Cultural Design

Culture provides the catalyst for Designer to create services and products that are fit for their context but also innovative and culturally sensitive.

Our role as designers hinges on integrating the socio-cultural factors that leads to the final outcome. Now more than ever, we need to be aware of the impact of culture.

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Dialectics of Inspiration & Execution

Dialectics of Inspiration & Execution

“By Targeting the needs of groups who are marginalised by conventional design practices, Inclusive Design links to wider social narratives concerning an inclusive society. More importantly it is now recognised by governments as a force of social equality as well as a driver of social innovation for communities, business and industry” (Bichard & Gheerawo 2011, 45).

For the last 30 years we have witnessed a seismic shift in methodologies and practices employed both by industry and government, in a bid to engage users and experts alike. There has been a real urgency for a collective push to conceptualise and envisage solutions that drive real innovation. In the late 1970s and during the 1980s technology-based corporation such as IBM, Intel and Xerox Parc embraced fields as diverse as Design, Ethnography and Anthropology to push the boundaries of what could be achieved in the ever-expanding global markets. This concerted foray into new territories and the realization of the pitfalls associated with operating in a globalised context, has been instrumental in creating a space for understanding culture. Our focus has shifted toward cross-cultural awareness and non-secular understanding of everyday life. In effect paving the way for culture to be viewed as “emergent” and a growing momentum for what Clarke refers to as “socially responsive design” (Clarke 2011, 9-13).

Our practice has its roots in the political traditions of Anti-Design and Action Anthropology movements heralded through the 1960s by the condemnation of Western Bourgeois consumer culture and a quest for ethical engagement with wicked problems. During the early 1970s this was escalated by the evangelizing discourse on wasteful and meaningless design by Victor Papanek. And politicized further by the radical practices of design collectives such as the Italian design group Superstudio. While designers were trying to find solace by ‘changing the system’ (Gorz, 1979 cited in Bezaitis & Robinson, 2011), a culture of ‘communities of practice’ was being ushered in by anthropologists who were already placed within corporations such as Xerox.

Today, design has become the ultimate instrument by which we transform research to create something useful. This construction of the relationship between the user and the product is a political process defined by an exclusionary framework. The how of this process not only defines the interactions that take place between a service/product and the user but also defines the landscape of collaboration that binds this relationship to the knowledge producers. Our collaborative efforts in the organizational (industry/government) context are affected by our ability to effectively ‘engage in conversation about the work we do and the spaces within which we do it’. In this manner, ethnography in the organizational context has focused our lens on developing ‘stronger home grown theoretical frameworks’ (Flynn 2009, 53).

Flynn points the way, in which we can redraw the boundaries of exclusion:

“…our power as ethnographers lies in being able to reframe priorities, values and even relationships within those landscapes of production. Through effective integration of ethnographic knowledge into production process we can help redraw boundaries of exclusion/inclusion between corporation and customers; and by applying our skills in effectively moving across social boundaries and bridging social distance, we can redraw boundaries of exclusion/inclusion within the landscape of production”(Flynn 2009, 55).

Mapping Innovations in the Public Realm

At the crux of innovation within the public sector lies the process of ‘creating new ideas and turning them into (tangible) values for society’ (Mindlab, 2011). Navigating this process can be fraught with difficulties. Ortlieb clarifies this by bringing into focus the difficulty in changing an organisation’s philosophical assumptions. Expert Knowledge buyers who subscribe to the “slippery view of culture” are often unwilling to accept that the problems they face could be more complex and detailed, often due to cost constrains. In contrast expert knowledge providers, with their “emergent” view of culture, are unwilling to accept that cultural differences can easily be replicated and reduced to manageable specifics. They see the pressure to yield higher profits in reduced time-frames, as shortsighted (Ortlieb 2009, 189).

We can take heart “…there is readiness to listen if the expert researchers come back with a different model from the one the business managers had brought to the table…” (Ortlieb 2009, 202). To illustrate this point, we need to look no further than IBM, who in 2003 launched a new research group, Almaden Services Research, to bolster their understanding of consulting services . A logical move given that half of generated revenue and employee base at IBM since 2000, is based in consulting, application management and outsourcing services (Cefkin 2009, 15).

Organizations provide the context in which people innovate.Believers of “emergent culture” view innovation as the only vehicle capable of affecting permanent change in response to wicked problems. However, many see the culture present in most government organizations not conducive to innovation within the sector. In the last few years, innovation in the public sector has gathered momentum and charted its path from an academic interest to becoming a global force. A timely reminder for those with a “slippery” view on culture, that doing more of the same won’t bring about change. What needs to be considered in terms of innovation within government, is the responsibility of tackling wicked problems. Failure in delivery of vital services to citizens, can have very real and harsh consequences. Here we don’t just face the difficulty in changing an organisation’s underlying assumptions. Imagine the consequences that would result if an innovation has an unintended negative effect on hospitals. It is wise to remember “Public organsiations are not simply service organizations” (Bason 2011, 54).

Government machinations are known for their slow and conservative approach where innovation is concerned. In part due to their responsibilities and obligations to citizens and declining budgetary constraints in the face of rising public challenges such as an aging population, raising unemployment, etc – problems which may never be completely solved. In the face of increasing complexity within public organizations, the need was felt for a more procedural analytics of the situations, one that favoured a “robust view of social agency” and engaged in co-design (Darrouzet, Wild & Wilkinson 2009, 67-68) . In Denmark, Mindlab has been at the forefront of delivering innovative solutions to such wicked problems through its engagement with citizens and government.

Mindlab’s approach is not based solely on ‘creativity’ or ‘invention’ (a highly individual activity), but on a systematic and methodological approach steeped in academic research and tempered by citizen input. ‘Innovation’ is considered something highly practical and explored within the context of a multidisciplinary team with tools and methods aimed to engage wide range of actors (public servants, private sector and citizens) in creating solutions. In the Scandinavian tradition of co-operative design heralded in the 1980s, during the ‘era of democratisation’ (Bødker, Sjögren & Sundblad, 2000), Mindlab has built on a strong foundation of concurrently engaging with people and technology within a human-centric framework.

Since its inception in 2002, shortly after the dotcom bust, Mindlab came to existence as an internal incubator and a centre for innovation for the Ministry of Economics and Business Affairs, the Ministry of Taxation and the Ministry for Employment in Denmark. The policy areas covered by the respective Ministries, affected a broad range of areas, helping shape the daily lives of Denmark’s citizens.

Mindlab has actively engaged citizens (including the private sector) in uncovering the fundamental blocks in the public sector when dealing with citizens’ needs. In particular they have been instrumental in raising questions on how to make abstract issues so immediate that citizens are able to relate to them leading to the creation of dialogue between all stakeholders. Mindlab is continually trying to engage citizens and public servants in debate provoking campaigns so participants can find their own voice. When working with public servants, the process of how to engage participant in the innovation process has been of particular importance in challenging traditional ways of thinking and doing.

Orchestrating Co-creation with citizens…

Mindlab is constantly reminding the public sector to look at citizen involvement, not as a validation process or increased show of democratisation within government but an equal partner in uncovering new perspective to old problems. “Who are we developing this for, how do they live their lives, what is important to them, and what motivations, practices, relationships and resources do they have that may help or impede the outcomes we are seeking to achieve?” are some of the questions that are posed by Mindlab (Bason 2010, 154).

Knowing what people experience when they are interacting with a government service is crucial, as these everyday experiences can lead to new ways of seeing and doing. Citizen involvement through interviews or video capture is not about which ideas they would like to see, but allowing Design Anthropologists to interact with real people in real situations. In this manner Mindlab is able to explore new ideas and explore how they can work. By exploring a range of anthropological methods influenced by design and traditional ethnography we see an iterative process of co-creation. This in turn generates useful insights that can lead to co-produced designs. Bringing us one step closer to achieving “productivity gain with no reduction in service experience” (Bason 2010, 160).

As I previously explored, Mindlab methodologies are immersed in the user-centred domain and require a rigorous and systematic approach. They operate under the assumption that their methodologies “are anchored in design-centred thinking, qualitative research and policy development” (Mindlab, 2011). Using a process model consisting of seven phases projects are explored by:

1. Defining the project focus

2. Learning about the users

3. Analysing the problem

4. Generating ideas and developing appropriate concepts

5. Testing of new concepts

6. Communication the results and implementation

7. Measuring the effectiveness of the implemented solution.

Through their methodologies such as the “Ethnographic Approach”, Mindlab seeks to engage with their citizens authentically and “see the world through their eyes” initiating the “change in perspective which is paramount to continued innovation”. Concurrently, they engage with experts through semi-structured interviews to explore complex issues by building on existing knowledge. As with all user-centred practices, Mindlab places a strong emphasis on prototyping with users (Methods 2011).

Following in the footsteps of Danfoss, citizens and public servants are invited to workshops at Mindlab, where Design Anthropologists engage with users. These informants are invited to participate in a “real design collarboratorium in which emphasis is on contexualisation” (Spershneider & Bagger, 2003).

This allows Mindlab to seek answers as to whether the developed strategy will function and benefit the citizen or the business community. In short the iterative process allows the company to create a tangible framework for its services. What is sophisticated about their methodologies is the ability to “identify potential gaps between the ideal process and what is actually experienced”, revealing the potential for improvement without losing the complexity of the service (Methods 2011). In short they seek to demonstrate how new insights can lead to real change. To that end their work is cross-disciplinary and builds on diverse fields such as design, anthropology, sociology and political science. Part of the mission of Mindlab’s employees, in the spirit of action anthropology, is to develop new knowledge and share their insights about innovation with the public. To that end they are hosting a number of PhD projects.

Christian Bason has been in the forefront of introducing design thinking into Mindlab and harnessing the benefits of melding the sensibility and methods of a designer with what is technically feasible to meet people’s real world needs. With the team at Mindlab, he has established a “unique culture of cooperation across the public sector and a strategic focus for innovative thinking amongst its three parent ministries” (Mindlab, 2011). His professional background in public organization and management practice with Ramboll prior to joining Mindlab coupled with his academic and research links to University of Southern Denmark, Aarhaus University, Harvard and Standford, have helped him to create new tools for citizen involvement through design thinking and ethnographic research. In effect these tools have helped to highlight the leadership role governments need to drive innovation both within the established hierarchy and in the wider community.

By creating a multidisciplinary team of individuals, business and academia Christian Bason, has been instrumental in developing partnerships with both government and universities to develop and implement new methodologies, practices and innovative ways of delivering services. I believe the time he spent as a Services Consulting Manager in Ramboll has further reinforced his strong engagement with Participatory Design and the importance of taking a holistic.

What fascinates and peaks my curiosity is the process by which Mindlab employs social policy as a starting point and melds this with the application of design. The visual-drape-over effect of having “a cool space” to work in, is not convincing, however their methods and value proposition is ground breaking within the public service sector.

Other point of contention is the evangelising regarding the shift from formal government organizations to citizens. This is inevitably followed by a shift to new models of co-finance and/or individual investment (a model which is not in my opinion recommended in highly disadvantaged communities). Christian Bason refers to this as “a shift in culture to a more democratic and socially responsible society”. This may be applicable in the context of available social services in Denmark. However in the UK, The RSA Public Services 2020 Commission has audaciously put their vision as “radical efficiency”, one that compels the citizen “from social security to social productivity”. If the most important ingredient for innovation within the public sector is transparency, how do these innovation units justify using language that hide its true intent.

Reflections on Design Anthropology

As someone who is not well versed in the lore of public policy and is engaging at the citizen level, I am frightened and deeply disturbed by the veil of deception used in the UK to twist Mindlab’s philosophy to “empower users in (highly disadvantaged) communities to meet their own aspirations”. What they are in fact proposing, under the guise of cooperative engagement, is limited service deliveries to housing estates and introducing the user-pay model to a community that can not currently meet its own obligations (RSA Fellowship, Winter 2010).

My personal motivation for engaging with Design Anthropology was not due to a lack of access or understanding of creativity, its rather colourful history or the importance of creativity in guiding human evolution. Rather it has been an attempt and at times a struggle to form a bridge between what I see as design’s ability to provide a beautiful framework for social innovation. One that harbours a safe environment to tackle human bias. To that end, Design Anthropology has helped me in refining my values. My study of Mindlab in particular has urged me to understand what it means to be a citizen and migrant in the context of Australian society. It has helped me to understand the extend of my given agency within the dominant culture as a citizen, a migrant and most importantly as a woman.

Through my interactions with fellow classmates and immersion in Mindlab’s processes, it has become clear that Design Anthropology as a field needs to attract and retain professionals already equipped with experience and knowledge in other fields (borrowing a few concepts from Christian Bason):

  • Visionaries who are able to formulate ambitious, even audacious vision, igniting energy and motivation in the field;
  • Enablers/Power brokers who have the unique ability to create harmony and cohesion in the face of challenging and often times messy business of building optimal frameworks in practice;
  • Corporate Innovators/Connectors, who are in the position to embrace and apply co-creation methodologies and help in creating greater diversity;
  • Engineers, who understand what it takes in terms of new skills, processes and communication to implement a good idea and transform it into a workable solution.

As a Designer one experiences “Ah ha” moments often when moving from analysis to synthesis. In design anthropology through its human centric value proposition, you are guided instead to tune into the users’ “Ah ha” moments. In its most desirable manifestation, the effects of each engagement should builds on the last, creating practitioners who by the very nature of the field become more empathic in the process.


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