Strategic design for public purpose

Why UCL’s new MPA must help rebuild design capabilities within government, the public sector, and beyond

Dan Hill
Published in
14 min readMar 8, 2019


By Dan Hill | @cityofsound

Since the 1970s, when Victor Papanek and others attempted to reposition design as concerning ‘the real world’, there has been an active debate within design practice about its use outside of ‘simply’ devising commercial products, services, spaces and experiences, a plea to raise its eyes to address broader societal challenges.

Indeed, many great designers and architects have done exactly that, of course. Yet much of design practice, it is fair to say, has not naturally found its way into such environments, nor shown any real signs of being interested in doing so. The lure of being Jonathan Ive, who has designed the largely individualised worlds in our hand, has apparently been greater than of being Margaret Calvert or David Mellor, who designed much of the public world around us.

Margaret Calvert, who co-designed the UK’s road sign systems, and some of David Mellor’s enduring designs for the British streetscape

Equally, the rhetoric around so-called design thinking over the last decade has produced mixed results. Although the basic tenets of design thinking are useful – such as human-centred development or iterative prototyping, or that things are connected in systems and contexts that probably run roughshod over existing silos – if anyone does not understand these ideas at this point they should not be in a position of influence, in private or public sector. But design involves working through what to do with these techniques, and then making it happen, putting it into practice. Put simply, at this point, thinking is not enough.

It is clear that the major challenges of the 21st century are wicked in nature, existential in threat, and upon us now. The inspiring action of Greta Thunberg and increasing numbers of her generation offer a daily reminder that thinking is not enough. The challenge is in decision-making, and delivery – in doing. Mission-oriented innovation practices, alongside other approaches, offer clear examples of raised ambition in terms of doing policymaking differently, yet we are still left with challenges of what to do in practice, and how.

This latter aspect is where strategic design may have much to offer. Design is intrinsically about decision-making, about thinking through doing. Crucially, strategic design takes the core principles of contemporary design practice – user research and ethnography, agile development, iterative prototyping, participation and co-design, stewardship, working across networks, scales and timeframes – and then it points this toolkit at ethical concerns, addressing systemic change within complex systems, and broader societal outcomes. Design’s ‘real world’ task at this point must involve balancing individual needs with wider societal outcomes, applying itself to ‘big picture’ systemic challenges like health, education, inequality, and climate change, helping redefine how problems are approached or how questions are framed, before identifying and conveying multiple opportunities for action. It can then stay on-board to help deliver more complete and resilient solutions.

For example, the foundation work done by SITRA’s Strategic Design Unit, led by Marco Steinberg, almost a decade ago – alongside others around the same time, such as the Denmark government’s Mindlab, Canada’s MaRS Solutions Lab, Mexico City’s Laboratorio para la ciudad, and individual practices like the UK’s Architecture 00 and Chile’s ELEMENTAL – described what this might look like, what it could mean. SITRA’s Low2No project indicated how their low-carbon energy programme might create a new pattern of urban development which in turn created a more valuable trajectory for the forestry industry. Crucially, this involved creatively engaging with the often opaque or invisible ‘dark matter’ of law and regulation as if it were a material to be designed with – in this case, helping modify Finland’s building code to enable previously prohibited sustainable building materials to be used. This moves public-minded design beyond the objects that Calvert and Mellor created, and into designing the conditions that make things happen – or not. At that point, systemic change can be unlocked. The Open Kitchen and Brickstarter projects described how to identify and work with citizen-led, participative innovation processes – in this case around local, culturally-diverse, healthy and sustainable food, or civic crowdfunding – and absorb this activity and learning into the municipality’s practice, policy and law, such that diverse ‘spikes’ of innovation can also become equitable and broadly accessible. The Design Exchange programme deployed designers into municipal and national governments, supported by ongoing mentorship. Their Studio format described how to run intensive sprint-like policymaking hothouses, tackling complex problems in less than a week via carefully curated teams, spaces, and programmes.

All of these approaches, and those of many others since, rely on the ability to zoom from the detail of a project, involving specific people, places and processes, back into broader systems and cultures of decision-making at the level of policymaking and politics. Few other disciplines are capable of engaging the wide angle and macro lenses simultaneously, yet designers practice for just this. Our challenge now is to ensure that these lenses are angled towards societal outcomes.

And this is crucial, as we navigate how to address problems that apparently lie well beyond much of our existing practices of decision-making. Equally, to be clear, design must work alongside other skillsets and perspectives. There are no silver bullet disciplines given the multi-faceted complex nature of our world. Whether working with engineering, ethnography or economics, in reality design’s role is often orchestrator, organiser, facilitator, and integrator, rather than the master builder (sic) often imagined. Design’s ability to juggle detail and direction simultaneously means it it suited to these balancing acts, producing coherent systems and services from highly diverse inputs, wrangling multiple scales and timeframes.

But design itself must be stretched if it is to be of use in the more ambitious public policy agendas, such as mission-oriented innovation. The direction-setting impetus of the latter could give design the kick it needs.

For example, the venture capital-fuelled startups ‘blitzscaling’ our towns and cities often create new problems entirely, rather than addressing meaningful societal outcomes, despite the rhetoric. They heavily use user-centred design disciplines in order to do so. Solid data suggests that Uber tends to increase congestion and reduce public transport use, alongside its many other issues. Equally, other data suggests that Airbnb increases rental prices in cities with affordable housing challenges. Yet both are highly competent from a user-centred design perspective. In other words, individually-focused interaction design can produce Uber, but not a good city with Uber in it. This means we need a form of design that can take a broader view, deploy a richer toolkit towards a greater goal, and particularly, embed itself into a re-tooled and engaged public sector. The core ideas of strategic design means stretching design’s definition in this direction.

In contrast to Uber et al, I’ve described elsewhere how the Oslo Bysykkel bike-sharing service could be an exemplar of a more strategic approach.

Oslo Bysykkel bike-sharing

The public sector can also learn from the likes of Uber and Airbnb. As with all the major tech players, they deploy hundreds of designers at the core of their operations, both in terms of devising products and services – understanding what to do in the first place, and then how to do it – but also in making tangible what they are about. Of course, initiatives like the UK’s Government Digital Service, and previously the BBC, have demonstrated the value of building these capabilities in-house, reversing the knee-jerk instinct to outsource. But as well as attempting to directly ‘own’ the relationship with citizens, via excellent service delivery – something that governments must realise is fundamentally important to an existential degree – these new services actively construct new images or public ideas (or in sociological terms, new ‘imaginaries’.)

Although design is often elided with problem solving, the latter is not unique to it at all. Many vocations solve problems every day, from accountants to mechanics. Engineering is particularly good at it. Design, however, can be focused on the harder process of question asking as much as problem solving. What is the question? Design’s instinctive reach for synthesis – “how to frame what we can do” – and then visualisation – “what things can be like” – is increasingly understood to be of value in understanding, conveying and communicating what the public sector can be, as well as provoking questions of public life.

Recently responding to a tweet about public libraries, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said:

“What I love about this tweet is that it embodies something we desperately need right now: public imagination. When we focus on imagining and debating new possibilities of what we want to accomplish, instead of relentlessly fixating on limitations, we build the will to do more”

As with great librarians, architects and designers are responsible for making great libraries function, whilst also creating this new sense of what a library can be, whether OMA leading the reinvention of the American library with the Seattle Public Library in 2004, or Donovan Hill’s subsequent reinvention of State Library of Queensland in Australia, or most recently the Finnish architects ALA working alongside the city’s service design and citizen participation teams, to co-create the new Helsinki city library, Oodi. With Oodi, design is described as leading this process of new public imagination, balanced with the entirely pragmatic concerns of making a building.

Helsinki’s new city library, ‘Oodi’

So building on the analytical foundations supplied by other disciples, such as ethnography or economics, design produces synthesis from analysis, enabling exactly the kind of imagination and discussion Ocasio-Cortez is striving for: “Why need the world be like this, when it could be like that? Or this?” How do we do this not just for libraries, but for healthcare, for housing, for food systems?

Design is intrinsically to do with questions of qualities — the subjective as much as the objective – and in handling the kind of ambiguities that usually make policymakers pale. The philosopher Timothy Morton’s ‘Being Ecological’ notes the fundamental importance of more complex culture over dogmatic data, in this sense. In contrast, in his famous 1919 speech ‘Politics as a Vocation’, Max Weber stated “Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul”. Whilst Weber’s statement was understandable given the context of political violence outside the lecture hall, numerous advancements suggest this is no longer the case, if it ever was, whether it’s the emotion-fuelled realities of Trump and Brexit, or the research of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, who suggests that what a body “feels” is every bit as significant as what the mind “thinks”, in terms of decision-making.

We need new types of evidence here, ensuring a balance between engaging with reality and taking a wider, more exploratory view; or, back to Weber: “the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure”. There are numerous tactics emerging in the field to support this, from studio-like processes to wrestle sometimes empty innovation processes down to the ground, or participative techniques that connect citizen-led innovation to wider policymaking ventures, to speculative design approaches that can produce tangible yet imaginative scenarios enable anticipatory regulation and policy labs, as well as make clear our possible futures.

Yet we have much to do to rebuild this capacity strategically into the public sector, as it has been deployed in the private sector. Hence the Master of Public Administration (MPA): Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value at UCL IIPP focusing on strategic design as one of its four primary modules. Part of the reason that the public sector both fails to appropriately handle the design-led tech companies or absorb their more useful qualities, is often, simply, that there are no strategic designers there; or, in other words, there are few in public service actively practicing those core skills of integration, visualisation, synthesis or stewardship. We must re-create this capability. For organisations with public purpose, the MPA could be a counterpoint to the increasingly anachronistic MBA, which still has an almost hegemonic grip on the idea of leadership for innovation. The MPA is part of a new supply chain for the public sector.

For as Finn Williams notes, British governments – at all levels, but particularly local government, which is mostly where things happen – has almost entirely misplaced its strategic design capability, at least in the form of architecture. By 1976, 49% of all UK architects worked for the public sector. Today, the proportion of architects working for the public sector is 0.7% in England, and just 0.2% in London. (These numbers began to shift largely around 1979, a year many will recognise as being significant.)

This is effectively a strategic capability simply deleted from government. Crucially, architecture is one of the few design disciplines with ethical considerations at its core, as ArkDes’s Kieran Long has pointed out. Indeed, the 2018 ArkDes exhibition ‘Public Luxury’ explored how design and questions of public policy, public space, and public experiences – indeed, public-ness itself – are intrinsically linked. As Weber pointed out, politics involves an “ethics of responsibility”; design disciplines like architecture explicitly recognise this. Rainer Kattel recently argued for new skills in government, such as design, foregrounding the “ethical dilemma” of innovation in the civil service. He’s quite right, and if we ensure that design is approached strategically, it can both benefit from architecture’s ethical and environmental foundations as well as digital design’s people-centred drive.

The pioneering work of Long, SITRA, or Williams and Pooja Agrawal’s Public Practice, or that of other leaders such as Hilary Cottam, Ben Terrett, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Inderpaul Johar, or Christian Bason in Denmark, or our emerging work here at Vinnova in Sweden, is knitting together this productive fabric once again within the public sector. The IIPP MPA can be one red thread running through this activity.

(Ed. Two years after this post, the Vinnova strategic design work demonstrated how to design, initiate, and deliver national innovation missions with public and environmental purpose, both strategy and tangible/grounded: read this playbook, Designing Missions, for more detail.)

This form of strategic design runs alongside interaction and service design practices seen in digital government work, extending its ambit. As Public Digital’s Andrew Greenaway describes, policymaking itself in a digital government is potentially radically transformed by user research-driven service design. His colleague at Public Digital (and ours at IIPP) Mike Bracken has suggested that there is barely a “separate” policymaking process any longer. Policy in this world is largely derived directly from the design, development and delivery practices of digital.

“Policymakers are no longer only shaping delivery choices according to policy. They are also shaping policy choices according to delivery, drawing insights from tangible experiments rather than abstract theories.” [Greenaway, Public Digital]

Still, there are many unknowns here: Are iterative prototype-led development processes appropriate in all cases? What kind of data, or new evidence, could be created to address more complex questions, or issues where real leadership is required? What happens when such data doesn’t exist? Or will these approaches only work for the low-hanging fruit of service delivery? And what is ‘politics as a vocation’ if policy is produced in this way?

Service design seems unlikely to be ‘enough’ in itself. For one thing, it tends to deliver incremental improvement rather than transformational change. Whilst powerful, this is still limited in range. We simply don’t have time for ‘incremental‘ at this point.

In Argentina recently, a digital government-led service design approach envisioned, designed and delivered digital driving licenses in 65 days, from scratch. This is extraordinary compared to the comparatively geological pace typically witnessed in policymaking and delivery. But could such processes radically reduce the number of people driving in the first place? Indeed, without strategic design addressing the wider impact of service innovations, such improvements may even make it easier for people to become drivers. Yet we may need to have radically fewer drivers if we are reduce carbon emissions, pollution, accidents, congestion, and other negative linked impacts. This is not an argument for retaining poor quality government services that produce vast failure demand – clearly, a self-defeating approach, ultimately – but instead suggesting that we must approach the problem creatively and holistically, framing the question more broadly in terms of radically improving qualities of life and environments as fundamental societal outcomes. This will involve digital service design, but also broader questions of urban planning and mobility systems, jobs and communities, health and carbon, and so on. (It’s the same requirement for handling the likes of Uber, Mobike and Airbnb, as noted.) That kind of decision-making is tougher, far more complex. Yet that is the job at hand.

Right now, however, if you are trained as a designer, you are rarely engaged with this kind of systemic change in practice. Equally, if you are trained as a policymaker, you are rarely engaging with the reality of delivery in detail, or incentivised to proactively move across the silos you find yourself in. In the UK at least, this appears to be partly on purpose, derived from the strict cultural homogeneity of Whitehall and its networks, framed to an almost laughable extent around one particular degree course at one university, with Thick of It-like manoeuvres around a debating chamber spatially defined by sword lengths. So when former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “we are taking 21st century challenges, evaluating them with 20th century ideas and responding with 19th century tools”, she is almost underplaying things.

This can, and must, change. We simply do not have time to remain in iterative, incremental, business-as-usual mode. Strategic design, alongside other approaches, could deliver on the transformative approaches of mission-oriented innovation that Mariana Mazzucato et al have developed. The importance of doing, as a way of thinking and discussing, is beginning to pull policy and delivery together intrinsically, with design as part of the glue. Here, the rationale is not only that closer engagement leads to richer evidence and insights, but also that our collective futures and realities can be co-created – and better, co-owned – in this way.

Our age seems complex, sometimes without hope, as the traditional tools of economics, political science and objective evidence-based policymaking are rendered useless. Yet as the philosopher Graham Harman suggests, “charlatans in politics and elsewhere are best countered not with claims to a truth that no one actually has, but with an unceasing demand that they face up to reality.”

In deploying design as way of understanding reality, as well as producing new realities, we also finally address Papanek’s clarion call to engage ‘the real world’. The inspiration fuelled by the likes of Thunberg, Mazzucato and Ocasio-Cortez needs new vehicles for design and delivery. It is up the design community to ensure it engages with this broader public mission, just as it may be for the public sector to strategically absorb its capabilities in return.

Dan Hill is a Visiting Professor at IIPP, as well as an Associate Director at Arup, and Head of Arup Digital Studio, a multidisciplinary design team based in London.

Our Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value is taking applications until July 2019. To learn more, visit our website.

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Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Melbourne School of Design. Previously, Swedish gov, Arup, UCL IIPP, Fabrica, Helsinki Design Lab, BBC etc