It was often a challenge for me to offer up early stage prototypes made out of cardboard and balloons at the end of an innovation day, but at least people could see things. What was I supposed to do on radio, when listeners would just be listening to the rustle and pop of our prototyping equipment?
This was the immediate challenge I was left with when I was invited to facilitate and co-present a BBC Radio 4 series called “The Fix” on how design practices such as ours (and increasingly used across the world by Governments in Denmark, the UK, Singapore, France and Mexico) can tackle tough social challenges, such as childhood obesity, alcohol consumption, affordable housing and reducing re-offending. As I listened to the brief, more opportunities plus related challenges started to appear.
My task was to take three teams of non-experts from a variety of different professions (data scientists, ethnographers, artists, economists, designers, entrepreneurs, etc) who hadn’t met each other before, through a day-long design process to create never-before-thought-of solutions to some of the UK’s age-old and trickiest problems. (Why did I agree again?) Let’s take these one by one:
- Non-experts can challenge the status quo. These age-old, tricky problems are stubborn. Clearly the current system is not working. Why not ask someone from outside the field of expertise? Quite often lateral thinking (borrowing an idea from another field or sector) unlocks the key to new thinking. However, they don’t have a first clue about the issue, so we did have to find engaging ways of quickly immersing them in the evidence and what it feels like to be someone experiencing the problem. For example, asking them to eat a teenagers’ average food diary, speed consult with an expert, and use a persona (oh, and the good, old-fashioned report reading).
- Different backgrounds bring different perspectives. Everyone will approach a problem from a different perspective, which opens up the space for more solutions. Kenya Hara’s exhibition ‘Designing Design’ asked designers from different fields (fashion, product, graphic, etc.) to come up with alternatives to everyday products from their perspective. An architect who had worked with corrugated iron in Africa to save water brought across this thinking to a toilet roll; made the inner circle square; and saved loads of paper (through it not endlessly rolling when you pull it), and transportation space. But, people from different background speak different languages. A neuroscientist might see memory as something fluid that can fade away; a computer scientist might see it as a hard, recorded thing that cannot be deleted.
- They have never met each other before! I was lucky enough to find some quite incredible people to invite – “the best and brightest young talent in the UK” by going through my twitter feed and professional network. Amazing as they all were (and they really were), they still needed to take time to get to know each other, to form, storm, norm and perform – and they only had a day. Not rushing straight in is as much about getting to the root cause of the problem as it is about building trust and relationships with who you are working with.
So we took them on a design process to help them get there. Governments are indeed trying to get policymakers to adopt this approach. Sometimes I don’t think it is much different from really good policymaking in theory (speaking as a well-schooled policymaker from the Government graduate scheme over a decade ago). But more often than not it doesn’t happen in practice because policymakers have a fairly narrow perspective on things. And this is how design can broaden it:
- Discover: Looking at things from a user’s perspective, putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is actually experiencing the problem. This is often the time when I see policymakers’ eyes open wide!
- Define: Getting to the root cause of the problem, not just addressing the symptom but the cause which often might lie far outside a policymakers’ own remit (and therefore require getting a partner to do something, often without giving them any money – which requires influencing skills).
- Develop: Being fun and creative in generating ideas. I’ve learned so much from others here. The trick is to be playful, to make people think that it is a bit silly so they can say the unthinkable (which is probably what is needed to address time-old problems). What would be the worst way to address childhood obesity? What would Sheryl Sandburg do? What would a 6 year old do?
- Deliver: So many times I’ve written lofty strategy documents that say nothing in reality, or we’ve got stuck in intangible, tricky conversations about data, or governance, which no-one can progress from. What about making a thing? Matthew Taylor – my co-presenter, questioned me about this constantly. “Sorry, you’re actually asking someone to make an idea out of pipe cleaners? In my many years of Government, I’ve never seen a Minister being asked to play with Lego!”. Very true. But over the week, he also came up with a great articulation of why prototyping (or mocking something up small scale) matters. It’s for clarification and progress. When ideas are in people’s heads, they could all be imagined differently, and no-one knows. Visualising it clarifies that everyone is on the same page (or not) so you can move on. Making something, even if not perfect, gets you to the investigate the next stage of the problem.
After three of these days in a week, I was completely exhausted. I spent Sunday on my sofa watching rubbish films and doing some more intellectual reflecting:
- In order to get truly radical or innovative ideas, you might have to keep ‘deliverability’ out of the question until the very last moment. Our first session had this as an important criteria, and the ideas were deemed too incremental. Let the innovation people do the innovation, and then let the policymakers do the pragmatism. Also as this was for radio we wanted entertainment and provocation as much as deliverability.
- As anyone working in this sphere will know, co-design produces ‘germs’ of the idea, and not the ‘silver bullet’ that everyone is looking for. It’s really crucial to have the ‘challenge owners’, or people’s whose jobs it is to solve these problems, at the table so they can take these sapling ideas and grow and mature them. Having said that, over the month since the workshops, we’re taking forward one of the ideas with a local hospital and a big national body has announced its contribution to another. So there is value in this type of speculation.
- It’s important to have ideas and provocations up your sleeve! Sometimes people get stuck in a rut. The sense of panic and worry when you get to 3pm and a team realises their idea is neither innovative or impactful is palpable. They only met 7 hours before and don’t know much about this subject for goodness sake! The facilitator’s job is to keep the energy up at this point – they will get there. But giving them a helping hand, well… helps.
- Co-design can be great for all the reasons above, but it also can produce the lowest common denominator as everyone can compromise and the once-radical idea goes on a downward spiral to blandness. Are you designing for engagement and buy-in? Or for innovation? If the latter, it might be better to end the process sooner, thank people, go away and design something and come back and test it with them.
I’ve been quite quiet I know about the ideas that were emerging. That’s because I’m not allowed to say! You’ll have to listen to “The Fix”, BBC Radio 4, 8pm Wednesdays from 16 August, for a month.
And can I just say that I am incredibly grateful to and inspired by Adam St-John Lawrence, Beatrice Andrews, Andrea Siodmok, Francis Rowland, Matthew Taylor and all of the Uscreates team for all of these thoughts and techniques and BBC Radio Four for exploring a new format for solutions journalism.
Cat Drew is Uscreates’ Delivery Director. She oversees delivery and direction of projects by using data and design techniques, ensuring that they link to the client’s wider strategic objectives and deliver impact. Previously Cat was a senior policy advisor at Policy Lab, working with government departments to promote design-based techniques in policymaking, and Head of Policy IT & Digitisation Policy at the Home Office. She was responsible for supporting police forces to digitally transform their services and processes by working with tech experts and other forces to co-design digital capabilities that set out what a digital force looks like. Prior to that Cat was Head of Neighbourhood Policing at the Home Office, and a researcher at IPPR.