The Helsinki Design Lab is one of the most interesting of a family of new hybrid models that are trying to synthesise the best of design with the best of public policy and problem solving. These models tend to draw on three sets of tools.
A first set help with understanding. Designers have adapted some of the methods of ethnography to see how the world looks and feels to the users of services, tools that were at times used in public services but more often forgotten. Under the banner of ‘user led design’ they’ve also taken some of the methods of social movements—like the disability rights movement—which have always involved people in need to shape new alternatives.
The next set of tools is prototyping. Today we have not only rapid prototyping of things, using new tools such as 3D printers, but also a new generation of prototyping approaches that allow fast, collaborative creation of systems and services. With all of them comes the idea that the best way to learn is to do, and that rather than spending years perfecting a new service model or strategy the fastest way to improve it is to do it on a small scale, and for real.
The third set of tools which are being creatively adapted come from systems mapping and thinking, which focuses attention to connections and causes. Systems thinking prompts us to ask the right question rather than taking questions at face value. What, for example, is the real problem of non-attendance at school? Is it a failure on the part of schools themselves, of families or of young people?
Getting the questions sharply focused is the necessary condition for getting the answers right, and, in general, the more we can think systemically rather than in institutional and disciplinary silos the more likely it is that we will achieve results.