Is maintenance-by-design possible?

The author, Kurt Vonnegut once observed,

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Having advised and worked in a number of organisations in different sectors, I’m with Vonnegut on this — building new, shiny things is often privileged over maintenance and re-use. In the digital and data spheres, the consequence of this is the sort of technical debt that is recognised as an issue in the public sector as well as the private and charitable sectors too.

Addressing this tendency was the focus of last October’s GDS-hosted Government Design Meetup. The meetup explored:

  1. the implications of a build rather than a maintain-and-reuse culture;
  2. how financial and political drivers create environments that can either reinforce or disrupt (either of) these cultures and
  3. practical steps for creating and transitioning to a more maintenance-(and re-use) oriented culture

It was a brilliant event; the talks and discussions were fun and thought-provoking. So much so, I’ve found my mind returning to the ideas, challenges and opportunities covered at the event. Buoyed by them, I thought I’d have a go at writing a short blog post about the meetup.

Thoughts on the talks and discussions

I was one of five speakers/panelists; the others were:

  1. Simon Elmer, co-founder and director of Architects for Social Housing
  2. Elisa Magnini from Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation team
  3. Dr Bella Nguyen, from Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation team
  4. Geraldine Denning, co-founder and director of Architects for Social Housing (who joined the post-talk discussion)

I felt that Simon and Geraldine perfectly highlighted how financial (e.g. growing financialisation of UK housing) and political (e.g. housing revenue account borrowing cap) factors can so effectively shape industry thinking as to create a de facto way of doing things that crowds out alternative approaches. In other words, the fact that ‘demolish and re-build’ is the dominant approach to regeneration doesn’t mean it’s the best way of addressing the current housing crisis. It simply means it’s the approach that works most easily in the financial and political system we’ve created. Simon and Geraldine aren’t alone in making these points but I found their reference to real-life examples made their arguments easier to understand. I really liked that they didn’t simply critique the status quo, they also talked about viable alternatives. They’ve written a lot on this so you can check out their blog if you’re interested.

Elisa and Bella broadened the conversation beyond the built environment to the physical-digital hybrid that IoT-enabled digital twinning makes possible. Digital twinning could allow us to glean useful insights about how people actually use buildings. Such insights could help us to optimise our approach to maintenance and inform our approach to sustainable building more generally. Like, Simon and Geraldine they highlighted the structural drivers of seemingly irrational behaviour; most powerfully, as an explanation for why approaches that would create a built environment capable of support a circular economy aren’t always seriously pursued or adopted.

Things I said

Me, speaking.

I think my talk complemented those of the other speakers which, given that I interact with other speakers before the event, is testament to the impressive curation skills of the team behind the London Gov Design Meetup. Below, I’ve had a go at outlining the gist of what I said. Also, the slides I presented are available too.

  1. Who we are, how we work and our assumptions about the world shape the services we build. I know, I know, this is the kind of observation that gets filed under ‘duh!’. But, a bit like the proverbial fish that aren’t really aware they’re wet, I think we quickly stop seeing the impact of our environment and I think that’s not a great place to be.
  2. A focus on services is important because they’re the data engines of government. They always have been but the digital transformation agenda had the effect of ramping this up. If we’re serious about creating a (responsibly) data-driven government then we need to extend the excellent service design culture, that already exists in government, to the design of the data life cycle and its artifacts.
  3. Doing this right requires us to be cognizant of the things that actively get in the way of that. On the plus side, these things aren’t new, it’s the usual suspects: money, skills, governance and infrastructure. Their familiarity doesn’t necessarily make them less thorny but it does mean we know what to expect and we can re-apply techniques that have worked in other settings.
  4. Take data infrastructure for example, at the macro level, very few government organisations’ infrastructure* are able to support easy, standardised access to datasets or collaborative, team-based analytics aka Analytic Ops. This has an unfortunate knock-on effect on trust in and re-use of others’ models or more basically, data analyses. Further, at the micro level, many of the productivity tools that civil servants have to are designed to support highly individualised, localised ways of working. *Governance plays a role too.
  5. One of the best KPIs for the sort of maintenance-by-design culture I’m advocating is the emergence of a vibrant data commons. This would increase the likelihood that we’ll see the very necessary improvements in data quality and data re-use which, combined with great service design, should mean fewer errors in service delivery and improved user experience.
  6. Intentional design of the data life cycle and the artifacts it generates is so important. Growing awareness of the use and misuse of data coupled with the right to information that GDPR affords users, are shaping more clearly defined user needs for transparency and explainability. Meeting this need well will require more the understanding, empathy and holistic view that the user-centred design practitioners can bring to bear.
  7. I finished with some recommendations for how we can make things better as well as reasons that I remain hopeful and excited. My key recommendation and reason for hope both centred on ongoing efforts to build practitioner-led communities that strive to grow the data and digital commons in government. Government Design Meetup is just one example of this effort. Long may they continue.