How can service design benefit Budapest

Lessons from the Eighth District — How can service design benefit Budapest and its citizens?

There has been a growing interest in the role and application of service design in the public sector and in policy making – even the European Commission has recognised service design as a key driver of service innovation, social innovation, and user-centred innovation. Over the past decade, a number of initiatives, such as the Helsinki Design Lab in Finland, MindLab in Denmark, and the Public Policy Lab in the UK, have been set up to bring an experimental approach to policy making, addressing systemic challenges facing governments and citizens. Design for the public sector has been expanding around the world and many countries, small and large, have been moving beyond these programs and experimental environments to lead the way in adopting new policy tools to reinvent their public services. The case study of Estonia shows how quickly a small country with an effective, digitally-aware leadership can progress.

Traditionally, the structures of government have been poorly suited to tackling complex problems that cut across traditional boundaries and organisational silos. The public sector typically lacks the capital, skills, and resources to take promising ideas to scale. To respond to big questions such as how to cut one’s carbon footprint or how to make one’s cities more liveable and sustainable, a major shift in thinking is required in order to deliver high-impact, insight-driven, and meaningful solutions.

You might ask: what is service design and why does it matter? Or what does design have to do with the public sector or city development? The short answer can be summed up two words: empathy and collaboration. Service designers like myself apply empathic research and design in our work to widen our understanding of the particular problem by looking at different types of people and different stakeholders to understand the problem from all points of view, including those that compete or conflict. The big idea is to be present in people’s lives until you understand their needs and problems. We typically probe not only those who are directly affected by a particular issue, but we look at all sorts of stakeholders, communities, and interest groups.

During my stay in Budapest, Mindspace provided me with an opportunity to observe and participate in the development of citizen-driven services and cross-sector collaboration in Budapest. I participated in the planning and development of the Better Budapest and Smart City Budapest initiatives that aim to address and engage local residents. Their goal is to make the most of citizens’ input by trying to understand their interests and needs and to connect and empathise with them. I was responsible for facilitating co-design workshops, where the participants collaboratively explored service design methodologies focusing on the needs of citizens, as well as systemic level challenges. The work was done in small groups to apply the different techniques. It helped to understand, through learning by doing, the possibilities that co-creation workshops and service design bring to the creation of value, for both people and businesses.

I was asked to explain to what extent an empathetic design approach in particular can help to address large-scale systemic issues or social challenges that require systemic solutions. It’s not enough to empathise with the real-life concerns of citizens and stakeholders;one must also understand how they are connected together. They might be empowered but also perhaps unempowered by other things within the larger system. Looking at and understanding systems is not a simple matter, but it is the key to figuring out the underlying causes of the problem. In most cases it is a matter of breaking down a general problem into smaller, manageable bits and working on the actionable parts. Once we have an understanding of the system, we may realise that the problem looks different from the systemic as compared to the individual point of view, and that we are not focusing on the right problem. It is important to go in the field and experience the problem yourself, as well as observe and empathise with those who are hit hardest by the problem. It is also necessary to look at the different kinds of regulations, technologies, and institutions that surround and impact the problem. This will help you not only to better understand the underlying causes, but also to identify opportunities.

So what do we do with this complexity? It is not enough to have these diverse and rich observations, but we must turn these insights into relevant solutions and real, everyday actions. We need to know where to act. This is typically the most challenging part in the process. Where do we see the points of intervention – the action points, services, tools, actions, and actors? What are the small ways that we can intervene and can still have impact? What are the possible ways to improve these areas? What are the leverage points that can transform the whole system from within? The service design process can be a useful framework for identifying those leverage points.

What can service design bring to the Eighth District of Budapest?

What I learned during my stay is that the potential for using service design methods is large in Budapest. The concept of service design has started to be adopted by Hungarian companies and organizations only recently, and there’s a slow shift towards more efficient and user-centred public services. Budapest is a complex ecosystem that encompasses different entities, with numerous pressure points, variables, and levers. Because of the major role citizens play in this ecosystem, it is important to figure out ways to influence behaviour in a more sustainable direction, the motivations and barriers to change, and what will best way to achieve sustainable change. When it comes to the public sector in Hungary, the government has not embedded practices that would favour the positive development of user-centred services further. Still, there has been some efforts to utilise open data and innovative information and communications technologies. Budapest Open Data Hackathon, for example, was organised in the spring of 2016, aimed at improving skills in data re-usage in Hungary, as the country lags well behind other countries in the adaptation of those practices.

The Lumen pop-up space located at Mikszáth Kálmán tér 2 will host workshops, talks, and events on different smart city themes to increase awareness and access to city programs, services, civic processes, and resources in Budapest's centrally located and diverse Palace District (a.k.a. Józsefváros or District VIII). The district has a reputation for being rundown and unsavoury, but the area has seen a wave of gentrification in the recent years that has brought in many nice cafés, restaurants, and cultural events, illustrating Budapest's transformation into a 21st century city. While this is a step forward, much more needs to be done to ensure the neighbourhood remains liveable and a nice place to live and visit. The three-year-long project will aim to address and engage local residents and make the most of their input by trying to understand their interests and needs, and to connect with them. The pop-up space will also work as a platform to engage "smart citizens" in different community-driven projects occurring on a grassroots level that will enhance and strengthen the neighbourhood.

I am hoping that service design will be the key to successfully launch and manage Mindspace’s projects in Budapest, contributing positively to local communities by promoting different citizen involvement activities – and resulting in a rise in environmental awareness.

Here are some tips for how to apply service design in practice.

1. Frame the right problem: Identifying the right problem is critical. The solution is to frame the right question. In many cases, seeking solutions to the wrong problem can often make them worse.

2. Learn by doing: You should always validate your hypotheses and test your ideas in practice. This can be done through simply trying things out, or through more formal pilots, prototypes, and experiments. Constant experimentation with different solutions and alternative approaches are learning processes, and you should adjust as you move forward. There are feedback loops between different steps, and sometimes you might jump straight into a sustainable solution or even scale it up – once you have identified the need for change, root causes, and contributing factors.

3. Encourage failure: The unavoidable uncertainty and ambiguity throughout the process needs to be embraced by the whole team – and accepted by all stakeholders. The service design process is never sequential, and failure is an integral part of the iteration process towards developing a better and more sustainable outcome. Failure should be seen as possible and free of stigma – even if some stakeholders have been trained not to fail.

4. Collaborate across sectors: Service design covers many areas and disciplines, and a greater collaboration between sectors and different stakeholders is needed to address cross-cutting issues. Different people have a lot of bring to each other, and service design works best when people collaborate and make informed decisions together.

5. Measure everything: There are different strategies for measuring the return on investment in service design. Try to find ways to measure the changes you want to effect, both at the project level and at the system level. You can for example consider metrics in terms of economic, social, and ecological benefits.

About the Author Ilari Laitinen is a service designer and design consultant currently working from Helsinki, Finland. Ilari is passionate about leveraging customer insights, educating through workshops and building new businesses. @ilarilaitinen