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Innovating public services in challenging times was the final event in the Supporting Public Sector Innovation using Design in European Regions (SPIDER) project. SPIDER is a project funded by the EU’s Interreg IVB programme and led by PDR, an international centre for design & research based in Cardiff. SPIDER aims to demonstrate the potential of service design to create solutions to some of the Europe’s most pressing challenges (issues like our rapidly ageing population and youth unemployment).

The two day event attracted a large number of attendees, mostly from Ireland where the event was held. Of 190 participants, half were from the public and third sectors, alongside intermediaries, design practitioners and academics, demonstrating a wide and growing interest in service design.

SPIDER conference

The event presented the results of the nine SPIDER demonstration projects and aimed to raise awareness of the potential of service design in the public sector, particularly in Ireland.

Ireland is investing significantly this year in supporting and promoting Irish Design nationally and internationally. As explained by Karen Hennessey, chief executive of Irish Design 2015, ID15 aims to demonstrate how user-centred design thinking can drive R&D and innovation across product manufacturing, services, systems and organisations.

In the public sector, the level of understanding about role design can play is still in its very early stages. It requires – in the words of the event organiser Adrian O’Donoghue (Northern and Western Regional Assembly of Ireland) – wider support and an awareness-raising programme.

Keynote — Dominic Campbell

The keynote presentation by Dominic Campbell (Futuregov) stressed the importance of introducing design and digital literacy within organisations to counteract the current managerial culture of conducting big and very expensive change projects.

Light digital infrastructures like Casserole can quickly generate replicable solutions that connect underused resources (i.e. neighbour’s extra portions of home-cooked food) to address very complex social issues such as social isolation amongst elderly people.

For more transformational systemic projects he stressed the need for good technological infrastructure and political permission to innovate, as in the case of the Child Protection project Futuregov developed in South Wales Australia.

The legacy of SPIDER

A dedicated Service Design toolkit was developed as part of the SPIDER programme and tested across its demonstration projects, this was supplemented with 26 training workshops for government staff.

The big question though is what comes next. There’s consensus that just introducing design tools is not enough to build a service design culture within public authorities. Further commitment is needed particularly to build a broad understanding of the principles of design thinking.

The role of Design for Europe

Design for Europe is interested in exploring how and when initial raising awareness activities can develop into a process of transforming the culture and innovation practices of public service organisations in the longer term. What are the barriers these public authorities as well as designers face? and what kind of support is needed?

Design for Europe attended the event not only to learn from SPIDER experience and its results, but also to make sure that the legacy of this project is shared across Europe. We organised a short session to present where Design for Europe stands at the moment and to learn from the audience on how we can support this learning journey. As part of this we collected feedback from civil servants from: Dublin City Council, Galee City Council, Irish Heart Foundation, Cardiff City Council, Glasgow City Council, the Flanders government and PolicyLab.

The use of design varies in these public authorities, but few declared themselves as novices or sceptics. In fact, the challenges the organisations face are very similar – they share a range of common needs: saving resources, creating more user-centred and more effective solutions, and organisational transformation.

The barriers to using service design within these contexts were described in terms of organisational constraints (e.g. silo culture, lack of knowledge, resistance to change and risk, limited time and budget, changing political leadership), but also in terms of the perceived limitations of the value of design, felt by some to be a luxury.

Some of the suggestions of support that Design for Europe could provide to address these issues included: raising awareness and lobbying senior leadership in government, providing evidence and training, supporting/advising on the creation of local events or projects, providing new tools (e.g. for policymaking), publishing useful articles, facilitating the exchange of knowledge amongst organisations working on similar issues and with experts.