How we rebuilt the Danish Design Centre
14. June 2018
The past decade has seen a massive shift in collaborative design for impact: leveraging the attitudes and methods of trained designers to achieve societal change together with end-users and stakeholder eco-systems. However, few organisations have yet embraced co-design fully as a mode of innovation at scale. Recent experiences from the Danish Design Centre show some ways towards new and more scalable systems of co-design.
Agnete Schlichtkrull

Perhaps the idea is not new, but its application is getting much more widespread: The notion that in order to develop the best possible approaches to a given problem, it is relevant to explicitly involve a wide range of stakeholders — including end-users such as citizens or customers. But how to build an organisation which fully leverages the power of design from understanding problems to making a measurable impact?

What is co-design?
Typically, the methodologies of co-design rotate around three dimensions.

First, exploring problems from a human perspective by the use of ethnographically inspired approaches such as open-ended interviews, field research and shadowing.

Second, creating new ideas with others through a range of workshop formats, sometimes digitally enabled.

Third, building and testing new concepts through the use of prototypes: Tangible suggestions for how a new product or service might look and function, which can be shown to potential users and their feedback obtained.

Out of the lab: Building an impactful organisation by design
When I moved on from MindLab to become CEO of the Danish Design Centre, I took the co-design toolbox with me — not physically, but philosophically as well as practically.

“In the past three years we have built the Danish Design Centre as an entirely new organisation”

When I started, the centre was in a crisis and in need of reinvention. Having been a semi-independent institution of the Ministry of Business for nearly 40 years, there was a desire from government to see a revitalized and dynamic centre.

When rebuilding a well-established organisation to become more engaging and more impactful, it seemed natural to deploy co-design as an approach. In the past three years we have built the Danish Design Centre as an entirely new organisation, growing the staff from around 14 to around 30, and more than doubling the operating budget.

During that period, we have engaged several thousand business and government leaders in pursuit of our mission. That is to bring design methodologies into play for business innovation and new value creation across the Danish economy. With a public investment in our activities over three years of 5million euros ($5.9million), we have generated economic value in excess of 25 million euros ($29.4million), in terms of new revenue and economic activity.

A model for going from insight to scale
In the following section, I would like to share and describe the organisation we have built because it illustrates a holistic model for value-creation.

The model essentially encompasses four key principles: Horizon scanning, co-design, co-production, and impact measurement.

Horizon scanning is where co-design is ignited. It concerns sensing coming trends with potential policy or organisational consequence: establishing insight, foresight and scenarios to visualize plausible futures.

Here, the function of the organisation — in our case led by a Director of Digital & Future Thinking — is to create awareness of context factors of importance to the organisation; to build preparedness and resilience in view of possible disruptions; and to form a basis for policy planning and action.

For instance, we have recently developed four scenarios for the future of healthcare in 2050, titled “Boxing Future Health”, which we have turned into tangible experiential spaces.

Co-design is, as mentioned, a process of exploring problems from an end user perspective; co-creating new ideas with users and stakeholders; and prototyping and testing early ideas.

The purpose is to build an early validation of fit and function of a policy idea, and create a basis for redesign and ultimately for decision-making.

For instance, we are currently running a challenge prize together with Realdania, a major philanthropist, to address the circular economy in the future of construction, “Circular Construction Challenge”.

“Here’s the essence of co-design: who would not want to take part in shaping what comes next?”

Here the ambition is to address the question of how to build with zero waste. Establishing such a programme requires deep and comprehensive stakeholder and user involvement in the scoping phase via interviews, workshops and program design sessions.

Co-production. This term is sometimes confused with co-design, but is fundamentally different. Here the focus is not on new ideas, but on putting objectives into practice.

Co-production is by no means a new term; it was originally coined in the 1970s by US Nobel laureate Eleanor Ostrom. Her insight was that any (public) service is essentially not “delivered” or “implemented”, but co-produced between the public organisation’s intervention and the citizens who engage with it.

In practice, this entails organising and implementing policy through collaborative networks, and leveraging all relevant resources in an organization’s environment to produce policy outcomes.

Done well, this also entails establishing the hypotheses of change to experiment with policy by co-production; and ensuring the rigorous collection of qualitative and quantitative data which can document the extent to which outcomes are likely to be achieved.

Establishing such “hypotheses of change” is important since it helps make staff in the organization be explicit about which actions and factors we expect will create intended change. It also raises awareness about critical success factors, and it helps the project team know what to measure to track changes, including unintended consequences.

Experimenting, learning and sharing for co-production
What we seek to embrace in the Danish Design Centre’s model, is to view all policy interventions as essentially experimental.

This means we need to start at small scale, try things out quickly, and if somewhat successful, iterate to a larger scale. If not successful, we should try another small-scale experiment, or cancel the effort entirely.

As illustrated in the figure, we work to realise co-production at three different scales, which allow for a high degree of risk management.

First, when possible we start at prototype level. Here we place the biggest emphasis on experimenting. We ask: how does the intervention work? Who does it work for (who benefits)?

Second, at program level, we shift the emphasis more towards learning. We ask: how can we learn from this now that the design is being realised?

Third, we push successful programmes to scale where the emphasis shifts to sharing. Here, we ask: how can we share our insights and tools? Which actors can embed activities to go to scale? How can we reach more people/businesses?

An example of going to scale in practice is our PLUS program, which first involved six businesses in testing a model for matching them with design studios and providing monetary grants for them to work on a relevant business challenge.

Based on successful experiences with this prototype, we grew the program to reach another 12 businesses, and conducted in-depth case studies and quantitative impact measurement.

Finally, this year, we are building the essence of the learnings into a nation-wide effort to facilitate new digital business models in 100 firms, using Google’s design sprint methodology.

Outcome measurement. This finally concerns the “so what” of co-design: do the efforts ultimately generate value?

Here the task is to establish a systematic set of methodologies to document inputs, activities, outputs, and short- and long-term outcomes of interventions. Additionally, to suggest key performance indicators, best indications of what success could look like and then of course, collecting data systematically.

The purpose here is to use data to document for accountability and transparency of the co-creation and co-production activities; to drive continuous learning, and increase organisational performance; and most of all, to produce stronger outcomes.

A work in progress
An organisational model such as this one is of course just one way of embedding design approaches into an institutional fabric.

Our experience is that one of the hardest parts is to get the roles and base organization right. Underpinning the processes, what are the reporting structure and responsibilities? What competencies are needed? How can you balance a focus on experimentation, learning and sharing?

At the Centre, we have addressed this by establishing a matrix organisation combining strategic platforms focusing on Health, Cities, SMEs, Startups and the design sector with practice areas we call Futures, Academy, Transformation, Branding and Policy.

On policy, we are working with three ministries on a new strategy for the creative industry in Denmark, and with the UNDP on how to shift to a platform-based model for innovation and impact. This structure is quite new and so only time will tell if it is appropriate and effective.

Can a country be a lab?
Some years ago, the British thinker and writer Charles Leadbeater observed that what we tried to do in bringing experimentation and co-design in play was “to discover better ways of being Danish”.

I always thought that was a very nice way of illustrating the on-going efforts to try new approaches, learn, adapt, and try again. It has made me think that the true systemic challenge of co-design is not only to use the methodologies and mindsets involved to build and run a particular organisation. rather it is to use the organisation for a much bigger purpose: To drive societal change at scale.

At the Danish Design Centre, we have recognized this perspective by establishing the following long-term vision: shaping the next society. Hereby we mean that, through using and leveraging design methodologies, we can help advance an exploration of not just better products and services and business models, but of better ways to conduct business, to conduct our lives, and to conduct policy.

And here’s the essence of co-design: who would not want to take part in shaping what comes next? You are hereby invited to join us!

This article was originally published on Apolitical. It's part of their wider work on government innovation.