Successful innovation depends on good design. In the world of business, this is recognized, and the consumer wins. This is not the case in the world of public policy – and, as a result, the citizen loses out.

For successful businesses, like Google, creative thinking is part of the culture and source of their resilience. Shareholders demand design. Even a rumour of a change in design personnel at a company like Apple or Burberry can affect the share price. But most senior civil servants persist in calling in designers at the end of their decision-making process, when they themselves have defined and over-specified a solution (perhaps a costly web project or a public building). Too rarely is design part of questioning the policy problem to determine the best route to take.

When the British government ran a series of practical demonstrations of design in policy with the UK Design Council, the impact, over the best part of a decade, was counted in savings, improvements and multi-million pound orders for innovations developed with small firms. On average, for every £1 spent by the taxpayer, there was an equivalent return of £25 for the exchequer.

In one example, the Department of Health was seeking an answer to rising hospital insurance costs. Increases in the number of incidents of violence or aggression in Accident & Emergency (A&E) wards were pushing up premiums. In particular, attacks against members of staff were leading to lost staff days and, on occasions, costly litigation.

The design-led approach to problem solving is different to the usual policy approach. In this example, a “design-thinking team” spent the best part of Christmas and New Year on A&E wards observing patients and staff, codifying the issues and co-developing solutions. The creative team was an unorthodox mix of designers, anthropologists, psychologists, front-line staff and healthcare managers.

They deconstructed the patient journey of “diagnosis and treatment” and applied the principles of “customer experience”. Where they found that a lack of information was heightening the anxiety of patients and visitors, they filled in the gaps. No expensive technology or rebuilding was called for, simply low-cost graphic communication and staff training. The minimal outlay could be recouped many times over during its lifespan.

Success was not only measured by the outcome but by the speed at which the innovation took place. Within nine months, in a highly sensitive and regulated area of healthcare, the team developed, prototyped and tested a practical system that received the support of clinicians, experts, patients and staff. Planned trials on three sites were scaled up to ten based on demand from A&E departments.

Over the last decade there have been demonstrations of design in policy in several countries, including powerful examples from Denmark’s government-backed MindLab, where the subject matters stretch from gender equality to shipping. But design in policy is still the exception to the rule for three reasons.

The first barrier to using design in policy is the lack of incentive. In the private sector design must be used more strategically, as constant innovation is central to staying competitive and differentiated in the market. A new patent can deliver value for many years. Business managers are incentivized accordingly and this is reflected in how their performance is managed. In the public sector there is a counter-incentive to maintain the status quo, as change may be perceived as risky, costly, liable to create unwanted attention or all three combined.

Culture is the second obstacle. The public sector can be cumbersome. It delivers vitally important services where the stakes are high and the corresponding organization is typically large with layers of bureaucracy. In contrast, external agents of innovation (such as design or technology firms) are typically small and their time may be costed tightly by the day or even hour. Design teams may have much to contribute but there is little opportunity for them to engage with civil servants in a creative dialogue about solving policy problems.

Thirdly, a lack of knowledge and confidence in design is a significant barrier to its widespread use within public policy. Few civil servants have ever received any form of training on how to use design to support innovation. Over the last ten years academics have incorporated design into MBA programmes and management courses. There has been little or no corresponding equivalent for civil servants.

The combination of weak incentives, organizational culture and a lack of awareness is a practical barrier to the use of design within policy. And this presents a policy problem in its own right.

To a consumer-focused business, the idea of developing new business models without a strong design input would be anathema – especially in the highly competitive global economy. The same should apply to citizen-centred countries. A policy development system that lacks the imaginative and user-centered qualities of design is reducing its capacity for successful innovation.

In light of the scale and complexity of today’s social, environmental and economic challenges, every policy-maker should understand how to use design to do their job. Those with an interest in addressing how nations innovate should be in the know rather than the dark. Last week, the INDEX Award in Copenhagen was the setting for a timely round-table discussion on design policy, initiated by the World Economic Forum. Perhaps, as in so many design matters, we can count on the Danes to lead the way.

On August 31 the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation held a meeting in Copenhagen on Design for Smart Growth, to explore how design and innovation can boost competitiveness and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

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Author: David Kester is Adjunct Professor of Design Policy at Massey University, New Zealand and a Board Director of the publishing firm Thames & Hudson. He was CEO of the UK Design Council from 2003-2012.

Image: A designer is seen working on sketches in China REUTERS/Tyrone Siu.