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research by design*


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research by design*


*research by design (Sevaldson 2010) is the process of doing research through modelling, sketching, prototyping and testing solutions. In other words, you use design interventions to understand how the system reacts and learn from those reactions as a form of research.  


Public Services 

Public services are designed and delivered by public organisations and financed by public resources, where citizen participate in this exchange by paying their taxes every year.  In return, governments provide people with essential services like public security, health, education, transportation, sanitation services, and the list can go on.  Most public services are experienced as complicated, time and energy consuming, inflexible and bureaucratic.  Many governments around the world are investing in changing this by attempting to make their public services easier to navigate, more efficient and that meet the demand of highly connected and mobile people.   

As Eric Trist, “we act like systems in creating large-scale problems, but we act like individuals in trying to solve them” (Trist, 1981).  All of these challenges are interconnected adding to complexity, and systems thinking approaches are needed to solve these challenges by identifying the problem´s root causes and understanding how they interrelate.  We also need to work together.  Even though service design is an emerging field; it´s 20 years of development is starting to mature to potentially be applied to tackle the world’s most complex problems by harnessing creativity, collaboration and community-centered approaches (Meroni & Sangiorgi, 2011).  Service design tools should be complemented with systemic design approaches in order to understand the complexity (Aguirre, 2014; Jones, 2013) that governments face when designing and delivering public services.  

Research questions:

  • How can we transform the public sector by bringing diverse stakeholders together into the design process?
  • How to establish a culture of change in risk adverse environments, like public organisations?
  • How can governments act as co-facilitator of services rather than a provider?
  • How can we prototype ways in which governments facilitate the interaction between citizens and other stakeholders to collaborate on the co-inquiry, co-mapping, co-design and co-production of new public services?
  • How can we prototype ways in which governments act as open platforms that enable adaptive and creative emergence for the public and social good?
  • How can we enable governments to act as platforms that facilitate services at an individual of family scale, which target the needs of people in its most holistic sense?
  • How can governments disrupt their one-size-fits all approach and top-down policymaking processes? 
  • How can we design services starting from people and looking at all the possible ways that their needs can be met and co-construct meaningful experiences?
  • How do you scale up cultures of innovation for sustainable systems change?
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Workshops / Events / Talks


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Workshops / Events / Talks


September 14th 2014

Online Course by Zaid Hassan: The Art of Social Labs

This course will be taught by Zaid Hassan in a webinar format over the period of 3 months, every thursday for one hour.  It will look into wicked problematiques like Public Education, Mental Health and Climate Change to explore the social lab techniques.  It starts this Thursday 18th of September and runs until November.

The course is organised into 5 modules:

  1. Intro to Social Labs
  2. Establishing the Pre-Conditions
  3. Designing Social Labs
  4. Intro to Social Prototyping
  5. The Care & Feeding of Social Labs

September 11th 2014

Labs for Systems Change - Conference in Toronto, 2014

Last May I had the opportunity to attend a conference organised by Mars Solution Lab in Toronto, CA.  

This conference brought together different experiences from the emergent practices of Government Innovation Labs. These labs seek to disrupt current policy and public service models.  They do this by applying creativity and design tools, systems thinking, social change, psychology and implementation sciences.  Design tools include prototyping, stakeholder engagement, co-creation and building mechanisms that leverage informal networks of co-production, facilitated by government platforms.

Key speakers in this conference were:

  • Geoff Mulgan, NESTA
  • Christian Bason, MINDLAB
  • Adam Kahane, REOS PARTNERS
  • Beth Noveck, GOVLAB
  • Frances Westley, UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO
  • Sarah Schulman, INWITHFORWARD
  • Chris Sigaloff, KENNISLAND
  • Eduardo Stasowski, PARSONS DESIS LAB

Geoff Mulgan:  

He starts reflecting on what are labs, how do we lab and what´s after labs? Then he classifies labs by typology which you can see in the first picture below.  He criticises that labs are not tackling the job market and in that sense, the most interesting place to intervene is a the systems change level.  That is the big problem, even if you have the best ideas, if they are not implemented or scaled up, there is no systems change.  

He mentions an interesting quote, "turkeys don´t vote for christmas," meaning that if you get the same stakeholders in the room, they will reinforce the status quo (they will not vote for systems change).


September 3rd 2014

Workshop with TECHO, Santiago Chile

During the end of the spring semester 2013, I received an email from a great friend, Isidora Ovalle, that works in the renown Chilean NGO called TECHO (previously known as Techo para Chile) asking about Design Thinking.  She put me in contact with the leader of their organisation, Juan Cristóbal Beytia, and the planning process started. Basically what Juan Cristóbal explained to me is something designers can relate to very well, which has to do with their culture as an organisation.  Their previous model was to build emergency and temporary housing to get people out of slums, but now they are changing into more service and educational models.  They have build 6.000 emergency shelter homes in Chile and have active 2.600 volunteers every weekend working with communities in slums.  

They got interested in design thinking and service design since they transitioned from a tangible output into an educational and learning output, from standard inputs that you can hammer and measure to the inputs being people, which are definitely not abstract and even the smartest volunteer might not have empathy and patience for teaching.  

We divided into 8 groups of 8 people to do an experience process map, inspired on co-production concepts outlining the relationships between community members and organisational teams based on one of the four programs that they are providing (learning to read, peer-to-peer skill transferring, entrepreneurship mentoring, back-to-work mentoring).  By referencing the Family by Family project done by TACSI in South Australia we could understand how the design team build a platform for matching people seeking for solutions to those who have an answer and facilitate peer-to-peer support networks.  We had interesting discussions on the visualisation of abstract processes, actors and co-production models.

This workshop would had not been possible without the great support from Isidora Ovalle and Juan Cristóbal Beytia from TECHO and the great designers, Dámaris Sepúlveda, Antonia Undurraga and Polinka Karsulovik - which literally were cutting out paper and making the templates for the maps on the floor 20 minutes before we got started.  It was also inspiring to use the back of old posters as the maps, this reminds us that accessible and cheap (or free) material is many times the best source of innovation.

You can look through the presentation slides here:


June 12th 2014

Service Design in the Government Conference, London, May 2014

Happy to have been part of Service Design in the Government, which gathered amazing people from Europe, specially public servants and designers.  Key speakers were Sarah Drummond from Snook and Government Digital Services (GDS) was represented by their head of user research, Leisa Reichelt, and head of design, Ben Terrett.  

My presentation was about designing for complex public services using a systemic approach to service design, using the case study of Designing for Dignity.  Here are some of the slides:


May 13th 2014

Design in Healthcare - the Norwegian landscape

On Monday 31st of May, 2014, we held a workshop at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) to map out the design and healthcare landscape in Oslo, Norway. By connecting stakeholders from different places we had the opportunity to understand in which areas we are working, and which others are emerging, also our main barriers and main learnings together with imagining our future roles. Participants were mainly students and academics from AHO, designers from several consultancies, leaders and administrators from the Norwegian Health Directorate, researchers from the Norwegian Knowledge Center for Health Services, doctors from Ullevål University Hospital, designers from The Norwegian Center for Design and Architecture and the design director from Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation.

This workshop was facilitated by Lorna Ross (Director of Design Mayo Clinic), Kaja Misvær (Project Manager DOT at AHO), Birger Sevaldson (Professor of Systems Oriented Design at AHO), Adrian Paulsen (Systems Oriented Service Designer at Halogen) and myself.  We had over 25 attendees and there was great energy and interest in continuing these conversations.  

A report with the summary containing the main findings will be published soon, however the preliminary findings include that there is a lot of demand to talk about these topics, evidenced by so many people showing up in such short notice. Designers need better tools to navigate business models, organisational challenges, policies and cultural mechanisms that direct how healthcare organisations operate.  Designers need to work proactively, instead than against demand. We are all working in specialty services and solving discrete problems, while we need to shift towards community engagement, prevention and emergent services.  We also need to present design projects in non-design settings and understand better health reforms and implementation processes.


May 2nd 2014

Design for Care by Peter Jones: Book review

I had the opportunity to read and review Peter Jones´ new book which was published by the Design Observer (DO).  Here are some pieces from the book review:

...the author considers rethinking care models and leveraging the role of the community to facilitate the experience of wellness in populations. Here, transformations in policy are considered in an effort to reconsider new business models that can, in turn, influence better care models that may ultimately define more positive health care experiences. The author presents this as a kind of funnel, suggesting that designers become more adept at spanning within this funnel, from the macro view (policy innovation) to the micro level (care experiences), understanding the interdependencies that arise from connecting across these different scales. In practice, designers often discover strategic long-term opportunities that can easily become jeopardized by short-term priorities. 
...service design tools should be complemented with systemic approaches in order to understand the complexity that characterize health care and intervene within the root causes of problems. Besides exploring the most common design tools like patient journeys, scenarios, storyboards and personas, Jones suggests proven new approaches with great design potential. The methods introduced — video-ethnographies, sense-making tools, Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) and Giga-Mapping — may allow designers to more successfully innovate in powerful spaces, like health policy and business models. It also balances the user-system continuum by introducing empathic approaches (capturing individual human needs, for instance) and coupling them with participatory tools to map out larger systemic challenges.

You can read more about the review here in the Design Observer, or buy the original in book or kindle versions in Amazon.  

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Logging stuff


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Logging stuff


September 26th 2014

Open Policymaking

How are different governments opening up to include ideas from other departments (inside government), universities or research institutions, and receptive to voices of normal citizens and frontline staff.  Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood from the UK government explains how open policymaking allows for more inclusive policies, better services and systems that can actually get implemented. You can watch his short video here:

More on open policymaking from the UK government here.


September 24th 2014

The Social Labs Revolution (by Zaid Hassan)

This book claims how planning processes are not sufficient to solve the worlds most complex problems.  Social labs are introduced as an alternative to solve wicked challenges in an iterative, experimental and actionable way, by having diverse and "soft" influential teams (Zaid 2014:115) that facilitate processes that may empower change agent and create systemic spaces.  Systemic spaces allow for experimental learning to emerge, support "creativity, innovation and problem solving" (Ibid: 23) These types of systemic spaces are what Zaid Hassan defines as "a social laboratory" (ibid).


September 14th 2014

13 Habits of a Systems Thinker

Josina Vink is a systems designer and facilitator working in the mental health space in Canada trying to achieve systemic change. She just shared with me this resource from the Watersfoundation that illustrates in a very simple way 13 habits systems thinkers have. By using these principles, you can start different conversations about how to design ideal, flexible and resilient systems.

Download poster in full size (from the Watersfoundation)

Download poster in full size (from the Watersfoundation)


September 10th 2014

Interesting events and conferences coming up


September 10th 2014

Learning from Resilience and Social Innovation

Next week we will visit Istanbul with the SOD students for a week to observe how the city behaves, be inmersed in its patterns of interactions, and explore the concept of "resilience."  I understand resilience as the ability to adapt and flourish, either after an unanticipated event that shakes the landscape, or as a normal mechanism to cope with good and bad life situations.  Resilience is well connected to the concept of Emergence, which Steven Johnson claims as a collective intelligence.  Resilience and emergence will be systems thinking concepts explored during Istanbul, to study the complexity of the city.

In preparation for this, I stumbled upon an article written by Frances Westley for the Stanford Social Innovation Review about what can resilience teach social innovation, and what can social innovation teach resilience.  


September 9th 2014

Watching Transform 2014, sponsored by the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic

Presentation by Paul Wallace, M.D., Optum Labs and Nilay Shah, Ph.D., Mayo Clinic.

Optum Labs partnered with the Mayo Clinic Center for Science and Healthcare Delivery to understand the health experiences of people in their communities, beyond the bricks and mortars of health care institutions using big data.  With Electronic Health Records (EMR), Patient Reported Information (and Outcomes), Consumer Experience Information, you can aggregate and synthesise many patterns that can provide rich insights about people´s experiences towards health.  

How do you create trust in data? Its not about collecting data, its about how this data is used.  Optum recognises the importance of community health workers and the demand side of data.  Its about how to improve systems and health outcomes.

How do you make medical knowledge relevant for other communities, different from the context where that knowledge was created? Optum labs compares cities and uses the example of Rochester MN and finds other cities in the US that might have similar characteristics than Rochester.  


September 4th 2014

Prototyping to understand how systems behave

I just heard about the Street Store, launched in Cape Town, South Africa to help people who live in the street. The street store thrives out of donations by community members where homeless can live shopping experiences with the ability tho chose and browse through clothes, instead of going through dumpsters.  This simple model is open source and has spread out to many other cities in the world, where inspired individuals can simply print out the store, position it in public spaces, do some free marketing through social media and start attracting donators.  This is a great example of connecting with a marginalised community through the act of prototyping in a low-cost and rapid way, and then making those props available for others to experiment if agreeing to the ethical terms and conditions the organisation establishes.  This is also a good example of a leverage point within a complex social system where sometimes the smallest interventions can have the biggest ripple effects. I leave you to their video: 


September 3rd 2014

Reflections on Grounded Change (InWithForward)

Together with some ex-colleagues from Mayo Clinic CFI, we have been reflecting for a while on the idea of implementation.  Implementation is usually understood as the last step of a linear, factory-type design process as the Design Council illustrates it with the Double Diamond (1. Discover, 2. Define, 3. Develop, 4. Deliver), where the delivery stage can be conceived as equivalent to the implementation stage.  Using this type of thinking we face many problems with implementation since many of the key components of our design ideas and prototypes, when being rolled out to the larger ecosystem, are confronted to diverse unforeseen challenges. This happens when not properly understanding, or untangling the complexity of the system during the design phase resulting in design concepts that don´t go anywhere. You either adjust solutions to the system or seek for systemic change that makes space for new innovative solutions.  

Many have criticised service designer´s lack of ability to implement great services, as Geoff Mulgan argues, designers creative skills do not match the ones that allow them to understand the implementation system, like challenges related economics, politics, culture and organisations (more about this in Geoff´s publication Design In Public and Social Innovation).  Following similar lines, Andreas Moan, when presenting the Breast Cancer project done by the Oslo University Hospital together with Designit, explained the "home alone" feeling when the design team finished their job and the implementation process started.  In my opinion, as design consultants, design researchers, design academics or design students we never work in isolation, we are part of a larger socio-technical system. That said, we are implementing or enabling change with every interaction.  Perhaps a type of change that is not sustainable or scalable, but we create these interactions to poke the system and understand its behaviour by analysing how it reacts.  

So, what is grounded change? Sarah Schulman together with the InWithForward team released an interesting publication last week that reflected on their 10+ years of experience while researching and designing in the social innovation space.  


May 20th 2014

Chile announces a Public Innovation Laboratory

On Friday, May 16th 2014, the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, announced the new agenda of “Productivity, Innovation and Growth.”  This agenda had a section for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which included seven areas, from supporting early SMEs and decentralizing the Startup-Chile program, to public and social innovation.  She announced the creation of a new public innovation lab to design and develop innovative projects that can solve public programs and improve public services for citizens.  The lab will integrate expertise’s from both the public and private sector in their co-design processes.  This was not mentioned, but I think citizens should also be included in the co-inquiry, co-mapping, co- design and co-production of new public programs and services.  


This is a simple visualisation done for Cheryl E. Ball.  Cheryl is teaching at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design about literature reviews, book reviews and research proposals.  She is a visiting Full-Bright Scholar from the US.

This is a simple visualisation done for Cheryl E. Ball.  Cheryl is teaching at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design about literature reviews, book reviews and research proposals.  She is a visiting Full-Bright Scholar from the US.

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Get in Touch


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Get in Touch


I am happy to connect with anybody wanting to create sustainable transformations for the public and social good using creativity, prototyping and systems thinking. I am taking a practical phd, which means researching by designing and exploring (some say that´s the best way to really understand the materiality and substance of problems) so if you are directing a government innovation laboratory, or prototyping public services with citizens, public servants, policymakers, designers, anthropologists, sociologists or change agents, please get in touch.

My studies are supported by The Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) and are being carried out between September 2013 until August 2017.  My background is in integrated design from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and in systems oriented service design from AHO. Before starting the PhD, I worked as an embedded service designer within the multi-specialty integrated group medical practice of Mayo Clinic, in their Center for Innovation located in Rochester, Minnesota.  

During my master thesis, I worked on a project called Designing for Dignity which was recognised by Core77, The Norwegian Design Council and Norsk Form.  This was a collaboration with Jan Kristian Strømsnes, the emergency hospital in Oslo, the Oslo Police and Social Services to improve the response systems to sexual violence using creativity, design, participation and holistic thinking.  

Manuela Aguirre Ulloa

You can reach me through twitter or linked in - or just send me quick a message now! 

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