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Jesper Christiansen

How Public Design?: enabling a new kind of conversation #1

By September 16th 2013

MindLab hosted the seminar titled ‘How Public Design?’ for the second time on 2 and 3 September. This event gathered a distinguished group of decision-makers, researchers, experts and consultants of social change. As the previous event, the theme itself was subject to continuous reflection: what was ‘how public design’ actually referring to? Most of the participants could agree that we were talking about a particular kind of ‘human-centered design’ approach. But was it a specific kind of thinking, process or method? Was it about exploring and characterizing a specific mentality or even personality as a ‘public designer’? Or was ‘public design’ perhaps a way of reframing ‘public sector change’ or ‘public policy’?

Question the current ways of developing the public sector

After two days of intense discussion on the theme, it was clear that this vague headline of the seminar served the purpose of “expanding the discourse”, as one of the seminar participants Charles Leadbeater (author, UK) phrased it. This expansion involved not only bringing new sets of concepts, tools and values to inspire the development and implementation of public policies or bringing about valuable change in society more generally. But by being open to interpretation, the concept of design also allowed for a conversation that dared to question the current ways of dealing with public problems.

Mobilize society to create valuable solutions

This conversation includes talking about how to ‘reform’ public governance and going beyond the rhetoric of system change. Joeri van der Steenhoven (MaRS Solutions Lab, CAN) has in his post-seminar reflections pointed to a new role of government that, rather than developing solutions for society, plays a key role in building capacity and mobilizing society to create valuable solutions. A part of this is to develop and sustain a new kind of learning or design attitude among civil servants to explore new ways of enabling citizens and other actors of society to co-produce better public outcomes. In trusted relationships, design-led agencies have a role to play in terms of embedding this new attitude along with the processes, skills and methods that go with it.

Do we agree on the same ends?

But what, more concretely, should be embedded and why? Sarah Schulman (Kennisland, NL) reminds us in her post-seminar reflections of the risk of ‘design’ becoming another technical instrument of governance rather than also addressing the ethical aspects of public problems. As she writes: “Do we actually share the same conception of ‘good’ public services? And for which pressing social challenges? In other words, do we agree on the same ends? Or just on the same design-led means?”. Schulman and others attending the seminar highlighted that human-centered design has a role to play in order to pursue a better understanding of the implications of public sector interventions, revealing a more nuanced, illustrative and in-depth description of everyday human and social living. In other words, enabling a different conversation about the possibilities and risks involved when the public sector intervenes in the lives of citizens.

Create new conversations with citizens

This conversation, Hilary Cottam (Participle, UK) argues, is really about relationships. In her post-seminar reflection, she points to the unusual nature of the way that Jørgen Clausen, the city-manager of Odense municipality, framed the challenge of Odense going forward. He focused on numbers, but not on the traditional statistical indicators of the increasing pressure on public budgets. Instead, he began his presentation by talking about the cities’ 1,000 leaders and 16.000 employees – “the people that make his city sing”, as Cottam formulates it. This is really a way of introducing ‘numbers of potential’. These are the people that need to have new conversations to build new kinds of relationships with the citizens and with each other. Jørgen Clausen saw himself and other executives in the public sector as being responsible for enabling the conversations.

The challenge, in this light, seems to be to continuously inform the conversations by exploring, illustrating and working with the ethical and relational dimensions of public service systems. Conversations that might begin with the question ‘How public design’?

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