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Design Thinking & Policy Practice

Addressing complex public challenges such as sustainability, ageing populations, housing shortages and obesity requires thinking and approaches from many perspectives. As a field of professional expertise and academic inquiry, design focuses on how people interact with their environment and the generation and exploration of future possibilities.

This fits well with public policy research which often focuses on understanding needs and challenges facing society, the tools available to address them and what happens when interventions and programmes are implemented.

Given these intersecting interests it is perhaps not surprising that policy officials have been experimenting with design for some time building on the emergence of ‘social’ design and design for services.

“Open Government” approaches emphasize continuous learning, enabling a broad range of inputs such as experts, users and citizens during research and idea generation, and using prototyping, pilots and trials to explore policy before implementation. For example, Denmark’s MindLab was set up in 2006 funded by several ministries to develop an innovation capability informed by design approaches.

In the UK, the use of randomized control trials informed by behavioural science has demonstrated the value of experimental approaches to design policies that fit people’s behaviours rather than the other way round.

The push to digital government has highlighted the importance of design expertise in shaping and supporting users’ and citizens’ interactions with the state and public services. Policy Lab was set up in the Cabinet Office in 2014 to support government departments to experiment with new approaches including ethnographic research, co-design and prototyping.

Design approaches – sometimes called “design thinking” – are seen as offering a useful methodology that produces insights about people’s lives to shape policy ideas. Within the business world, such methods are now well-established and there exists an ecosystem of specialists and researchers able to deploy these techniques and assess their impact.

Within the policy context, however, such an ecosystem is embryonic and, thus far, is not deeply connected to academic research. The Innovation Insights Hub contributes to this emerging field through research, consultancy and building capability inside government and academia.

Current projects

EU Policy Lab/ Future of Government

The Innovation Insights Hub is collaborating with Open Evidence, a consultancy arm of Universtat Oberta de Cataluyna, and NYU GovLab, to support the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in developing the EU Policy Lab.

During 2017-19, Innovation Insights Hub has been supporting JRC to explore the use of design thinking in policy development, through a project about the role of citizens and business in the future of government 2030, that combined design and foresight methods. Several UAL staff have been involved including Lucy Kimbell, Lara Salinas and Danah Abdulla.

These contributions have been: to help create the methodology for a series of six stakeholder workshops across Europe; a series of six experimental small projects with design higher education institutions across Europe in which students responded to a brief from EU Policy Lab; and the development of a workshop tool to enable people to explore the future of government in 2030.

Smart Regulation of Antibiotic Use in India

The Innovation Insights Hub is collaborating with UK and international researchers on an ambitious project which aims to tackle anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in India. This is a three-year project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Newton Fund. The research team includes researchers working in pharmacology, law, public health, animal health and health systems and policy.

UAL’s role in the project is to help translate the research findings from four cases in two Indian states into ‘smart’ regulations. Using methods from design such as participatory idea generation and prototyping, the project will produce guidelines and regulations that contain AMR in India.

The UAL staff involved are Lucy Kimbell and Ana Tudor.

  • Project website (in development)
  • Two related projects at UAL led by Dr Alison Prendiville

PhD Scholarship in Design Thinking and Policy Making Practice

The Innovation Insights Hub is collaborating with The Policy Institute at King’s on a series of PhD studentships funded by both Kings College London and University of the Arts London. The collaboration presents a unique context for students to explore, develop and assess the intersections between design and policy. Three students are in place (two at UAL, one at Kings College London). A fourth studentship will be advertised to start in 2019 at Kings.

Find out more about PhDs at University of the Arts London

Completed projects

Arts and humanities into policy making

What it is

A bottom-up initiative to bring research from the arts and humanities to policy makers inside government. It involves a series of workshops in which arts and humanities researchers engage with civil servants involved in policy making. The first speed dating workshop was held in December 2015 attended by 11 researchers and seven policy officials from the Cabinet Office social action team around the question “How can the resilience and capacity of communities be maximised so that they are able to survive, adapt and grow despite chronic stresses and acute shocks?”

Why it matters

The Open Policy Making Agenda recognizes that policy officials need to draw on a wide range of sources of evidence when making and delivering policy. Much of this evidence is based in economic and social research. This initiative recognizes the expertise and contributions of researchers from the arts and humanities and develops ways for policy officials to access this. It also enables academics to understand more about the nature of policy work and where their current or future research might contribute to this.

Who’s involved

  • Arts and humanities researchers
  • Cabinet Office
  • AHRC
  • Institute for Government


Visit the Open Policy Blog

Training civil servants in Design Thinking and Design for Policy Makers with UK Policy Lab

The Innovation Insights Hub collaborated with Policy Lab, a team in the UK government’s Cabinet Office, to design and deliver short courses in design thinking and design for civil servants involved in making policy. Courses were run for policy teams in Department of Work and Pensions, Department of Energy and Climate Change and HMRC through Civil Service Learning.

The training combines the practical experiences of the Policy Lab team with academic knowledge and pedagogy supporting learning and development for professionals.