Design has a role to play on the world stage

The application of design to challenges such as mine clearance or peacekeeping in Burundi is not immediately obvious. Last week I found myself sitting with 19 other delegates at a UN strategic design conference (pictured) in New York, trying to meld together the worlds of policy development, design and cultural research to address the issues of turning local knowledge into action. For three days, we discussed the problem of combining the disciplines to develop a method of improving the design of UN peacekeeping programmes.

The disciplines of public policy and of cultural research both presented strong traditions of user involvement. If both public policy and cultural research can demonstrate strong, and participatory, examples of the successful translation of local knowledge into action, what then is the USP of design in this field?

During our discussion it was accepted that knowledge itself does not lead to action and that, abstracted from any process of action, cultural research produces ethical and conceptual problems, raising questions such as who is it generated for, is it ’generated’ or uncovered, what does the external agency need to know, and who owns that knowledge? Some participants described how research was often written for those who commissioned it, and how this can have the affect of alienating it from the people who are its supposed beneficiaries.

It seems to me that the service design approach to knowledge is useful – we generate data specifically for a process that leads to action. A service design process designs the outputs of its discovery (or research) phase to be viewed by the people who are the subjects of its study, as well as by those who are in a position to make an intervention. Because the research data is shown to the full range of stakeholders, the process sidesteps issues of ownership and ensures that representation of issues is consistent, at least with those on whose behalf the research was commissioned. Service design’s clear proposition about who the knowledge is recorded for and how it should be used would, I think, apply effectively to UN initiatives. On the second day of our conference, design was defined as ’forethought for action’. This loose definition helped to form a case for design as a framework for overseeing the strategic use of the techniques and skills of the disciplines of cultural research and public policy.

The issues that the UN deals with on a day-to-day basis, whether reintegrating child soldiers in Sierra Leone or responding to the Haiti earthquake, are extremely complex and critical operations. In these terms, they are a step above the tasks that service designers have tackled so far. Though I am confident that the service design approach could be applied to these situations, exactly where and how the process is applied is not yet clear.

Much conversation was had about defining the design problems/ what are the appropriate challenges for designers to be tackling in this area, and at what level should a design process be employed? Critical to the success of the application of design processes to the types of problems that the UN faces will be finding the right places and ways in which to test it. Further work needs to be done and this conference was a fantastic start in identifying opportunities. For the design community and Think Public, it is a very positive step that the UN has initiated this process of exploration. The application of design to disarmament will test the discipline to its limits but, if we can get it right, it could have a central role in the future of peacekeeping.

Ivo Gormley, Head of media, Think Public, by e-mail

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