Life’s ‘wicked’ problems can seldom be solved from within the paradigm in which they exist. Approaching problems from the point of view of the customer provides a relevant and revealing way to step outside established paradigms and find fresh perspective. However, in the public sphere, policymakers are often distant from their customers – the citizens who use government services – a constraint which can be overcome by the application of Design Thinking principles.
Design Thinking is an approach to problem solving and innovation that is based on user empathy and evidence-based ideation, employs prototyping and solution iteration and encourages collaborative, multi-stakeholder engagement. The method was formalised by Rolf Arne Faste at Stanford University in the 1980s and became central to Silicon Valley’s product and software design labs while achieving widespread global adoption in the creative industries.
It is easy to think of design purely in aesthetic terms, but any human system has influenceable organising principles. Similarly, cynicism abounds over about the public service’s capacity for innovation and the notion that citizen needs, rather than compliance processes or political mandates, should shape service delivery. A growing global movement of human-centred policy design is building a compelling base of evidence that pushes against these preconceptions.
In Denmark, Design Thinking has been applied to a wide range of public settings, from rethinking waste management, to reducing tensions between inmates and guards in Danish prisons, to transforming services for mentally disabled adults. Christian Bason, the CEO of the Danish Design Centre and ex-director of MindLab, a cross-ministerial unit within the Danish government, has been a leading advocate of the approach. His book, Design for Policy, charts the emergence of collaborative design approaches in public policy. Bason has also cited the work of Geoff Mulgan, Mariana Mazzaucato and James Anderson as interesting examples of government innovation.
Elsewhere, the Australian Centre for Social Innovation used Design Thinking strategies to support destitute families with a decentralised peer-to-peer learning model that linked them to other families that had successfully overcome their own difficulties. In the United Kingdom, a dedicated unit called the Policy Lab works to bring people-centred design to policy-making by providing policy teams with support to design solutions around citizen needs.
In South Africa, design-led approaches are also gaining traction. The Better Living Challenge in the Western Cape adopted a people-centred approach to improving the living conditions of low-income communities and the European Union is increasing state exposure to design techniques through the Capacity Building Programme for Employment Promotion (CBPEP). Letsema’s Customer Strategy practice has recently applied design-led methods to a variety of public policy challenges raging from township development and urban land reform to tourism grading and public-sector business model design.
Since empathy is at the core of Design Thinking, the framework lends itself well to social and developmental objectives. The toolkit has tremendous flexibility to accommodate different problem statements and adapt to varied settings. South Africa faces a number of complex development challenges that resist easy solutions. Whether in co-located teams or across highly dispersed multi-stakeholder programmes, in air-conditioned head offices or at ground level in communities, Design Thinking locates the capacity for change within ourselves and asks whether we have identified the problem correctly and whether the components of the solution actually meet the needs of the user.