Design principles for an enterprising city

The Government Digital Service’s Design Principles have been widely praised, translated and reused. But there is a form of flattery higher than mere imitation. That’s adaptation: the way other governments around the world have iterated the GDS principles to fit their local contexts.

I’ve been wondering how my own city, with its unique blend of opportunities and talents, might pick up and run with a people-centred, agile ethos. So far I have the following…

Start with needs assets*

(*people’s assets not organisations’ assets)

Leeds coal, mined in this century, at St Aidan’s Walking Dragline Swillington

For all its power, the notion of “needs” casts users as dependent and deficient, service designers and providers as beneficent heroes riding to the rescue. There is another way: the humble optimism of an asset-based mindset.

The Big Lottery-funded West Yorkshire—Finding Independence (WY-FI) project supports a small number of people with the most complex mix of needs – homelessness, addiction, re-offending and mental health problems. But its mentors and navigators start with what people have and can do, not what they lack.

Yes, all people have needs, some of which, left unmet lead to disastrous consequences. But they also have aspirations, abilities, narratives and networks. How might we build on those things to help everyone find autonomy and mastery whatever their situations?

Do less, aim higher

“Do less” has been a double-edged sword. On the plus side it licenses service design radicals to cut loose deadweight legacy IT and processes. It forces a focus on the essentials, on what really matters to users and cannot be done by someone else. But it can also give cover to a mean-spirited shrinking of ambition, in which transactional efficiency trumps nobility of purpose.

Screenshot 2015-11-17 21.59.51.png
Tour de France Grand Départ, Leeds, 5 July 2014

When Leeds City Council Chief Executive Tom Riordan talks about devolved control over transport, he’s not thinking of shaving a few minutes off a commuter’s journey times. He tells a story that spans housing, access to work and skills shortages in our healthcare system. How might we make it possible for someone from one of the city region’s most isolated districts to train and work as a nurse in one of Leeds’ great teaching hospitals?

We have to couple “do less” with a positive vision of public service. One that imagines seemingly trivial things in novel combinations to make a big difference for individuals, families and communities. One that surprises us and exceeds our expectations. Perhaps even one that can use the words “joyfully” and “counter terrorism” in the same breath…

Design Tell stories with data

A couple of years ago, I despaired at the “big data” community’s underpants gnome attitude to the stuff that makes us human. (1. Collect data; 2. ?; 3. Profit!) The sterile, context-free service dashboards and control rooms they pushed as solutions never seemed to suit our messy city.

But in Leeds at least the data community has proved me wrong. Both ODI Leeds and the Leeds Data Mill host much more nuanced, storytelling approaches to our city’s data. Others would do well to emulate them.

For a masterclass in this new art, see the work of Tom Forth on, for example, land use for city centre car parking and transport connectivity.

Screenshot 2015-11-17 13.08.12

This is for with everyone

“Nothing About Us Without Us!” was the cry of disability activists sick and tired of years of being done to and for. While Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s act of generosity, as lit up across the Olympic stadium, may be a sufficient gesture for the creation of the World Wide Web, it falls short as a guiding principle in the design of service for our city.

Of all the industries I’ve worked with, I believe a handful of radicals in healthcare understand this best of all. We are fortunate in Leeds to have mHealthHabitat as leading practitioners of co-creation, unafraid to do the hard work to actively involve users in the design of digitally-enabled health services.

Are we serious about having users in the room? If so this room’s going to have to change. So are the people in it. We might need to move to a different room altogether.

And while we have everyone here, let’s be open to all their talents. Some of our users may turn out to be natural designers; service providers by day may be service users by night. Research is a team sport, but it can pay to play out of position, to swap sides even.

So I offer these 4 for starters, design principles for an enterprising city…

  • Start with assets
  • Do less, aim higher
  • Tell stories with data
  • This is with everyone

I’m sure others will emerge. What would you add?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s