Design Policy can prove very valuable when addressing social and economic problems. But right now only few know what Design Policy actually is. Jens Martin Skibsted wants to change that so we sat down with him to learn a bit more about the potentials.

Make policies that can help design help the world. This is basically the message that the people behind the Design for Smart Growth event wish to communicate to policy makers. The use of design has undertaken an important development that has brought it out of it’s traditional context and into new and exciting areas tackling social and economic problems. But despite the promising work being done to spread the use of design, the efforts has largely went unnoticed by policy makers in the international community.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation together with the Danish Design Center have arranged the Design for Smart Growth event, the 31st of August, on the occasion of the INDEX Award to bring the use of design onto the agenda of policy makers. We sat down with Jens Martin Skibsted Founding Partner, KiBiSi/Skibsted Ideation and Vice-Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation, to get a better understanding of the potential of design in policy making and to hear a bit about the ambitions for the upcoming event.

Design as People-centred Innovation

But, since design is notoriously hard to define, let us start by putting forward a preliminary definition. In the Design for Growth and Prosperity report by the European Design Leadership Board, design is perceived as, “an activity of people-centred innovation by which desirable and usable products and services are defined and delivered.” Elaborating on the design method IDEO CEO Tim Brown describes design thinking as, “a series of divergent and convergent steps. During divergence we are creating choices and during convergence we are making choices”, continuing, “design thinking relies on an interplay between analysis and synthesis, breaking problems apart and putting ideas together”.  We hereby get a sense of the design methodology that is at play when discussing design as a key driver in policy making and problem solving. A methodology that is people-oriented, has a keen focus on the problem at hand, and moves forward through constant prototyping and iterations.

Making Policy that helps Design help the World

So how can we then link design to policy making? According to Jens Martin Skibsted there are basically three approaches within Design Policy: “The traditional way of looking at Design Policy is: How can we make some policies that support the design industry?” This could be policies that require hospital beds to be well-designed, which would in effect benefit the design industry. “Another approach, that is getting a lot of attention at the moment is: How can design methods be used to develop public policy?” he continues, “it is basically just applying a new methodology to policy making. […] The third approach, and the one that we would like to focus on at this event, is to make policies so that design can help the world. In other words making policies that do not help design in itself, but help design help others.”

One way of doing this could be to introduce design at an early stage in the value chain. Take the process of building a hospital as an example. In traditional policy thinking you would hire some engineers and entrepreneurs and then start building it. But in this process you never get a chance to stop up and ask: “Should a hospital still look like this today?”, as Jens Martin Skibsted puts it. “That is a classic engineering approach”, he continues, “where you instead of taking a holistic stance and think about what you actually want to end up with, just stack specs. And then you risk ending up with a monster. At the very least you run the risk of stagnation because you simply assume that what was once valid is still valid today.”

A Different kind of Innovation

The subject of the event is growth, and design is in this context therefore also heavily linked to innovation. But it is a special kind of innovation as Jens Martin Skibsted says, “It is not necessarily a matter of reinventing the wheel, but instead it is about taking exciting things and tweak, redesign, and reconfigure them so that they generate growth.” On a very basic level this requires that the policy makers installs an anthropological or design phase early on in each new project, to explore if the notion one has of for example a hospital still is relevant. “In principle what you are after”, Jens Martin Skibsted explains, “are healthy people. The hospital in itself is really not of importance. If it is instrumental to achieving the goal then it is all very well, but you need to be careful not to mistake the means for the end.” That does not necessarily mean that you should hire a bunch of designers, “but you should put together an interdisciplinary team, that utilizes design thinking”, Jens Martin Skibsted says.

Currently, however, the major challenge is that Design Policy still has not been defined as a subject, let alone gained the kind of legitimacy that would pave the way for policy measures that could instigate such design processes. “The goal of this event is to make people understand what design policy is. Even extremely competent and enthusiastic designers and policy makers get blurry-eyed when you mention Design Policy to them. So just establishing it as a subject area that people actually understand is a task in itself. Before we can make a push for it people will need to know what it is. The next ambition is then to make people understand that it is an important subject area.” Jens Martin Skibsted explains.

We need to stop Repeating the same Mistakes

Regardless of the challenges associated with establishing Design Policy as an important subject matter, the need for implementing design methodology is clearly evident. A disregard of Design Policy can lead to a system that simply repeats it’s own mistakes over and over again. Jens Martin Skibsted experienced this system flaw first hand when he was in Myanmar to work with the people in charge of Yangon’s new urban planning and infrastructure, “They had brought in some Japanese contractors who had fully adopted a copy-paste approach. What was striking was that these people were not incompetent, or unable to see that this was a new region and a new time, which called for new solutions. They all understood that. But they were in part just doing their job, following orders, and then they were also part of an ecosystem where a lot of things were prepackaged.” The problem with this being that they end up rebuilding the same structures that the industrial countries have and thereby repeating their mistakes instead of moving forward.

“I do not necessarily think that there are some evil masterminds behind all this”, Jens Martin Skibsted continues, “but it is a system that keeps biting its own tail, and it is almost impossible to get out of. The only way to move beyond this, is to demand by law that before you begin on such a project you need to stop and check if all this is really needed. Not just asking the question of whether or not traffic moves this way, but asking the question of what is traffic today, and what do we want for the future. Without having this more holistic approach required by law, we will end up repeating our own mistakes.”

It is not that having this holistic design phase will solve all problems, but it is a step in the right direction. Jens Martin Skibsted explains: “By having this phase early on, you force the decision makers to say: ‘Even though we now know that we need something else, we will go through with this pre-packaged deal.’ And that is after all something completely different,” he elaborates, “It has to be difficult for people to make the wrong decision”.

From Zero-sum to Win-win

At the moment Design Policy has already been put on the agenda in some countries. Jens Martin Skibsted mentions Denmark, England, Schweizerland, South Korea, Singapore and Finland as leading nations in this respect. However, there is an unfortunate tendency to perceive Design Policy as a way to outperform the other countries and thereby achieving a competitive advantage. “The danger with this approach is that everyone is simply outcompeting each other, which will result in a zero-sum game. It is not to belittle these policies, but they do lack the global scale where we really try to help the world and not just focus on outcompeting others”, Jens Martin Skibsted says.

The original ambition was to counter this competitive focus by creating an international design policy. But that task proved to be, if not impossible, then at least very very difficult. Jens Martin Skibsted has as a consequence lowered his ambitions a bit: “The ambition now is to create some internationally acknowledge design principles which countries that need a new design policy can copy-paste from. […] We still need an international authority to legitimize these principles. But it is a more realistic goal to arrive at some sort of international agreement on a set of design principles, that other countries then can look to for inspiration. Even though this still is very ambitious.”

Achieving Legitimacy

Achieving international legitimacy around a set of design principles requires involvement from some key stakeholders. As for the upcoming event the hope is to engage the design community itself as well as the Danish political system, as Denmark still is a leading figure in this area and an active involvement from the political system could prove extremely fruitful. But Jens Martin Skibsted also hopes for support from an influential and impartial industrialist: “In England Paul Smith was the one who managed to create a design policy. He literally went to Downing Street and meet with Thatcher to advocate for it, which I could imagine must have been an uphill battle. Someone like me, who has so many interests inside the design industry is more difficult to take serious than a person whose only interest is to move us forward as a growth center. […] We need an impartial actor who people listens to, and at the same time are capable of transcending the national borders and sit in Davos saying that Design Policy is an imperative. That would be great,” Jens Martin Skibsted concludes.

For now, however, focus is on the Design for Smart Growth event the 31st of August, where people from both the political, industrial, and academic sectors will meet to discuss how policies can help design help the world.

About The Author

Kasper Worm-Petersen
Managing Director

Kasper is Managing Director and co-founder of Grasp. He is passionate about education and the intersection between the humanities and business. He is currently finishing his MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School and is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum.

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