Public Service Design

Design for Common man

Design for Common man : A missing link in the new agenda

What are common people’s right to better design when it comes to Public Services, spaces and amenities? How can common Indian’s benefit from traditional geography based assets? Is there a way of creating a favorable environment to bring design to masses ?

Researched, compiled & authored By Ashish Deshpande

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India is the second most populous country with the fourth largest spending power. After the slump of 2012, India saw a surprising 7.17% YOY GDP growth in 2014 and is expected to marginally improve to 7.46% for 2015. The Indian stock market recovered much quicker since the US financial meltdown and continues to be up despite the Eurozone Greek crisis. One sees the Indian industry rallying to come up with new innovative products and services ranging from baked potato chips to a service to transfer money using virtual currency on a mobile phone targeted to the fast growing middleclass. NASSCOM says, there are 3100 start up’s in India and as the third largest base, we are adding 800+ new businesses annually. The marketers have no problem understanding the rich and the middle-class of India and designing products for them. What we don’t see is many innovations catering to the people at the bottom of the pyramid. The question! Is there is a role for design to improve life standards of lower two rungs of the economic segments in India.

India has demonstrated a huge potential for growth. Yet, what good is growth if it does not take into consideration the aspirations and needs of the common people of India. We can achieve all this by fulfilling the dreams of people.After over a decade of rapid economic growth in India, the biggest challenge facing policymakers at both central and state levels is to ensure 'inclusive growth’ so that the gains from increased national income are shared by all sections of society. In particular, it is imperative that a high quality of basic services such as health and education be provided to all citizens, and encourage ‘local’ development of traditional assets , since these are not only ends in themselves, but also play a critical role in enhancing individual capabilities to participate fully in the growth of the economy. 

There is a strong necessity to create a frame work to reach out well designed public services and amenities to common people in all walks of life. Isn’t that a birth right as citizens of India? India must take care of its own, whether rich or poor, whether urban or rural. In a country where investment in Public services runs thin, do we entertain expectations of common people to have a basic standard in experiencing public transportation, health care, education, social and personal amenities, traditional livelihood crafts and products based around Indian geographical indications?

Public Service challenges

Successive governments have always highlighted the need for these reforms but have failed to induce imagination. Limited resources spread over a large mass of land and people, has always been a barrier. The way to overcome these age old hurdles is to create a frame work which allows design innovation to foster in public areas and this can be achieved by creating mindsets, sensitized policy makers, implementers and a plan of action using design thinking as a driver.


Design is key to the challenges of public service transformation. And those challenges are daunting. Former government established National Innovation Council, and set the scale of what lies ahead. (Bharat Nirman Innovation Fund was set up to encourage innovations in India. Its nodal agency, the National Innovation Council is presently creating a gram swaraj portal that will link 2.5 lakh panchayats and address core development issues).

This has been followed by the Saansad Adharsh Gram Yogana by the present Modi government. Great initiatived coaxing the elected representatives to reach to the common people in model villages but without any reference or framework towards design. Design of efficient & safe low cost homes, homes that can be energised in elctricity underserved areas, toilets, drinking water, accessible healthcare, affordable transportation & retail as part Adarsh Gram’s. 

The Make in India Program was launched in 2014 with great fan fare but forgot the key prefix ofDesign & Make In India.  Another great initiative is Digital India, where our PrimeMinister made a fleeting reference to design. Are these references going to make policy makers & executers working for the government sit up and take a serious look at design? New and revised approaches are needed to be inserted in BOLD within these new initiatives which give impetus to designed approach & thinking,which connect the public into the centre of both policy and action, all this through the conduit of Design.

Public Service Design

A good example to demonstrate is the reform carried in the core electoral process of choosing local and central governments in India. An electoral process that affects millions and  which was plagued by the sheer size of ballot paper printing, booth capturing, huge queue’s, time to results was all made easy through a series of reforms in the process as well as introduction of the electronic voting machines and process. 

A 12 second delay and a system of checks built into the machine prevent abuse of the electoral process, the electoral effort is just a press of a button, has reduced use of paper and printing, the machines can be reused for years, whole process is faster so less time in a queue for people and by the end of the day the people of India have a result. This is a great example of innovation in public space where design, technology and smart policy thinking all together played a crucial part in creating an efficient workable system for one of world’s largest democracies.

Will such “Design for People” examples inspire us to look through design for public transportation, energy, sanitation facilities, roads & walkways, accessible drinking water, accessible & reliable healthcare and livelihood ?  Can we achieve a seamless alignment between the Smart Cities program and our Adharsh Gram’s (model villages) ?

Building capacity to design in public services

Design in the public domain will not occur at the flick of a switch. It requires public services to build the capacity to think design. That means supporting public servants and staff to develop some of the skills required; ensuring that they are aware of and able to deploy some of the tools – not least the design tools – which are available such as prototyping, needs based user segmentation or customer insight and journey mapping; building an understanding and appreciation of key disciplines such as service design and growing effective risk management at all levels of the organisation.

Bandung, Indonesia hosts a Design Action event which looks at design accupuncture through creative activation. It is focussed action based workshop between 100 odd policy makers & government employees and Designers to re look at prevelent issues surrounding Bandung. Issues which matter to common people, issues which will de congest, improve water, sanitation, lifestyle and safety. Bandung Design Action presents a perfectly scalable model to approach our common people issues in India with design.

And people are important – design innovation demands people with a wide range of experience capable of applying that to new settings so the regular recruitment, on whatever basis, of new people and new ideas is critical to success. In the private sector, the GOI & NID’s “Designing Clinic for MSME’s” programme is already proving a powerful route to innovation for many small – and medium-sized businesses  by making available design associates to work with industry sectors. There is no reason why that programme could not be translated into the public sector with equal success.

This may be translated in action through a design sensitisation program in various GOI  ministries, secretariats’, municipal councils & corporations and the Gram Sabha’s. The overarching idea would be to create ‘informed governance’. The establishment of a policy innovation program can act as a stimulus to innovation across various departments and send strong messages that senior administrators and the political leadership become open to new ideas.

The program as this level can be made mandatory course material in Public Administration service colleges and institutions.

This can be followed by a Design audit program which would evaluate the functioning of various public services and prepare a road map towards improvement. This road map can be put in a design action program through active participation between various design professionals and public service stake holders.

A good example here is the Ahmedabad BRTS for public transport. Compared to say the the first BRTS in India, Pune, an examplry failure program (2006-2008) , which was closed down after a few mishaps, the revamped BRTS in Pune has has still not been revived in 2015. The difference between the two programs lies majorly in the approach through design thinking apart from political will. Pune Bus Day, India, was a public event to highlight the apathy of public transportation in Pune through a Design led event & public participation.

Creating favourable environment through community movement

Whether we examine present public services & spaces or traditional assets, any co create , co develop program will require a serious amount of buy in from local communities.  Without buy in and participation by the intended beneficiaries, the entire design effort will be a waste being a one sided exercise.

Developing champions within local communities and creating design leadership at people level is crucial to the success of any design intervention program.

Sensitizing local leadership towards design thinking and making them program managers for such initiatives may be one way of creating community acceptance. Focus must always remain on tangible and direct benefits to the communities in question and this can be reinforced through rhetoric and actions of such Community Design Leaders.

Laxmi Murthi, Designer, founder of Uger, a social enterprise was concerned about hygiene and affordability issues with synthetic sanitary pads in socio-economic backward populations in India. Uger has designed sanitary pads for women that are made entirely in cotton. They can be washed as per usual home processes and hence can be reused. This makes use of sanitary pads affordable to low income group women. This in turn improves hygiene amongst these women. The pads come in pleasant colours and patterns. The inner stuffing is cotton, which does not add to disposal and landfill issues.

Pad making has given employment and work to women from the region. Projects like those undertaken by Uger demonstrate that design can address multiple issues for common people.

People participation is about putting people first & designing together

The expectations of the public are rising and they would sooner than later expect more intelligent services that are responsive to their personal, family needs and circumstances. The evolution of Indian Posts in terms of their services and Indian Railways from making train tracking, scheduling and ticket booking a pleasure is a great example of Public service improvements through smart thinking. Setting up of a design lab with NID is a step closer to bring design to common commuters (2014 Rail budget and following action).  Getting people to participate in the improvement of services will be a big step to include those “ little but crucial suggestions” into any improvement plan.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO says, “Over the years and through IDEO’s product design heritage, I’ve come to distil design thinking down into three key steps, a daily mantra of sorts:

_ Inspire.

_ Prototype.

_ Execute.

When it comes to looking for inspiration, here’s no better place to start than with people in real situations, struggling with real problems and questions. Public servants need to get out of the confines of their workspace and learn to recognise customers’ needs. They need to engage with local authorities, customers and staff to harness design thinking for innovation.”

Think what can happen with well thought out public health care systems, a system of well thought hospitals, clinics and outreach programs all designed with people and for people. The implications are gigantic for a country like India. We are revising the future of India. 

Barriers blocking Design in public space. How do we overcome ?

Acceptance of failures in public area is always problematic and any new design thought led innovative public service effort is fraught with failures and is intrinsic to the process itself. Rapidly absorbing lessons from prototypes & pilots, the experiences of early implementers and emerging research findings, and making this accessible to the sector. This means a different approach focusing not just on what works now, or has worked in the past, but what will work in the future. This thinking needs to be reinforced to both traditional products as well as public services.

An as a process new Public services can promote design thinking through heavy reliance on improvement spread and top-down dissemination (for example creating national guidance and toolkits that can be distributed through focused programs managed by the India Design Council).

“ But simply exhorting everyone to copy the latest bright ideas – imitation as innovation – ignores the fact that every local area has different needs.” This is especially true when dealing with traditional crafts, products and processes. “Sometimes innovation is about making old ideas work – or combining them in unusual ways – not coming up with endless new initiatives or continuously seeking the next “big idea. In public services, it may be that we need a concept of reinnovation (reapplying existing ideas in new ways in different places), as well as innovation (the first use of a new idea)”, says, Julie Jones, CE, Social Care Institute for Excellence.

This calls for creation of  a Public Services by Design initiative, which would offer a template by publishing a ‘rough guide’ to organising such activities, which would translate the rhetoric of policy into the reality of better outcomes for people. This can be followed up by a series of specialist briefings for different target groups within the identified sectors by collaborators from design and other fields outside the sectors.

Incentives & rewards

In the private sector, the pressure to achieve profitability & competitive advantage provides its own incentives, but these are not as strong in the public services. Organisational leaders need therefore to compensate for this deficit via systems and their own behaviour. But we also need to become better at designing incentive regimes which do not merely reward the highest performers but recognise successful Design innovation or design improvement wherever it is found.

This also helps highlight efforts where public services and traditional asset design incubation programs are highlighted for others to benchmark and be inspired.

Creating networks with knowledge sharing

Several new avenues for improvement, new stories of efforts will be thrown up in the years to come. Several champions for design leadership in people space will be created.

A national network which helps connect design champions, communities, professionals, administrators, NGO’s with each other to share and learn can be the new “Design Innovation” temple of tomorrow.

Like China. South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Spain , UK and many more countries, India must build destination centers that celebrate design & innovation effort, provide platform for people, craft & industry & policy makers to understand need, process & application of design. Contribution to a national design data that feeds research and acting as aggregators for various centers of excellence that can reach design to common, can be objectives of such centers.


As a corollary to the design process it may be prudent to prototype or pilot the overall thought for making design reach out to the common people. 
Following activities can be undertaken as a pilot by present Indian government or the India Design Council;

1.    Launching the ‘Public Service by Design’ initiative

2.    Design Sensitizing module for public service administrators and community leaders

3.    Starting design incubation programs for artisans and frugal innovators

4.    Pilot design evaluation and ‘re-innovation’ program for one public place or service

5.    Pilot design evaluation and ‘re-innovation’ program for one traditional geography based asset

6.    Feedback research

7.    Fine tuning of a policy program

8.    Representation to a relevant ministry in GOI for national introduction of the program

9.    Creation of a nationwide network

Strongly articulated political will, design sensitised policy makers and program approaches will incentivise designers in India to look at design in Public service and one that will affect the life of common people. Design is meant to improve life and the profession will make sense only when it uplifts the life of a sizeable majority in India.

E Biblio;

ASHISH DESHPANDE is an Industrial Designer, Co-founder & Director at Elephant. An alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, he is a keen Design Thinker, a member of India Design Council & Jury for India Design Mark. He has worked on several design programs, ranging from energy saver appliances, healthcare products, dairy process machinery and energy products amongst others.

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