Creative arena

It’s looking good for design in the public sector, with an emphasis on innovation and a thirst for work that can make a real difference. Matthew Valentine considers some key initiatives that are tackling urgent issues such as hospital infections and crime

From an outside perspective, the combination of public money and private design expertise does not always look promising.

The famously enterprising creative industries in the UK could almost be the antithesis of the stereotyped public sector: a slow, state-fed gravy train that avoids creativity at all costs. Thankfully, the reality is very different from that stereotype. The modern public sector can mount the defence that it is far more accepting of change and innovation than many would expect.

The way the public sector commissions and uses design and creativity is undergoing rapid change. Early evidence suggests that a thirst for public-sector innovation is now finding an outlet, and that new models for public use of private creativity could soon pay dividends. And the good news for the design and marketing sectors is that senior figures in both private-sector industry and Government are increasingly aware of the benefits that creativity in the public sector can bring.

‘It is important to recognise that the UK has a very strong tradition of using design in the public sector,’ says Design Council chief executive David Kester. Iconic designs such as Harry Beck’s London Underground map and the motorway signage system devised by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert provide familiar testimony to that, he says.

Kester says that the public sector is not only open to innovation, but capable of moving with considerable speed. The Design Council has first-hand experience of that from ongoing projects with the Department of Health and the Home Office (see below). Discussions are currently under way concerning future projects with additional departments, although none has yet been announced.

The Design Council’s role in the projects has taken the form of being an enabler or facilitator, to bring the right people together, says Kester. ‘The Design Council is like Switzerland in that respect,’ he says. ‘It’s a neutral space. Often, great innovation takes place when you get the right mix of designers, technology experts, manufacturers and entrepreneurs together.’ Public-sector clients can be an essential part of that mix, and their presence is encouraged.

The Cox Review of Creativity in Business, carried out by Sir George Cox and commissioned by then Chancellor Gordon Brown at the time of the 2005 Budget statement, makes the point that the public sector should be driving forward by demanding more creativity from all its suppliers, and that the advances thus made could trickle down through wider industry.

As a result, changes in the way design is valued are reaching ministerial level. A number of the major projects shown here have involved Government departments working, often via the Design Council, with consultancies in the creative sector. Key to this are simple, but apparently effective, changes to procurement tactics that allow private groups to compete in open competitions for specific projects.

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