Advanced Design for the Public Sector

Essay by Kristofer Kelly-Frere & Jonathan Veale: “…It might surprise some, but it is now common for governments across Canada to employ in-house designers to work on very complex and public issues.

There are design teams giving shape to experiences, services, processes, programs, infrastructure and policies. The Alberta CoLab, the Ontario Digital Service, BC’s Government Digital Experience Division, the Canadian Digital Service, Calgary’s Civic Innovation YYC, and, in partnership with government,MaRS Solutions Lab stand out. The Government of Nova Scotia recently launched the NS CoLab. There are many, many more. Perhaps hundreds.

Design-thinking. Service Design. Systemic Design. Strategic Design. They are part of the same story. Connected by their ability to focus and shape a transformation of some kind. Each is an advanced form of design oriented directly at humanizing legacy systems — massive services built by a culture that increasingly appears out-of-sorts with our world. We don’t need a new design pantheon, we need a unifying force.

We have no shortage of systems that require reform. And no shortage of challenges. Among them, the inability to assemble a common understanding of the problems in the first place, and then a lack of agency over these unwieldy systems. We have fanatics and nativists who believe in simple, regressive and violent solutions. We have a social economy that elevates these marginal voices. We have well-vested interests who benefit from maintaining the status quo and who lack actionable migration paths to new models. The median public may no longer see themselves in liberal democracy. Populism and dogmatism is rampant. The government, in some spheres, is not credible or trusted.

The traditional designer’s niche is narrowing at the same time government itself is becoming fragile. It is already cliche to point out that private wealth and resources allow broad segments of the population to “opt out.” This is quite apparent at the municipal level where privatized sources of security, water, fire protection and even sidewalks effectively produce private shadow governments. Scaling up, the most wealthy may simply purchase residency or citizenship or invest in emerging nation states. Without re-invention this erosion will continue. At the same time artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation are already displacing frontline design and creative work. This is the opportunity: Building systems awareness and agency on the foundations of craft and empathy that are core to human centered design. Time is of the essence. Transitions between one era to the next are historically tumultuous times. Moreover, these changes proceed faster than expected and in unexpected directions….(More).