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Beyond Government: Unleashing the Systemic Power of Design

19. Dec 2022

With COVID, we thought it couldn’t get any worse. But in many ways, it has. The multiple crises facing our world now, from climate change to the energy crisis, inflation, armed conflict, and a looming recession are problematic enough; the threat to democracy is even more worrying. But there are ways forward

Long reads

Towards the end of the first volume of his latest biography, former President Barack Obama wonders: Why is it that only in extreme crises, such as war or terrorism, can governments pull together and indeed be effective? More precisely, he asks what America would be like if its government put the same level of expertise and determination into educating children, ensuring healthcare for all, or combatting climate change as it did to hunt a terrorist like Osama bin Laden.

Just this Christmas, Denmark got a new government. For the first time in decades, it is a majority government across the middle of the political spectrum.

The reform platform they have presented is, on balance, ambitious and wide-ranging. In the preamble to the new platform, Responsibility for Denmark, the government acknowledges that the current crises are interlocking and mutually reinforcing. And it states: “We can quickly lose our grasp of them and the economy if we make the wrong decisions.” 

There’s a lot at stake.

But what will it take to realize the ambitions at a time when problems are complex, intertwined, and even wicked? Undoubtedly, it will require innovation in policy and services to an extent where current practices simply won’t be sufficient. 

We can’t solve future problems with yesterday’s tools. As I write with my co-author Jens Martin Skibsted in our new book, Expand: Stretching the Future by Design, we need to innovate how we innovate.

So, as we enter 2023, it seems in place to offer some ideas – three, in fact – for how to approach the policy issues ahead.

1) New Hope

First, imagine long-term and desirable futures. As the new Danish government also recognizes, it is easy to lose grasp of problems and be rendered helpless in the face of complexity. The design field’s visual and storytelling powers can engage people in collaboratively suggesting new ways of living, working, or being serviced. The way to get there can be through alternative scenarios. Scenarios help us see where we do NOT want to go and thus qualify deliberations on futures we genuinely want to see realized. But how to enable long-term thinking and create the necessary space?

Currently, a few actors have stepped up on this agenda: Local governments such as Aarhus Municipality, universities such as the Royal Danish Academy, associations such as the National Association of Local Governments, and foundations such as The Danish Industry Foundation, have all taken steps to engage their constituents in long-term thinking. At DDC, in partnership with the Rockwool Foundation’s Intervention Unit, we have even shaped a vision of an entirely new city to imagine what a hopeful future for thriving youth might look and feel like. Through graphics and videos, the vision shows what everyday life would be like for young people. It tells of school as a way of learning without pressure in balance with nature, of work as something that is flexible, diverse, and open, and of supportive environments for meaningful free time in tune with the seasons. In short, a future vastly preferable to the one we experience today.

Imagining the future we want together and thus developing a shared language and understanding of the direction we’re heading and the steps we have to take to get there is a way to mobilize and give birth to a common hope for the future.

2) New Partners

Second, talking about mobilization, we must reach actors beyond the usual suspects, too. Suppose you first accept that government action alone, neither nationally, regionally, nor locally, is enough to address the challenges we face. In that case, you must start questioning whom to involve and how to involve them in the solutions you imagine. Crafting desirable futures together is a powerful way of engagement. And what is the value of new partnerships? In short, your impact depends on your relationships as a person and, indeed, as an organization. To enrich relationships, you must want to achieve something bigger than your immediate interest – whether it is beyond narrow party interests or immediate business opportunities.

Unfortunately, not many organizations have the capabilities to organize, frame, and facilitate such work in legitimate ways. And very few have the convening power to engage. But some stand out. An inspiring example is Ungdomsbureauet, the driving force behind the annual Youth’s Summit on Frederiksberg, which mobilizes young people to deliberate on the future of democracy and collective action. At events like these, the participants get new, valuable connections they otherwise would not have created. The wicked problems require that new actors start talking and, not least, start working together. We’re trying to do that in our mission work, i.e., with the 30 for 2030 initiative, where 30 experts in circularity co-developed ten actions we all must take to create an irresistible circular society in 2030.

3) New Governance

We must change how we make decisions. At DDC, we recently surveyed actors in the Danish innovation system – such as universities, cluster organizations, and private enterprises – to better understand how they work with mission-oriented innovation (report to be published). Among the many themes, they considered, one came above everything else: The need for new modes of governing the complex relationships, knowledge, and action involved in mission work. This also goes for local government. If you first recognize, as, for instance, Aarhus Municipality has, that you cannot solve wicked problems on your own but need to involve every relevant actor – then you will likely have to expand how you make decisions beyond the city council. And what does that entail for the new Danish government?

It means rethinking the kinds of institutions we build and the decision-making structures that support ambitious policy reforms. I have previously argued, with my co-author of our book Expand, Jens Martin Skibsted, that this might entail redesigning some of our democratic institutions. For instance, what if we treated climate change like the economy and instated a politically independent institution to work for climate neutrality, just like we have a central bank with independent powers to manage monetary policy.

At the heart of new governance must also be systematic learning. But who is responsible for learning? How will the hundreds, if not thousands, of initiatives that will be launched over the next four-year government period be assessed in ways that can genuinely inform decision-makers and allow them, when needed, to change their course of action? In a way, that could be a role for Denmark’s new, all-first Minister for Digitalization: To build the infrastructure for the government to better capture data, gain insights, and learn from the impacts of policies. Today, that domain is primarily left to academics and evaluation consultants. What if the government itself had the infrastructure to get smarter – daily? At DDC, we call this a “Learning mechanism.” We use this approach internally, drawing on the iterative process in design work to gather insights from projects with partners or changes we go through as an organization. We make sure to share our learnings internally and externally to constantly get smarter and develop how we work. For our own sake and for that of our stakeholders.

Can you?

You might think these three ideas are just about improving government. To achieve ambitious goals around climate change, health, and education as outlined in the new Danish government’s policy platform. That is critically important, of course. But even more, is at stake. If elected governments cannot deliver equity and progress, people may choose other means to pursue their interests.

Failure to create meaningful change for citizens threatens our very democracies, as we have already seen from the US to Germany to Brazil. And the same is the case for countries that are not democratic. In recent months, countries as different as China and Iran have seen what happens if you fail to understand what matters to people – from sensibly managing the covid pandemic to respecting fundamental human rights.

So, as we enter 2023, we need to be as hopeful as Barack Obama’s original campaign. We must make the government work for people, businesses, and the planet. That task has perhaps never been more critical. With some simple yet powerful ideas, we can enter 2023 while saying it once more:

Yes, we can!

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