cracks and when I looked up, a poster with an invitation to the Hospitals 50 years birthday were waving in the air. It appeared as if the hospital had not been touched much since its birth. A lot of yellow signs in the brown interior were trying to get my attention. I did not know where to start. Maybe it’s because of my poor French, but it seemed confusing. Every administrative step had a place in the reception in a small glass box with chairs fixed in lines on the floor, inviting you to sit and wait, without any sign telling you, how long the waiting time were. It reminded me of a railway station, except there you have digital displays that tell you what to expect. The only digital solution in the reception hall was a sign that showed which number could take a seat in one of the service boxes.

The first service at the hospital

I went to the first service desk, which is called: “Etiquette.” It’s a service, where you have to pay for your treatment. Even if you are picked up by an ambulance or the doctor is waiting for you, you need to wait in line and get your social security confirmed and pay for everything before entering. As I was eating lunch, an old lady entered the reception hall on an ambulance bed with three ambulance rescuers and her husband, waiting for her “etiquette” even though she was lying in pain and needed to be treated as quickly as possible.

There seemed to be a lack of logic in placing this procedure in such a vulnerable and urgent situation. I asked the headmaster of the “Etiquette” department, if this procedure could not be at the end of the hospital visit instead? She told me that they were afraid that people would leave the hospital without paying.

What is “La 27e Region”?

“La 27e Région” is a public innovation lab for local and national administrations in particular. They work with social innovation, service design and social sciences and aim to use their methods to radically change the way public policies are designed. The team consists of service designers, political science practitioners and project managers. So far, “La 27e Région” has conducted more than twenty action-research experiments in partnership with nine regional administrations within three different programs, “Territoires en Résidences”, “Re acteur Public“ and “La Transfo”.

The concept:

3 weeks in the field.

  1. Week: Observation. Get to know the hospital and its surroundings.
  2. Week: Prototype with the staff and users of the Hospital.
  3. Week: Propose solutions for the Hospital.

– We live with the citizens of North of Marseille and work at the Hospital for one week full time, three times during the next six months.

Read Rie’s previous post here.

MindLab goes to Paris!

MindLab’s Rie Maktabi will for the next six months be blogging from the French innovation lab “La 27e Region” in Paris. The point of the collaboration between the two labs is to exchange ideas and knowledge and to inspire one another.

What is “La 27e Region”?

“La 27e Région” is a public innovation lab for local and national administrations in particular. They work with social innovation, service design and social sciences and aim to use their methods to radically change the way public policies are designed. The team consists of service designers, political science practitioners and project managers. So far, “La 27e Région” has conducted more than twenty action-research experiments in partnership with nine regional administrations within three different programs, “Territoires en Résidences”, “Re acteur Public“ and “La Transfo”.

They are also a physical space, called “Superpublic”- shared with young freelance service designers and entrepreneurs and the ministry called SGMAP,  who all adds to the creative atmosphere, where innovation and new collaborations are part of the everyday life. They host conferences, book launches, workshops and training sessions.

“La 27e Region” has been inspired by MindLab when developing their innovation lab, and I’m sure that we can get as much inspiration from them as well.

Let’s exchange ideas and knowledge!

I’m curious on how they work with their methodology, and I’m excited about trying out all sorts of methods during the next months. I’m also looking forward to discover how the culture and the French society deal with the problems that we struggle with at home, for instance education, healthcare and unemployment. The French government does not have a gov-lab as MindLab. It is going to be interesting to find out why they do not and how far they are from getting one. I’m very fund of the idea of developing this “Superpublic” -CO-working place for service designers and entrepreneurs. All these input from “outside” makes the environment even more inspiring.

Service design is in Denmark a new way of dealing with design. Implementing design in public administrations is new to the government and for the designers. My colleague Laura, who works as service designer at “La 27e Region”, told me that they have to ask for a master program in Service design at her university “l’Ecole Nationale de Création Industrielle” just as we did the at my university at “The Royal Danish Academy of Design“. Because this approach is so new, exchanging methods and experiences becomes even more essential for our profession.

Projects to join

I’m going to take part of several projects, during my stay at “La 27e Region”:

La Territoires en Résidence – at “Hopital Nord”

A multidisciplinary team is going to some place in France to discover possible better solutions for a specific case. This time it’s a team of Service Designers, Sociologist and Urban architects that goes the hospital “Hopital Nord” placed in the North of Marseille. The team goes three times for one week during six months, to discover better innovative solutions, by prototyping possible solutions with the users.

Re acteur Publique – La Pointeuse

La Pointeuse is part the new program “Re acteur Publique”. The project seeks to shape the future of public administrations, by the use of service design tools. “La 27e Region” propose a platform for experimentation, collaboration and creative thinking through workshops with carefully selected participants (researchers, experts and people who work in specific in the field.) All knowledge that is gained from the workshop, is then shared on a meeting with a broader scope of civil servants in order to spread the knowledge and get more reflections and reactions. The idea is that they get so inspired, that they will go home and test some new ideas.The project is facilitated and designed by “La 27e Region” and the service design company “Plaussible Possible”, who also have their working space at “Superpublic.”

Design for Europe

The English Lab NESTA host an event called “Design for Europe”, which seeks to focus on how and why implementing design is a great tool to generate innovative and creative solutions. “MindLab” and “La 27e Region” are going to host an event together here in Paris, where existing Labs are invited to join forces for inspire and exchange knowledge.

The Innovation guide

MindLab is working on a new “Innovation Guide” that gives the possibility to public administration and others, to get inspired on how to gain new ideas and how to involve the end-user in the process, by using Service Design methods. I will describe the methods I discover here at “La 27e Region” and at “Super Public” in order to inspire the making of the new Innovation Guide.

I’m very excited to be part of “La 27e Region” and I’m looking forward to investigate their approach, methods and to be a part of this inspiring studio space “Super Public”. Each month I will make a blog post and a visual postcard – sharing my observations, inspiration, thoughts and new ideas. – Stay tuned…

Using partnerships to achieve reforms

The Danish Ministry of Education and other ministries are using a new method to achieve reforms in the public sector. They are using partnerships to achieve reforms.
There are some major challenges when the time comes to implement reforms. Ministries, regions and municipalities, if they actively make use of partnerships, are able to generate commitment and activate new stakeholders as partners, which can mean improved opportunities for the achievement of satisfactory end results.

1) Reforms present challenges when the time comes for them to be implemented

Once an Act of Parliament has been passed and a government has put a new project on the agenda, the really difficult job begins. How do you translate the good intentions underlying the reform into practice? At the Danish Ministry of Education, implementation of the reform of Danish state schools is in full swing. The Danish Ministry of Employment is focused on the new Employment Reform. Mindlab is helping out in both ministries. The Danish Agency for Digitisation is working on the next digitisation strategy for the joint public sector. In the Ministry of the Environment, the Minister has just published an ambitious strategy all about ”Denmark without waste II”. Reforms do not implement themselves. Nothing happens either if the minister just issues orders. Reforms require support, commitment and the building of new relationships if they are to succeed.

2) One method that is currently very widespread is to create and guide partnerships in order to achieve full implementation

Politicians and officials who are active in the reform have to generate enthusiasm and commitment if reforms are to be recognisable in everyday practice. And in many cases, they are. The Danish Ministry of Education has been working on the ”New Nordic school” initiative. They have also established a ”Partnership for the Danish State School System”. During the implementation of the reform of state schools, a number of new stakeholders have been established. It is not just a question of the Ministry, the Agency for Modernisation and Local Government Denmark facing off against the Danish teacher’s Association. The stakeholders who are being given new roles are pupils, parents and those in charge of schools. At the same time, new stakeholder groupings, such as sports clubs, NGOs and companies are being given important roles. Mærsk stands out among companies by having donated a billion Danish crowns towards implementation of the state school reform. It requires that both existing and new stakeholders alike will have shared responsibility for the progress of these reforms. At the Ministry of the Environment, the Minister wants to engage companies and NGOs in new waste strategies by using partnerships as an means to get things done. The Danish Agency for Digitisation is currently reaching out to businesses and citizens to get them actively on board with the digitisation reform and to already make a contribution to the shaping of the future of the strategy for digitisation.

3) The management of partnerships requires active and focused management

An active and focused effort on the part of management is frequently the key to well-functioning partnerships. We have already mentioned the new commitments by various ministries. Another example is the Wholemeal Partnership, which works towards better health by getting the people of Demark to eat more whole grains. Wholemeal partnerships unite groups such as the Danish Veterinary and Food Agency and NGOs like the Danish Heart Association and the Danish Cancer Society with companies which produce and sell bread in order to achieve a result. And the results speak for themselves. Quantity and consumption of wholegrain products have increased. Public health is improving. The management of Wholemeal partnerships are actively working and focusing on creating commitment and support for the work of the Wholemeal partnership. Seen in the broader perspective, research in the implementation of reforms also indicates that active and focused leadership in the form of partnerships is something that gets results. Patashnik, an American researcher, has shown in studies that if it is possible to create new stakeholders, who form new relationships among themselves, there a completely new situation will arise. A new constellation of stakeholders will appear. Alford & O’Flynn, two researchers from Melbourne in Australia, have examined the competencies that active partnership management requires of public leaders. Another American, Ed De Seve, was in charge of the implemention of the multi-billion dollar U.S. economic stimulus package during Obama’s first presidency, which he achieved with the use of controlled partnerships (or networks). Management has a role to play in the active, focused, leadership of the partnership. The efforts of DeSeves and others also generated visible results, which we can see today. The U.S. economy is creating jobs and in a state of growth.

There are bound to be people who say that politicians simply steamroller their reforms through. There will also be people who are unable to see the results of these attempts to guide and implement reforms through partnerships. To those people, I would say that this article mentions some of the most significant and complex areas for reforms, namely the state school system, employment and digitisation. If you are going to achieve sustainable results, co-operation is an absolute condition in cases like these.

The results of reforms are not achieved through conflict and barriers, but through new working relationships and constellations. Reform results require that leaders constantly thinking in terms of how they can establish, develop and maintain partnership relationships in such a way that partners are committed to reforms.

Design games that play

Design game as a creative platform for new ideas

Playing cards, dice and board games are not uncommon sights, when serious matters such as developing new services are underway. A design game is an effective and inspiring playground, where you can practise before ideas turn into reality. Get good advice and navigate around the most common pitfalls, if you are faced with rethinking or developing new services for your users.

With a game, you can play for a while and experiment your way to finding out what possible solutions might look like. Games can take many different forms, but common to them all is the opportunity to experiment first and thus more quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. You can put yourself in another’s place for a while or use the game as a platform for investigating current problems and dilemmas.

That’s why design games continue to gain ground wherever complex new projects are taking shape. Here you can read about how it’s done and get good advice about what you should pay extra attention to when working with games or just let yourself be inspired by the game world’s thinking and elements.

1) Promotes dialogue and common understanding

When something new is being created or an existing service has to be adjusted, it often results in a negotiation process and collaboration among many different stakeholders. And the co-creators usually have an opinion about how much, how often, how little or how the new measures should be put together. And that’s all good. The problem is just that the participants are all too often very busy making compromises, entering into written agreements and closing down the discussion, even before the project’s potential has been researched and discovered. Dense Word documents can change hands without it necessarily becoming clearer what the project should address. A4 pages with abstract risk and stakeholder analyses often amount to empty assertions that the most important aspects of the project have been identified and acted on in place. This is where the game format can help bring together the main stakeholders who will create a project and promote a dialogue among them. The game format paves the way for collaboration, dialogue and playing with and against each other. The simple, visual form allows the game to promote those dialogues that can otherwise be difficult to broach.

Example: Atlas Game – a map of the project

The Atlas Game is an illustrative example of a design game that deliberately works to involve key stakeholders at an early stage and ensure that they talk to one another.

It was developed in collaboration between the design school in Helsinki and a number of others in both Europe and the United States.

Its goal is to create a solid impetus for focusing on and planning a project. The players are those who together will shape and develop the project. Participants use hexagonal cards, which they lay end-to-end, literally taking them all the way around the project. The game asks basic questions that are important to keep in mind. The game also includes method cards, where some of the most important design methods are described. With the help of the game, participants can practise seeing the project from a variety of angles. It is a training space, where those who will create the project, can practise being very specific. What do we need to consider before we begin? Which methods are most suited to acquiring new knowledge? What should you do? What should I do? And what should we do together?


The Atlas Game is structured so that the various angles of the project are seen in relation to each other as the game progresses. The game strengthens dialogue among the participants. In the two-hour duration of the game, the participants circle all the way around on their project.

Try the game yourself. Here you can download the rules and all components of the game.

Read about the game’s background here.

2) Challenges your tendency to come up with the same thing every time

You are the expert and know in advance what works and what doesn’t. You know your area of expertise top to bottom, and perhaps your co-workers have the same background as you. The point of departure and the framework is therefore static, and much will be taken for granted. That’s part of being an expert. It is not necessarily an advantage when something new has to be developed. Some curiosity and a beginner’s ability to combine unexpected elements is lost. And often there is a lot that one simply cannot see.

Here the game, the play and not least chance can push the limits. A design game will often include an element of randomness. It can be in the form of dice that are thrown and link elements in surprising ways. It could also be cards, selected as the game progresses, that force players to see a problem from several different angles.

Example: Pick a card and come up with new ideas

A design game doesn’t have to be complicated, consist of a lot of different elements or, for that matter, mimic the form of a board game where – armed with dice, game board and cards – players compete with and against one another.

It can be simple. At MindLab, one thing we have learned from long experience working with new solutions across the public sector is that too little energy is used to fine tune, experiment with or moderate them. And sometimes it can be a good idea to copy, reinterpret and adjust the subcomponents of a solution from one area to another. MindLab has therefore developed a number of cards that stimulate idea development. The maps are based on idea directions that have been successful in one area and invite participants to consider whether they can work for them. The cards have often been used as a point of departure for a brainstorm. For example, one of the cards says: “What if the service must be put together in a strategic alliance with others?” Could one, for example, collaborate with the municipality, the insurance company or family members, when someone who has been sick needs to be helped back to work?


Here the idea card is used in connection with MindLab’s work with the United Nations Development Programme in Moldova. Read about the collaboration here. The goal was to look at how it could become easier for local residents in Moldova to get help in times of acute economic crisis. Currently it is a very slow process, requiring visits to a number of different authorities, and many people give up altogether, are refused or get so little financial compensation that it doesn’t help at all. The idea cards provided new ideas for the service.

3) Be sure that your ideas correspond to the right issue

When we work with new solutions, the point of departure is often an acute problem that we would like to find a solution to. That’s a good starting point. The only problem is that we often think we have a common understanding of the problem, although the starting points can be very different. If we are to reach clarity about what the problem really is, who is faced with the problem, and in what situations the problem occurs, interventions from the design-game world can be used to advantage. They make a powerful launching pad for getting from abstract discussion to concrete solutions. The game can formulate and enforce clear rules for how the issue can be explored and broken down.

Example: Sharpen your problem with Duplo bricks

Some years ago, Business Development Centre – Southern Denmark [Væksthus Syddanmark] (BDC) faced the challenge of attracting entrepreneurs for their consultancy services. Read more here. The consultancy services were really good, which should have brought entrepreneurs to their door. The problem was just that the entrepreneurs were not showing up. As part of the work to find out why there was no demand for the service, BDC, along with MindLab and the design firm 1508, invited a number of companies to participate in a problem brainstorming. On Duplo bricks, they noted the challenges they associated with greenhouse services or lack of same, and then they were asked to categorise the challenges. The exercise ended in a great construction of Duplo towers – some linked, others completely isolated. It helped show which problems were connected and gave a visual overview of how much space the individual problems occupied. Duplo bricks helped BDC to become smarter about the issues they should focus on if they were to succeed in creating an attractive service experience for the region’s entrepreneurs. They found, for example, that the use of the word ‘free’ in promoting consultancy services created mistrust and perceptions of less-than-competent advice.


Duplo bricks helped Væksthus Syddanmark to target their service to entrepreneurs’ real needs.

4) Put yourself in another’s place and get ideas that work

If you are working strategically with your target group, you already know that it’s a motley bunch. What works for one user does not necessarily have a great effect on the next user. But it can be difficult to keep track of a variety of users’ perceived needs when you have to solve a problem that ideally should have been solved yesterday. In this instance, it can be a good exercise to force oneself to stand in the users’ shoes. For example, it can be a good idea to make use of ‘extreme’ target group representatives, for example an auto enthusiast who owns four cars and has never used public transport, when you need to develop new public transport services. If you can succeed in getting that person on the bandwagon, then you’ve come a long way.

Design games can be the means to provide a quick reminder of your target group’s diversity. The game can help you to determine which target group you should aim for. It can create a framework for systematic and strategic discussions of how your target audience will react to various new approaches and ideas, without it being dangerous and having immediate consequences. Design games, for example, can take on the character of a management tool that can strengthen the selection and deselection of directions for one’s development work.

Example: Put different archetypes into play and get new perspectives

An example of a design game that has supported idea development from the point of view of looking for different target groups can be seen in a case from the Odense Municipality School Administration. In the wake of the new school reform launch, a number of initiatives were implemented to ensure that the reform got off to the best possible start in the municipality. In this context, the Administration, in collaboration with MindLab, created a snapshot of the dilemmas the teachers experienced. School headmasters in the municipality were asked to play a game where they were given the opportunity to work with how they could best address the most difficult current dilemmas. The game contained a number of visual cards with archetypal teaching staff characters. For example, the administrators were presented with ‘the Worried Teacher’ who, with good reason, resisted change in the workday, as well as ‘the Strategist’, who sought tools to translate the reform’s content into concrete practice in the classroom. The game gave school leaders a common reference point and the opportunity to test strategic decisions about which measures were necessary, there and then, if the reform were to be helped on its way.


A design game gave headmasters in Odense Municipality the opportunity to prioritise all the different measures that right now are to help get the school reform underway.

5) Play your way to a diversity of ideas

When new ideas and solutions are to be developed, it is often a mantra that one should ‘think outside the box’, support wild and unconventional ideas and do away with the tendency to focus too much on what can be done within the existing framework. It sounds easy, but it is often a severe discipline in practice. You can quickly end up mired in the same ideas, perhaps because you end up basing idea development on the challenges and user needs that you yourself identify with. Perhaps you’ve already fallen in love with one of the ideas, so alternatives are overshadowed. In this case, design games can be an intervention for experimenting your way to new perspectives and ideas, where by using simple methods you can create space and will to think creatively and untraditionally. One approach might be to let oneself be inspired by completely different sectors, industries or professional backgrounds during idea development, and this is where service analogies are an effective means to play with reality.

It can be a good idea to think of examples from other services that you associate with good and positive experiences. Think about why the service works, when you have been pleasantly surprised, and what causes you to recommend it to others.

Example: Let service analogies inspire you to new ideas

The KL Consultancy (KLK) and the design bureau 1508 have implemented a number of concrete development processes in interacting collaboration with Århus, Odense and Haderslev municipalities with the aim of inspiring and training municipal managers and employees to create targeted, user-driven innovation. In order to get municipalities to change their familiar ways of thinking and acting, service analogies were introduced as part of idea development for new municipal services.

The project participants were asked to let themselves be inspired by the expectations and experiences of other situations on the basis of questions such as “What if your service took place in the manner of a trip to the supermarket?” or “What if your service was like flying first-class on an airline?” The questions were supplemented by visual mood boards, which made it easy to be inspired by the well-functioning elements from other services.


In Århus Municipality, work has been done to optimise meal services for the elderly who live at home. As a step in developing new meal services, administration and staff worked with service analogies, whereby they let themselves be inspired by questions such as “What if the seniors’ meal time was arranged as a picnic?”

Read more about the municipal innovation process here.


  1. If you do not sum up, knowledge will be lost

To play is a unique intervention to create motivation, empathy and a common focal point for finding new paths together. The difficult, tedious or conflict-ridden take a rest. But the game’s playful form has a built-in risk that there will be no summarising, writing down, assigning of responsibility or final decision-making, causing participants to lack simple information for later use. The game would be detached from the real and more consequential work.

Therefore, always think about how you will incorporate and assemble what the participants produce or arrive at along the way in the game. It might be an idea to make a video of the game, a sound recording of the discussions or incorporate posters or playing cards that participants fill in along the way as a recap.

         2. Complicated rules easily end up taking over instead of the content

If there are too many rules, detailed point systems or a complicated game setup, they can take over and become misguided goals in themselves. Then game participants will go after points, begin to cheat or become irritated with one another over the rules of the game. In that way, the rules or points surpass the game’s significance and overshadow its real purpose.

The moral of the story is: When a game is developed, it must be simple. Participants should be able to easily and intuitively play the game and maybe actually even create rules along the way. The game should serve as a framework for discussions, not as an end in itself.

  1. Games cannot solve everything at once

Not everything lends itself to games. The overtly seductive elements that make the game effective can also be its weakness. If a design game is over-ambitious and not dedicated a priori to a well-delimited field, the game in itself can take over, but without bringing the participants decisively farther. The game should never be an end in itself. It must be a well-designed means to a decisive end.

The moral of the story is: Select a delimited problem or area in relation to which you want to rework or develop action tracks.

  1. No game without thorough preparation

To create something together may be the most important goal when a game is started. Therefore, preparations can sometimes be at least as important as the game itself. For example, if a game contains elements, where the participants’ target groups or stakeholders are to be described, it is not necessarily the game facilitator who should describe them, but the participants themselves.

The moral of the story is: Think about whether participants can develop content for the game’s subcomponents in advance. It is important that the game be the participants’ own and not an extra disruptive layer apart from the real, important work.

  1. Games must not be colourful for fun

Games are and should be visual and inspiring to work with, but it is important that the game be simple and easy to understand and use. Too many colours, game pieces and other items may interfere with and draw attention away from the real purpose. For example, if there are multiple colours, it is worth considering whether they constitute a point in themselves or whether any of them can be dispensed with.

The moral of the story is: Keep it simple! Think about each component of the game and consider whether it can be done more simply. Cut down on the components and, for example, leave some of the cards or the pieces blank, so the participants themselves can fill them in.

Good links to articles

Brandt E. (2006, August). Designing exploratory design games: a framework for participation in participatory design? In Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Participatory design: Expanding boundaries in design, Volume 1 (pp. 57-66). ACM. Find it here.

An early theorist and one of the founders of design games, architect N. John Habraken’s: Habraken NJ, Gross MD. (1988). Concept design games. Design Studies, 9 (3), 150-158. Find it here.

Sanders EBN, Stappers PJ. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. 5-18). Find it here.

Links to books about design methods and design games:

Rehearsing the future – research project at the Danish Design School, concerning design methods and user-driven innovation. Find it here.

Design for policy. Article collection with contributions from academia, design practitioners and public managers about design methods as an impetus to development in the public sector. Especially Danish Design School Research Assistant Joachim Halse’s article: “Tools for ideation: Evocative visualization as drivers of the policy process”. Find it here.

Teaching service design methods to UNDP

The UN Development Program (UNDP) Moldova has over the last few years been working on integrating design methods in their work on development of the public sector. The UNDP Moldova professionals have developed a social innovation hub where new solution tracks are completed in close cooperation with the civil servants at both central and local levels of government.

Recently UNDP Moldova, in collaboration with Moldova e-Government Center, launched a lab, the so-called Mi Lab (Moldova Innovation Lab).The new lab will contribute to the integration of co-production and design methods in the daily practice of UNDP’s work in the region.

MindLab has collaborated with UNDP Moldova earlier in the process and visited the country again this year in December. MindLab facilitated learning sessions in the first couple of days of the visit, where civil servants from the central administration were taught design methods and other techniques to experiment in the search for better public solutions. Moldova’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Taxation and the State Chancellery office attended the learning sessions among others.

The last day was dedicated to developing sketches of how two specific public services could look like in the future in Moldova. Public officials from local and central levels worked together in the drafting of smoother ‘service journeys’ for citizens in need of the two specific public services.

A mayor of the small village Ciuciuleni participated in one of the learning sessions to get a feel for how the public system could accommodate easier access to help for local citizens in acute private economic crisis. At present the system in this public service area is extremely complex and the citizen is required to visit a number of different authorities. Sometimes it is impossible for the citizens to gather all the relevant documents and many give up on getting any financial assistance or receive so little economic compensation that the effort to get it seemed not worth it. A new service journey for material aid took shape during the final day of MindLab’s visit in Moldova.

Respresentatives from central public administration – National Social Insurance House and Territorial Chambers developed a concept for reengineering the service developed a new electronic service for the monthly childcare benefit service. Mapping the service outlined 26 steps to be passed for finally approving an application and enabling the citizen receiving the benefit. In the new solution that the citizens are no longer supposed to be ‘the postman’ between different stakeholders but instead will receive a coordinated and substantially simplified public service system through an online application platform where citizens will provide the minimum of information. The other data will be exchanged between the stakeholders in the back-office . The prototype of this new public service will be launched in the spring of 2015.

Read more about service design in Moldova in this blog post by Cristina Lisii og Dmitri Belan from the Social Innovation Hub.

Read more about the UNDP/MindLab collaboration on Cornelia Amihalachioae’s blog. Cornelia is Social Innovation Officer in Moldova e-Gov Centre



MindLab has previously collaborated with UNDP’s development unit, Knowledge and Innovation. Watch a short film about the collaboration here.


The serious business of setting up a lab

Something amazing is happening. The public sector innovation agenda is no longer exclusive and something that a few scattered believers are talking about in remote corners of the internet or at highly nerdish gatherings. Innovation, experimentation and alternative approaches are becoming the new normal.

A colleague who ran a workshop on setting up innovation-labs at a large OECD conference the other week reflected on a tweet from another participant. The tweet pointed to the fact that it seemed strange to discuss innovation in a room full of suits. My colleague’s perspective was that the fact that innovation and suits are no longer opposed is a victory for innovation rather than an indicator that the creativity is low when wearing a suit.

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Workshop on setting up innovation-labs at OECD conference.

At MindLab we notice the development with joy, because we have been around ever since user-centric methods for improving services and policies were just an unproven promise of better solutions. Now the world apparently has seen the needed share of results to convince administrations that setting up a lab may not be as big a risk as not doing it.

The trend has been there for a while. The UK has established a lab and many others with them. Latest Moldova has opened MiLab

Even more countries have been talking about it, mainly Western administrations. However more and more often the latter years I have been asked legitimate questions like “would it work in other cultures”, “what about developing countries”. My guess is that we will not have to wait long to be able to really compare across countries, cultures and levels of development. The list of potential labs-to-be is becoming longer every day. With deep interest and cheering them on I will follow the efforts that we now see on all continents.

When something becomes known by enough people it also becomes a part of the language, it even becomes a language in itself. Languages can fortunately be learned and we are part of the struggle and enthusiastic supporters to help translate where we can. However, a worry here could be that a word like “lab” potentially loses it´s meaning, a bit like it has happened to innovation. That the popularity of the word means that it will be applied onto anything that could do with a little popularity. Then we are at risk of not only hollowing a word but of discrediting the promise of effect and change.

So what is a lab and what should be considered if you wish to set up one? Besides reading this blog-post about license to act differently written by my colleague Jakob Schjørring , you may want to look at different crucial elements. It is not rocket-science, but it is not easy either. We can call these elements combined the innovation-framework or merely a handy model when you build up a new organization meant to experiment and offer alternative approaches. Helpful questions to consider before even setting out on this journey are:

  • To what extent and in what ways can innovation labs attribute something helpful to the work of public innovation?
  • What are the key conditions and attention points that need to be considered when dealing with the challenges of starting and running an innovation lab?
  • What characterizes the different lab approaches and what kind of approach works in relation to which challenges?
  • To what extent can we build labs for the long run that are considered a legitimate part of the infrastructure of the work of government?




Anyone who set out to build a lab should ask themselves why they want one. If they answer precisely it is quite easy to vision the criteria of success. The harder part is to choose what activities are fitted for lab-work and to define what resources, skills and narratives should characterize the lab to reach the goals. The governance structure is often a given, as administrations tend to decide that as the first thing. If it is so, the real question is how well supported the lab is in that structure and the consideration should be if there is a need for further support within or supportive partnerships with others.

It seems that labs are not only being sat up a lot of places- it also seems that the phenomenon is here to stay. The latter may be an in-build contradiction to note and consider. Any lab should strive to not only experiment and introduce alternatives for added value, but also to build up capacity in their administrations to long-term become redundant.

Read Nesta’s guide for setting up a lab:



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