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Governments Need a Design Policy

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Design has long gone from tinkering and sketching of auteurs in isolation to a powerful catalyzer of growth. And over the years the private sector has come to terms with the fact that design means business -- not a creative break. Today, a host of fortune 500 companies, including Target, Nike and Apple, are likely to crumble without their highly professionalized design approach.

What is largely unknown is that the public sector has been on that same voyage of growth creation via design. Public policies are often depicted as a necessary evil for fixing market failures and seen as uncreative and stagnant. However, if we look around the world, most countries that have solid growth are countries where governments apply some level of design innovation in the public sector and do not limit themselves to just solving market failures, but actually develop strategies to direct public funding in particular innovative and impactful areas. Paradoxically, one of the most active governments in this respect is the U.S. government, usually depicted as being quintessentially market-oriented. From NASA putting a man on the moon, to DARPA developing what later became the Internet, the U.S. government, through a host of different public agencies, has provided direct financing not only of basic research but also public venture capital; both Apple and Tesla have received direct public funding. In each case it provided funding for very high risk investments, while the private players were biding their time.
Mariana Mazzucato discusses some of these examples in The Entrepreneurial State. She depicts how countries are growing thanks to an innovative public sector. How China, for example, is spending $1.7 trillion on key sectors, including sustainable technologies.

I believe that to further strategic growth and development via design we need to have a set of public design policies. When I mention this, I often get the question "What does design policy mean?"

The term 'design policy' is used in three different ways:

Policies that support the design industry. This could be policies that require hospital beds to be well-designed, which would in effect benefit the hospitalized, but mainly the design industry. A second understanding that is getting a lot of attention at the moment is to use design methods to develop public policy. This basically means applying a design methodology to policy making. The third approach is to make policies that enable design methods and designers to help better the state of the world; In other words making policies that do not help designers, but help them and their methods to help others. There are clear overlaps between the three, but the third is the one that really has substantial transformational ability.

Some ask why we should use design methodologies. Design thinking simply provides us with a powerful alternative approach, when it comes to redesigning policies and -- through those -- the world around us. A design-led approach to problem solving is very different to the usual management or policy approach. The nature of design is to synthesize disparate perspectives and create a richer end product through collaboration and iteration.

Design is an innovation enabler. As new drivers of innovation emerge, the role of design becomes increasingly important in creating work processes that enable solutions that are user-friendly for citizens. By using design competencies throughout the entire innovation process new products, services and concepts will be easier to understand and adopt by users. The new nature of design is thus merging with innovation practices. And using design as a strategic tool in the early phases of a development phase guarantees an end-user perspective.

While some countries have realized the importance of design, and even in some cases set-up design labs within ministries, like MindLab in Denmark, most policy makers are still not aware of the relevance of design innovation to public policy. Design's potential to contribute to creating better solutions for the global challenges we face today, is a story not told to many. That story needs to inspire governments to create optimal framework conditions. Governments need recognize the importance of design in policymaking.

Here is an example David Kester mentioned at an event organized by the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation during the INDEX awards: When the Department of Health in the UK was seeking to counter rising hospital insurance costs they chose a design approach. Increases in the number of incidents of violence or aggression in Accident and Emergency wards were pushing up premiums. In particular, incidents on staff were leading to lost staff days and, on occasions, costly litigation. A "design-thinking team" spent the best part of Christmas and New Year on Accident & Emergency wards observing patients and staff, codifying the issues and co-developing solutions. The creative teams were an unorthodox mix of designers, anthropologists, psychologists, front-line staff and health-care managers. They deconstructed the patient journey of "diagnosis and treatment" and applied the principles of "customer experience." Where they found that a lack of information was the heightening anxiety of patients and accompanying visitors, they filled in the gaps. No expensive technology or re-building was called for, simply low-cost graphic communication and staff training. The minimal outlay could be recouped many times over during its lifespan. Success was not only measured by the outcome but by the speed at which the innovation took place. Within nine months, in a highly sensitive and regulated area of healthcare, the team developed, prototyped and tested a practical system that received the support of clinicians, experts, patients and staff. Planned trials on three sites were scaled up to ten based on demand from hospital Accident and Emergency departments.

The example shows how this methodology will be effective in policy making and problem solving, especially as we face new economic, social, and environmental pressures. Applying this methodology to policy-making will play a central role in building the mentality, relationships, and processes for sustainable growth in the global economy.

A handful of countries in Asia and Europe have national design policies in place. These policies are mainly about national competitiveness. This is a good beginning. However, we risk a zero-sum game if all nations' design policy goals are just about out-competing neighboring nations and we don't leverage trans-national cooperation. I believe a broader global perspective is needed - one that also embraces collaboration and leverages the unique contributions of different nations to collectively solve some of the world's most intractable problems via design. I hope policy makers will start to grasp the significance of design for public good. Ultimately, I believe we need a set of global design policy principles that would set creativity free to solve present and future global challenges.