Thursday, July 01, 2010

Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy

Glen Cove, NY, June 9-11, 2010
Download conference report here
View conference presentations here

Ever keen to expand the boundaries of their practices, design professionals have been moving in the direction of public policy for some years. Moving beyond (but drawing on) concerns with products and brands, and interactions and experiences, some designers have found themselves over the past decade working on the design of systems and services including several in the public sector, situating their role as designers of social action rather than designers of things. Meanwhile some policymakers have created opportunities for designers to apply their approaches to social and economic problems.

In Australia, consultancy Second Road has worked for a decade with the Australian tax office on the design of the tax system, rather than just the tax forms. In 2004, the UK Design Council set up a research unit called RED, to tackle social and economic issues through design-led innovation. Its director, Hilary Cottam, and her colleagues later set up a new consultancy, Participle, which currently works with organizations such as Southwark Council in London. In 2005 UK design consultancy ThinkPublic worked with the National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement to help improve the design of a cancer service, written up in an excellent book (2007) by Paul Bate and Glenn Robert. In 2007 the Danish government re-organized innovation unit Mindlab as a cross-ministerial organization to use design approaches to involve citizens and policymakers in innovation. That same year the Design Council and a regional development agency in the North East of England launched Design of the Times (DOTT), a one-year project bringing design-based approaches to projects that aim to increase sustainability in the region (now running in its second iteration in Cornwall). Last year design consultancy IDEO created a Human-Centred Toolkit for NGOs supported by the Gates Foundation. Researchers from Intel’s People and Practices Research Group recently published a social viability measurement tool for technology projects. End-of-year shows in design school present project after project in which studio-based learning practices are applied to deep-rooted social, political and economic issues.

Designers’ ambitions, and desires to contribute to making significant change in the world, are evident. In such projects, their work often includes research about and sometimes with the communities or stakeholders within which new social action is desired. Research methods range from ethnographically-inspired techniques that try to identify and interpret what matters to communities to participatory methods involving them directly in co-design rather than designing for them. But what designers, or multi-disciplinary teams using “design” approaches, can also bring to such projects is a set of assumptions about knowledge, that can have important consequences for how they, and the communities they claim to serve, understand the work they are doing and what happens within it. Social scientists (who have a lot to say about these assumptions and the nature of research) have come together with designers to discuss such matters for several years at conferences such as the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conferences (EPIC), the Participatory Design Conferences, and the anthrodesign discussion list as well as many other fora. But it is rare to bring these two professions/disciplines together with policymakers, who have different kinds of investments in the design of social action.

The Glen Cove Conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy held in Glen Cove, NY, on 9-11 June, was an event which did so. Initiated by Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), and co-organized by myself (based at Said Business School) and Gerry Philipsen (Center for Local Strategies Research, University of Washington), this event was conceived of as a small workshop which would bring together – for the first time, as far as we were aware - three groups: policymakers concerned with security in intrastate contexts and post-conflict situations, whose work is typically structured by intergovernmental and national policy goals; social science researchers, in particular ethnographers of communication who pay special attention to the construction of local knowledge, for example, how “security” is understood in communities in which the UN has a mandate to do increase it and having decided to help disarm ex-combatants; and designers and managers involved in designing services shaped by policy concerns about politics, exclusion and access. The workshop was a direct result of Miller and Rudnick’s work since 2005 and increasing concern with how generating local knowledge could shape local action in the UN context. By developing the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP), Miller and Rudnick have been exploring design as a way to link local knowledge and local action (see the SNAP section of the UNIDIR website which includes the conclusions from an earlier workshop on design and public policy they organized in the Hague in 2009).

The aim of the Glen Cove workshop was to see whether the developments outlined briefly above, in which designers skilled in going through a process of creative enquiry in new contexts, combined with rigorous cultural research, attentive to the necessity and difficulties of generating local knowledge, might be relevant to contexts of international security. A second aim was for participants from these three different professional contexts to reflect on what such an agenda might mean for their disciplines and professions (although not ignoring important differences among them). My introduction above illustrates my own interests in how design professions are changing and what kinds of knowledge and assumptions designers have, or might need to question, in order to design social action and in whose service they are operating.

Since we will be publishing a report about the workshop and its conclusions, I will not go into detail here such as listing all the participants’ names (but see below for a list or organizations) nor what we did and what we concluded. Instead I mention some of the sessions I found most illuminating.

Day 1:
The first sessions set the scene through discussion of current challenges in policy, humanitarian and development activities and the growing awareness for the need for local knowledge for effective local action in an effort not to have strategic goals undermined by poor programme design. These included presentations about the importance of local knowledge from Randolph Kent (Humanitarian Futures Project, King’s College, London, and former UN member of staff in Rwanda and Kosovo); the irrelevance and inadequacy of many guidelines for operational staff by Tore Rose (SecDev, and former UN Resident Coordinator in several countries); and Roz Lasker (Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia) on bottom-up community engagement in public health and tracking who has influence in decision-making.

Day 2:
The second day introduced the two other main threads – design and cultural research. There were presentations from Dick Buchanan (Weatherhead School of Management) presenting design as based on rhetoric and dialectic as useful for professionals of different kinds to practice well; and from my colleague Steve New (Said Business School) about process thinking within the field of operations management in which action on the ground is understood as being complicated and interventions often make things worse. I presented a highly partial overview of key intellectual developments in fields in which participants are concerned with designing services and combining anthropological and design research which helped illuminate the timeliness of this event and its relevance to policy.

The afternoon saw presentations about cultural research from Gerry Philipsen (Center for Local Strategies Research, University of Washington) about the ethnography of communication which among other things studies the deep cultural knowledge about ways of communicating as strategic action that can be found in particular communities; and from Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick (UNIDIR) describing their efforts within the UN context to generate stories that are of places rather than about them for the benefit of designing more effective, sustainable, and legitimate community security projects and bridging some of the gaps between cultural research, programme design and public policy.

Day 3:
In the morning, five mixed teams (with at least one design-based professional, one cultural researcher and one policy professional) worked together to try to design a process that would generate local knowledge to shape local action in the form of a programme in the UN context. The matter of concern for this exercise was reintegration of ex-combatants in west Africa. As one designer put it: “Designers are quite happy to work on anything.” But this exercise asked teams – few of whom had much knowledge about the particular topic or indeed other team members’ specialist domains – to think about how their different perspectives, knowledge and assumptions might be combined or questioned so that more effective programmes might be designed. For design, this lead to questions such as: Can one really "co-create" with war criminals? Can one really use "empathy" as a formal approach in a post-conflict context with global as well as personal ramifications?

The final plenary session lead to heated discussion – which was for me an indicator of the success of the workshop. I take the view that multidisciplinary workshops or teams, if they work well, will lead to some moments of productive synthesis but also raise equally productive challenges to individuals’ worldviews and disciplinary assumptions. This led to a lively set of activities to identify common agenda items across the disciplinary traditions, driven by policy concerns which several of us are now trying to synthesize. I am confident that new collaborations in action, research and teaching will come from the event.

The organizers and participants are now in dialogue about how to capture and report the workshop, in the short term, and how in the medium term we can find ways to take forward the idea that (1) cultural research has something important to offer the creation of local knowledge in international policy contexts, and that (2) design practices have something to contribute to interpreting and enacting that knowledge in the design of social actions. Hoping to learn from similar discussions in other areas of policy and public service, and contribute to discussions within my own profession, I look forward to helping take this work forward.

Participants came from these organizations:
Bell & Payne Consulting
Carnegie Corporation
Center for Knowledge Societies
Engine Group
George Washington University
King’s College, University of London
Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
New School for Social Research
Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research
UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations
University of Ghana
University of Haifa
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
University of Oxford
Weatherhead School of Management

Aditya Sood’s summary of the workshop on his blog
Write up by Ivo Gormley, Think Public, published in Design Week
Anthodesign discussion listserv
DOTT Cornwall
EPIC 2010
IXDA Interaction Design Conference 2011
Participatory Design Conference 2010
ServDes 2010

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