Service design: making a big difference in a small city

This is a version of the presentation given by Mike Press at the Service Design Network Global Conference in Amsterdam, October 2016

The four hundred people who attended Creative Dundee’s sell-out Pecha Kucha night, held during the city’s recent design festival, are evidence of the buoyant mood of Dundee’s creative community. The city that gave the world Grand Theft Auto, keyhole surgery and the adhesive postage stamp is boldly and confidently enjoying its status as the UK’s sole UNESCO City of Design. This designation triggered a number of initiatives, including the design festival which transformed a long abandoned printing works into a vast celebration of design-led innovation in the city. The festival was supported by the V&A Dundee team, whose iconic waterfront building will be open to the public by 2018. GQ magazine had good reason last summer to describe Dundee as “Britain’s coolest little city”.

Creative, cool – and smart

The annual Centre for Cities survey of the UK’s 64 urban centres placed Dundee at 14th in its league table of well qualified working populations, tucked behind cities like York and Bristol. Perhaps more surprisingly, in their analysis of universities per head of population, Dundee was ranked second in the UK, just behind Cambridge and ahead of Oxford.

However, the Centre for Cities data reveals another side to Dundee. It languishes in the bottom ten for employment, business start-ups and deprivation, along with other measures. When we look at the data of working age population with no formal qualifications, Dundee is the seventh highest. Most soberingly, in Dundee’s population of 148,000 there are 42,000 people living in deprivation and nearly 18,000 children in poverty. Nearly one third of Dundee’s citizens are poor.

As the recent EU referendum highlighted – the UK is a nation of winners and losers when it comes to globalisation, and Dundee is no exception. The city has been successful in attracting what economist Richard Florida describes as the “creative class”. Whether it’s world class life science specialists, leading consultant surgeons, artists or video games creators, Dundee has provided an attractive location for them to live and work in. At the same time, there has been a steady and relentless erosion of manufacturing and the creation of permanently marginalised communities that appear to have no employment prospects, boasting only some of the UK’s worst health statistics.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Trust identified Dundee as one of the UK’s 24 “relatively declining cities”. The research drew on international studies, suggesting policy options for cities in decline – but the specific options are dependent on the type of city, of which it proposes a three-fold typology. “Core” cities have populations of at least 500,000 and play significant regional roles – they include Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield. “Overshadowed” cities are smaller and eclipsed by nearby core cities and have challenges in attracting investment and gaining a distinctive identity. These include Stoke, Sunderland and Rochdale. “Freestanding” cities are not overshadowed but are smaller than core cities and some distance from them – and include Hull, Newport and Dundee.


So what are the policy options for a small freestanding city in relative decline such as Dundee? Four appear critical: building on internal assets and capabilities; bolstering and/or constructing anchor institutions (such as Universities, teaching hospitals, major museums, etc that attract people and investment); co-operate with larger and stronger cities; reposition and rebrand. Dundee is using design to achieve these objectives, and significantly is embracing service design to provide leadership, vision and to deliver.

Below I will explain how Dundee is using service design to make a big difference to a small city. Service design is already making an impact on improving public services, reprofiling the city, building strategic links, promoting enterprise and exploring new possibilities. The factors which account for it, and which determine its developing and distinctive nature are: leadership and vision, creating capacity, building communities, commitment to social inclusion, and internationalism.

Leadership and vision

Taking the initiatives to radically rebuild its waterfront, develop a partnership with the V&A Museum, mount an ambitious and inclusive bid to become UK City of Culture, and build the partnership needed to secure the UNESCO City of Design designation demonstrates that Dundee is no stranger to effective leadership and vision. However, the UNESCO status provided the opportunity to consider what sort of “city of design” it was, and how this could make a positive difference to all of the city’s communities.

A small team that included the City Council’s Chief Executive and Director of Leisure and Culture consulted more widely to draft a document that defined the “aims and values of UNESCO City of Design Dundee”. This City Values document evolved into a pledge that organisations and individuals in Dundee could literally sign up to, thus demonstrating their shared commitment. These aims include: “using design to solve the social challenges faced by Dundee” and “embracing design principles in our work, from designing new projects to redesigning existing approaches”. Dundee is the first city in the UK to develop a set of design values and objectives, with the explicit aim of bringing the whole city behind its commitment to use design as an engine for the city’s transformation.

Open Change was invited to work with this City of Design team to explore how this commitment would translate into delivery. The first significant step was to bring together seventy of the city council’s department leaders and policymakers in a leadership conference themed on design. This Social Design Academy took these senior managers through a service design process that included taking to the streets of the city, talking to citizens about their view of public services. This team will be leading a design-led approach to rethinking how the city delivers services and projects itself.

Creating capacity


The Scottish Government’s new initiative The Scottish Approach to Service Design highlights the need for both national and local government to build service design capacity. UK government departments have, over the last five years, recruited 300 designers in service, user experience and related fields, but they are now finding it difficult to fill vacancies. Throughout the UK there is a severe shortage of service design expertise.

Faced with tightening budgets, Dundee is taking a lead in addressing this problem by equipping its existing staff with the skills and knowledge of service design by rolling out the Social Design Academy widely across council departments and with its partners. The recently held Employment Service Design Day brought together 36 of the key people involved in employability initiatives in the city from a variety of public and third sector organisations, introducing them to key service design methods, and taking them through a process to identify priorities for service redesign.

Building community


This May, after just a few months of planning and organisation, the city held its first Design Festival, which attracted over 7,000 visitors during its three day run. The Festival, which sat alongside other events and attractions held during the month, involved converting a cavernous disused print works into exhibition spaces, a conference venue and workshop space together with all the facilities required of a public event. Without the responsive creative networks across Dundee, this simply would never have happened.

Creative Dundee, an independent network of creative practitioners and others with an interest in Dundee’s cultural life, began as a website, then branched out into holding Pecha Kucha nights. Rapidly outgrowing its original 200 seat venue, these regular events have become a vital creative focus for the city. Driven forward by Gillian Easson, initially singlehandedly, Creative Dundee’s current three strong team has developed other regular activities, steers a city-wide strategic group on the creative economy, has a dynamic online presence and has even crowdsourced a visitor guide to the city. The Festival was able to tap into the Creative Dundee community for exhibitors and events, and benefit from the social media networks that they are part of.

Creative Dundee has acted as a catalyst for the creation of other networks and communities, including Health & Social Care Designed in Dundee. Consultant surgeon Rod Mountain and Professor Jean Ker, both based at Ninewells Hospital, created the group as a means of promoting design-led innovation in health services. Bringing together the city’s medical and design communities, a number of projects have spun out of the network. Most recently Open Change worked with Health & Social Care Designed in Dundee to run a one day Healthcare Safari with over 30 clinicians and hospital managers, exploring how service design methods can held address the challenges of one of Scotland’s biggest teaching hospitals. This is part of now regular CPD sessions on service design we deliver to doctors, nurses and technical staff at Ninewells.

And elsewhere in the city, people such as Ali McGill are building communities around business and customer experience, and linking to the buoyant social enterprise sector. Communities of innovation and creative exploration, driven by passionate visionaries are in evidence throughout Dundee.

Commitment to social inclusion


Dundee has a long and proud tradition of progressive politics that continue to this day. In the 2014 independence referendum, the city returned the highest proportion of Yes votes of any area in Scotland. Being a UNESCO City of Design and preparing to open Scotland’s first museum of design, has required an approach to design that is rooted in progressive values and demonstrates the value of design to the whole city – not just the creative classes of the city’s West End. This is expressed in the City Values document described previously.

V&A Dundee wants its vision of design to be as iconic and distinctive as the archicture of its new building. Its team includes those dedicated to engagement with the city’s harder to reach and more challenging communities, developing programmes that demonstrate the relevance of design to community development and social enterprise. One of its first major city-wide projects was the Schools Design Challenge – a competition for 1,000 pupils working in 250 teams to address the challenge of how they could improve their school or school life. Around 40 of the city’s teachers from across all disciplines were involved in the project, which culminated in an exhibition in the city’s main shopping mall. The V&A took the approach that the project was best tackled using the methods of service design / design thinking, so we kickstarted the project by running sessions for the teachers on service design methods.

This project had two unanticipated spin offs. First, two local merging schools invited us to spend a morning with all 150 of their staff to help them design new approaches to learning. Second, a Dundee church decided to use a bequest to launch social design awards, funding design projects that benefit local communities.



It would be a mistake to interpret this focus on using design to address local challenges as some form of creative parochialism. As a port city, Dundee has always been outwardly focused, keen to develop international links and to recognise its international responsibilities. The financial and other aid provided over the last year by Dundonians for Europe’s refugee crisis has been some of the highest per capita in the UK. At 69.8%, its Remain vote in the EU referendum was the equal of London.

Being part of the UNESCO Cities of Design network places Dundee in the company of some much bigger cities – such as Shanghai, Singapore, Berlin, Helsinki and Detroit. Its now direct daily scheduled flight to Amsterdam makes networking with this global community easier to achieve, and a small team is working to develop initiatives in partnership with the network.

Service design will play a key part in this, building on Dundee’s participation over a number of years with the Global Service Jam. This annual event links together over 120 creative ‘jams’ held simultaneously across the globe, linked together via Skype and Twitter. Up to 60 members of the city’s service design community take part in this, one year representing the eighth largest jam in the world!

Whether its the Pecha Kucha nights, the UNESCO Cities of Design initiatives or the Global Service Jams, Dundee is demonstrating its appetite to participate actively in international creative communities.

Making a difference

These are early days in Dundee’s journey to rebuild itself through design, but already some vital progress has been made. Committed design leadership is in place with a City Values statement that brings partners in to interpret this vision in diverse but appropriate ways. From the City Council to V&A Dundee, schools and churches, we can see how the City Values is providing a spur and focus to action.

The city’s creative community provides the energy, not to mention the talent and expertise, to develop this further, forging alliances with other communities of practice and enabling innovative approaches to the embedding of service design in public services. There is also the opportunity to create service design capacity within Dundee’s public, private and third sectors.

Dundee may be focused on tackling its own very distinctive challenges through service design, but it does so playing an active role in international communities. In doing so, its approach is best summarised using a phrase first coined by Patrick Geddes, Professor of Botany at University College Dundee from 1888 to 1919: “Think global. Act local.”