How can the empathy of designers help us in our quest for better social services?

Published on 21 Aug 2014

How can the empathy of designers help us in our quest for better social services?

When I worked in industry, my experiences of the public sector buying design weren’t always positive. Procurement metrics and mechanisms would work very well if design was a paperclip, or a commodity, and not a creative, emergent, unpredictable bespoke service, which is potentially co-designed each time. How do you commission a service where the outcomes could be emergent and risky, and where value isn’t always translated into pound signs? Imagine the scenario: Tender Question 1: “What processes will you follow to deliver the project?” A: Not sure. Q2: “How will you eliminate risk?” A: We can’t. In fact, we value risk. Zero points.  

So, my question is two fold. Firstly, how can design be better understood in order to be procured in public services? Secondly, how can design help us to develop a better procurement process of social services?

There are places where you can report bad procurement practice[1], but this isn’t necessarily helpful. We focus too much on the negative. Design can help us consider what’s possible; and what could be – rather than focusing on the present. Adopting this mindset, instead of whistleblowing the bad procurement processes, I prefer to think about a more positive approach. What does good procurement look like? A recent project I devised aimed to look at how designerly approaches could re-imagine procurement[2]. Using approaches such as storytelling and prototyping, we wanted to uncover best practice across different projects and sectors, and use these insights to develop a new working prototype of best practice design procurement.

However, I soon realized that it wasn’t that simple. When interviewing a Senior Commissioner of design, I realized that procurement people are only one side of the coin. While procurement are ensuring due process, keeping as far away from the supplier and the service as possible, commissioning people (in this case, in the creative sector), were actually seeking opportunities to showcase new talent and had an interest in the service itself. They know the market and have close relationships with suppliers. So you have an ecosystem where commissioning and procurement are at loggerheads with one another.


With this newfound insight, I started to think more about how designerly approaches could be used to engender empathy between procurement and commissioning, when the public sector are buying design. Surely a holistic view of the service ecosystem is what’s needed? Empathy is a good place to start.

And so, I started to look at commissioning in other sectors – such as health. Could this designerly approach which engenders empathy between procurement and commissioning be used for redesigning the procurement of social services?

It is this “bite” that I would like to open up to those working in social services sector. Are you curious about designerly approaches? Perhaps you’ve had a great experience of procurement? Either, this bite is a call for sharing these experiences, and for those interested in prototyping future procurement and commissioning systems.

Research Unbound recently called for more agile ways of disseminating “real” research process. And so it’s my proposal to work in this area – but to disseminate the “rawness” of the research process along the way. Who’s in?

To find out more, please contact me