The two cultures of design and policy-making: Alessandro Rancati

Alessandro Rancati

Policy Analyst – Design for Policy, European Commission

Architect and designer trained at the Politecnico of Milano, Alessandro has extensive experience in design for policy, strategic design, design direction, service design, group facilitation and participatory leadership. His current challenge is to contribute to the development of a design culture in the European Commission. Similarly, his current interest is bridging design and complexity theory. As a designer for policy at the European Commission, Alessandro is now strongly involved in the New European Bauhaus development.

Alessandro, you worked as Policy Analyst – Design for Policy at the European Commission and more specifically at the EU Policy Lab. Can you tell us what role design played in that context? 

When we opened the EU Policy Lab, seven years ago, the mission was to create a collaborative and experimental space to reframe values & concepts shaping policies.  Since then, the EU Policy Lab has been working in a transversal way, supporting all Directorate-Generals (DGs) of the European Commission. Coming from different disciplines, at the beginning of our journey, my colleagues and I did not have a shared vision of what ‘design for policy’ meant, nor the role it could have played in our Lab. With time, my colleagues and I worked on increasing the role of design as a culture that creates safe spaces for productive conversations, allowing several allowing other disciplines to work in parallel. We, the designers, build on the expertise present in the Lab to help our colleagues to reframe problems brought to us via projects’ briefing.


You mentioned design as a culture. What do you mean by this? And how does this culture relate to the world of policymaking?

A culture embeds specific values and expresses itself through concrete practices, outputs, objects, and so on. When it comes to policymaking, this is also a culture. It is expressed via policy documents and their recognisable text-heavy and formal layouts. These documents are the results of negotiations and, therefore, of compromises. Here lies one important opportunity: the outputs of the design culture are often more than compromises, and they, therefore, represent shared positions. How so? Policymaking culture defines questions and suggests solutions, whereas the Design culture co-creates questions, developing a solid base to reach shared solutions. But merging two different cultures is not an easy process, it requires a revision of both values and what the expression of those values is.

"Showing that those ‘visually-appealing’ outputs are the result of a process is key, otherwise we end up receiving requests of punctual projects that do not relate to that change of culture I was talking about."

What are the difficulties you encountered so far in this attempt of merging the two cultures of design & policymaking?

First, design is generally associated with products, graphics and branding or even fashion. Shifting the focus from those disciplines to the processes & values they share, that is a huge challenge. Second, the design processes most often have to diverge towards a multitude of opportunities before converging to the most suitable ones. In this sense, they ‘embrace the uncertainty’. This practice is not common in policymaking, and it is therefore difficult to prove its added value. A potential strategy is to develop parallel demo versions of existing projects, to show where the design approach is leading. In this way we build trust in the results first and then in the process behind. Showing that those ‘visually-appealing’ outputs are the result of a process is key, otherwise we end up receiving requests of punctual projects that do not relate to that change of culture I was talking about.

Looking at the European Commission, where you currently work, can you give us a concrete example of where this change of culture could generate benefits?

Let’s think about inter-service consultations. This is the procedure used within the European Commission to obtain the formal opinion of other Directorates-General (DGs) potentially interested or affected by a proposal coming from a DG. The overall setting of this procedure, from the layout of the room and the disposition of the discussants, has a great influence on the discussion and the type of exchanges among people, whose ‘informal’ interaction is very limited. I am not saying we should go all in and start using post-it in such settings, but start questioning them, and exploring the values of different facilitation techniques, would already be a great achievement.

Image by EU Policy Lab
You are also involved in the creation of the New European Bauhaus. What is your role there and what is the added value of using design culture in such a process?

Until now, we have been collecting from the public, and from our partners, examples of what “beautiful, sustainable and together” concretely translate in the places they inhabit. Now we are entering the delivery phase: we will build upon the outputs of those discussions to empower further innovative projects and ‘experiments’. It is time to create synergies among partners and their ideas, transforming them into a real community of practice. The New European Bauhaus is a project based on complexity, both in terms of topics and procedures. The design approach allowed us to embrace this complexity, creating a structure that enables rather than limit.

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