Creating the Future Through Systems-Design Thinking

Back to the Future

Arturo Muente-Kunigami wrote in the World Bank’s Information and Communication Technology blog about the challenge of innovation and putting new information technology into practice in governments worldwide. Muente-Kunigami writes:

Most governments that introduce ICTs in their service delivery structure have basically applied technology to the exact same workflow they had before, replacing papers with emails and signatures with digital certificates. But ICTs in general – and broadband in particular – do not just improve the efficiency of governments. They have the potential to transform how governments work, redefining their relationship with citizens and expanding the array of services and transactions that could be provided and implemented.

This, however, is a very risky proposition for governments. And if most private companies rely on analytical thinking due to their overall aversion to risk, governments in most developing countries have a much less functional innovation system (in many cases, equivalent to a “copy-paste” function to be applied to “best practices” in other countries).

This is basically a ‘back-to-the-future’ problem: how to use the past to shape the future? How do we create best practices in areas where there are constant shifts, changes and altered contexts? Marty Neumaier would argue that we can’t. This is a design problem, not a knowledge transfer one. Muente-Kunigami also recognizes the potential for design thinking here and argues that governments need to follow their private sector peers in applying it to ICT and innovation:

So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms2.

This scary territory for a lot of organizations, particularly governments where decisions are not only shaped by history, but capital P politics. It’s also a language problem: Design gets equated with style instead of substance. Innovation is something done in business, not social and public services. Technology is something for wealthy nerds, not everyday citizens.

Marty Neumaier, Bruce Mau, Roger Martin and other design thinkers have been trying to shape this attitude, but it is an uphill battle. Language is one barrier, thinking differently is another. Both are challenges that I’ll address in future blogs, but the one I want to focus on here is the concept of best practices and the pull of the past on the present. Indeed, this is as good of an example of the power of an idea that you can find. Ideas may be the most powerful concept in human thinking as they shape the cognitive space that we inhabit by illustrating what is, what was, and what could be.

It is when what was becomes what could be that problems occur, particularly in the space of complex systems, which is where a great deal of government’s work is. Best practices is one of those ideas that is seductive because it reduces variation and provides a blueprint for how to handle problems. Indeed, best practices are pretty good when your problems are simple, or maybe even complicated at a very low level of abstraction, but lousy when you get into the realm of complexity.

Another point that Muente-Kunigami hints at is the systems problem; that is, the need to design systems to accommodate change. Implementing ICT-based strategies into a system straight-away is a recipe for failure. Technical systems do not enhance functionality without corresponding changes in social systems. An organizational shift in the way ICT is deployed is necessary if there is much chance of these tools and technologies living up to their potential. This, too, requires design thinking —  in creating usable technologies and receptive social systems (including those that are literate enough to take advantage of them).

I would also argue that this approach requires an evaluation approach that supports incremental evaluation and rapid-response feedback like we see in developmental evaluation (PDF), which I discuss elsewhere.

Taken together, the future of government may well be in design, but to create this future we need both the systems and design thinking to make it one day be the past.

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