Promoting v Researching Design for Policy

Design for policy is now a hashtag (#design4policy), a book (edited by Christian Bason) and is finding its way into governmentspeak. In the UK, this is no less thanks to the stirling efforts of the redoubtable Andrea Siodmok who is heading up the Cabinet Office Policy Lab and our very own Lucy Kimbell, who is currently the University of Brighton/AHRC Research Fellow with the same. More widely, the many innovation labs that are coursing through national and regional governmental departments have given more impetus to this thinking.

Two important London gatherings took place on Tuesday 24 November to celebrate and explore this turn. The first was a breakfast meeting at the Design Council that pulled in a wide constituency of policy-makers, designers and academics to hear Mike Anderson (Home Office) Christian Bason (Danish Design Centre), Ellie Runcie (Design Council), Will Reynolds (Home Office) and Andrea Siodmok speak on the subject.


Such events are always a bit breathless as we try to fit two rounds of coffee and croissants (aka networking), an introduction, several speeches and a question and answer session inside two hours. The purpose of this concertinering of activities is really to give a taster, open up some early questions and generally promote the concept of design for policy as a good thing. Given this format, it’s not surprising that shortcuts tend to get made and certain terms get taken as understood.

It occurs to me that we should also slow down the debate and be critical and knowing of the terms that we are using, however.

To start with and as ever, ‘design’ is taken as a given among those in the know. There is a tendency — exhibited once or twice at the Design Council event — to say, ‘because that’s what design does’ as if design somehow has its own agency, regardless of the people, things and environments in which it is enacted. A long history of design promotion has struggled to explain what designing is on the one hand, while describing design as a value-added quality on the other. The latter always runs the risk of mythologizing and over-generalizing what it is.

How, specifically, is design understood amongst policy-makers or within the process of policy-making? What happens when we pay more attention to the precise tools and actions within this setting? Does it become more like ‘people thinking about stuff and other people with the aid of stickers, marker pens or plasticine’? This is not to belittle this. Rather it is to draw attention to specificities of the situatedness and materialities within which designing is carried out. Design for policy is no exception and will be nuanced accordingly.

Another term that requires more qualification is ‘ethnography’. This has become embedded into various design practices over the past decade. It is often used, wrongly, as a fancy term to describe straightforward observation. Ethnography involves the interpretation of observed phenomena while also understanding, on the inside, how social practices are known and performed (otherwise, the ‘etic’ and the ’emic’ parts).  In which case, design ethnography has to critically investigate the processes of interpretation or sense-making of an organisation, collectivity or other such social formation. Equally, it has to be knowing of the researcher’s own position in relation to the observed.

A third term that came up frequently at the Design Council event was ‘implementation’.  I’m a great fan of implementation:  I’ve grown tired of design charettes, hackathons, workshops, idea-storms or whatever (I’ve run a lot of these and am equally to blame). Let’s get actual and really find out whether something is more than just a good idea!

But we need to be keenly aware of the issues and challenges that run through implementation and not see it as a one-off and homogenous process. It is multiple and mutable.

Implementation is slower, longer and more varied than delivery. It has multiple moments. Seeing policy into law or resource allocation are points of implementation involving multiple actors and interests. Once underway, policies are played out through time. In a sense they are always unfinished in the way that all the different moments, networks and locations of their enactment change the way by which a policies function. They engage with multifarious publics and, indeed, produce publics. All these have to be tracked and understood otherwise we think we have implemented when we’ve barely started.

With these, and with many more terms that are used in this field, I think that occasionally we should put the brakes on and be more precise about how they are used and what is meant by them. And this is where good old fashioned scholarly research needs to kick in.

Guy Julier

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One Response to Promoting v Researching Design for Policy

  1. Pingback: The laboratory life of innovation labs | code acts in education

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