Laboratories of Design: A Catalog of Policy Innovation Labs in Europe


Report by Anat Gofen and Esti Golan: “To address both persistent and emerging social and environmental problems, governments around the world have been seeking innovative ways to generate policy solutions in collaboration with citizens. One prominent trend during recent decades is the proliferation of Policy Innovation Labs (PILs), in which the search for policy solutions is embedded within scientific laboratory-like structures. Spread across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and often funded by local, regional, or national governments, PILs utilize experimental methods, testing, and measurement to generate innovative, evidence-based policy solutions to complex public issues.

This catalog lists PILs in Europe. For each lab, a one-page profile specifies its vision, policy innovation approaches, methodologies, major projects, parent entity, funding sources, and its alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) call to action. For each lab we identify governmental, municipal, multi-sectorial, academic, non-profit, or private sector affiliation.

The goals of compiling this catalog and making it available to citizens, scholars, NGOs, and public officials are to call attention to the growing spirit of citizen engagement in developing innovative policy solutions for their own communities and to facilitate collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between organizations. Despite their increasing importance in public policy making, PILs are as yet understudied. This catalog will provide an opportunity for scholars to explore the function and value of community-oriented policy innovation as well as the effects of approaching policy making around disruptive social problems in a “scientific” way.

Methodology: This catalog of policy innovation labs was compiled based on published reports, as well as a Google search for each individual country using the terms “policy lab” and “innovation lab,” first in English, then in the native language. Sometimes the labs themselves came up in the search results; for others, an article or a blog that mentioned them appeared. Next, each lab was searched specifically by name or by using an identified link. Each lab website that was identified was searched for other labs that were mentioned. Some labs were identified more than once, and a few that were found to be defunct or lacking a website were excluded. Innovation labs that referred only to technical or technological innovations were omitted. Only labs that relate to policy and to so-called “public innovation” were included in this catalog. Eligible PILs could be run and/or sponsored by local, regional, or national governments, universities, non-profit organizations, or the private sector. This resulted in a total of 212 European PILs.

Notably, while the global proliferation of policy innovation labs is acknowledged by formal, global organizations, there are no clear-cut criteria to determine which organizations are considered PILs. Therefore, this catalog follows the precedent set by previous catalogs and identifies PILs as organizations that generate policy recommendations for social problems and public issues by employing a user-oriented design approach and utilizing experimental methods.

Information about every lab was collected form its website, with minimal editing for coherence. For some labs, information was presented in English on its website; for others, information in the native language was translated into English using machine translation followed by human editing. Data for the catalog was collected between December 2019 and July 2020. PILs are opening and closing with increasing frequency so this catalog serves as a snapshot in time, featuring PILs that are currently active as of the time of compilation….(More)”.

Can You Fight Systemic Racism With Design?


Reboot’s “Design With” podcast with Antionette Carroll: “What began as a 24-hour design challenge addressing racial inequality in Ferguson, MO has since grown into a powerful organization fighting inequity with its own brand of collaborative design. Antionette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, speaks about Equity-Centered Community Design—and how Black and Latinx youth are using design as their tool of choice to dismantle the very systems designed to exclude them….(More)”.

The Obsolescence of Interfaces


Essay by Carlos A. Scolari: “COVID-19 has highlighted the need to redesign current interfaces to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….

Whenever somebody says the word interface one immediately thinks of a keyboard, a mouse or a joystick, and an infinite number of icons on a screen… This interface – also called a graphical user interface – is a place for interaction, the frontier space where the analogical (double-clicking the mouse) becomes digital (a file, made up of bits, opens). But the graphical user interface is not limited to that exchange between individual and technology: that relationship is mediated by an “interaction grammar” that, in order that things function, must be shared between designer and user.

This idea – the interface understood as a network of actors that are human (user, designer, etc.), technological (mouse, keyboard, screen, apps, Internet, etc.) and institutional (interaction grammar, businesses, laws, etc.) – can be taken far beyond the classical image of the individual against the digital machine. If we scale the concept, we can consider the school as an interface where actors that are human (teachers, students, governors, families, etc.), technological (blackboards, benches, books, pencils, projectors, tablets, etc.) and institutional (school management, PTA, Department of Education, Ministry, etc.) maintain different types of relationships with each other and carry forward a series of processes.

Educational interfaces

For years there has been talk of a “crisis in the school system” and of “educational innovation”. Rivers of ink and seas of bits have issued forth on this question in recent years. Back in 2007, in an article published in La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells warned: “The idea that young people today should bear the burden of a rucksack full of boring textbooks, defined by ministerial bureaucrats, and should be locked up in a classroom to endure a discourse irrelevant to their perspective, and should put up with all this in the name of the future, is simply absurd”. For some, the solution simply involves incorporating “educational technology” into the classroom and training the teachers. However, for others, we believe that the issue is much more complex and that it demands another type of focus. Perhaps a view from the perspective of interfaces might be useful for us….

Many other interfaces that were already showing their limitations from a couple of decades ago, such as political interfaces (parties) or social interfaces (trade unions), must pass through processes of redesign if we want them to continue fulfilling their representative roles. COVID-19 has added hospitals and healthcare centres to this list: during the worst weeks of the pandemic, these interfaces had to be redesigned in real time in order to tackle the boom in the number of patients entering their emergency departments.

Another interface that will not escape redesign is the city. Urban interfaces will have to be rethought in all their dimensions, from the relationship between the public and the private space to the spaces for the flow and permanence of pedestrians while maintaining a “safe social distance”. Even highly innovative spaces on an urban level, such as the “super-blocks” of Barcelona or the new co-working rooms at the UPF, are not prepared for the post-pandemic world and will have to be redesigned.

Nearly all the interfaces that have been mentioned (compulsory state schools, political parties, trade unions, hospitals) were created during Modernity to cater for the needs of a type of industrial mass society that is in the process of disappearing. COVID-19 has done nothing if not slit open all of these interfaces and evidence their incapacity to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests


Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Narrative Change: How Changing the Story Can Transform Society, Business, and Ourselves


Book by Hans Hansen: “Texas prosecutors are powerful: in cases where they seek capital punishment, the defendant is sentenced to death over ninety percent of the time. When management professor Hans Hansen joined Texas’s newly formed death penalty defense team to rethink their approach, they faced almost insurmountable odds. Yet while Hansen was working with the office, they won seventy of seventy-one cases by changing the narrative for death penalty defense. To date, they have succeeded in preventing well over one hundred executions—demonstrating the importance of changing the narrative to change our world.

In this book, Hansen offers readers a powerful model for creating significant organizational, social, and institutional change. He unpacks the lessons of the fight to change capital punishment in Texas—juxtaposing life-and-death decisions with the efforts to achieve a cultural shift at Uber. Hansen reveals how narratives shape our everyday lives and how we can construct new narratives to enact positive change. This narrative change model can be used to transform corporate cultures, improve public services, encourage innovation, craft a brand, or even develop your own leadership.

Narrative Change provides an unparalleled window into an innovative model of change while telling powerful stories of a fight against injustice. It reminds us that what matters most for any organization, community, or person is the story we tell about ourselves—and the most effective way to shake things up is by changing the story….(More)”.

Covid-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional


Seth Reynolds at NPC: “Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced by so many, so directly, so rapidly and so simultaneously. Our response to one threat, Covid-19, has unleashed a deluge of secondary and tertiary consequences that have swept across the globe faster than the virus itself. The butterfly effect has taken on new dimensions, as the reality of system interdependence at multiple levels has been brought directly into our homes and news feeds:

  • Individually, an innocuous bus journey sends a stranger to intensive care in a fortnight
  • Societally, health charities are warning that actions taken in response to one health crisis – Covid-19 – could lead to up to 11,000 deaths of women in childbirth around the world because of another – namely, 9.5m women not getting access to family planning intervention.
  • Governmentally, some systemic consequences of decision-making are there for all to see, while others are less immediately apparent – for example, Trump’s false proclamation of testing availability “for anyone that wants one”  ended up actually reducing the availability of tests by immediately increasing demand.  It even reduced the already scarce supply of protective masks, which must be disposed of after testing.

Students will be studying coronavirus for years. A systems lens can help us learn essential lessons. Covid-19 has provided many clear examples of effective systemic action, and stark lessons in the consequences of non-systemic thinking. Leaders and decision-makers everywhere are being compelled to think broader and deeper about causation and consequence. Decisions taken, even words spoken, without systemic awareness can have – indeed have had – profoundly damaging effects.

Systemic thinking, planning, action and leadership must now be mainstreamed – individually, organisationally, societally, across public, private and charity sectors. As one American diplomat recently reflected: “from climate change to the coronavirus, complex adaptive systems thinking is key to handling crises”. In fact, some epidemiologists, suddenly the world’s most valuable profession, have been calling for more systemic ways of working for years. However, we currently do not think and act in accordance with how our complex systems function and this has been part of the Covid-19 problem…(More)”.

Dark Patterns: Regulating Digital Design


Report by the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung: “How easy it is to order a book on an online shop’s website, how intuitive maps or navigation services are to use in everyday life, or how laborious it is to set up a customer account for a car-sharing service, these features and ‘user flows’ have become incredibly important to the every customer. Today, the “user friendliness” of a digital platform or service can therefore have a significant influence on how well a product sells or what market share it gains. Therefore, not only operators of large online platforms, but also companies in more traditional sectors of the economy are increasing investments into designing websites, apps or software in such a way that they can be used easily, intuitively and as time-saving as possible. 

This approach to product design is called user-centered design (UX design) and is based on the observations of how people interact with digital products, developing prototypes and testing them in experiments. These methods are not only used to improve the user-friendliness of digital interfaces but also to improve certain performance indicators which are relevant to the business – whether it is raising the number of users who register as new customers, increasing the sales volume per user or encouraging as many users as possible to share personal data.

UX design as well as intensive testing and optimization of user interfaces has become a standard in today’s digital product development as well as an important growth-driver for many companies. However, this development also has a side effect: Since companies and users can have conflicting interests and needs with regard to the design of digital products or services, digital design practices which cause problems or even harm for users are spreading.

Examples of problematic design choices include warnings and countdowns that create time pressure in online shops, the design of settings-windows that make it difficult for users to activate data protection settings, or website architectures that make it extremely time-consuming to delete an account. These examples are called “dark patterns”, “Deceptive Design” or “Unethical Design” and are defined as design practices which, intentionally or intentionally, influence people to their disadvantage and potentially manipulate users in their behaviour or decisions….(More)”.

Can we escape from information overload?


Tom Lamont at 1843 (Economist): “…Information overload was a term coined in the mid-1960s by Bertram Gross, an American social scientist. In 1970 a writer called Alvin Toffler, who was known at the time as a dependable futurist – someone who prognosticated for a living – popularised the idea of information overload as part of a set of bleak predictions about eventual human dependence on technology. (Good call, Alvin.) Information overload can occur in man or machine, wrote another set of academics in a 1977 study, “when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity”. Then came VHS, home computers, the internet, mobile phones, mobile-phones-with-the-internet – and waves of anxiety that we might be reaching the limits of our capacity.

A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier – and this was before most people had bought smartphones. In 2019 a study by academics in Germany, Ireland and Denmark identified that humans’ attention span is shrinking, probably because of digital intrusion, but was manifesting itself both “online and offline”.

By that time an organisation called the Information Overload Research Group had done a study which estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars were being shucked away from the American economy every year, in miscellaneous productivity costs, by an overload of data. The group had been co-founded in 2007 by a computer engineer-turned-consultant, Nathan Zeldes, who had once been asked by Intel, a computer-chip maker, to reduce the burden of email imposed on its workers. By the end of 2019 Zeldes was ready to sound a note of defeat. “I’d love to give you a magic potion that would restore your attention span to that of your grandparents,” he wrote in a blog, “but I can’t. After over a decade of smartphone use and social media, the harm is probably irreversible.” He advised people to take up a hobby.

In an age of overload it can feel as though technology has rather chanced its luck. Pushed too much, too far, bone-deep. Even before coronavirus spread across the world, parts of the culture had started to tack towards isolation and deprivation as desirable lifestyle signifiers, hot-this-year, as if some time spent alone and without a device was the new season’s outfit, the next Cronut, another twerk.

Before a pandemic limited the appeal of wallowing in someone else’s tepid water, flotation-tank centres were opening all over London. In the Czech Republic there are spas that sell clients a week in the dark in shuttered, serviced suites. “Social distancing is underrated,” Edward Snowden tweeted, deadpan, in March 2020: a corona-joke, but one that will have spoken to the tech bros of Silicon Valley, for whom retreats were the treat of choice.

Recently, I saw that a person called Celine in San Francisco had tweeted to her 2,500-odd followers about the difficulty of “trying to date SF guys in between their week-long meditation retreats, Tahoe weekends, month-long remote work sessions…” About 4,000 people tapped to endorse the sentiment, launching Celine onto an exponential number of strangers’ screens, including my own. The default sound for any new tweet is a whistle, somewhere between a neighbourly “yoo-hoo” and a dog-walker’s call to heel.

Hilda Burke, a British psychotherapist who has written about smartphone addiction, told me that part of the problem in this age of overload is the yoo-hooing insistence with which each new parcel of information seeks our attention. Speakers chime. Pixelated columns shuffle urgently or icons bounce, as if to signal that here is the fire. Our twitch response to urgency is triggered, in bad faith.

When Celine’s tweet whistled onto my phone one idle Friday I couldn’t understand why I found it mildly stressful to read. Was it that it made me feel old? That I already had enough to think about? Eventually I realised that, for me, every tweet is a bit stressful. Every trifling, whistling update that comes at us, Burke said, “is like a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing. The body springs to attention, ready to run or fight, and for nothing that’s worth it. This is confusing.”…(More)”

Lack of design input in healthcare is putting both patients and doctors at risk, says physician


Marcus Fairs at DeZeen: “Hospitals “desperately need designers” to improve everything from the way they tackle coronavirus to the layout of operating theatres and the design of medical charts, according to a senior US doctor.

“We desperately need designers to help organize the environment and products to help keep the correct focus on a patient, and reduce distraction,” said Dr Sam Smith, a clinical physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“We need designers at every turn, but they are so infrequently consulted,” he added. “In the end, most physicians burn out early because, in part, we are lacking well designed cognitive and physical spaces to help process the information smoothly.”…

“Visual hierarchy is a huge problem in medicine,” Smith said, giving an example. “This is very evident in online medical charts. Very poor visual hierarchy exists because designers were not consulted in the platform or details of the patient information organization or presentation.”

“This inability to incorporate good visual hierarchy, for example organizing a complex medical history in a visual way to emphasize what really needs attention for the patient, has led to ineffective care, and even patient harm on occasions over the years,” he explained.

“I have seen it in my 20 years of practice time and time again. Doctors are humans too, and the demands on them processing huge amounts of information are high.”…(More)”.

The Economics of Maps


Abhishek Nagaraj and Scott Stern in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “For centuries, maps have codified the extent of human geographic knowledge and shaped discovery and economic decision-making. Economists across many fields, including urban economics, public finance, political economy, and economic geography, have long employed maps, yet have largely abstracted away from exploring the economic determinants and consequences of maps as a subject of independent study. In this essay, we first review and unify recent literature in a variety of different fields that highlights the economic and social consequences of maps, along with an overview of the modern geospatial industry. We then outline our economic framework in which a given map is the result of economic choices around map data and designs, resulting in variations in private and social returns to mapmaking. We highlight five important economic and institutional factors shaping mapmakers’ data and design choices. Our essay ends by proposing that economists pay more attention to the endogeneity of mapmaking and the resulting consequences for economic and social welfare…(More)”.