Visit to Mind Lab
Many design agencies have taken up the public sector as their main focus, using service design thinking as a driver for innovative projects that can better help citizens. Of these agencies, Mind-Lab holds a unique position as one of the few design firms that are owned and funded directly by central government ministries.
Mind-lab, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, started 10 years ago, as a think-tank by the Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs, as a way to jump-start new ideas for the public sector. Over the past decade it has evolved into an agency, owned by the the Ministry of Business and Growth, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Employment and Odense Municipality and forms a collaboration with the Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Interior. It employs over 15 people from all disciplines from the social sciences to service designers, to graphic and video makers.
I was quite excited to visit them in January to find out more about their working process, and their thoughts on some of the pertinent topics that are surrounding the world of design for the public sector.
Their process starts by getting project scopes from one of their municipal or ministry partners. They start a research process which involves public officials, citizens, and business leaders. From there they ideate on possible solutions and prototype them, sometimes with a pilot, and present a proposal for the ministries.
An example of these projects is a digital mentor system that connects people that are recently graduated and unemployed with volunteers that can help their through their employment situation.
I was interested in understanding whether the Mind-lab model could work outside of Denmark, and while there are many examples of agencies working within the public sector, the Danish context is quite specific. Given the higher costs of working within many Nordic countries like Denmark, the country has placed their value on innovation. This in turn has created a public sector design agency model that while inspirational is very specific to Denmark. They did speak about being involved in helping disseminate and grow projects similar Mind-Lab, such as 27e Region in France for example.
Of some of the issues they face on a day to day basis, they mentioned the need to better connect to high-level policy, which can be sometimes divorced from reality, to concrete interactions with people. Often these policies can be decided, with no real vision on how they will impact the community they target. Creating a common vision, using design at it’s core, is one of the ongoing challenge agencies like Mind Lab face. In order to do this properly it requires really connecting with public servants, in a way that opens them up to listen. They mentioned their favorable position as being a part of the government as one factor to their success, but another factor is their ability to speak the language of whoever they are working with. This involves avoiding, words that are specific to service design, and in many cases avoiding labeling themselves as designers at all. Often they approach a public servant as problem solvers, and it is in this frame that they are able to build a proper rapport within government.
Of interest, to me at least, was the question of future planning. One of the main drawbacks of a model like Mind-Lab is their inability to plan far into the future. Many times it’s hard to have even a fixed 5 year plan, because of the transient and unpredictable nature of government. While they feel secure as an agency, they still work with the knowledge that they live in an ever-changing environment, some of which they have little control over.
Overall however Mind-Lab remains an inspiring model on how design can affect change in the public sector, and acts a powerful case-study to help the push towards giving design a bigger role within the public sphere.
Featured image by Rasmus Flindt Pedersen https://secure.flickr.com/photos/niexecutive/11305275666/
Meeting in the “Mind” Photo: http://mindblog.dk/en/author/anette/
Mind-Lab Office: http://www.uiwe.dk/images/2010/06/mindlab.png