The Evolution toward Systems-centred Design in our Cities

We need to start investing in ‘Systems-centred Design’, alongside Digital and Service Design, to make big leaps forward in the quality of citizens lives and outcomes in our cities

When I started looking at challenges in city innovation a year ago, I noticed something odd. Everyone was evangelising Digital and Service Design, two great theories that have enabled organisations to build and deploy more user-centred digital services across our cities. But no one was talking about ‘systems-centred design’ in our cities.

And that’s the problem. The smart cities challenge is not a linear challenge; it’s one of inter-organisational complexity and it needs a design theory to guide us through this. Systems-centred design is in its infancy and largely academic, but it needs to be booted up and generalised for the masses quickly. It needs its own design principles, methodologies, communities and evangelists. All organisations should be investing in this alongside existing design theories if they’re serious about integration, productivity and better services for citizens in our cities.

But two design theories are hogging all the attention right now for organisations hoping to improve citizen services and efficiency in city-regions. Here’s a quick overview of how they both grew in popularity, before introducing what we need to complement them with — more investment in systems-centred design.

Act 1. First, technology gave us Digital Design

This was the design theory that started it all. It kicked off in the late noughties. Website creation had bellowed. By now, a lot of people had completed their first transaction on Amazon. Facebook was still considered a social platform, rather than an advertising platform. WiFi was becoming ubiquitous. The share of new Smart Phone sales was creeping past 12% and slowly denting Nokia’s Feature Phone sales. Our daily time tethered to the Internet growing. The enabler? Digital Design.

Advances in technology meant that users could now self-serve themselves on their own devices through a number of clicks. And the trick that digital designer’s practiced, was to make the appeal of completing transactions on a digital device more convenient, less time consuming and less costly than completing them in person.

The benefits of digital design are measured in cost per transaction, which generally decreases toward zero as the upfront and fixed costs of software development and hardware are used across more online transactions. The new method of online transactions gradually replaced the repetitive manual intervention of human-beings servicing customers and fiddling with recording the transaction after the speaking part was complete. Old ways replaced by the new. Human vs. Capital.

Realising this, industry had a thought.

“How do we deploy this technology quicker to bring forward the benefits and reduce our costs?”

And so it goes. Digital design became ‘a thing’.

Dedicated groups of special enforcers sprung up all over the place and in all industries, eventually including the public sector. Terms like ‘enabling channel shift’ and ‘digital by default’ crept into management speak. Benefits were measured, front offices were restructured, citizens now had the power to serve themselves supported by their own personal device, some code, and the internet.

Act 2. Then, technology gave us Service Design

I took a couple of years out of consulting and I missed the explosion in Service Design practitioners for our cities – the latest off-the-shelf playbook for designers looking to improve customer services.

Process Improvement was deemed to be too occupied with leaning out processes – an end in itself – not considerate enough of the impact on ‘end users’. Service design would be focused firmly on improving the customer experience. Service designers would begin to develop methods for re-designing services according to the needs of the customer and the capability of the service provider.

Service designers would finely balance making a service user-friendly but competitive for the service provider.

Complementary services would spring up to supplement the practice of Service Design. UX Service Design would introduce practices to enhance the Digital Experience; applying more appealing visual design to our desktop and smartphone interfaces; informing the decision of graphic design students to retrain.

The UK led on service design globally in the early noughties, with specialist firms initially focused on financial (LiveWork), hospitality and travel (Engine) and public services (Us-Creates). Government began to gradually take more interest. In the US and UK, digital service departments, like GDS, came into existence and started sowing service design on their banners.

Which, if it were a literal banner drawing, would probably be a group of smiling customers holding hands and laughing with service providers in a circle of trust and satisfaction.

Government wrote open Service Manuals to share the good word of Service Design far and wide. More private agencies sprung up to evangelise, train and supplement government skill gaps in something they promised would deliver results and take everyone on the pleasant journey to the promised land; the holy nirvana of user-centred services.

Act 3. In the future, cities will be driven by Systems-centred Design

IIndividual organisations are now well on their journey to achieving the benefits to be had from ‘digital channel shift’ and ‘user-centred design’ applied to single services within their organisations. Soon we’ll have moved everyone online. We’ll have made linear services easier to use. We’ll have made a huge dent in those challenges, with data and technology being the enablers.

But the limit of digital design and service design theories are that they are design theories applied to linear problems. They’re constrained by the single-track mind of an organisation, who is driven by its own goals and measured by its shareholders, funders or service users. Linear solutions will no longer cut-it for those cities and organisations wanting to push further ahead with transforming outcomes across their cities.

Once we’ve digitised ways of working within our organisations where do we go next? We digitise ways of working across organisations

Systems-centred design theory is the most immature, underdeveloped and unused of all design theories. But it’s potentially the most important one to start practicing in our cities. I predict that within 5-years, most organisations will be investing in a systems-centred design team, just as they now have digital, and increasingly, service design teams. Why? To achieve better outcomes for citizens, reduce duplication and increase the impact of investment across all players within the city-wide system, which comes with collaboration.

In 5-years time, we still won’t have made a big dent in the systems integration challenges in our cities

Yes. A few of us, like me, will still be scratching our heads in danger of going mad by wondering:

How might we do more with the sum of all resources, knowledge and expertise we have available to address big social needs in our cities?
How can we unite fragmented services between disparate organisations, reduce duplication, increase productivity, and encourage innovation where the gaps exist?
How can government and business create the conditions by which organisations can work more cooperatively and seamlessly together?
How can our political parties, government and business encourage a systems-wide culture change to encourage real innovation and integration?

A practical example, Mental Health and Wellbeing

One system with a high reward for society and the economy if we get it right is health and social care — in particular, mental health and wellbeing services.

This is a system with lots of passionate public, private and voluntary sector providers. But unfortunately, the end-user of the mental health and wellbeing services currently finds the various service offerings fragmented and unintegrated across lots of providers, low in technological innovation, and therefore low in availability. This is an entire system that has not been designed with the end-user in mind. How do we fix that?

Systems-centred design can help us tackle service challenges across systems, force us to rethink traditional silos and the reasons they exist, and stimulate innovation in traditional industries. But we need to start to develop it as a serious practice. It needs its own design principles, methodologies, communities and evangelists. It needs to be generalised and inclusive; taken from the academic and delivered to a government and business audience.

All organisations should be investing in this alongside existing design theories if they’re serious about integration, productivity and better outcomes for citizens.

What might be some of the things that a Systems-centred Design community needs?

  1. A common identity and language for describing the movement’s potential for change
  2. Strong online and physical communities of interest in our major cities and service delivery organisations
  3. Strong advocates to lobby for investment within existing public and private sector organisations

What might be some of things that Systems-centred Designers need to do?

  1. Promote industry standards for data and software in our existing sectors
  2. Promote open technology
  3. Challenge the existing culture of protectionism and self-preservation within institutions within our traditional sectors
  4. Promote shared goals and higher rewards for collaboration as opposed to the independent pursuit of boxed-goals
  5. Continue to be curious and entrepreneurial

Further reading for systems-centred designers

  1. The RSA published this excellently written paper in partnership with Innovate UK in July 2017 considering how Systems Thinking is essential for effective innovation investment. Rowan Conway also published a blog to support.
  2. Dark Matter Laboratories’ Indy Johar has blogged about this topic on numerous occasions and delivers an interesting presentation at TEDxBrum here, which captures the sentiment and common themes of the movement.
  3. Forum for the Future have published this excellent Collaboration Guidebook for the British Retail Consortium, which is a useful starting point for shared collaboration methods and frameworks.
  4. The Systems Thinker provide a useful collection of articles, case studies and how-to guides on the topic.

If you’re researching Systems-centred Design or practicing it at scale in our cities, please leave a message below or reach out to me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I’m currently the Delivery Lead for Tombolo and leading Data and Digital projects at Future Cities Catapult. Follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.