On Think Tanks and Social Design


As Lucy Kimbell notes in an article on the Policy Network’s Observatory, we are starting to see increasing numbers of government organisations, across the world, ‘reaching out to something confusingly called ‘design’, in their attempts to create and deliver better public services and engage people in new ways in working out what to do and how to do it.’ And as governments are slowly picking up on design as a useful practice, they are keeping an eye out for experts that might be able to help them. As a result, it is becoming increasingly apparent is that there is an unfortunate paucity of experienced – and impartial – voices in the field of designing for government. A handful of reliable names crop up repeatedly. But for the most part, theory around design emanates from those who make a living out of peddling it. The notion of critical, peer- reviewed expertise is important here: government makes decisions that affect an awful lot of people. Things have to be done thoughtfully. But the usual intellectual coterie that surrounds governments, responsible for critiquing ideas and fielding experts – the political theorists and think tanks – have very little to say about design.

Think tanks are an elusive subject – and not an entirely innocent one, if you buy Adam Curtis’s version of their history in the UK. Indeed they are a very mixed bag, differing hugely in terms of funding, political persuasion, structure and quality. Their research is rarely peer-reviewed, it’s not always clear who it’s funded by, and varies widely in quality. However they are of interest to this social design research project because, in the world of politics and policy, they mediate between research and practice. A handful of them play a very influential role in sourcing, recycling and promoting ideas to the powerful. They provide a forum for ideas about governing to be critiqued in public. They are also often concerned with socio-political questions – inequality, democratic engagement, the correct balance between state and civil society, etc. Design, then, as a method of working towards outcomes, should be right up their street.

So it’s interesting that it’s not being picked up by many of them. My own work, at Policy Connect, has drawn heavily on design research, theory and practice, because we run the All Party Parliamentary Design Group, and the Design Commission. So we have some obligation to take an interest in design. Beyond Policy Connect, a cursory review of recent publications of the most influential, mainstream think tanks, reveals little awareness of design’s emergence as a tool for government.

Admittedly, they are all tackling topics that would be fertile ground for design. Public service reform is a favourite theme across all of them – presumably because that’s an area where government is so desperate for ideas. There is a growing awareness of the need to ‘socialise’ policy, perhaps as a result of the impact that ‘nudge’ has had (IPPR: ‘The Relational State’, Nesta: The Alliance for Useful Evidence). Relatedly, there is some interest in the idea of co-production (Compass, NEF). Many are responding with their publications and provocations to the idea that society rather than the state ought to be encouraged to provide solutions. The ability of the public sector to ‘take risks’/ not be paralysed by fear of failure – which is a hallmark of a design approach – has been a topic of conversation (Nesta, Demos). As has the idea of iteration, testing and evaluation, under the guise of Randomised Control Trials (‘what works centres’.).

There are a couple of exceptions, where design has been explicitly discussed as a tool of governing: in 2006 Demos published ‘The Journey to the Interface’, which has become something of a marker in the field. And the Institute for Government have been promoting the idea of design being applied to the policymaking process itself. But in most cases, design – which is a verb, and therefore a way of getting to ‘the relational state’, or ‘co-produced services’, or developing the ideas that can then be tested through RCTs – doesn’t explicitly feature.

However. Alongside the straightforward political research type of think tank, there are an increasing number of organisations which perform a similar function of providing a space for public debate, and peddling ideas to government, but are more action-focused than the average think tank. Some of these are beginning to look more seriously at design.

The Young Foundation have been increasingly building design practice into their social innovation work, and indeed are currently recruiting for a director of strategic design. A lot of what Nesta does incorporates design practice, and they have plenty of publicly available material on developing ‘innovation skills’, some of which is basically design. But their advocacy of design is measured. Geoff Mulgan has repeatedly expressed what he thinks are the limitations of design as a tool for social innovation, or governing, and the need for maturity in the field.

The RSA are also pretty advanced when it comes to theorizing about, and using, design as a tool of social innovation. Like many other think tanks, they are writing about public service reform: in their case through the ongoing work of the 2020 Public Services Hub, whose publications include ‘widening the lens’(looking elsewhere for ideas), ‘from big society to social productivity’, and ‘beyond nudge to managing demand’. However they also have a design team, and over the last few years they have explicitly repositioned their interpretation of design, and work with designers, to be much more closely focused on social issues: social capital/ innovation, resourcefulness of individuals and communities, etc. Their student design awards are now based on social challenges. New appointees to the prestigious fellowship of Royal Designers for Industry must show some positive social impact through their work. Their own design-led projects/ publications, such as ‘The Great Recovery’ (a social and design approach to pushing the circular economy agenda), 2013, and ‘Design and Rehabilitation’, 2009, have focused on social challenges.

All of this prompts some interesting questions:

If most purebred think tanks have little use for design research, theory or practice, is it because they are rarely actually trying to DO anything? They commentate on policy and propose ideas, so they are in the world of theory rather than practice. Design, by contrast, is not primarily grounded in theory and research. It is grounded in practice. Does the increasing take-up of design by government signify a long term change in the provenance of political ideas? Is design inadvertently providing a critique of think tanks, as structurally ill-suited to instigate action/ change (beyond altering the rhetoric of politicians and policymakers)?

If not many think tanks currently draw on design research, is it that they are just completely ignorant of it? Or is it perhaps because design research doesn’t register with the right kind of academic authority? The comparison with behavioural science is interesting. That has been snapped up by think tanks and policymakers alike. Why is that? Perhaps because a bit of behavioural analysis can easily be plugged into existing policymaking processes without disrupting them too much, whereas design, on the other hand, implies a completely different process. Or perhaps design hasn’t presented itself with enough clarity? Or, perhaps the right people haven’t been talking about it. Undoubtedly behavioural economics has been touted by people with sufficiently weighty credentials, and backed up by reassuring academic rigour. On the design front, the UK government has certainly been starstruck by people like Christian Bason of MindLab and Marco Steinberg, formerly of Helsinki Design Lab – but is that because they have institutionally weighty words like ‘Harvard’ on their CV?

So we are certainly at an interesting juncture, where the demand for understanding how to apply design in government is not being matched by a sufficient credible supply. Hopefully by the end of this mapping project we will have some ideas around what might be done about that.

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2 Responses to On Think Tanks and Social Design

  1. Joe Julier says:

    Hi Joss,

    It was pleasure to read this, I’m so glad a space has been forged to do some more reflective work on the topic! Two comments on the article:

    1. I’m not sure about your statement that a lot of what Nesta does incorporates design practice. It might not have been on purpose, but it gives the slight impression that Nesta use design to meet their own organisational aims. Relative to the very orthodox approach of other think tanks they might be more open to design, but their approach to problems is still very traditional and hands off (i.e. literature reviews, events, toolkits, commissioning, not actually making or changing things directly). I think there is also an unresolved question around the relationship between ‘social innovation’ and design which your point on Nesta raises. This is probably partly due to my own failure to find a satisfactory definition of ‘social innovation’, but it is also because there is something problematic about design being boxed into the space of ‘innovation’ and idea generation when there is lots of potential in its rigorous application to clearly defined challenges too. Surprise, surprise, I am thinking of GDS, particularly their pivot to transactions (http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2013/07/17/the-pivot-from-publishing-to-transactions/).

    2. Your question about whether the increasing take-up of design by government signifies a long term change in the provenance of political ideas is really interesting – wish I’d thought of it – would be great to read more thoughts on how and why you think this might be happening. Also, to subvert the point slightly, I wonder whether part of the reason design is gaining some traction in the political sphere is because its ideas in fact appear to be explicitly apolitical. The perception of designers as holding no agenda of their own and instead only caring about the experience of the user is surely central to their appeal, and their ability to cut through politics and infighting, both in government and elsewhere. However just because it appears this way, it doesn’t mean the work they do isn’t highly political. It may just be that the politics are determined before they become involved, or that designers make a tactical decision to hide the political or ethical positions but still let it inform there work.

    Look forward to reading more from you and the rest of the team soon,

    • jossbailey says:

      Hi joe – yes very good points! I suppose with nesta I was thinking more about some of their practical projects – but yes take your point about the research. And I think the question of how design involves itself with political aims is very interesting. Yes, I imagine it probably is seen as apolitical by civil servants looking for a way to get stuff done. Which could put designers in a vulnerable position… Naively carrying out the dismantling of the welfare state in the name of user experience…?

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