#19: Geert Brinkman on... Embracing complexity through design

Geert, as part of the Erasmus Governance Design Studio, can you explain to us what role design plays in your work? 
At the Erasmus Governance Design Studio, we explore how design can enhance the problem-solving capacity of public organizations. On the one hand, we do this by looking at the work of other design agencies. On the other hand, we do this by applying design ourselves in the projects that we do. Basically, what we do to pursue our objective is research of design and research through design

But why design? What is its value? 
Design helps us come up with solutions that are both more desirable and more effective. Desirable, because the solutions are based on human values, concerns and experiences. Effective, because the solutions have evolved from rigorous exploration and experimentation. Design also enables collaboration. Present day's so-called 'wicked problems', such as climate change, income disparity or social injustice cannot be 'fixed' by a single organization or department. We all know that we need to collaborate in order to deal with these problems. But how we can collaborate is still a difficult question. Design provides an answer to this. It is a very powerful approach to align a variety of stakeholders both on process and content.

So, what have you discovered so far? How can design enhance the problem-solving capacity of public organizations?
Design offers us a different way to handle complexity. Many public organizations handle complexity through simplification. This means that problems are broken down into discrete parts and solved by experts in a linear, predefined manner. This approach can be very efficient, but it does not always lead to radical changes, lasting solutions or valuable outcomes. In design, problems are looked at from a holistic, human perspective. In turn, it takes an explorative, experimental and collaborative approach to learn towards solutions in a nonlinear, flexible, iterative manner. In other words, it provides us a way to embrace complexity, rather than simplify it.

Do you usually experience friction while working with design practices and public organisations,?  And if so, how can policymakers be facilitated to adopt design?
So, that's the trick right? Because policymakers are used to their own ways of dealing with issues, they may be reluctant to adopt design. So we need either designers to guide them through the process or training programmes to build design competences. At the same time, hiring designers or providing training is not enough. Public organisations themselves do not provide a conducive context either. To effectively adopt design, public organisations should be moving from bureaucratic structures to more organic ones, from hierarchical to more collaborative cultures, and from predefined approaches to more flexible ones, allowing space for exploration, experimentation and learning.

Can you give us a concrete example of a project you recently did?
Last year we did a project with the municipality of Rotterdam, it was called the 'Right to Cooperate'. We were asked to design a policy providing citizens’ initiatives the right to request municipality support, and to collaborate as equal partners in delivering care for the citizens of Rotterdam. Together with citizens’ initiatives and civil servants from the municipality we concluded that, rather than a 'right' that enforces collaboration, it is more about setting the right context to enable and encourage collaboration.

Based on this finding we came up with a collaborative learning model in which citizens’ initiatives and civil servants collaborate on delivering services for the Rotterdam citizens, but at the same time set the parameters for better collaborations in the future. Although this model was not fully implemented, we saw that the design process made way for mutual understanding and a different, shared perspective on the problem. The design process itself became valuable, not just the outcome thereof.

Your example explains how design can be used on a local level, but what about the national level? Are there any differences in how design can be used? 
When we talk about the national level, design may be less valuable as an approach. Taking a human-centered perspective, as well as exploration and experimentation may be rather difficult because the scope of the issue and target group can be too wide and the distance to 'reality' can be too big. On a national level, it may therefore be more useful to look at the principles behind design and organize programmes and policies according to these principles. This means setting the conditions for local organizations to explore, experiment, iterate, and collaborate and organizing feedback loops to inform national programmes and policies and enable learning. 

To wrap it up, how can the potential of design for solving public issues be realized?
By (re)organising the context around the design process as well as the designed solution. Existing structures, cultures and processes of public organizations oftentimes complicate the effective application of design. They are geared towards exploitation and execution rather than exploration and experimentation. Public organisations thus need to transform in order to better accommodate for design. They need to move towards an organic structure, collaborative culture and adaptive approaches. This will not only be a more conducive context for design, but for approaches that embrace complexity in general. Next, existing programmes, policies and partnerships oftentimes complicate the effective adoption of a solution. I have seen a lot of cases where great solutions were designed, but they did not make it to realisation because they required a significant break from the past. To implement innovative solutions, designing the governance arrangements around these solutions is key.