At the latest GovLab Ideas Lunch, Bryan Boyer, the former Strategic Design Lead of the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) shared his experiences using design and exploratory thinking to solve public problems.
Boyer, who is now principal at Dash Marshall, and partner of Makeshift Society, has worked with a number of different organizations throughout his career, using his experience in architecture and technology to foster the strategic design of projects to bring innovative solutions to everyday problems facing governments, citizens and even private industry. Though he has completed a wide range of projects throughout his career, he shared his experience on a few in greater detail, as a way to demonstrate how experimental thinking, in both the design of research and in implementation of programs, and an upfront focus on design can lead to unexpected solutions for pre-existing concerns.
For instance, Boyer spoke about a project he completed with Helsinki Design Lab, and with the government of Finland, designing an educational program for those underserved by the general education, both dropouts and “dropups” – students for whom standard educational offerings are not sufficiently challenging. Seeking to accommodate a wider range of learners, HDL hosted an international team to generate and propose ways to shift the education system towards being able to accommodate a wider diversity of students. The group designed a process that made it easier for policymakers to see the urgency of the situation and to constructively engage in a discussion of what’s next.
Boyer also highlighted the Open Kitchen project, which was a “tangible demonstration of a better way to support and foster entrepreneurs.” The program sought to lower the barrier to entry for the food business by creating an “intermediary option between popups and formal business.” Open Kitchen provided an intense food business training camp to help aspiring restaurateurs understand every aspect of the business while emphasizing the need for sustainable solutions to represent a natural and valuable aspect of running a food business.
Understanding how policy can work in practice is an essential component of designing innovative solutions to public problems. Boyer’s talk emphasized the need to incorporate a variety of different methods, looking at more than just quantitative research when trying to solve social problems. Instead, he advocates for incorporating other more interpretive solutions, such as ethnography and design methods, talking to real people on the ground and incorporating their opinions and perspectives into the process of both framing challenges and finding viable answers. Boyer’s work is an important lesson on how to be flexible when designing a practical solution to a policy problem: If something doesn’t work, the failure may not be in the policy intention, but in the framing of the issue to begin with, or in the methods of implementation.