"Mr Cameron, it's time to get the designers in"
• Justin McGuirk
• guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 11 October 2011 15.36 BST
Ageing populations and budget cuts mean devising a new social contract. So why not use real designers – it's worked in Finland.
If a country has the best education system in the world, it could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. Yet Finland, which routinely tops thePisa education rankings, refuses to do so. The country has other major issues on the agenda, such as how to become carbon neutral and how to look after the most rapidly ageing population in Europe. And when the nation wants to address these questions, it turns to Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. Most governments have a cluster of thinktanks and policy groups at their disposal to tackle their country's challenges. But what's different about Sitra is that it uses designers.
Sitra's strategic design unit is made up of an international team with backgrounds in architecture and urban planning, web and interactive design, and they are used to thinking at varying scales – from the pixel to the city. "Strategic design" is still a nascent discipline but, put simply, it means applying a design method to a system, rather than an object. So for instance, car designers create sleek objects, but producing them demands a sophisticated manufacturing system, so that everything from the engine to a door handle can be delivered with second-by-second precision. If you were to redesign that system – or indeed the broader network of showrooms, roads and petrol stations in which it sits – you would call that strategic design.
The interesting thing about the strategic design unit (SDU) is that it takes this approach to matters of public policy. In particular, it watches the massive social and economic changes that governments, including our own, are struggling to cope with. When the welfare system is straining because there's less tax revenue to go round and an ageing population demanding greater care, how do you make it deliver? The answer lies partly in the minutiae of, say, how you deliver food to the elderly, but also at the macro scale. The SDU has found itself rethinking the social contract. Do you allow people to work less and contribute to society in other ways, such as part-time volunteering? It sounds something likeDavid Cameron's big society, but in the UK there was no detail about how that would work, just the unrealistic expectation that we would all do more.
While strategic design can't necessarily find the perfect answer, it at least begins by asking the right questions. For instance, what was really wrong with the Finnish education system? The only fault the government could find was in what it perceived to be a high level of dropouts – a paltry 50 students per year. It thought that if it could reclaim those "lost" students, it would have perfected the system. The SDU pointed out that this was the wrong way of seeing the problem: those 50 students are an early symptom of changes coming Finland's way. With rising immigration, Finnish society is diversifying and it is going to have to design an education system built not on homogeneity and cultural consensus, but on diversity and non-conformity. Sitra found this to be true not just in education but in politics – the trick for Finland is in how to incorporate outside voices.
Another topic on Sitra's agenda is food distribution. How do you give local organic food an advantage in a competitive marketplace full of multinationals? It's not easy for smaller suppliers to get a foot in the door when supermarkets snap up the best retail spaces. This is even more pronounced in the UK, where the high street is dominated by chain stores. Here, the developer's motto seems to be "Build it and Tesco will come". Sitra's answer is to design a system connecting organic retailers with developments before they're even built.
It's true that we expect this kind of thing from wealthy Nordic countries, with their tiny populations and social democracies intact. But what about the UK, which is altogether bigger and messier? With our government currently casting around for ideas, it's no wonder that it looked at Sitra. In London last month – almost unnoticed in the bustle of the London design festival – Sitra launched a book entitled In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Afterwards, the authors paid a visit to the cabinet office, where they'd been invited to explain the ideas behind strategic design. After all, one of the biggest problems facing the UK government (indeed, any government) is the gap between policy and how it's realised. You can reform the health service all you like, but if a patient still has a seven-hour wait to be seen at the hospital, the system is failing.
Often, policies that look effective on paper have perverse outcomes. Putting a cap on fishing quotas has resulted in fishermen dumping tonnes of dead fish back into the water. And allowing universities to charge "up to" £9,000 in tuition fees has led to most of them charging full price, for fear of looking second-rate. These outcomes are failures of the policy implementation process. Much more successful examples would be London Underground's Oyster card system or the city's bike hire scheme– both, perhaps not coincidentally, systems where designers kept the user experience in mind all along.
One of the problems is that politicians deal in general principles and then ask bureaucrats to fill in the details. This is problematic when an issue spans multiple departments and funding structures, as environmental issues often do. Who is charged with seeing the process through from the initial idea to the final goal? This is something designers are practiced at. At the SDU, they describe this as a process of "stewardship". "Good designers and architects are very skilled at manoeuvring a team from a sketch to an outcome without losing sight of the vision along the way," says Dan Hill, who joined the SDU from the engineering and design consultancy Arup.
In the business world, plenty of design consultancies offer to redesign systems and improve customer experience – they call it "design thinking". However, they are increasingly discredited for their vague promises to make executives "think like designers". Strategic design, however, is not just about thinking, but about how to bring that thinking to an effective outcome. That doesn't mean hiring in McKinsey or Ideo to do a bit of consulting, it means having a design professional embedded in the process. Apple is a case in point: its chief designer, Jonathan Ive, is on the board. It's no coincidence that while Nokia had touchscreen phone technology before Apple did, Apple was first to turn it into a product and to turn that product into a phenomenon – in spite of Nokia's good Finnish pedigree.
If the UK government takes one lesson from Apple, it should be that one. However, the likelihood is that the reason the government is entertaining the idea of strategic design at all is because it wants to cut costs, not improve services. If so, it has its eye on the wrong ball. The lesson from Finland, which sought to reform its education system while it was still the world's best, is that you do these things for their own sake. Strategic design is simply good practice, it's not a recession-buster.