Design in the Public Sector: The Call for Reformation.

In 2013, the Design Council launched the second of their initiatives to change policy in Britain. ‘Design in the public sector’ sought to increase the knowledge and ability of public sector workers to use strategic design skills to solve key challenges and better inform the service commissioning process, (Design Commission, 2013). Its aim is to engage civil servants from a mix of roles and disciplines; training staff to ‘reframe their challenges’ from the perspective of the user and therefore develop more appropriate solutions, (Design Council, 2015). However, in light of the recent actions of the UK government and the pending changes to public spending in the face of austerity, can this approach provide scalable solutions for nationwide services? Can a ‘bottom up’ approach to service design help shape the UK’s future public sector?

The Design Council thinks so. They propose that design thinking and methodology used in the right way with inclusion of all key stakeholders can provide the solutions to some of the most pressing issues of this generation.

One of the most prevalent demographic challenges to face the UK, over the next 50 years, will be our ageing population. It is predicted that by 2040 almost one in four people will be aged 65 or over, (Age UK, 2015). With our average lifespan improving year on year many services must adapt to accommodate the growing numbers of elderly clients- most affected by this are the health and care sectors. So far, it is in these sectors that the Design Council have focused the majority of their efforts initiating competitions to solve problems for dementia patients or working with hospital care staff to redesign their equipment and service.

One consequence of the deemed ‘Silver Tsunami’ is of personal concern for many families, as the cost of care support for elderly people has become unaffordable for the majority. With the UK average yearly rate for residential care homes currently sitting at £29,250, (Paying For Care, 2016); it is no wonder then that this has been the topic for discussion in numerous sectors, with many experts suggesting potential solutions.

An excellent example of a social innovation project, in answer to this challenge, is the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme developed by Prof. Heinz Wolff and his team at Brunel University. They have proposed an alternative pension scheme that will see citizens becoming active in the care of other members of their community, incentivising people to give time now in order to receive support themselves in the future; in other words paying forward for their care. In an interview, Dr Gabriella Spinelli, a co- lead on the project from Brunel, discussed the importance of this social revolution.

Dr Spinelli defined the opportunity for the designer to draw awareness to the public social problems and to highlight the needs of the minorities, where they are otherwise neglected. In her opinion, design has failed people differently able, by designing for the condition not the person; overall as an industry it has not given enough thought to designing products to assist people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives. ‘The challenge when considering service provision is that the experience derived from service fruition is very personal and may vary considerably.’ Dr Spinelli invoked the engagement of service users as a key element of Give and Take with the intent to transform care from ‘what you ought to have to survive, to what you wish to have to have a fulfilling life as individual. For some people this may mean help in the garden, in the kitchen, in personal care or a simple chess game to feel cognitively and socially stimulated’. Dr Spinelli explained the open possibilities of the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme. Such service user’s engagement is extended to all other stakeholders of the Give and Take Care scheme and in many ways it embodies the principles of a co-design approach. Who better to decide what is needed from a service than the users and providers themselves? A well designed service must be mutually beneficial for all parties.

Dr Spinelli identified trust as the main barrier faced by the ‘Give and Take Care’ scheme, as it brings a disruptive innovation to society. It is something that has not been done before, hence people have no experience by which they can assess whether ‘Give and Take Care’ will be successful. ‘If they put the time in now, will the service still be available and will they be able to get the time back when they need the care?’ A challenge, while specific to this service, alludes to similar problems faced by other emerging, unique social systems. When discussing the sector’s attitudes towards design, she said that there is ‘a differing understanding of what design can offer. Some people understand its potential, whereas others believe it is simply the final gloss.’ Generally, though, the future for this project looks to be very positive, Dr Spinelli noted that ‘people are beginning to realise there is no alternative, unless communities start to pull together and works towards a solution’. The fundamental fact is that pensions are not stable and the cost of care is too high. The current system can’t continue to absorb the predicted demographic changes.

While co-design’s relevance to service improvements is widely recognised within the design community, those un-enlightened to the skills of design thinking still have difficulty imagining the potential benefits. One of the biggest challenges for the Design Council (2015) and similar bodies has been to convince key officials and local authorities of the value of design. They noted the challenges to the sustaining and scaling approaches are the constraints on resources and capacity, and dealing with organisational cultures that do not support design-led thinking. In a world ruled by agendas, spreadsheets and statistics, perhaps what is lacking from the argument is any quantifiable improvements, (Mulgan, G., 2014). Change can be scary, especially in an institution like the welfare state, but for social innovation to be truly successful it requires a creative solution to drastically change the way we behave and see the world. When embarking on a service design project, in local or national government, the key is to help everyone involved perceive the tangible difference it could make for them.

It is hoped that with a growing body of successful projects the argument in favour social innovation will become stronger. As the pressures on public sector services grow and more cracks appear, people will need to take the chance and invest in the emerging design-led projects.

A revolution is necessary and like it or not people will need to look for new solutions, and it appears design thinking may hold some of the answers.


Written by Jennifer Bryant (Email/LinkedIn)


Age UK, (2015). Later Life in the United Kingdom [pdf online]. Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2016].
Design Commission, (2013). Restarting Britain 2: Design for public services [pdf online]. Available at: rt.pdf. [Accessed: 18th December 2015]
Design Council, (2013a). Design for Public Good [pdf online]. Available at: ood.pdf [Accessed: 4th January 2015]
Design Council, (2013b). What role can design play in delivering better public services? [podcast] Design for Public Good. Available at: play-in [Accessed: 4th January 2016].
Design Council, (2015). Design in the Public Sector: An evaluation of a programme of support for local authority service transformation [pdf online] Available at: pdf [Accessed: 4th January 2016]
The Economist, (2013). Back to the drawing-board | The Economist. [online] Available at: voluntary-and-public-sectors-back. [Accessed 4th January 2016].
Manzini, E. (2015). Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. The MIT Press.
Meroni, A. and Sangiorgi, D. (2011). Design for services. Burlington, VT: Gower.
Mulgan, G. (2014). Design in public and social innovation. What works and what could work better [pdf online] Available at: _innovation.pdf. [Accessed: 24th December 2015]
Paying For Care, (2016). Care Home Fees, Cost of Care Homes [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 January 2016].
TED talks. (2009). Tim Brown: Designers think big! [Online Video]. July 2009. Available from: [Accessed: 28 December 2015].
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Is the Sharing Economy Really the Consumption Model to Rule Our World?

Making money from sharing our everyday household items sounds amazing, but in reality so many factors have to align to make it work.

Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption puts the combination of the 2008 recession and the ubiquity of the smartphone app as the cause of the “sharing economy revolution” (1). This desire to look for creative new ways to make money with the support of ef cient peer-to-peer exchanges created an unbounded marketplace between producer and consumer, seller and buyer, lender and borrower, and neighbour and neighbour.

The potential positive impact of a fully proliferated sharing consumption system are huge, Botsman believing
that “these systems provide signi cant environmental benefits with increasing efficiency, reducing waste, encouraging the development of better designed products, and mopping up the surplus created by over-production and -consumption” (1). On top of this, she also believes that these exchanges can be the foundation to save money, space and time, make new friends and become active citizens within our communities. While all of this would be fantastic, is it an idealistic fallacy to believe that these financial, social and environmental motives could spell the end of our individualistic buying habits and make us have a completely different idea of ownership?

To truly change our deeply engrained consumption habits sharing services would need to be seamlessly utilised in all walks of our lives. Currently, a whole crop of companies are attempting to do this by building off the hugely successful model of Airbnb and Uber and allow us to share in a plethora of different ways, from renting dresses on Rent the Runway, learning new skills with Skillshare and even share your pets with DogVacay. The key though lies beyond niche areas and is to conquer the sharing of everyday household consumer products, the largest group of products owned in our lives.

The flagship example of a consumer product suitable for renting, that repeatedly comes up in publications about the sharing economy, is the power drill. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky cites that “there are 80 million power drills in America that are used an average of 13 minutes in their lifetime, does everyone really need their own drill?” (2). Seems ideal: the lender gets money for renting a drill they already own and the borrower doesn’t have to buy a new drill for one task — job done, everybody happy right?
A whole host of start-ups such as; Crowd Rent, Share Some Sugar, Ecomodo, SnapGoods, Thingloop etc. have tried but failed to successfully facilitate this hyper-local exchange of household goods. Founder of Neighborrow Adam Berk explains that “Everything made sense except that nobody gives a shit. They go buy a drill. Or they just bang a screwdriver through the wall” (3).

Everything made sense except that nobody gives a shit. They go buy a drill. Or they just bang a screwdriver through the wall.

So why did an idea that seemed so useful and straight forward fail? Despite being enthusiastic about the idea, people did not really partake in the process because the sharing platforms did not understand the customer’s true desires in a service like this. Cost and convenience rule all, as soon as something does not have a competitive cost and is not easy enough to do, they won’t do it. Why travel to pick-up the rental drill, pay for it, use it, travel to take it back to the owner, when for around £25 you can just buy your own drill from Amazon and have it delivered the next day. Meeting people and being good to the environment are happy additions to the sharing process but are unlikely to beat cost and convenience for the average user. Another major issue that would concern many potential users is trust, how would it work if your item was returned damaged or broken? When speaking to the NY Times Simon Rothman a partner at Greylock Partners, whose rm were early investors in Airbnb and Facebook believes “If it isn’t a trust issue to have a stranger spend the night in your house, then it won’t be a trust issue to have a stranger rent your lawn mower” (4). This may not actually be true for many people, there is a definite difference in the way these assets are used, consumer products crucially being mostly hands on. Using the power drill example, it is not hard to imagine that someone may misuse the product and may even care less about being careful with it as it’s ‘just a rental’.

It’s a niche and it shall remain a niche.

When discussing with Richard Green a Senior Consultant at Plan, a product strategy consultancy, the potential of the sharing economy model becoming prevalent with consumer goods, he believed that “it’s a niche and it shall remain a niche”. He thought that too many factors have to align for it to be convenient enough for the average person to want to partake. He thought it was important also to look deeper at the individual systems involved, for example, the much-lauded bike and car sharing schemes that are increasingly popping up in our cities are seen to be the solution to reducing emissions and getting cars off the road. The reality for car shares schemes such as Zipcar is that even if we are selling our cars to move to renting, the company still puts a fleet of new cars onto the road to fuel the service and is only making relatively slight profits doing it. Bike shares are a positive thing in many many ways but they don’t even get close to making a pro t and are only possible due to government legislation, and therefore would not work for private companies. To ensure profitability companies end up having to negate the purity of the ‘sharing’ element; if you were to rent a dress using Rent the Runway you’re more likely to be getting it from their warehouse instead of a trendy neighbour. Despite the challenges to make a profit and engage users there are still some companies traversing over the carcasses of the previously failed platforms that tried to get us to share our possessions with those around us. The forerunner being Peerby, a company founded in Amsterdam in 2012 has processed more than 100,000 transactions and has more than $1 billion worth of items in its database (3). Who knows, if they manage to tick all the boxes by creating a the ultra-efficient, safe and easy to use platform that empowers us to be micro-entrepreneurs, as Airbnb and Uber did, then it may be able to topple our environmentally crippling consumption habits. It’s a tall order, only time will tell.


Written by Rory Lewiston (LinkedIn/Email)

(1) Botsman. R, Rogers. R (2011). What’s Mine is Yours. London: HarperCollins.
(2) Friedman. T (2013). Welcome to the ‘Sharing Economy’. Available: http://www.nytimes. com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/friedman-welcome-to-the-sharing-economy.html?_r=0.
(3) Kessler. S (2015). e “Sharing Economy” Is Dead, And We Killed It. Available: http://www.fastcompany. com/3050775/the-sharing-economy-is-dead-and-we-killed-it/6.
(4) Morrissey. J. (2015). Sharing Economy Goes Hyperlocal With a Growing Market for Household Items. Available: with-a-growing-market-for-household-items.html.
IMAGE: Debarshi Roy. (2015). 7 ings an Entrepreneur should learn from Sharing Economy. Available: