When solving a problem where should you start? It sounds like a question with a pretty obvious answer – start with the problem of course. But what does that actually mean?
As a service designer in the public sector I can see that there are certainly plenty of problems to solve: overcrowded prisons, youth unemployment, the NHS struggling to cope with increasing numbers of A&E attendances, costly libraries that aren’t being used, and empty high streets to list but a few. So if you start with the problem, let’s say for example the empty high street, where should you move from there? The temptation, and arguably the historical default position for the public sector, is to jump right in; shops are closing so let’s setup a team from within our organisation and stop it. I was recently listening to an interesting discussion on Radio 4 Call You and Yours: The future of our high streets, and it prompted me to write this blog post. It struck me that whilst the merits of various solutions were being discussed (such as the Portus pilots) a fundamental element of the problem solving process was missing; no one appeared to be sure of the challenge. Sure the panel were all aware of the problem – shops are closing and our high streets are dying, but from my position what the participants failed to see is that before you can attempt to solve a problem you need to identify your challenge, and to do that you need to understand exactly what it is that you are trying to address. Designers know that how a challenge is framed is critical to identifying the right solutions. There are many challenges which could start to address the problem of our empty high streets. Identifying those challenges and then deciding which is most important, is critical to the design process which needs to be adopted in order to find solutions. Thinking about the problem of the high street for just a few minutes it is possible to identify several possible challenges:
1. Find ways to ensure existing businesses thrive on the high street
2. Find ways to support and encourage new start-ups to move onto the high street
3. Find new ways to revitalise the high-street
4. Find alternative uses for empty high-street shops
5. Find a new and innovative alternative to the traditional high-street
If you start to tackle a problem without understanding the challenge you just end up going around in circles and never address the real issue. Understanding what the various challenges may be, and planning which one you want to respond to is fundamental to the design process. Sometimes you will be challenged by a third party who has researched the problem and defined the challenge for you, and sometimes you will have to undertake the research in order to identify the challenge for yourself. What ever the case may be central government, local government, the NHS and the rest of the public sector should fight the temptation to respond to a problem by forming a committee and throwing resources at a solution, before doing the tricky, but vital task of researching the problem and defining the challenge. One good way to do this would be to #EmbedDesignThinking into the public sector. Following a rigorous design based approach can make good things happen, and maybe if more public sector organisations decide to adopt design thinking, become clear about their challenges, step-out of their silos and co-design solutions with citizens and partner organisations, we may start to see some real solutions to some of our most tricky social issues.
Why don’t you make it your mission to #EmbedDesignThinking into your organisation?