15 May 2013

The Civil Service Reform Plan commits the UK government to exploring the potential for a “policy lab” in the UK. As we pointed out in our paper, Opening Up Policy Making, there are two much-cited models for such a lab: MINDLab in Denmark and the Helsinki Design Lab in Finland. Last week, Marco Steinberg, Strategic Design Director at the Finish Innovation Fund spoke at IFG; here he blogs on how the lab has helped the Finnish government address policy challenges.

Across the world, systems of government are increasingly under strain, caught in a rut towards obsolescence – that’s my claim, at least. Whenever I declare my position many are surprised. 'But you are from Finland! Surely you are not talking about Finland too?' Well, yes I am.

Within the European context, Finland has the same underlying challenges as the rest of the Union. Our symptoms may appear less severe, but the problem is the same. And the underlying problem is that our governments have not been built for the challenges they are facing. They are siloed and administrating, rather than integrated and innovating. And while the public sector is still relatively strong, its size and legacy impedes it from doing more of what we need it to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am a huge supporter of a strong public sector and actually think that Finland has a great opportunity to use the size and strength of the sector for innovation. My argument is not about reducing the public sector in favor of market innovation. Rather, we need to answer the questions:

  • how should the public sector be designed to meet today’s challenges?
  • what are the principles of an effective public sector?
  • and how do you transition the current system towards those new principles?
  • I believe that 'labs' can help the public sector create safe spaces freed of legacy to experiment and find pathways towards a more innovative and effective sector. The term ’lab’ may be deceiving as it may suggest a physical space and test tubes. But what is useful about the lab is all the other features:

  • creating a community
  • developing a practice (or ‘science’)
  • having the mandate to experiment in the pursuit of better solutions
  • and doing so without the burden of legacy and status quo.
  • Our own work has been to think of a 'lab' more like portfolio of coordinated initiatives based on three distinct but interconnected categories:

    We built Helsinki Design Lab as a platform for codifying and experimenting on the practice of strategic redesign:

  • How do you innovate on large-scale societal challenges such as education or climate change?
  • What is the architecture of the solution?
  • And how do you deliver strategic improvements rather that process improvements?
  • Projects
    It’s really hard to change organizations or to innovate on large challenges. But what you can do is deliver projects, which are by nature discrete. If done right they can help create a common culture of innovation, deliver real results, and help de-risk the future by making it real. If positioned well, you can use them as vehicles to capture the large challenge. How could we design a mixed-use block (housing, retail and housing) in downtown Helsinki that could pave the way for carbon free cities? We built Low2No as a project to help deliver a new urban development model in Finland.

    If you understand how to build effective solutions, how do you build the capability to do more of that kind of innovation? Innovation is not only about having the science and demonstrations; its also about creating career paths for people building innovation within organizations. We believe in design’s power to innovate, but how many designers have any experience working in the public sector? How many public servants understand the practice of design? We build the Design Exchange Programme to place design within the public sector to help build innovation from within.

    We have a public obligation not just to improve what we have but to redesign what we need. But the necessary transformation will not happen by itself. There are loads of talented individuals and well-intentioned projects in the public sector. The problem is that they are asked to adapt to the logic of how things are, rather than to what they should be. The promise of 'labs' is that they can offer the freedom to build the science, practice, and culture of an innovative public sector. And that freedom allows us to change the tyre while we drive, so we don’t have to shut government down while it innovates. While there is always the risk of failure, 'labs' are a low-risk strategy for meeting today’s transformation needs. The risk of a lab is space dust compare to the risk of not innovating.