Benedicte Wildhagen
Author - Benedicte Wildhagen

Service design is currently dominated by a focus on the user journey, and therefore is not sufficient in itself for highly complex public challenges which cross agencies and sectors. To tackle complex public sector issues, the integration of systemic design capacity and a cross-disciplinary approach is crucial.

The Norwegian public sector has paid increasing attention to the use of service design to improve and renew public services. This has been particularly evident in projects such as Designit Oslo's revolutionary remediation of waiting times for breast cancer diagnoses at Oslo University Hospital in 20131. By reducing the waiting time from three months to five days, service design’s effectiveness was proven. The extraordinary result made the Norwegian Minister for Modernization determined to promote and support the further application of service design. 

Wicked problems 

Even though there are now many successful examples of service innovation in Norway, the government still faces many 'wicked problems' and cross-sector issues that remain tough to solve. These complex public challenges involve numerous stakeholders from different sectors, each responsible for providing specific parts of a comprehensive service. Addressing these challenges can lead to substantial socio-economic benefits, but frustratingly, they often get ignored due to several factors, such as responsibility, lack of financing, the absence of functional methods, co-ordination challenges, and so on. These complex challenges with multiple stakeholders in fact demand a systemic approach.

Service design is highly valuable when it comes to the user-oriented development of public services. However, in StimuLab, we experience that conventional service design is insufficient in tackling those ‘wicked problems’ mentioned previously. These kind of problems require a systemic perspective as well as a user perspective, and this is indeed what the publicly-funded programme StimuLab has gained experience in, over the past five years. 

Projects supported by StimuLab must commit to following the ‘Triple Diamond’. As this model from Halogen shows, iteration and adaptation are essential when meeting the needs of highly complex projects.
Projects supported by StimuLab must commit to following the ‘Triple Diamond’. As this model from Halogen shows, iteration and adaptation are essential when meeting the needs of highly complex projects.

The Norwegian innovation lab for public sector: StimuLab 

StimuLab is a learning platform for public innovation that supports and encourages user-oriented experimentation and innovation, using a design methodology. With funding of €6 million from 2016-2020, it has at present supported 29 projects. 

StimuLab was initiated by the Norwegian government in 2016 and is run as a collaboration between Design and Architecture Norway (DOGA) and the Norwegian Digitalization Agency, which represents a unique cooperation.

From ‘Double’ to ‘Triple’ diamond

Projects supported by StimuLab must commit to following the ‘Triple Diamond’. As this model from Halogen shows, iteration and adaptation are essential when meeting the needs of highly complex projects. Source: StimuLab / Halogen

At the core of StimuLab is service design. Building on the UK Design Council's Double Diamond2, we added a third, and made the ‘Triple Diamond’ a mandatory framework for all StimuLab projects. The new diamond, the diagnose phase, emphasises how important it is to truly explore and understand root causes hidden in complex public issues. When faced with cross-sectorial challenges, it is crucial to create a shared understanding of problems and needs, at several levels, simultaneously – from users to services to systems and back – across sectors and by involving all stakeholders.

Out-of-house lab

Numerous countries have established in-house government innovation labs to provide expertise and drive development. But because the Norwegian supplier market is highly-skilled, StimuLab strategically chose not to create an in-house lab, but instead to procure services from the market to develop and deliver solutions together with public organisations.

Tailored skill configuration 

Furthermore, each StimuLab project demands a tailored skill configuration from the market, for example, impact assessment, data analysis or behavioural psychology, to strengthen its capacity to deal with the domain at hand and to handle areas of complexity.

These matching skill configurations are not typically something that design consultants are able to deliver. So, to meet these demands, they initiate formal collaborations with e.g. management consultancies, who provide necessary, complementary expertise. As a result, StimuLab has been a catalyst for new co-operation and knowledge development to solve challenges that the Norwegian public sector has been unable to address so far. By offering increasingly complex projects to the market, StimuLab has also helped make the public sector an attractive client for a growing supplier market.

Charting low or high levels of complexity

During the initial trial run back in 2016, the Ministry of Modernization demanded that StimuLab’s projects had to deliver results for genuine users by the end of 2017, much in-line with Designit Oslo’s breast cancer project. However, it quickly became apparent that there were huge variations in StimuLab’s project properties, and we realised that project results and impact would vary in time, depending on how complex the challenges were.

StimuLab has chosen to support projects ranging from contained, single-owner services to complex multi-stakeholder challenges. By using a simple chart to arrange projects, we can support dialogue, understanding and assessment of cross-disciplinary needs, relating to their location in the chart. It also creates a better understanding of project properties, ranging from low to high levels of regulatory and cross-sector entanglement and complexity, and what that entails when it comes to the Ministry’s initial anticipation of results.

The breast cancer patients project, for example, would be placed in the bottom left quadrant. It involved a single stakeholder – Oslo University Hospital – and dealt with a contained challenge. The task was complicated, but it was possible to diagnose the problem, reorganise the service, test improvements and achieve results in less than six months. 

High-level, complex challenges in the top right quadrant, however, require step-by-step development with multiple stakeholders. Improvements can result in significant socio-economic effects, but progress isn’t as rapid as in a contained service in the bottom left quadrant. 

“Management of driving license conditions” is a complex project example, as it dealt with a service involving four government agencies as well as private sector stakeholders. The project began late in 2016 and was run by Halogen Design and Rambøll. 

Charting low or high levels of complexity.
Charting low or high levels of complexity.

In Norway, professional truck-drivers, drivers over the age of 75 and people with various kinds of medical disorders must apply for a driving license every five years by submitting a health certificate from a doctor. The health requirements are set by the health authorities, but the road authorities are considered the regulatory administrator. The case flow between doctors and road authorities was paper-based, and drivers must personally show up at the Norwegian Public Roads Administration's traffic stations with the requisite health certificate. In addition, the police need to see the health certificate's conclusion, both to issue a driving license and to follow-up on revocations.

Service design within the public sector is about solving complex processes to release innovation potential. In this project, “Management of driving license conditions”, Halogen and Rambøll Management Consultants helped the Norwegian Public Road Administration, the Norwegian Directorate of Health, the National Police Directorate and the Directorate of eHealth find better ways of determining a citizen's right to drive. This is systemic designer Adrian Michalak-Paulsen at Halogen, detailing part of a giga-map.

This complexity lead to one of the most time-consuming services in the Norwegian public sector and several attempts to improve it were made during the last decade, without success.

The ‘diagnose’ phase made the many dependencies between medical, technical and legal assessments, which are entangled across sectors, visible and understood by all stakeholders. By working systemically with as much focus on the dependencies as on the user's touchpoints in the service, the project weeded-out assumptions and managed to identify extensive innovation and development potential.

Due to the high degree of complexity, the StimuLab project resulted in a roadmap and programme organisation. This modification of a large and critical public service required a broad-based approach, synchronised across the organisations' other activities. In-line with the roadmap, additional funding was secured and extensive improvements were implemented, and the significantly-revised service began to be introduced to the public in 2020.

Key learnings

StimuLab experiences show that service design can generally solve contained projects with a single owner, whereas high-complexity, multiple stakeholder challenges, like the aforementioned project, require interdisciplinary expertise, in which the integration of systemic design3 capacity is vital.

The complex projects in the StimuLab portfolio demonstrate that an approach integrating systemic design capacity and interdisciplinary expertise quite rapidly manages to facilitate shared understanding of dependencies and entanglement among stakeholders from multiple sectors. Whether that's understanding user needs to discover the flexibility within the system, or finding paths for everyone to move beyond how government currently works today, it represents innovative, cross-sector collaboration.

This article by Benedicte Wildhagen and Ellen Strålberg is part of Touchpoint Vol. 12 No. 2 - Service Design and Systems Thinking. Discover the full list of articles of this Touchpoint issue to get a sneak peek at more fascinating articles! Touchpoint is available to purchase in print and digital format.


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