Social Innovation & Design — Trends & Predictions

The arrival of a new year without a host of forecasts for the year ahead is like the arrival of Al without his Hand-link (to Ziggy). Unfortunately though unlike Al, none of the people who make these predictions have access to a supercomputer with the ability to project the likely possibility of a forecast being realised. That means that we have to wait a whole year to find out whether the predictions and trends we read about in January actually ended up becoming part of the fabric of the year. But I guess that’s all part of the fun — That’s why many of us love talking about the predictions made by the likes of Fjord, Nesta or curated by social sector blogs such as Incitement. Perhaps it’s the discussion that’s the most important thing. Certainly if you view predictions made by some of the big guys as the consolidation of their current thinking based on insights gained from working at the front line of innovation, perhaps it doesn’t really matter if their forecasts are actually realised, so long as enough people have been inspired by the notion of them. In a blog post entitled ‘Accuracy and ambition — why do we try to predict the future?‘ Nesta acknowledge that part of point of their annual forecasts are to act as provocation — setting out an ambitious vision for what the future could look like. So perhaps for the big guys it’s more a case of setting trends rather than forecasting them.

I’d certainly not put myself in the bracket of a social innovation and design trend setter, but working as a service designer within the public sector you do pick up a feel for how things might be heading. So this year for a bit of fun I’m going to make some predictions of my own. So, here we go — here are five hunches which describe what I think will help to shape the landscape of social innovation & design between 2016 and 2020:

The Uberisation of the Public Sector — If 2015 was the year that the public sector were encouraged to think of design as a verb, 2016–2020 will see cause to use a new verb — To Uberise will describe the disruption of the public sector by a new wave of social entrepreneurs and tech start-ups which will revolutionise the health and social care sector. There’s now a whole generation of adults who have grown up with the internet; they shop online, bank online, work online, socialise online, and organise their travel, accommodation, and transport online. Through the ever expanding internet of things a huge proportion of citizens are starting to control more and more of their world online, and they’re doing it using apps and services developed by small teams, with no money, using design based methodologies to disrupt existing markets — in many cases from their bedroom. My first hunch is that in 2016 and beyond, social entrepreneurs will use the same tools to design new products and services which will circumnavigate the traditional public sector to bring citizens Uber-style personal care services, or access to independent clinicians who can provide consultations over elegant, clutter free, bureaucracy free apps. Several private GP (General Practitioner) health apps have already been developed. Once such app Babylon has partnered with a host of private sector organisations and insurance companies to offer UK citizens an online GP referrals and prescription service for around £2 per week. We will see more of these types of services being designed over the next few years, with cheaper more inclusive alternatives creating a competitive marketplace — after all there is a growing market of citizens asking ‘if I can turn my home central heating on from my office desk using my smart phone, why can’t I access my health records, talk to a GP or change my out patient appointment at the same time?’ It’s a good question that I think we’ll start to see being answered in the next 12 months.

Design will be brought in-house — The use of service design has started to gather pace in the public sector, and my second hunch is that 2016–2020 will see a huge rise in the number of public sector organisations setting up their own service design and innovation teams in-house. I doubt we’ll see the kinds of buyouts we saw in the private sector acquisition of the design agency Fjord by management consulting firm Accenture, but I think we’ll see a lot more public sector organisations partnering with service design agencies to instal innovation labs and embed innovation across organisations, and we’ll see more public UK local authorities and NHS Trusts employing a Director of Design or a Director of Digital Innovation. Whilst there is already a big push to get existing services online, the growing trend will be the realisation by the public sector that service design, with it’s user centred approach to problem solving, can be utilised to support a paradigm shift in the way that both analogue and digital services are delivered. We’re likely to see a host of new public sector commissioned services which support communities to do more for themselves, or like the new app Push Doctor, compete with the new wave of social entrepreneurs to control and regulate new and emerging markets.

Measuring the impact of design will get serious– As public sector organisations place a greater focus on innovation and design, the share of the budget taken up by innovation and design activity will increase. As the stakes get larger there will be a pressure on those responsible for driving innovation and design agendas to prove their value and measure their impact. My hunch is that 2016–2020 will see innovation and design teams start to get serious about developing new ways of measuring impact which look beyond existing return on investment methodologies and achieve a real insight into the impact that their work is having on both a micro and macro level.

The public sector will embrace forecasting — It’s a tricky time for the public sector; leaders understand that things can’t remain the same, and they know that the changing world requires them to adopt new sustainable ways of working which will ensure that the needs of citizens are met for decades to come. It’s tricky because all of this comes at a time of austerity and its hard for leaders to release time a resources into designing for 2030 when they are being pressured within the current financial year to save tens of millions from their already stripped back budgets. However, my hunch is that this in itself will lead to more public sector organisations coming together to ask, what will the future be like for citizens of this county or city in 2030, 2040, 2050 or even 2060? What are the emerging trends that are going to effect the lives of citizens in both negative and positive ways? and what will the political, social and economic landscape look like and how will that impact on the way that services will need to be delivered. Local authorities, health trusts, police, and fire authorities will come together to identify new ways of working together in order to exploit the data they have available to them and achieve common goals. More and more local authorities and health trusts will commission design led customer insight in order to identify how new sustainable services can be designed and developed to move them away from providers of one size fits all transactions, to commissioners of personalised outcomes for citizens.

Service Design will take divergent paths — Design for Organisational Change & Design for Innovation — I attended Nesta’s Lab Works Global Gathering in July 2015 and was struck by the number of design and innovation teams who identified a similar issue concerning the tension between their growth and popularity, and their ability to innovate. Perhaps by it’s nature true disruptive innovation occurs on the fringes. Charles Leadbetter illustrates this well in his short publication ‘Hooked on Labs‘. Historically people working at the cutting edge of innovation have been doing it with little funding, largely in their own time, from sheds on the car parks of the organisation for which they work, or from small offices tucked away in disused parts of the building. The fact that people working in these teams are left in the most part to their own devices helps them to focus on finding solutions rather than getting bogged down in the bureaucracy that others working in more comfortable parts of the building have to deal with. Paradoxically the problems come when some of the innovative solutions get recognition. As the work of innovation teams become more recognised and better funded, the pressures on those working within them to work in different ways grows larger. Suddenly rather than working on the fringes, innovation teams are brought into the centre to work on organisational challenges at a macro level. The common story that I heard from both small scale in-house teams and large word stage agencies who work with governments was that the larger the projects, and the better funded they were, the less innovative they became. I found this really interesting. My hunch is that as innovation and design rises higher up the public sector agenda we will start to see a split in the way organisations use design to affect change. In one direction there will be design used to undertake organisational change — This will focus less on innovation, and more on ensuring that all of the best principles of a user centred design based approach, such as understanding customers and involving them in identifying solutions to the problems they face, are adopted and utilised in large scale wholesale redefinition of organisations. In the other direction will be design used for the purposes of innovation — Perhaps best thought of as research and development, this model of operation will see work focused around small time-based labs, where descrete challenges are worked through a design process with learning used to feed into larger wholesale redefinition projects. The labs will also be an ideal source of training and motivation; integral to helping organisations provide staff with the new design skills they will need, whilst embedding design and innovation into their organisational DNA along the way.

I would really like to know what you think about my hunches and welcome your comments. As always we will have to wait and see what the future has in store. One thing is for sure though, we are at a critical point in the delivery of social facing policy and services. There’s interesting news though — Ziggy says that there’s a 99.9% chance at least some parts of some of these predictions will come true!

Originally published at on January 14, 2016.