Illustration: Holly Macdonald from Kimbell, L. (2015). Applying Design to Public Policy
Experimentation sounds scientific. It demonstrates if an idea works or not, based on a hypothesis informed by theory. It provides evidence which then can be assessed to decide whether to go ahead with implementing a solution at scale. Within policy making, trials are not new. But over the last decade experimentation informed by behavioural insights has emerged in a context (organisational and digital capabilities), with a toolbox (the randomised control trial), a theoretical base (people need a nudge) and an ideology (the austerity agenda).
Other kinds of experimentation are also growing. Data analytics allows organisations to experiment with digital services. They can quickly and cheaply set up experiments to see, for example, whether more people click on option A rather than option B, sometimes without bothering with a hypothesis. They just want to see “what works” and can find out at scale without knowing why.
But as critics of the nudge approach point out, the scale of the ambition does not live up to the challenges society is facing. A small percentage change in an outcome can deliver substantial savings when spread over a population of (say) millions of people applying for driving licences. But is this the kind of change, behavioural or organisational, that is going to help communities address big challenges where entirely new ways of doing things are needed?
This is where design and art schools come in. Their business is creating the future, not studying evidence of past performance. Based in an abductive logic and using inventive methodologies, artists and designers generate new insights, new guesses (or proto-theories), and new concepts that are neither true or false – they just are.
Within the studio-based tradition of art schools, the studio is the site where possible versions of the future become materialised and aestheticised. Studio experimentation connects individual creativity with emergent practices at the margins of society. Artists experiment by bringing into being new kinds of cultural form and practice that give us insights into who we are and what matters, some of which become the way things are usually done. Designers experiment by proposing new cultural practices that we co-constitute as consumers, producers and users, some of which become the way things are usually done. Studio experimentation brings into being new ways of doing, knowing and being that can be shared, made sense of and combined into new routines.
These days, the studio is not located in particular places. Studio experimentation happens at the intersections between design and art schools and the local and global communities they are embedded in. In collaboration with policy teams, service managers, businesses, users and community groups, art and design schools prompt and propose and help bring innovative new practices into being. They are innovation studios for society.
Lucy Kimbell is Director of the Innovation Insights Hub at University of the Arts London. She recently completed an AHRC fellowship in Policy Lab in the Cabinet Office. @lixindex