Public & Collaborative: Design for radical innovation in the public realm
by Ezio Manzini, Eduardo Staszowski
In the face of current economic and social challenges, the public sector in general and the public services in particular are changing and, in the future will have to change even more radically in order to cope with pressing societal demands. This transformation, which we commonly refer to as public innovation, could move in different directions.
One promising direction is based on the idea of people-as-assets: where citizens become active and collaborative and can be considered partners in the design and delivery of public services (service co-design andco-production).
This vision, in turn, raises two main questions: how do public services change if they are conceived as platforms to trigger, enable and support active and collaborative citizens? How can we promote the necessary mutual support between public and social innovations?
These same questions had been the starting point for the Public and Collaborative (P&C)Project, a design research initiative started in October 2011 promoted by the DESIS Network involving 11 different DESIS Labs in Europe and North America: Parsons, The New School for Design, New York City (coordinator); Politecnico di Milano, Faculty of Design, Milan (coordinator); Aalto University, Helsinki; Designmatters at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; IIT Institute of Design, Chicago; Central Saint Martins, London ; ENSCI, Paris ; La Cambre, Brussels ; Mad Faculty, Campus Genk, Genk ; Malmo University, Malmo. These DESIS Labs have been working in partnership with several local partners and with the endorsement of MindLab, la 27me Region, Fondazione Housing Sociale, ENOLL-European Network of Living Labs; SIX-Social Innovation Exchange, Public Policy Lab and RECIPROCITY Design Liège.
In practical terms, what these DESIS Labs have been doing is to experiment with the people-as-assets approach in their on-going research activities, design classes, open lectures applied to several fields of inquiry such as collaborative housing, cultural diversity, neighborhood improvement, healthcare and, more in general, public sector innovation policies. The P&C Project is still in its early stages, but some of the initial proposals developed by the labs can be already shared and discussed. Below are some of the ideas and lessons learnt so far. These ideas will be further discussed in two initiatives conceived and organized during RECIPROCITYDesign Liège, the international design biennial which will take place from 5 – 28 October 2012 in Belgium: the P&C/Seminar and the P&C/Philosophy Talk (some information on these initiative can be found in this website)
Lessons learnt (until now)
Worldwide, a growing number of people are abandoning mainstream passive and individualistic lifestyles and moving towards more active and collaborative ways of living and working, Mutual help networks in health or elderly care, new food cooperatives and collaborative housing initiatives are clear manifestations of this trend. These emerging behaviors, considered as a whole, constitute a huge wave of grassroots innovation: new ideas emerging in everyday life, which are capable of solving individual and community problems in a socially valuable way. These collaborative organizations that, generate value for participants and, at the same time, for the whole society, can be in fact considered as public services or initiatives that serve the common good. At the beginning of their existence, these collaborative organizations mainly depend on the will, creativity and entrepreneurial capabilities of a group of “local heroes” (i.e. the group of people who had been capable to imagine and start them). But experience shows that, in the majority of cases, to turn them into long lasting organizations, their social, economic and environmental value must be first recognized and then supported by a public agency.
Enabling services. As an example of what could/should happen, we can refer to the case of the Community Gardens in New York City, a grassroots neighborhood movement started in the 1970s when city residents decided to transform vacant and abandoned city-owned lots (inherited in lieu of tax payments when arson was a common practice during the 1960s and ’70s) into green spaces. In 1978, recognizing the value of outsourcing to community groups the maintenance of gardens, a city program, Green Thumb, was initiated to provide materials, coordination and technical assistance to the community gardeners. In 1995 GreenThumb became part of the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department.
Taking the New York City Community gardens as an example we can observe that the Green Thumb Program operates as a new kind of public service: an enabling service platform capable of facilitating collaborative organizations, to make them more effective and to promote their diffusion in other contexts.
Moving from this example, and considering the many others that could be proposed, we can ask ourselves if these examples could be seen as models for others to adopt andwhat public services would look like if they were conceived as platforms to trigger, enable and support active and collaborative organizations?
People-powered services. The experiences done dealing with existing collaborative organizations offer the opportunity to radically re-think public services as a whole. The starting point of this process is the simple, but revolutionary idea thatusers can (also) be considered as an asset. When this happens, a new generation of services emerges. They are calledco-produced services: services where people (individuals and communities) become active and collaborative partners in the production and delivery of these same services.
These people-powered services, to be conceived and enhanced, ask for a paradigmatic shift in the service design approach: those who, traditionally, had been considered as “people with problems” (i.e. service end-users) have to be recognized as ”people with capabilities” (i.e. service co-producers). That is, people with knowledge, time and energy to usefully contribute to the service conception and, most importantly, to its day-by-day production and delivery.
The notion of service co-production is useful also to orient a more general discussion on the role of the state and the one of individuals and communities in solving complex social problems. The notion of co-production makes clear that these services are not reducing the importance and relevance of public agencies . Instead, what they do is to deeply change their role, shifting from being (mainly) service providers, towards becoming (mainly) citizens’ active partners. That is, agencies capable to support and, if needed, trigger and orient citizens’ participation (using at best their capabilities in terms of knowledge, experiences, and direct involvement).
Public innovation places. On the basis of the experiments done until now one hypothesis emerges clear so far: that to become triggers and promoters of co-created and co-produced solutions, public agencies could (directly or indirectly) create some kind of “experimentation spaces” where new socio-material assemblies of humans and artifactsand new solutions can be imagined and tested. Public innovation places where different actors, civil servants included, can meet, interact, discuss about different possibilities, develop prototypes and test them. A place where new ideas and prototypes can turn into more mature enterprises
In conclusion, emerging social movements indicate the viability of a new relationship between people and their governments. This relationship generates original co-design and co-production networks: new socio-material assemblies of human and artifacts, where both citizens and public agencies are engaged in a conversation about what and, how to do it.
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