Using Design Futures to shape the present

Design Futures are powerful and valuable practices for directing change. Here's how we used them with Sogei on a design journey.


19.10.22 - 10 mins read

Italy, according to the DESI 2020 report (Digitisation of Economy and Society Index), ranks 25th overall among EU members and 19th for digital public services, scoring below the European average. Only 36% of Italian online users actively use e-Government services compared to the EU average of 64%.

Sogei has hired us to imagine a new relationship paradigm and scenarios, eliminating citizens' burdens caused by strictly vertical services to expand access and adoption of digital services through user-centred and future-oriented logic.

Design for citizens' lives

We had to think of services beyond individual state structures and agencies to avoid getting stuck into a compartmentalised logic. The connection of individual moments of encounter (touchpoints) around critical occasions prompts citizens to interact with public administration. We called these ‘Life Events’: marriage, birth, opening a business, moving to another city, etc.

Thinking about services through the scanning of ‘Life Events’ allows the organisations involved to understand their role within a complex system of interactions and identify opportunities to respond to citizens' needs in a coordinated and collaborative way.

‘Life Events’ has become a way of organising services that allow PA-citizen interactions to be contextualised within an expanded, horizontal vision. Covering the entire journey of a citizen empowers the planner to identify citizens' needs systematically and how the PA responds.

By shifting the focus from PA services to these events, we discovered moments of disconnect between the services of different entities, uncovering opportunities for synergy or proactivity. In parallel, we conducted Futures Research activities to explore probable futures, define a vision of the desirable one, and understand each agency's role in making this vision a reality.

Futures Research is the systematic analysis of social, cultural, environmental, economic, and technological change to explore how living and relating will be in the future.

It identifies the likelihood of evolving social structures to define desirable aspects and those that should be avoided. It facilitates awareness, planning, and orchestration of individual and collective actions.

The design path: from signs of change to future scenarios 

We started with a participatory definition of the Future Research activity’s perimeter to understand the challenges and opportunities awaiting Italy’s PA, which areas are the most promising and which topics to explore. 

These questions identified areas of interest and guided the search for signs of change: ranging from technological areas such as automation, more streamlined and intuitive use of services delivered to citizens, and the cloud, to organisational aspects such as cultural change, collaboration, state transparency, and ethics in public service design. 

We then defined two areas of exploration, one investigating how the relationship between PA and citizens changes and another investigating the future of public administration employees.

We collected signs of change from the identified areas that allowed us to hypothesise probable futures, which we used as a stimulus to create scenarios. Each was used to define a new paradigm of state-citizen relationship mediated by digital tools.

The relationship with future citizens 

Direct dialogue between state and citizen 

In the future, technology and new administrative processes based on the citizen's needs will simplify the state-citizen dialogue. Private entities will mediate it in real time by verifying the veracity of reported news. Introducing technologies such as AI will reduce information to integrate into the administrative process.

Open Source administrations will allow citizens to be part of the state's decision-making processes and collaborate in designing their ideal society, thus transforming a one-way relationship to a two-way relationship in which the citizen influences the state and vice versa.

Hyper urban proximity 

Urban centres will change how people live, move and enjoy essential public services, reconnecting them to their local area. Public and private, long-distance transportation will be needed only for need and leisure, not reaching primary places.

It will increase sustainable mobility with an impact on the pace of people's lives, decreasing time spent commuting and pollution caused by traditional transportation. In addition, more local planning of health services will be needed, broken down by specific areas with referral hubs.

An all-seeing state

Future citizens will be subject to greater and more specific surveillance. Monitoring people’s daily activities and health status will make their urban and domestic environment safer by increasing efficiency whilst ensuring the state’s presence.

Private and public collaboration 

Public administration and large private corporations will allow the merging of highly advanced technologies and predictive visions to safeguard the planet for social and economic reasons. At the same time, partnerships with private entities to manage public funds, assets, or services will be increasingly common.

A tailored access 

The future of public services will be single-access and centralised. It will be accessible to all users and usable on different devices as needed. It will lead to the personalisation of access according to different needs, radically changing the nature of identification from a physical to a digital artefact, including biometric tools. 

An expanded citizenship

Using new technologies will enable the state to respond more efficiently, quickly and less expensively to the complex and growing number of migration flows while limiting fraud and abuse in the distribution of assistance. This will significantly impact the management of asylum seekers, who will require a new way of managing their citizenship. Action will be taken to prevent migration flow, especially in managing the digital identity, provisional or permanent, of new citizens through secure digital storage of critical documents (passports, medical records, certifications, etc.) with access through personal biometric identifiers.

Cross-border public services 

Implementing a series of integrated cross-border public services will securely promote data-sharing infrastructure development. This will facilitate cross-border services with a common language, eliminating barriers to public service access from one state to another. In this context, the role of the nation-state must evolve to respond to a citizenry that moves freely across borders.

The employees of the future PA

Robotic colleagues

The dematerialisation of work is also becoming increasingly evident with new technologies automating repetitive tasks, discovering insights and enhancing employees' capabilities. Some roles may disappear to make way for invisible assistants, while others must evolve to collaborate with these new colleagues. Effectiveness, however, could cloud the need for more judgment in decision-making that underlies the functioning of some work systems.

Branches are disappearing 

As the main point of contact between the citizen and the public administration, the branch will gradually lose its centrality, giving way to new channels and service modes that do not involve direct contact with the public. In the future, the relationship with the citizen will be increasingly characterised by the intermediation of technologies that replace human contact when not necessary.

Towards a transverse PA 

From non-communicative compartments, we will move toward an interdisciplinary and interconnected approach in which all the various state departments will talk to each other faster and more effectively, increasing the delivered quality of services. This approach will also foster the emergence of new dedicated jobs whose goal is to facilitate collaboration, new policies and sharing tools and consolidate cross-sectoral bodies and governance models.

Professional growth inside the PA 

New ways of working will lead to rethinking one's professional career, no longer understood as a linear trajectory within a single organisation but as a flexible path characterised by short-term engagements and diversification of skills. In addition, the atomisation of work and outsourcing of skills will blur the line between public employees and those who are not.

Spaces personalisation and hybridisation 

The new way of interpreting workspaces will be increasingly vertical on the individual employee and less on the corporate community. Each employee will tend to recreate their personal living space within a hive sewn to their needs, ways of experiencing sociality and the space itself. The workspace will be conceived from a different perspective, noting the organisations' interest in contamination with varying realities of work by stimulating dialogue with new people, cultures and knowledge from different perspectives (ranging from technology to art), also innovating the corporate culture itself.

Future scenarios as transformation tools

The Futures Research process led to the definition of three different service scenarios that describe the new paradigm of the relationship between citizens and the Public Administration. The latter appears to be increasingly close, friendly and proactive toward the needs of individuals and the community, facilitating access to all types of services.

Three scenarios for a PA closer to people's needs.

There is not just one possible future but a plausible multiplicity from which we can identify our preferred future. This exercise stimulates a critical analysis of the possibilities for the evolution of Public Administration, reflecting on the desirable aspects and those to be avoided in the future.

It is, therefore, unlikely that all aspects contained in the scenarios will become a reality. Their real goal was to become a starting point for a discussion about the future, to anticipate the changing needs of citizens and to prepare PA to face the world better.

Activate transformation using the future as a tool

Involving multiple actors in shaping the future leads to better policymaking, more effective socialisation of emerging technologies, and greater legitimacy for difficult decisions. Participatory practices can help unlock decision-making and action on long-term challenges by directly engaging project stakeholders in exploring or shaping preferable futures.

Developing a vision through Futures Research methodologies can encourage long-term thinking and direct collective action in the present, shifting from a passive approach in the face of the future to one that recognises the need to create it every day with present decisions.

Learn more about our work with Sogei and how we helped other organisations stay relevant in the long run.