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Understanding variations of entanglement and complexity: A way to influence expectations of Service and Systems Oriented Design in public sector

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Policy & Governance

Benedicte Wildhagen

Design and Architecture Norway, DOGA

This presentation will introduce a simple way to distinguish low or high levels of regulatory and cross-sector entanglement and complexity in design-led, public sector projects. A basic ordering to support understanding and assessment of cross-disciplinary needs, including systemic design, as well as substantiate realistic expectations of what design-lead projects can result in, over time. The insights are based on experiences and learning from StimuLab, a Norwegian government experimental program, which I have co-designed.


During the last decade, Service Design has proven to be well suited to improve and innovate Norwegian public services, which are better for the user and provide more efficient use of resources for management. One example from 2013 is the project, ‘If the patient was to decide’ at Oslo University Hospital. The service design project lasted approximately five months and managed to reduce the waiting time for breast cancer diagnosis by 90 per cent.

Together with several other excellent cases, this has resulted in a rapidly increasing interest and high expectations at the political level along with the public sector in general, that Service Design can provide significant and concrete contributions to public services.

To increase public sector use of Service Design and to bring forward more examples of public innovation, the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation established a two-year trial program in 2016. The task of developing the program was assigned to the Agency for Public Management and eGovernment (Difi). Due to the emphasis on design, they entered into a partnership with DOGA. Both government agencies have responsibilities to develop and innovate the public sector.

The result of our collaboration is the experimental program StimuLab. The program utilizes the existing public ecosystem for innovation in new ways (Difi + DOGA), to reduce risk and catalyze innovation. It stimulates cooperation across sectors and levels of government and ‘find the flex’ in regulations and procurement processes. StimuLab focus on impact but urge exploration. In this manner, StimuLab is testing new ways of working, to improve services, systems, procedures, regulations or the exercise of authority.

The StimuLab platform

We have chosen to utilize the market to develop and deliver solutions together with the public actors. Furthermore, we demanded a specific competence configuration from the market, to strengthen their capacity to handle complexity. Service design (including Systems Oriented Design) must be in the lead, supported by change management and impact assessment. This demand has resulted in new, fruitful collaborations between design agencies and management consulting companies.

Problem statement

Based on the promising results from previous service design projects, such as “If the patient was to decide”, the assignment from the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation emphasized that StimuLab projects must deliver real results for real users, by the end of 2017.

During 2016-2017, StimuLab has supported and funded 8 projects with a total grant of NOK 10 mill. Improving a complex public issue can lead to substantial socio-economic benefits, but they tend to be left untouched due to e.g. sectoral responsibility, lack of financing, absence of functional methods, coordination challenges etc. StimuLab has specifically pursued several such challenges. However, unlike “If the patient was allowed to decide” which was realized in approximately five months, untangling complexity on state-level involves many actors placed across several sectors and requires more time than a typical service design project.

In our work with StimuLab, we needed to create a better understanding of these variations, and also what this entailed, when it came to the Ministry’s anticipation of results.


In the StimuLab portfolio, huge variations in project properties have revealed themselves. By sorting the eight projects in a Pournelle chart we were able to support understanding and assessment of cross-disciplinary needs, as well as substantiate realistic expectations of design-lead project impact, in relation to where they are located in the chart.

I claim that:

  • Increased understanding and awareness of variations in project properties, among designers and in the public sector, will help create more realistic expectations. High- level complex challenges in the top right quadrant require step-by-step development with multiple actors. They cannot be improved as rapidly as a service in the bottom left quadrant.
  • Service Design in its current state is dominated by user-journey focus and is not well-positioned to take on very high-level challenges by itself. Systemic capacity is useful, but not critical. In the top-right quadrant, systems design capacity and cross-disciplinary approach are vital.
  • The Pournelle chart sorting help to distinguishing tasks, so that one can allocate different design- and other experts necessary to tackle the challenge at hand.

To substantiate my claims the presentation will include StimuLab project examples as well as methodology in use, e.g. Systems Oriented Design, co-creative methods, impact assessment.


The great interest Norwegian politicians and the public sector express towards service design today represents a significant opportunity – but also a risk. If results are slow to appear, interest and opportunity may be lost. Both Service Design and Systems Oriented Design are relatively young disciplines, still in development. The simple Pournelle chart classification I have outlined could contribute to increasing awareness of the variations embedded in public sector challenges, and what it will require to tackle complex systemic issues.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Understanding variations of entanglement and complexity: A way to influence expectations of Service and Systems Oriented Design in public sector
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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