Design for Politics: ProtoPolicy

By: Dr Anna Whicher Date: 07/12/2015

Design methods are increasingly being used by civil servants for public service and policy development but what about politicians using design to engage the public in political decision-making? In the summer of 2015, the project ProtoPolicy used design to stimulate dialogue between politicians, community groups and older people on aspects of the UK Parliament’s Assisted Dying Bill.

In a three-month pilot project ProtoPolicy, PDR, Lancaster University, Falmouth University and the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group explored how design fictions could enable politicians and civil servants to engage with citizens, imagine the future implications of policy initiatives and negotiate political questions. Design fictions are provocations such as products, service concepts, images and films that conceptualise future scenarios. Using design fictions in a political context is about provoking dialogue, engagement, raising questions and reflections on aspects of legislation.

For the purpose of the ProtoPolicy project we examined aspects of the Assisted Dying Bill. By engaging with community groups and older people in a number of workshops, the team created two design fictions – SOULAJE, a self-administered euthanasia wearable, and the Smart Object Therapist, which combines occupational health with experience in technology to ensure that future smart home appliances correspond to user needs. The design fictions were then shared with civil servants and politicians at an event in Westminster.

On 11 September 2015, the UK Parliament voted against the Assisted Dying Bill to allow doctors to help terminally ill people end their lives by 330 to 118. The interviews with civil servants and politicians revealed that with additional research and advocacy design methods could be adopted as a tool for greater citizen engagement in decision-making processes. Design fictions were seen as innovative prompts that build empathy and provoke creative thinking among citizens much more than government reports or draft bills.  In the research one politician stated:


“Design methods would be a good way to involve constituents. I think the concept of co-design, where community groups, the public and politicians can jointly develop understanding of political issues is valuable.”

Nevertheless a number of challenges were also identified. It was pointed out that facilitating a constructive dialogue between stakeholders using the design fictions to collect meaningful data and draw robust conclusions is critical. However, as policy processes and political decisions-making are changing towards inclusiveness, openness and transparency we might anticipate increased affirmation of the collaborative processes and qualitative data that design methods offer.  Among these methods, design fictions could help to create a symbiotic relationship between the public and elected politicians. ProtoPolicy was a prototype for how design methods could be used to facilitate an inclusive and constructive dialogue between politicians, community groups and citizens on controversial political and legislative issues.

Read full report: ProtoPolicy Design Report