Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes and Thoughts From The ‘Designing Growth’ Event

As part of Design Week 2013, Dublin City Council’s Pivot Dublin organised ‘Designing Growth’ – a panel discussion on how design could be harnessed to drive growth in Ireland. The event was promoted as “a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design”. These are my notes from the evening’s discussion, along with some further thoughts on my ongoing investigations of Design Thinking.

Four of the five panellists were international speakers:
Marco Steinberg, Founder of Snowcone & Haystack
Robin Edman, CEO of the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation
Maureen Thurston, Design Principal at Deloitte Australia
Enrique Avogadro, Head of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Design District

The fifth panellist was John Moran, the Secretary General of the Department of Finance. Representing the beneficiaries, rather than the providers, of ‘Design Thinking’, John was asking the skeptical questions about what precisely that methodology could add to the public sector and to broader state policy.

Ali Grehan, Dublin City Architect and Pivot Dublin representative, set the scene by positioning the evening’s event as the starting point for a conversation about a national vision for design. She expressed her belief that Ireland needs to develop a National Design Strategy which addresses our specific context and our particular needs. She stressed that in forming such a strategy we should learn as much as we can from international best practice: hence the panel of international speakers.

Some initial definitions of ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’

Steinberg — Design brings coherence to things. In terms of public policy, ‘Design Thinking’ is another tool to better ensure that the policies you build are robust and fit for purpose. Design Thinking is useful for creating simpler solutions (that is, better solutions). In many regards designers can contribute like economists and engineers, by adding their expertise into a collective process. For example, one of their useful roles on a team is to be the ‘proposition-based’ thinkers; in counterpoint to the ‘analysis-based’ thinkers.

Edman — The key differentiator of ‘Design Thinking’ is that you do not just step through your process and once you have ticked-off all of the actions on your checklist then you are done. With Design Thinking you are stepping into the unknown: you need to be brave. You must iterate and learn as you go along, without knowing precisely where the process is eventually going to lead you.

Thurston — The value of ‘Design Thinking’ can be as an alternative to traditional problem-solving methodologies. More people need to understand and appreciate the values and utility of Design Thinking within the earlier ‘Problem-Finding’ and ‘Problem-Defining’ stages; before using it in to the more expected ‘Problem-Solving’ stage.  A key benefit of teaching people to use Design Thinking is they then learn to approach problems with an open mind, rather than relying upon bringing along their pre-considered solutions (even when such solutions have proved effective for similar problems in the past).

On Promoting Design

Edman’s argument was to stop attempting to promote the Irish design industry and Irish designers. Do not elevate them onto a pedestal and then promote them using the lingua franca of the design sector. Rather you need to promote ‘Design’ by focusing on the buyers of, and the users of, design. (At the same time, he added that the Irish design sector does need to raise its game and learn to position its design services at a higher level, so that it can then become a welcomed contributor to government policy-forming.)

Steinberg on Public Sector and Policy

In my view, Marco Steinberg was the most engaging of the four ‘Design Thinking’ panelists on the night. His particular areas of focus seemed most concerned with public services.

“Redesigning public service can no longer just be about making your existing processes and services increasingly efficient any more. Given the scale of cuts over recent years you now need to totally rethink many public services from the ground up. One critical question then becomes: what is the skill-set needed to re-imagine, re-invent and transform your public services at the required scale?

Too much of existing policy-making uses a general vernacular design process (“This is how we do it” and “It is just common sense”). There is a discipline of ‘Design For Policy’ which is about formally leveraging Design Thinking as part of your policy-making process. You can use those methods to investigate and address these three questions to solve policy issues in an integrated manner:

  • What is your culture?
  • What are your tools? 
  • What are your procedures? 

Policy-makers need to become far more comfortable playing with ideas and with failing. Learning to fail is critical to the Design Thinking methodology. Then, failing faster is a key way of learning and ultimately becoming wiser.”

Steinberg noted that when he advances that particular line of argument he often gets a lot of push-back from the public sector. In their view they do explore already, and they do iterate to develop new initiatives, and they do pilot them. While that may indeed be the case, he argues that cycle times need to be questioned, as most are far too slow. As an example, he claimed that some global corporations may iterate aspects of their services 15 times in a single day.

There is a need is to innovate government itself and ultimately to change the culture of the public sector. For example, he asked, what if the public sector tried to move from providing services to providing platforms, along the lines of the Kickstarter model? This could be a mechanism that channels activism into something more useful. As most activism tends to burn-out over the longer term unfortunately.

A mission critical question is where would such an innovative design capability exist? If you place it at the centre of your public service then it will be crushed by incumbents and vested interests. If you place it on the outside it will be seen as separate and ultimately irrelevant. The optimal point is at the periphery. If it operates along the edges (near delivery of services?) then it will have more of a chance of being effective and engendering substantive change.

John Moran Responds

“A post-crisis Ireland has to be open to reinvention. So we do need the design-process mindset more than ever before. We have to redesign a lot of what Ireland does. We have to design a new economic model for this country. (We tried just selling houses to each other and that did not work out so well!) What I think ‘Design Thinking’ can contribute to that process is a Culture Of Innovation that can help us to find a way for this country to be the best that it can be.

I believe that the underlying ideas being discussed here are correct, but I remain unconvinced about the ‘Design Thinking’ label. What you all call ‘Design’ and ‘Design Thinking’, we simply call ‘Policy-Making’ within the Department of Finance. And I think that lots of other people in other areas already practice such ‘Design Thinking’ as well. Surely many applications of this methodology do not necessarily require designers. Within this new paradigm we have to ask who is a designer, and who is not a designer?”

My Own Thoughts

The topic of ‘Design Thinking’ (and its related field of Service Design) is something that I have an ongoing interest in. I have been wrestling with how to incorporate it into my own professional practice for some time. Its cross-disciplinary nature is a big part of its appeal to me. The fact that Design Thinking is just as a valid topic of investigation for business schools as it is for design educators is interesting. They are both converging on the same topic from different directions.

It is noteworthy that as senior a figure as the General Secretary of the Department of Finance is interested in engaging with design thinkers to investigate what benefits their methodology can contribute. It is disheartening when the design representatives can not then deliver a unified elevator pitch for the benefits of Design Thinking. In that sense I think that ‘Designing for Growth’ was somewhat of a lost opportunity. In my interpretation, one of the (perhaps unspoken) purposes behind this event was to move design thinkers a step closer to a seat at the Big Table.

After this event, I did find myself asking: if John Mahon had wholeheartedly embraced the idea of leveraging ‘Design Thinking’ methodologies within the policy-creating function of the Department of Finance – who would he then turn to for delivery of that service? Which, if any, Irish design firms actually can offer that service at the appropriate level today? Or is it being offered by any of the business strategy units within the large Irish management consultancies? Or would he have to look to international management consultancies at present?

There is also another interesting discussion to be had exploring the reality that there is going to be an inherent conflict between any efforts at bringing a lean, light, fast-moving, iterative, design-informed process into a public sector where innovation is still constrained by cautious, slow-moving procurement policies built to counteract financial prolificacy and wasteful spending. Where are the spaces for the sorts of experimentation needed to investigate the most ambiguous problems?

The malleability of the meanings of the words ‘Design’ and ‘Designer’ in this evening’s discussion has to be telling. The catch-all term ‘design’ being perhaps too all-inclusive to be truly useful in these kinds of discussions, given that it can signify a mindset, an activity, and a practice, as well as an atypically broad industry sector which includes many different sub-sectors of activity with vastly varying business models. (But, having said that, what other term could be used in its place?) As more activities are included within ever-broader definitions of ‘Design’, then the term becomes more vague and less useful. That breadth of definition may be part of what confuses the issue whenever trying to discuss topics such as ‘Design In Ireland’.

Although I think that it is still only somewhat loosely defined within the various design sectors, it seems clear that the phrase ‘Design Thinking’ does make sense within the industry as a useful differentiator that allows certain designers to position themselves higher up the stack and so to capture greater value. So within the design sectors that phrase can be a useful signifying differentiator which is understood as being contrasted against other forms of design activity. While I do not think that those other activities are considered to be ‘un-thinking’, those forms of design activity are necessarily set in counterpoint as being somewhat less analytical or rational. In every field of human activity we always have to account for the Narcissism Of Small Differences. Therefore it is unsurprising when, within the broad church of design, a rationalist tendency should seek mechanisms to define their activities as distinctly separate from (what we can refer to as) a more instinctual tendency.

The communicative problem then arises when that intra-sector signifier ‘Design Thinking’ has to be parsed and interpreted by the purchasers of design services. It seems probable that, rather than considering Design Thinking against other forms of designing, they are considering it against other forms of thinking. I suspect that was one factor informing John Moran’s comments this evening. So it seems to me that one open challenge for the design sector is to find a better way to explain ‘Design Thinking’ in a less self-referential manner.

Also, to gain broader acceptance of its various methodologies, it is important that ‘Design Thinking’ is not positioned as some form of panacea. That line of thinking is obviously nonsensical, but it does still tend to be a theme that these conversations can circle around. For that reason I found similarities between this event and the discussions at this Summer’s IxDA ‘Design & Thinking’ event.

To me ‘Design Thinking’ can be usefully understood as another tool in the mental toolkit, offering a different perspective that works best within a broader collective process. It can obviously be approached from many different directions, each dependent on the professional’s own expertise. My current notion (well, for today at least) is that some of the most useful manifestations of ‘Design Thinking’ may lie in collaborations between business strategists who can think creatively on one hand, and strategically-minded designers with a bias for integrated thinking on the other. But I still have a lot more thinking to do on this topic.


It took me a few weeks to carve out time to assemble my notes from the event into this post. That delay has had one benefit in that during the interval Clay Shirky posted his article ‘ and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality’. Shirky’s dissection of the mis-management of the Obamacare online service delivery is as strong an argument as any I have read for the benefits of an iterative, prototyping and testing-based methodology for public services.

Read Pivot Dublin’s own review of this event here.


It is important to clarify that all of the attributed statements in this post are paraphrased from my own (fairly concise) notes and none are verbatim quotations. As usual, if I have seriously misquoted anyone please do let me know.