There is much talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how its advances in technology are transforming the ways in which individuals and groups live, work and interact. Governments, companies and civil society organizations that have traditionally had the responsibility of governing the societal impacts of these technologies are struggling to respond to the rapid change and exponential impact, and are trying to become more agile.

While it sounds challenging enough for decision-makers to respond effectively to existing innovations, we believe we should set an even higher ambition: to shape our future with intention, anticipation and purpose. We must not limit ourselves to govern in the way we govern today, responding only reactively to the forces of technological change. Rather, we need to govern proactively in ways that bring us more of the value, both private and public, that we strive for. We must govern by design. What would that entail?

In December 2018, the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen, in partnership with Innovation Fund Denmark and the Danish Business Authority, brought together 100 global stakeholders from different professional backgrounds to discuss how governance by design can be successfully implemented. The participants explored approaches, methods and ways of thinking that could advance more future-oriented governance, drawing on wide-ranging international experience. Here are four key tips.

1. Mind your language

Experimentation, policy labs, scrum, design sprints… The language that innovators and designers find so exciting makes many policy-makers shiver. You cannot "experiment" with people or put them in a "lab environment" without the appropriate narrative and framing. People don’t want to be experimented with, but they do want to be involved meaningfully to inform policy decisions.

We cannot be too hasty when maximizing societal good. While there is a great deal of consensus on the value of design principles, we need to use the right language to make sure all stakeholders buy in to the approach. Using "learning" instead of "experiment" or "feedback loops" instead of "design sprints" could go a long way. We need to focus on the collaborative and inclusive nature of the approach, instead of focusing on speed.

2. Talk less, act more

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Policy only becomes real when it interacts with the real world. Yet it proves hard for policy-makers to share and test policies in real-life environments before they are considered final. This is problematic, as there is increased uncertainty about policy outcomes when the issues we try to solve become increasingly interdependent and complex. This increases the political risks for taking action.

Attempts to create safe spaces for policy innovation can help to de-risk it, making the consequences of failing less impactful and leading policy-makers to feel more comfortable with taking initiative. Perhaps the best way to help build a mindset where policy professionals feel empowered to be creative is to talk less and act more.

3. Be a policy facilitator instead of a policy-maker

Due to the decline in trust in the institutions that traditionally took care of policy-making, there is strong acknowledgement that policy development is no longer limited to governments or businesses (in the case of industry regulation) but rather is increasingly a multistakeholder effort. This requires a mindset change for policy-makers. They must open up policy work to truly innovative ideas.

This entails being comfortable with processes and approaches that are radically open, where the policy-maker or designer is dethroned, and where each of the actors in the innovation ecosystem is actively involved in the process, not as providers of feedback, but as co-designers of the outcome. Not least, it requires governments to open up models to engage non-governmental actors and “unusual suspects” in areas such as public procurement, where typically the process, as well as the outputs, are too highly specified.

Perhaps some of the most powerful future solutions to public challenges will come from small digital start-ups rather than from incumbent technology firms, or from new types of social collaboratives rather than from traditional industrial organizations. How to bring such new players into the field?

4. Demystify emerging policy tools

Emerging policy tools and methods, such as regulatory sandboxes and policy labs, currently receive a great deal of attention, but are often still not well understood by those stakeholders who are not driving the policy process. Often these tools are reduced to mere methods, rather than ways to facilitate institutional change: “regulatory sandboxes are places where there are no rules, agile governance means fast and cheap, and policy labs are created to provide an answer to ”what are you doing about innovation?”.

The increasing range of emerging innovative policy tools risks becoming so overwhelming to policy-makers that core policy processes are largely untouched. And although almost all tools and methods are designed to improve multistakeholder interaction, they could make it more complicated for non-experts to engage.

We need to design better ways to empower policy-makers and to help stakeholders navigate emerging agile governance tools, a task the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Agile Governance is working on. Our aim is to provide clear typologies and decision guidelines to enrich policy work, while avoiding overload. Demystifying the tools will create more demand for agile governance approaches and make them more commonly used.