Last year we published a pamphlet called How to be Ingenious, which explored the effect of very resource-constrained environments on innovation – how such situations can sometimes cause innovation to thrive but at other times throttle it. We drew on examples of bricolage, technology races between countries, the Indian concept of jugaad, and interviews with people we thought exemplified the ability to devise ingenious solutions in different domains: an expert in theatrical improvisation, a software engineer and a survival instructor.
Given the state of our global economy (and ecology), the topic of resource-constrained – or ‘frugal’ innovation – is enjoying focus in public and private sector. The Innovation Unit’s blog pointed me to David Cameron’s tribute to the ‘Delhi drive’ to succeed: “When you step off the plane in Delhi or Shanghai or Lagos, you can feel the energy, the hunger, the drive to succeed. We need that here”. The Economist proclaim that frugal innovation will ‘change the world’. The subject has attracted recent business books (Jugaad Innovation) and one fascinating magazine (Makeshift).
Examples of ingenuity in the public sector exist, but how could they be better supported? Matthew recently blogged about the importance of clusters and networks to innovation, which are arguably even more critical to successful innovation in resource-constrained environments. Chatting with a colleague about the shift from top-down ‘best practice’ to more devolved practice and more ’micro-innovation’ to solve problems, we wondered whether an online platform could collect and showcase examples of ingenious or frugal solutions to common problems: perhaps a kind of Instructables for the public sector?
On Tuesday the Lords discussed on the recently published Restarting Britain: Design Education and Growth from the Design Commission. The transcript of the debate provides interesting reading – partly for the way in which the Lords interpret the word ‘design’, drawing on their personal stories: working as trend spotters in the fashion industry, establishing technical colleges to teach hand skills, or simply owning a Lachasse suit. Below are a few snippets.
The Lords raised the design community’s old grievance that their skills are often misunderstood:
“…many people regard design as largely concerned with aesthetics or with products such as furniture or ceramics. As a result, they regard it as a marginal issue-something that is good and desirable but not essential.”
They affirmed that certain important capabilities are effectively learned through design training:
“Design teaches “a problem-solving approach; the capacity to work collaboratively; interdisciplinary capability; taking into account the participation of the end-user … and the habit, and satisfaction, of creating projects which work … [these qualities] are … hard to acquire from other subjects.”
Most frequently they noted – unsurprisingly given the report’s title – that design is critical to the UK’s economy:
“…our education system needs to be design-linked with technology for the future, for our economy and, most importantly, for jobs”
“One distinguished magazine editor told me that British designers are the creative engine of the French fashion industry. We seem to be able to produce design talent but it appears that we just do not know how to use, develop and nurture it.”
“…we have grown used to hearing it bruited about that the UK’s record of scientific invention and the great strength of its creative industries-product design, architecture, fashion, media, games software, entertainment and advertising-would equip us well enough for the future. However… the uncomfortable truth is that, with a few very honourable exceptions, we have not been good enough at carrying these capabilities through into consistently world-beating products and services.”
The eulogies for design continued, with the accusation implied that the Government was not taking Design-with-a-capital-D sufficiently seriously. Baroness Wilcox hit back on behalf of DBIS:
“While we welcome the commission’s contribution to this important subject, we must dispute the suggestion that the Government do not fully appreciate design as a lever for growth … We do not see it as “whimsical”, which I heard Sir Paul Smith say was the view of design that many people have when they should be looking at the beautiful design of an engine or water bottle. He actually said that design “isn’t all red hair and bare chests” when he was interviewed this morning about the relocation of the Design Museum.”
Leaving the red hair and bar chests aside, her response gave the impression that the Design Commission were pounding on an open door, but the contribution that struck me as most thoughtful was from Baroness Morris:
“I have never known anyone who was against design. There is no army of people out there making a case against it. Sometimes when that happens, because there is no core to the debate, you find that everyone thinks that it is a good thing but no one really fights for it to be as good as it could be.”
She advocated that rather than top-down directives on design education, more demand creation (as exemplified by the Design Council’s Designing Demand programme, I suppose) could be a better route:
“…it is all too easy to say that if we made [design] compulsory for every child in every year of schooling the problems would be solved, but I am not sure that that is the case. The more difficult task is to win the case and make it so good that schools want to teach it and children want to learn it. Sometimes, giving something the hook of compulsion actually makes you take your foot off the accelerator in making it a very good subject.”
Which to me at least, seems like a more designerly approach.
What’s the missing word?
“Good ██████ keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.” Raymond Loewy
“People think that ██████ is styling. ██████ is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good ██████ is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” Paola Antonelli
“██████ is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.” Chris Pullman
It is of course – Design. It’s a common complaint (at least from designers) that design is misunderstood as a fundamentally superficial activity, but over the last five years the message is getting through. Design is now being championed in previously unlikely places – particularly on issues of public service reform. As Lord Bichard, previously Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment said:
“Many people think of design in terms of packaging and product design. They don’t realise design tools can go far beyond that, and can cause you to ask serious questions about business vision and service vision. Design is very much addressing the relationship with clients, customers and citizens and is relevant to the public sector, not least around services.”
However there are still fields where good design is unheard and unthought of, though the approach could play a valuable role. In one example, courtrooms across the country are planning enormous change, as the Ministry of Justice makes changes to balance its budget. As the BBC reported last week, one of the primary ideas they are testing is to increase the use of videoconferencing technology in court, allowing witnesses and defendants to give evidence remotely, potentially saving time and money.
Today we publish a report that looks at this exact issue: how could better design improve the productivity and experience of appearing in court? Drawing on an expert seminar hosted earlier this year by the RSA and Cisco during which we heard from academic researchers, legal professionals and designers, we explore how design could improve the development of such ‘Virtual Courts’, which have proved controversial for a number of reasons – some fearing that the technology could undermine the gravitas of courtroom events, or even bring threats to justice.
Our report argues that the planned extensions of the virtual courts pilots should put ‘design thinking’ at their centre to resolve these potential issues, for example by:
- Involving all court users (magistrates, defendants, interpreters, solicitors and more) to generate ideas to improve stakeholders’ experience of new technologies in court
- Rapidly testing ideas with court users, prior to pilots, to reduce the risk of failure further down the line – as well as suggesting more ideas to improve other parts of the system
- Embedding design thinking into the organisational culture of agencies in the criminal justice system to encourage on-going innovation
The full report is available for download or reading online in the Design section of the RSA’s website.
RSA’s Director of Design Emily Campbell just celebrated three years of working here, and future plans, with plentiful bubbly and some highly inclusive gluten free chocolate cake.
Before joining the RSA I had no idea what ‘Design’ meant. I thought it was something vaguely connected to arcitchture and buildings, and had no particular need, or so I thought, to think otherwise. Now I hope I am confused on a much higher level. Largely because of the influence of Emily and colleagues, I see that Design is a way of thinking, of inventively reimagining the world. In fact now when I think about behavioural challenges, I find that cognitive frailties and behavioural foibles often look like Design problems in disguise.
The core emphasis of RSA Design is that everybody can become equipped to think like a designer. In this sense design is not about aesthetics, but about logic. Design is viewed here as a form of resourcefulness. Hence the expression ‘You know more than you think you do.’ Any thinking person, and even those who don’t think much, can be given some experience of the perceptual and creative tools of a designer. The RSA believes that by taking on the mantle of a design perspective, you can unlock your own capacities to fashion systems and solve problems.
I should also confess that until recently Buckminster Fuller was a name I only dimly recognised, but after reading the following quotation(of which there are many) in the New Yorker I was keen to find out more about his work.
‘But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.
“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”’
This is sagacious insight, and gave me pause. But of course choosing between people and the environment is a false dichotomy. What matters is to undersand deeply how the two are connected, and work with that understanding to change the world. We know more than we think we do, and should face our challenges with that understanding.
Britain’s biggest name in hat design, Milliner Stephen Jones RDI, spent a second day a Whitley Academy last Thursday, delivering an inspirational talk and workshop to a group of sixth form art & design students. Stephen – who has designed hats for the likes of Princess Diana, Beyonce Knowles and Gwen Stefani – is one of the celebrated RSA ‘Royal Designers for Industry’ (RDI). He has been committing his time to working with the Whitley Academy students as part of the RDI ‘75 Days’ initiative, where RDIs collectively share 75 days of their expertise with the RSA.
The brief Stephen Jones set for students was to design a hat that represented each student’s character and interests. This was an exercise in building self-confidence and self-esteem as well as developing design skills, and it was a huge success. A competitive edge has now been set as Stephen returns to Whitley Academy on 30th November to help them complete their work, and he will judge the finished designs at a catwalk event to be held in the school hall.
A brilliant example of how designers can contribute inspiration and quality to design education, and also of the enrichment that partnership in our RSA Family of Academies can offer.
It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.
Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.
Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).
Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.
Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.
About a year ago, I resolved never to use power point again. The clinching argument came from a truly inspiring speaker, the environmentalist Paul Hawken. The trouble with power point, he told me, is that it is powerless and pointless.
But is this really a powerful point? Or just a cute play on words?
Paul Hawken backed up his ideas by saying that power point breaks the rapport and connection between a speaker and his audience because the audience’s experience is of constant discontinuity. This discontinuity makes any given narrative rather brittle. His speaking style, by contrast, has seamless range and amplitude which his listeners gladly follow. If you haven’t heard him speak before, I recommend the following little-watched video where he talks with great authority about the challenges of climate change.
Power point is definitely over-used, and very often used badly, but I wonder if people have become a little casual in their critiques of it. The advice is to use very few words, focus on images and don’t talk to the slides directly. However, once you start preparing a talk this is really hard to do, and seems to presuppose that both you and your audience is familiar with the material you are talking about.
Despite my prior resolution, I have spent most of the last couple of days preparing a power point presentation on behavioural science to an audience of about sixty bankers. I was asked for a general overview rather than specifics on financial behaviour, and I felt obliged to use power point to help structure my thoughts. I also felt the slides might help the audience, most of whom are new to the subject.
Still, the slides look a little busy, and reflect the reality of the process – a common one I believe – of the slides being generated not so much to communicate to others what one understands, but to make sense of it for oneself.
I now believe power point has its place in information dissemination, which is the main purpose of my talk tomorrow. However, if you want to connect with your audience, and leave them with strong feelings rather than new concepts, you are probably better just speaking directly, personally, and without visual crutches.
Through London design firm BERG’s blog, I’ve come across the practice of writing a ‘weeknote’; a reflection of what’s going on with the team each Friday. Encouraging people to be more reflective is an aspect of lots of the RSA’s work, for example in human behaviour and education. It seems natural to try one for the RSA’s Design team. This is actually week 13,433 for the RSA (which is a little intimidating). So what’s going on?
The Design team are working at desks in the ‘Oval Office’, which is half grey and half yellow – and only half oval. In plan, the room is rectangular with a curved wall at one end. We sit at the non-curved end, and our three windows look across John Adam Street to the second floor of the Adelphi building. Each window goes all the way from the floor almost to the ceiling. Moving anticlockwise…
Matt is wearing a blue T-shirt and peering intently into his screen. He’s creating a series of icons in Illustrator that the Connected Communities team can use to help people understand their social networks. This is a real information design problem; often the data that is collected through social network analyses is complicated and difficult to communicate. Matt’s icons will represent the type of relationship between two people, and how strong it is.
Emily has just sent off the text for the new Design & Society pamphlet – Nabeel Hamdi’s essay Architecture, Improvisation and the Energy of Place, accompanied by our Resourceful Architect call for Ideas and a review of the shortlist. She’s also working furiously on the schemes of work for the Design Faculty of the new Creative Education Trust Academies in Rugeley – great opportunity to respond to the critiques of DT that arose in our What’s Wrong with DT? pamphlet and Ian McGimpsey’s lit review. Naturally beginning to fret over her ten minute presentation at the forthcoming RSA Trustees meeting on 14th September.
Sevra is typing away and drinking her beloved iced coffee. She has just launched this year’s Student Design Awards, and is working with design tutors across the country to help them integrate the briefs into their curricula. As with all the Design team’s projects, each brief asks designers to demonstrate how the insights and processes of design can increase the resourcefulness of people and communities.
Melanie is sitting very upright and working on 75 Days; a skills bank that connects Royal Designers’ expertise to projects led by RSA staff or Fellows that could benefit. She’s just connected Geoff Kirk, retired chief design aero-engineer from Rolls Royce with the RSA’s Academy. Geoff and the Academy staff are going to challenge students to design a toy based on a scientific principle, getting them to research, design and make a prototype.
Looking at my colleagues has made me realise I was slouching. I’m writing a new draft of a report that explores how ‘design thinking’ could benefit public services; specifically improve the experience of being in court. The report follows on from an RSA seminar earlier in the summer. Lots of projects have looked at the value of design in public services, but courtrooms are interesting because they have such strong heritage, and deal with issues like justice and truth.
Ian Leslie, prolific blogger, political commentator, and the (surprisingly honest) author of Born Liars, suggests that lying – both to ourselves and to others – is as central our DNA as eating, drinking or procreating. Our social fabric, he argues, would tear at the seams were it not for the deception and self-deception that we all practice on a daily basis.
Nor does he stop there. Self-deception, he argues, is not only inevitable but also (in appropriate doses) a possible springboard to future success. In the case of elite athletes or politicians, for example, an over-inflated sense of one’s own self-worth can be a good thing. Without the belief that you can swim faster, think better or lead others more successfully than your competitors, you’re unlikely to make it in a cutthroat world. Self-deceit becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, the more you think about it, the more apparent it becomes that – in the short-term, at least – the continued prosperity of human-kind depends on a decent measure of both collective over-optimism (stock markets) and head-in-the-sand denial (global warming).
Does this mean that, in order to achieve success, the RSA should abandon all SMART objectives in favour of ludicrously optimistic project targets? That individuals should construct life plans which assume the IQ of da Vinci or the flipper-sized feet of Ian Thorpe? That governments should commit to far more than they could ever realistically achieve? (Wait, hang on a second.)
Perhaps not. Deceit and self-deception can only be useful as the exception to the rule. If project management, public policy and life-planning were premised on an expectation that we were all promising more than we could ever hope to achieve, it seems likely that things would soon descend into a chaotic and mistrustful shouting match.
However, there is one thought that I would like to take away from Ian’s recent talk at the RSA. He commented briefly on the fine line between creativity and lying – a new take on the idea of poetic licence, if you will. Novelists, poets, playwrights and artists may be inspired by life but are at liberty to play around with the truth in ways that politicians or project managers are not (or at least should not be). Art and literature allow us to open up a broader conversation about the nature of truth and the realm of what might be possible.
…there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. (‘Are Artists Liars?’, Intelligent Life)
Unlike individuals, artists, poets and novelists do not fabricate purely out of self-interest but do so for the sake of a broader audience – whether their goal is to distract, challenge, provoke or entertain. Art might be used to form bonds of community between people (see, for example, the Creative Gatherings hosted by Citizen Power Peterborough) or to rethink notions of attachment to place (see Take Me To, an experiment in place-making in Peterborough).
Could art or literature also be used to think creatively about challenges relating to public service reform or civic engagement in an age in which – despite all our best self-deceptive intentions – things haven’t turned out quite as favourably as we might have liked? Perhaps we would be better prepared to face the challenges of economic instability, social inequality or environmental disaster if we carried around a pair of rose-coloured glasses through which to view creative, alternative solutions. At the RSA, Jamie Young’s pioneering work around ingenuity suggests that we need to be more creative in using the limited resources we have to hand. The arts and society team is currently exploring the ways in which the arts might raise awareness of and influence behaviour around the issue of climate change. How else might we harness the creative potential of art, poetry or theatre in reimagining ‘alternative futures and different worlds’?
If there was ever a field in need of a little resourcefulness, it’s public sector IT. In the past the UK’s government has had the dubious honour of awarding some of the largest IT contracts in the world. Some of these have been simply too big to manage, and have failed at significant cost to the public.
On Monday, the Cabinet Office launched alpha.gov.uk. In response to digital champion Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation, this is a prototype of a single domain for all government information and interactions with the public. The parallel is with the BBC’s single domain website (ie bbc.co.uk), on which you can find everything from the latest table tennis results to instructions on how to roast a chicken. The result looks something like a Google for government.
But what’s more notable than the idea of a one-stop-shop for digital delivery of public services (having had Directgov, and Gordon Brown’s MyGov idea etc.) is the process behind its creation. An alpha site is usually a pre-release version (ie. bits of it might break), but the team behind this one have taken the unusual step of releasing it to the public to gather feedback. This is particularly unusual for the public sector, which has often been described as a bit ‘1.0’ when it comes to the internet.
The team have written about the ethos behind the project that have guided the site’s development. The ‘agile’ approach they have taken emphasises a much faster and iterative approach (as well as being people-centred), in stark contrast to large IT programmes which become too big to fail, soaking up ever more money.
There are similarities between their approach, and a paper we recently published on ‘ingenuity’, which defined ingenuity as a sort of creativity on a budget. In this paper we defined ingenuity as the ability to solve problems by combining few resources in a surprising way.
So is alpha.gov.uk ingenious?
Well, it’s been developed in three months on the fairly minimal resources of 261k (not at all a fair comparison, but Directgov’s design and build costs came in at over 6 million). It may (time and the results of their feedback will tell) solve the problem of how to help people interact with government more successfully and cost-effectively. I’m less sure whether it uses its resources in unexpected ways, but seems to have at least used off-the-shelf rather than expensive custom technology.
Verdict? Too early to tell, but promising…