In the design community there has lately been some bad news with the closure of Mind Lab in Denmark, as well as other design labs, such as Helsinki Design Lab which was disassembled years ago, despite doing good work and being pioneers in bringing design to the government. Why did this happen? Mind Lab has openly said that it was a political decision. In other cases, we can only speculate. Some of the design or innovation labs, for example D9, have been evaluated by external parties. In their evaluations, they received extremely positive feedback. Most likely due to that positive evaluation, the D9 team was recreated in another governmental organization, but with less members than in their previous version.
Our group Inland Design, a design and innovation lab, is a team of designers that works in the Finnish Inmigration Service (Migri). Today, we know that our time in Migri has come to an end. The original plan for Inland was a 2.5 year contract, and sadly that time has finished. If Inland continues, it will most likely be within another public agency. We are now in the process of deciding where to go. This is mainly due to cuts in the budget that don’t allow Migri to extend the contract for Inland. Unfortunately these budget cuts also make it unrealistic to expect that we would get external evaluators to measure and assess our performance over these last two and a half years.
One relevant question to ask ourselves is why we hope that these labs last, when the very nature of such labs is experimental. These labs, by their own definition, are experiments that try to install new capabilities in the organisation. In some cases, like that of Inland Design, it is all about design capabilities. As with all experiments, there is a finite scope and pre-defined time frame to do the work.
The problem with this is that design approaches are highly dependent on trust and relationships among participants. Our practice is highly collaborative, and thus our network of relationships is crucial to support and sustain the design work. This emotional intelligence, including the trust that we build with our daily work, only comes and is nurtured over time. If organisations want to benefit from design approaches, it is key to understand that in-house design teams could nudge sustainable strategic change, but this needs time to mature.
Change-making and innovation
Due to the experimental nature of Inland, we have always been asking ourselves whether we have done enough. Are our design solutions innovative enough? Should we be more forward-thinking? Should we provide even more far-fetched ideas? Or should we focus on helping our colleagues make the next steps towards this future vision? Despite this uncertainty, we have worked on the future with our colleagues in many different settings (you can read more about that in this article).
In order to do any work on innovation and the future, we needed trust and credibility first; we needed to be accepted by our Migri co-workers. Therefore, we could not be too bold or radical with our proposals (whether they were proposals on working practices, strategies, or digital tools and platforms), as this would not have been accepted by the organisation. Instead, we went little by little, listening to our colleagues and trying to find ways to nudge the new development projects towards a positive change. However, one key risk of this approach is in the organisational perception. If the organisation seeks radical change, does the very nature of the position of in-house design teams lead them to be perceived as not extreme enough? Might this perception cause the organisation to hire external consultants instead?
As a strategic designer in Inland I have been seeking the balance between being radical and supporting the next natural and realistic steps towards innovation. It is not only a question of doing good design work, but also a question of being able to show the value and importance of it to others, legitimising the existence of in-house design groups in the organisation, and in the Finnish public sector as a whole.
On the future
As a design team that has the objective to enhance cross-organisational collaboration in the government through co-design, the position within the Finnish government is key. We believe that a team such as Inland Design would have enormous potential if placed directly in the ministry level. This would enable Inland to: a) implement policy design (an area in which designers have long demonstrated their contribution), b) work across the organisation with all the agencies reporting to the ministry, ensuring consistency in the processes and services, and c) collaborate with other ministries for the creation of human-centered services.
As I stated in the beginning of this article, our future is uncertain. It could be that Inland Design does not continue as a group, or that it will continue in a new form somewhere else in the government. Regardless, one thing is certain — that our work has and continues to inspire other groups and other designers working in the public sector. Inlanders have put a lot of effort to document and openly share our methods, approaches and results. We have documented our work in the website, we have written more than 50 blog articles and three master thesis, and Aalto University has used Inland’s work as a case study. We are very active in various networks around the world and we will continue collaborating in these networks in the future. Therefore, there is a continuation for our work even though it will happen in other settings.
When we started to work in Inland Design, we thought that the success of the group would depend mainly on our performance. There are many indicators that show that we have done excellent work:
- we collaborated with and received positive feedback from people in our organisation that were initially reluctant to embrace design approaches when we started
- our projects were recognized as important public sector successful digital work
- we have introduced design capabilities in the organisation that will support the future changes and development work
- Two different public organisations are considering adopting our team in the future …
All of this was possible thanks to the trust of our colleagues and especially the leadership of our managers, providing us enough creative space to propose new initiatives and new ways of working. All around the organisation development work happens increasingly applying a human centered design approach. This is partly due to our contribution. Therefore, we are proud of the work we have done, and we are sure that we will be able to build on this work in the future, making use of our personal and professional skills and good relationships with our dear colleagues.
The future of the group is still open, but I am sure it is bright and most certainly collaborative.
Editors: Kristin Swan and Pia Laulainen