To address the complex problems of our global society we need creative and innovative solutions and design could play an important role in crafting these. But the first step is for policy makers to see the potential and invite design into the processes.

On the back of the INDEX award 2013 the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation held an inspiring event on design policy at the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen. Design promises new and innovative solutions to some of our biggest challenges. But for it to fulfill its potential design must be granted access to some of the central processes in government and policy making. By promoting design policy the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation wishes to make policy makers aware of the benefits of design, thereby opening the doors for design in policy making.

The simple case for design policy

Thinking about design in relation to policy making is in itself challenging for some as design has traditionally been associated with the private sector and the design of physical products. But that is a mental barrier that needs to be overcome. Patrick Frick, Partner at Social Investors and moderator at the event, points out that 30-50 % of GDP is taxpayers’ money. The government runs some of the most important areas that help us get through life such as security, health, and education. All this means that, “as a designer, if you want to get to the big issues of today, the systemic issues, you got to find a way to work with governments”, Patrick Frick argues.

That should provide the incentive for designers to engage in policy making, but how can policy makers benefit from bringing in design? According to David Kester, Board Director at Thames & Hudson and former chief executive of the Design Council in London, it comes down to the nature of design, which he describes as, “the connection between creativity and innovation. Creativity is how we generate ideas; innovation is how we get value out of them; and design is the connection between the two. It is the journey to something that is tangible, a product, a service or a brand, that is then useful for real people, whether that is a citizen or a user.” In other words, it is about ensuring that the policies that are created actually become valuable and useful for the citizens – an ambition that most policy makers should share.

The cultural and institutional challenges

Despite of the apparent benefits associated with using design in policy making there still seems to be something holding governments back. Christian Bason, Head and Director of Innovation at MindLab, highlights three challenges for governments that hinders them in fully utilizing the potential of design in policy making, “One is that designers love to come in early and explore problems.” Government officials, on the other hand, do not want to show any ideas for a policy to designers or the public before the minister has cleared it. “This means,” Christian Bason elaborates, “that they do not want to involve stakeholders, citizens, users in early exploration, problem solving, and collaboration. There is a big control mentality around that phase. So by the time you show anyone your policy options you already decided on it or it is so finished that there is almost no chance of changing anything.”

The second challenge is the tendency for designers to have a heavy user focus when looking at functionality. “Most of my colleagues are really really scared about what would happen if we really took a hard look at what happens when our policies or regulations or services meet the citizen”, Christian Bason explains, and continues, “because as you know, no strategy and no policy survives meeting reality.” The third and, according to Christian Bason, most important challenge is that government cannot enact change on its own. Government relies heavily on municipalities to implement regulations. But the municipalities are very independent and it is not an option simply dictating what they should do. This leaves the government with the challenge of redesigning something that they are not in charge of.

Design as a way to change the state of mind

A part of the solution could be to change the mindset about government. “You need to look at government as a platform, as an enabler, as a facilitator of change”, Christian Bason proposed. It comes down to looking at the interactions between government, the local municipalities, and businesses to see how they can enact change. And this is where design can play a big role. Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, sees the introduction of design as a way to change the state of mind, and move from the quantitative to the qualitative. “Policy is usually about saying what you can and cannot do, given figures etc. In a way, when designers come into play, all of a sudden, it becomes more of a qualitative description of what could happen. Not about what cannot be done but what can be done. That is an amazing shift in mentality for politicians”, she concludes.

A consequence of the changed state of mind that occurs when design is introduced into policy making is the need to redesign the way governments operate. As Christian Bason explains, “If good design solutions, regulations, and policies are different in nature than the ones we know today, then the systems to operate them are also different. The way we manage things, the way we budget them, strategies, organization, processes, and cultures. So one big systemic challenge that we are seeing is to allow design to, not just be part of the innovation process, but part of the day-to-day operations of the government at scale. We actually need to redesign the fundamentals of how governments run.”

Using design to rethink China’s city planning

Looking to China the need for a changed mindset is clear. Wang Min, Dean of School of Design at Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, explains, “The past 30 years the government has just been looking at how the GDP number went up, and at how to give people room to live. But suddenly, this year, everyone has realized that we cannot sacrifice our children’s future for that GDP number. Now the air quality and resources suddenly become everyone’s concern.”

Wang Min points to China’s city planning when he explains the consequences of a narrow focus on growth and efficiency and a lack of consideration for design. China has experienced a large increase in urbanization but, according to Wang Min, the fast expansion of cities has led to the old cities losing their identity and character. “It is really a pity to see this, but now we must go back and see if there is something we, as designers, can do to help”, Wang Min proposes. One way Wang Min has been doing this is by working with city branding. By taking a design approach to find out what makes a specific city unique and desirable, you also start to rethink the whole notion of how to build cities, and in the process find solutions to some of the problems caused by urbanization, e.g. pollution.

However, this agenda is only possible if the government supports it. “To do this we need government help”, Wang Min says, and continues, “if a designer comes in and talks about a city’s branding or future or how that city should look, no one cares. But the government could put the city planners, the architects and the designers together and make them think about what the city really should look like in the future, how the city could connect with the past, and how to make the city a good place to live.” This is also where design policy becomes important. By implementing and working with design policy the government can promote design and encourage a mindset that could come up with new and creative solutions to the problems at hand.

The reach of design is limitless

Design is no longer limited to aesthetics and finishing touches (if it ever was). The potential reach of design is in principle limitless. “Basically design could make a difference everywhere,” Paola Antonelli says, and continues, “Design is a fundamental human activity. It is about making the world better”. In that sense design is valuable in all aspects of life and society. An argument that is echoed by David Kester, “I don’t think there are limits to where design is important. When we were at the Design Council we were working on security issues even with the security services,” he says, and elaborates, “you can redesign your financial system so that it is clearer. You can even make financial information really visual so that people understand it.”

However, design can only live up to its potential if it is invited into the relevant processes and systems. This is why we need design policy. “In order to implement it [design], because we live in an organized society and there are politicians, we need policies. Design policies are necessary for us to take that important value into consideration in social activity”, Paola Antonelli explains. So design policy is in a way a means to an end. But to make politicians aware of design in the first place it is essential that the value of design is communicated, or as Paola Antonelli puts it, “There needs to be some kind of dissemination of design as a national patriotic value.” One way that Paola Antonelli is trying to do this is to use the already well-known concept of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It has recently been argued that we need to go from STEM to STEAM, adding Arts to the equation, and now Paola Antonelli wishes to make it STEAMD thereby also promoting Design. It is all about using an already accepted language to promote a new concept that would otherwise be difficult to grasp.

David Kester sees the need for great storytelling when promoting design and design policy, “Actually we need great advocates, that is really important, and very good storytelling,” he says and continues, “And we need great leader as well who are prepared to say: This is how we got there.” David Kester points to Burberry to find an example of such a leader. Burberry went from being on its knees to now experiencing great global expansion and their CEO, Angela Ahrendts, openly says that their success is due both to good business sense and good design sense. Advocacy like this are essential for promoting an understanding of the value of design, and open the doors for design in policy making

Going back to the potentials of using design there is undoubtedly great results to be achieved. Still it is important not to overestimate the power of design. While enabling great solutions, it is not a solution in itself. “It is not some magic dust that can be sprinkled on a problem”, David Kester says and concludes, “Design isn’t the answer. But it is certainly better to have design in the mix.”

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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