From 'post-it note porn' to re-invented public services

Post-it-notes-marilyn-monroe-mural1

Over the last five years or more I have sat in many workshops, seminars, discussion and found myself getting wound up by yet another, somewhat self-congratulatory presentation featuring another user-centred technique for co-something – collaborating, co-discovering, co-creating, co-inventing etc…

Such descriptions are usually accompanied by the obligatory image of people, usually bright young things fully of hope and optimism, pasting and/or clustering post-its on a large white surface. I've started to call this the 'pack shot' of modern design practice and the activity 'post-it note porn'. 

I don't have a problem with post it notes per se. I find them useful and a helpful tool just like many millions of others. However, the shot of the post-it note cluster says a couple of things:

  • It has become a way of indexing that an open-ended and often unstructured way of thinking was used to arrive at a sense of what the 'problem' or 'opportunity' space looks like.
  • It indicates that 'design thinking' is at play. 
  • It announces the collaborative nature of the discovery exercise
  • It points to further development work that lies ahead…raw ideas to be further shaped by the critical faculties of the designer

But as a recent paper, Writing on Walls, by Dawn Nafus and ken anderson elegantly pointed out, what such brainstorming practices often do is make participants feel like their idea is new when it is nothing of the sort. Post-it notes, they argue, are a key artifact in the invention of fictitiously novel ideas:

"making something seem to be new [the role of post-it notes in workshops] is where participanta attribute creativity…if the ethos is 'innovation', then it is not legitimate for them to be seen as old technologies that have sat around; they must be constituted as new in order to find their way into secured discourse and eventually the marketplace….The tantalizing originality posed by the brainstorming fantasy, where the volume of post-it notes loosens up people's dispositions and attachments, seems an impossible version of novelty that is never really achieved (page 153 in Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter).

So what's my point?

Well, much effort and no lack of money in recent years has been spent by QUANGOS and other central and local government bodies to re-think the design and delivery of the public services. At a time of structural weaknesses in the public finances, a recognition that the post-war welfare settlement needs revisiting, and when technology and the interwebs provide a host of other ways of organising and delivery activities and service, this is a good thing. 

At the same time, my feeling has long been that, with some notable exceptions, a large chunk of the time, effort and money that is spent on this process of re-thinking, is at the front end. This means large sums spent on yet another 'user-centred' exploration of the issue up front which fizzles out into under-investment and a poverty of sustainable outputs down the line. The other issue, and perhaps this criticism is not fair of all such efforts, is that there is little tendency to 'study-up' – to explore and understand the organisations who might be responsible for running, implementing or working alongside any new service that is developed. 

In a much more measured and erudite way than I could ever hope to acheive, a blog post from Geoff Mulgan has captured with a real sense of fairness balance the strengths and weaknesses of design in the formulation of public policy or services.

He lists some strengths of design practitioners, most of which I'd agree with:

  • Visualization techniques can be a vital complement to the dominant text-based or prose-based methods of public policy. And visualizing issues and possible solutions can be very good for involving a wider range of the public in the design process.
  • Seeing the user perspective as central is a vital complement to conventional, top- down methods.
  • Following service journeys often reveals new patterns, where blockages occur, and how experiences vary

But Mulgan is also good at seeing the flip side:

  • Designers are good at creativity, but poor at implementation. Often, however, the devil is in the detail and projects need to be hard fought through at all stages, especially implementation, if innovations are to be realized.
  • Reinventing the wheel is a risk. As a corollary of taking a fresh view, designers have a tendency to ignore past evidence and learning from the field. Sometimes designers even present this as a virtue.
  • Lack of economics and numeracy amongst designers can undermine the prospects for implementation, because at root everything in public services needs to live within a budget. There are also risks of gold-plating models of provision.

It is worth examining his list more closely for it marks, very clearly, the territory towards design must head if it is going to take ideas beyond the whiteboard into long term, sustainable and self-financing schemes in the public sector. 

Mulgan wrote this for SiX – and here I must declare an interest: I attended one of their events on ageing and innovation in Paris last summer. It was wonderful. Great people.  Some inspiring projects. Lots of good ideas. But there were quite a few examples of post-it note porn on display and quite a lot of re-inventing of the wheel. I recall Gordon Lishman, longtime Direct General of Age Concern, noting, wearily, that much of what had been presented as insight was nothing of the sort. And he should know. 

So, finally, after all this crticising of the practice of others, here is the presentation I gave in Paris. My intention with this short piece was to explore the assumptions of many design projects in the assisted living space, and to argue for people to think of their role more as bricoleurs using already existing socio-cultural, organisational, and technological capabilities, and to resist the urge to build everything afresh each time they go about solving a problem associated with ageing.  

Most of the technologies needed to make assisted living a 'reality' already exist. Why build a phone when mobiles, phones, the internet and Skype already exist? Oh, and there's this thing called the cloud too. Why design a new network architecture each time you want to develop a product? That's often what independent living technologists do, chasing the dream of their own, perfect bespoke infrastructure.

UPDATE: I note with interest that today NESTA, a very post-it note friendly organisation, has a blog post about 'just enough technology'. Just goes to show, there's not such thing as an original idea.

Given my predilection for criticism, you'll see that I started with a choice quote attributed to Robert Frost.