The helpful (?) conceit of design thinking

‘Participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.’ (Arnestein 1969)

Working in design, practicing design thinking, being a designer is an optimistic profession. As Jamer Hunt, writing for the RSA points out, designing is about the promise of better things to come with a better solution for the future (Hunt 2015). It’s also a privilege to be able to spend your time in your job asking questions, thinking ahead and imagining the future. In this blog post I want to examine the role of privilege and power in design thinking as practiced across the UK government, discuss where it helpfully shows up and where it’s more troubling, and propose a ladder of participation (building on Arnstein’s citizen facing ladder) in design thinking for including a wider cross section of public servants so that existing practitioners can act as midwives for new thinking rather than custodians of expertise and power.

  • What steps have we taken to prevent new dependencies from being created in this community?
  • How has this project/team sought out the pre-existing capacity in this community and built upon it?
  • How has this project/team made space for those it serves, giving them room to adapt and interpret the design process and shape outcomes?



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Cate McLaurin

Cate McLaurin

Director @PublicDigitalHQ. @madebycatem. alumni @IIPP_UCL MPA graduate. Views are my own. Interested in change, innovation, leadership and digital