‘More than a course – an experience’ how we trained ECC in design thinking

By: Piotr Swiatek Date: 07/07/2016

“We tend to do the wrong things better. We need a new approach to start doing the right things.”


In March this year we set out to train a group of senior advisors and commissioners at Essex County Council (ECC) in design thinking methods and tools to create a critical mass for the approach within ECC. Essex strives to be a county where the residents are at the heart of decision-making processes and ‘innovation brings prosperity’ across all sectors. Design thinking is immanently focused on collaborative problem-solving and is increasingly being used in public sector to innovate services and policies by putting people first. Recognising the value of the approach, ECC is committed to building its design thinking capacity in order to strengthen its capability to lead public sector innovation, creating citizen-centred and cost-effective public services. Adopting a new way of working requires new skills, methods and tools, therefore ECC commissioned PDR to deliver a design-thinking training to raise awareness of the method and its benefits, and create design thinking champions within the Council.

We developed a four-part applied training session focused on the challenge of physical activity among young people in Harlow. Due to the training purpose of the project, the programme focused on two first phases of the PDR’s User-centred Design Process – Explore and Elaborate, providing recommendations for implementation and further possible actions in the final report.

The training kicked off with an awareness raising, introductory workshop for a larger group ECC staff. This was followed by a Deep Dive session with the core project team, when we engaged with year 7s at Passmores Academy and year 6s at Church Langley in Harlow to undertake a rapid ethnographic study. At the same time, a vox-pop video with opinions of Harlow residents on physical activity was produced to get a broader perspective on the challenge. By gaining insight into the needs, experiences and daily routines of primary and secondary school pupils, ECC were able to identify the motivations and barriers to physical activity among young people in Harlow. A broad set of insights was generated, grouped thematically, discussed and refined. Based on the level of perceived impact three insights were decided as the area of focus for the Co-creation session:

  • social environment is both a stimulus and barrier to young people undertaking physical activity.

  • family figures play a significant role in the levels of activities of the students. It appears that family setting is a key component for setting expectations around sport and activity.

  • there is a significant difference in the levels of physical activity among primary and secondary school students particularly among girls.

These three user insights formed the backdrop for the third session focused on co-creating solutions with users. Students from years 8 and 9 were engaged in a creative process to develop new services that would encourage them to engage in physical activity whether it be in the form of active transport, a formal sport or physical pastimes. The concepts were translated into five workable services. In the final session the ECC staff refined the service concepts into three viable prototypes for testing with users and developed a series of actions to take the concepts to implementation:

  • Points for Paces – is a county-wide competition to encourage an active commute among students. By using the data from movement trackers, such as smart phones or fitness wearables, students earn points, which contribute to an individual leader board, school house points and interschool rankings. The idea built up on young people frequent use of technology, the social factor of healthy competition and a preference for unstructured physical activity.

  • Bike Doctor is a proposition to equip students and their partners with the knowhow to fix their bikes and cycle safely encouraging more active travel and leisure.  A reciprocal relationship with local bike shops would enable a hands-on experience for students. The idea was derived from students frequently stating that they owned a bike (as did their parents) but that they had flat tyres. The Bike Doctor initiative would feed into a county-wide initiative to map family cycle routes and improve cycle paths.

  • Fun on Demand combined the ideas to gamify country parks, host sporting festivals and provide family sporting taster sessions. It is an app that collates information on sporting events and ideas for active leisure for individuals, families and groups. The app would enable people to sign up for sporting taster sessions, set family challenges, receive alerts for future events and encourage community events. The service would include a community bonding element such as a family or street challenge. 

Based on the above service concepts and provocative prompts developed by PDR, a number of wider policy issues were also discussed including:

  • Gamification of country parks – rethinking the user experience of country parks to maximise the use of green assets.

  • Contactless by default – to encourage public transport use through the introduction of a contactless payment system.

  • Big Data link-up – to join data collection and analysis processes across public sector organisations.

  • Digital Platforms Policy – to encourage a consistent approach to the development of new digital platforms across the council.

  • Digital by design – leveraging technology to deliver services efficiently and accessibly.

The outputs from the project include the Design Thinking Handbook containing the design model and 11 tools, a mini-film of the experiences shared by parents, teachers and young people, storyboards of five service concepts and three policy concepts as well as a report reviewing the process and making recommendations for further action. 


“This approach will help us bring the citizens voice to the strategic level.”


The feedback that we received in the evaluation survey was extremely positive. The participants felt engaged, tooled-up, reflective, empowered, and going in the right direction. We very much hope that the lessons from the training will permeate throughout the council, particularly through the promotion of the Essex Design Thinking Handbook and we look forward to hearing how the ideas move into testing and implementation.  


Contact Anna or Paul if you are interested in finding out more or are looking to run a similar training session.