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New Delhi: A blue-and-white uniformed mannequin of a woman rural health worker carrying a vaccine delivery kit stood next to a bicycle and greeted participants at India’s first DesignpubliC Conclave, a day-long seminar held on 18 March in New Delhi.

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Behind the mannequin was a visual flowchart, with detailed images of health clinics, health service providers and local communities in rural Bihar.

For conference organizer Aditya Dev Sood, the mannequin held the key to solving some of India’s most pressing socio-economic challenges. Her vaccine delivery kit was an outcome of several months of intensive design research to investigate gaps in routine immunizations systems in rural Bihar.

The research project, conducted by Sood’s innovation consultancy, Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the Bihar government.

CKS team members “spent several weeks shadowing frontline health workers, interviewing families and observing community life", said Sood, which gave them a profound understanding of “the dynamics of routine immunization" and the barriers inhibiting its delivery.

Using these insights, the CKS team and its partners are working on generating concepts and prototypes of an improved vaccine delivery kit, with performance-enhancing features such as better ergonomics, thermal facilities and syringe disposal.

Design thinking

Sood is a vocal member of a growing tribe of design evangelists, which contends that the discipline of design thinking can help in solving complex problems, such as those related to good governance and administration. “The application of design in the public arena can create systems and services that are more efficient, more cost-effective and more useful for the people whom they serve," said Sood.

Anant Shah, programme officer on the vaccine delivery team in the global health programme at the Gates Foundation, agreed. He highlighted both tangible and intangible potential gains of the design intervention—in the form of higher immunization, as well as greater accountability and empowerment among woman health workers due to better-designed resources. “The collateral benefits of design thinking, when it comes to good governance, are pretty phenomenal," he said at the conclave.

Design thinking denotes an approach to problem-solving, with three distinct aspects. First, users are studiously followed and analysed employing ethnographic tools. Human needs, attitudes, preferences, challenges, their context and the immediate environment are documented using multimedia technology.

These in-depth observations generate insights into the heart of a given problem. Based on these, design thinkers collaborate and brainstorm to conceive a set of possible solutions. Prototypes of these solutions are created, tested and validated to arrive at a final solution.

The process relies on creativity, empathy, rationality and intuitive reasoning for its success— skills that are often missing and sometimes contrary to the analytical decision-making processes, which dominate most organizations. Design thinking’s most famous advocate is consumer products multinational Procter and Gamble Co., which has an in-house programme called DesignWorks to help managers identify consumer needs. Recently, some government bodies in parts of the world have also embraced these techniques to spur public sector innovation.

State as client

MindLab, a government-sponsored Danish innovation unit, is one such visible success. The cross-functional body was established four years ago to drive innovation across three key Danish ministries: economic, taxation and employment.

Niels Hansen, a project manager at MindLab and a conclave panellist, cited diverse areas such as workplace safety and tax forms, where MindLab’s user-centred interventions have delivered superior outcomes.

For example, repeated instances of workplace accidents led the Danish government to believe employers were not sticking to regulations. Deeper investigation by MindLab unveiled the real culprit was lack of understanding of the regulation, not merely lack of compliance.

The solution thus lay in re-framing the language of regulation, not in more control itself. “Design thinking translates our abstract understanding of the reality into concrete solutions, which take into account the systems, the context and the problems," Hansen said.

Such innovation techniques have a place in national policymaking. Harsh Shrivastava, a consultant with the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body, and a conclave panellist, described the commission’s recent efforts to integrate citizen feedback in developing its approach paper to the 12th Plan.

The Plan panel approached civil society non-profits, consulted a leading trade and industry association and crowdsourced feedback from citizens through Facebook. “We found many insights on Facebook, which we didn’t plan to get," he said.

Obstacles to innovation

To be sure, design thinking is not without challenges. Foremost of these is the role of government as a stable and secure provider of essential, everyday services: a role which, at first glance, directly opposes the experimental, often open-ended nature of design thinking.

“Government systems and structures are fundamentally different from those of the private sector. Government employees have no defined process for introducing and exploring new ideas," according to Innovation in Government, a recent report by Ideo, a design and innovation consultancy, and the Partnership for Public Service, a US-based non-profit organization.

Arun Maira, member of the Planning Commission and conclave panellist, concurred. “If you want to change the system, you can’t take the risk that in the process of innovation it will stop performing its function. How does one introduce innovation in a function that provides essential services?" he asked.

The challenge lies in defining the innovation process itself, Maira said, arguing further that the government should induce innovative environment and ecosystems, but refrain from becoming an innovator itself.

Given that governments are the largest provider of services in any region, MindLab’s Hansen said design thinkers must “understand and respect the skills of public servants". He attributed MindLab’s project success to its multi-disciplinary team of experts straddling three key disciplines: social science, design and public administration.

Finally, awareness of design itself—let alone the more nuanced technique of design thinking—is stunted. In India, design as an activity is associated with fashion, jewellery, architecture or home interiors.

Younghee Jung, a research leader with Nokia’s research centre in Bangalore, shared an incident at the conclave that captures the limited perception of design as an aesthetic experience. “How are you qualified to work for Nokia, which is a technology company, when you have a design degree?" she recalled being asked by the Indian visa authorities in South Korea.

The potential rewards outweigh challenges. Design thinking’s biggest strength—the last mile, or the citizen-government interface—is the biggest pain point for government service providers. User-centricity forms the foundation for all design thinking; they are typically the weakest link in any government programme. Greater sensitivity to everyday interactions between citizens and government services can result in enhanced standards of living through better housing, transportation, health, education, among other necessities of daily life, the panellists said.

Maira highlighted the dichotomy when he said: “The government has two roles—one of policy and regulation, and a delivery role. The government should not be in a delivery role at all, but let others innovate here."

Sood, who hopes to establish India’s first governance innovation lab, is paying keen attention. “I would like to see an institutional mechanism whereby an agency within government is responsible for governance innovation, either serving as an interface with designers and design thinking or providing that internally to different arms and agencies within the state," he said.

Designing an innovation model that governments willingly adopt may well be his greatest challenge yet.

Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

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