This week I attended the How Public Design? conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was organized by MindLab, the Danish design lab that has been an inspiration to many in social and public sector innovation.

MindLab had gathered a small but global crowd, from countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands and Canada, most of whom were running innovation labs, such as Nesta27th RegionKennislandStanford ChangeLabs and DESIS Lab at Parsons the New School for Design. The conference looked at design-led approaches to innovation in government.

The central question was: Where to go next?

Here are some of the lessons I took home.

Design thinking fits into the kind of challenges that governments face today. These challenges require change on a systems level and are so complex that governments cannot solve them on their own. But as Philip Colligan of Nesta’s Innovation Lab said: We need to go beyond the rhetoric. Around the world, we can see the rise of a new type of government, one that is more experimental and hybrid. When facing the complex challenges of our time, governments need to rethink, reposition and literally reform themselves.

Design-led approaches can help with this as follows:

  1. They can provide citizen-centred, non-institutional perspectives to these challenges, open up new possibilities and give governments a much better understanding of what is really going on with citizens today.
  2. Design-led approaches can help by connecting governments to partners in society with the goal of tackling challenges together. This will lead to more hybrid structures within government and to the sharing of responsibilities with society. The role of government in this day and age is not to solve the problems of society, but rather to mobilize society to develop solutions. They should govern not for the people, but with the people.
  3. Design-led approaches can help by offering opportunities to experiment with new solutions and policies. Design thinking is about understanding a problem by trying to solve it. The challenges that governments face today are too complex to get to solutions right away. We need to experiment, learn and then scale. It is a model that can be supported by design labs because it requires space and support to go outside of the traditional manner of doing business.

How do we make this work?

How to make this work?To make this work we really need to connect design-led approaches with the ways in which governments operate. One of the main functions of a lab is to help governments innovate.

As Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco Public Sector pointed out, labs need to start with a good understanding of the way that government works as well as a respect for government’s complexity. It does not serve well to disregard and disrespect what governments do or how they are organized. Their job is a difficult one.

That is why Kit Lykketoft of MindLab warned against wanting to revolutionize governments. This will only create resistance and more gridlock. We need to show empathy and help governments to transform themselves in smart ways, step-by-step. Labs are there to support that process, which can take years and a lot of work.

What is the impact of labs?

Further, we need to be clear about what impact we are trying to achieve and about what we are actually achieving. Labs can be powerful tools in helping tackle complex challenges and there is a growing interest in this concept from many governments around the world. But if labs want to stay relevant for the long term and help governments to tackle these often huge challenges, we need to show real results.

We need to get better social outcomes for less public resources, because that is the overarching problem that governments face today. With a growing field of labs around the world, there is growing evidence that design-led approaches can help overcome challenges. We need to collect and analyze—but also show and share—that evidence.

We also need to constantly assess our own work and our roles, and to be clear on exactly what impact we are trying to achieve. We need to keep reflecting on and redesigning our own methods. We need to have a learning attitude.

Chris Sigaloff of Kennisland posed three questions that we should always ask ourselves when working on complex challenges:

  • Where to start?
  • How to do it?
  • And to what purpose?

It’s also important to not get caught up by our own discourses. We must avoid the danger of becoming self-obsessed. As both Charles Leadbeater and Eduardo Staszowski of Parsons the New School for Design stated, we need to expand our discourse. For instance, we must recognize that there is also a political component to our work that needs to be taken into account.

Where should labs be positioned?

Finally, one of the discussions we had at the conference was about positioning labs. Should innovation labs exist inside or outside of government? We concluded that both have pros and cons. It also depends on the goals that a particular lab is pursuing. Either way, we need to build trusted partnerships with governments as well as with all of the people and organizations in society that we need to collaborate with to develop new solutions. We need to prove to both government and society the clear value of what labs can do to help solve the complex challenges of our time. That will be the key to our success.

Join us on September 16 at the event Innovation Ecosystems and Cleantech in Europe

On Monday, September 16, please join us at this MaRS Global Leadership event for further discussions on innovation and government. Frans Nauta, the deputy director of entrepreneurship for Climate-KIC, the largest public-private partnership on climate change in Europe, will give a lecture on innovation ecosystems with a focus on climate change.

He will present his views on the role of government in innovation and will also explain what is currently happening in Europe. Frans was previously the innovation secretary of the prime minister in the Netherlands and studied the role of government and public-private partnerships in innovation as a professor of innovation management.

For further information about this event and to register, please visit the event page.

Feature photo credit: Adapted Course-to-Co-op Lifecycle by opensourceway CC BY-SA 2.0

Joeri van den Steenhoven

Joeri is the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…