StimuLab – Driving systemic design into Norway’s public sector

Nov 2022 | Design for Society, News & Notes, R&D Projects

Benedicte Wildhagen

The Norwegian public sector has paid increasing attention to the use of service design to improve and renew public services. Particularly to game-changing projects such as Designit Oslo’s revolutionary Designing out Waiting Times for diagnosing breast cancer at Oslo University Hospital in 2013. By reducing the waiting time from three months to five days, it proved just how effective service design could be. As a result, the minister for modernization was eager to encourage further use of service design.

Benedicte Wildhagen is a Senior Advisor and Design Lead | Public system and service innovation at DOGA the Norwegian Design Council.

Service design is currently still dominated by a focus on the user journey, and therefore is not sufficient in itself for highly complex public challenges. To tackle complex issues within the public sector, systemic design capacity, and a cross-disciplinary approach is crucial.

Photo: StimuLab


Even though there are now many successful examples of service innovation and improvements, the government still faces complex challenges that are tough to solve – ‘wicked problems’ and cross-sectorial issues. Many of these complex public challenges involve numerous stakeholders, from various sectors, each responsible for providing specific parts of a service. Improving these challenges can lead to substantial socio-economic benefits, but frustratingly, they often get ignored due to several factors. Typically, sectoral responsibility, lack of financing, absence of functional methods, coordination challenges, etc. With multiple stakeholders involved, they demand a systemic approach, which requires a lot of time to develop, organize, finance and implement.

Conventional service design, therefore, is insufficient in tackling ‘wicked problems’ as it lacks the methods and tools to manage collaborative innovation within the public sector – something we have become all too familiar with through the nationally funded StimuLab program. StimuLab is a learning platform for public innovation that supports and encourages user-oriented experimentation and innovation, using design methodology. With total funding of 6 million EUR from 2016-2020, we have at present supported 29 projects.

Large scale service design within the government

StimuLab was initiated by the Norwegian government in 2016 and is a collaboration between Design and Architecture Norway (DOGA) and the Norwegian Digitalization Agency. It has adopted an experimental approach in its development and has continuously evolved in line with needs and ongoing evaluations.

The new diamond, the diagnose phase, emphasizes how important it is to truly explore and understand root causes hidden in complex public issues. When faced with cross-sectorial challenges, it is crucial to create a shared understanding of problems and needs, at several levels, simultaneously – from users to services to systems and back – across sectors and all stakeholders.

Out-of-house lab

Numerous countries have established government in-house innovation labs to provide expertise and drive development. But as the Norwegian supplier market is highly skilled, StimuLab strategically chose not to create an in-house lab, but instead to utilize the market to develop and deliver solutions together with public organizations.

Tailored skill configuration

Furthermore, each StimuLab project demands a tailored skill configuration from the market, to strengthen its capacity to deal with the domain at hand and to handle areas of complexity – for example, foresight, impact assessment, data analysis or behavioural psychology.

All of which is something that standard design consultants have not been able to deliver by themselves. So, to meet these demands, they have initiated formal collaborations with management consultancies, who provide necessary, complementary expertise. Hence, StimuLab has been a catalyst for new cooperation and knowledge development, solving challenges the Norwegian public sector has been unable to decipher so far. By offering increasingly complex projects to the market, we have also helped make the public sector an attractive client for a growing supplier market.

From double to triple diamond

At the core of StimuLab is service design. However, building on the British Design Council’s Double Diamond, we added a third diamond to the process.

The Tripple Diamond, Source: StimuLab / Halogen

Projects supported by StimuLab must commit to following the triple diamond. As this model from Halogen shows, iteration and adaptation are essential when meeting the needs of highly complex projects.

Designer and project manager Heidi Dolven at Halogen detailing the triple diamond process for the project ‘Conditions for the right to drive.’

The projects ambition was to mediate and connect the different public organisations involved in providing driving licenses. 

Photo: StimuLab

Charting low or high levels of complexity

The considerable interest Norwegian politicians and the public sector express towards service design today represents not only a significant opportunity but also a risk. If results are slow in appearing, interest and opportunity may be lost.

During the initial trial run back in 2016, the Ministry of Modernization demanded that StimuLab’s projects had to deliver results for genuine users by the end of 2017, much in line with Designit Oslo’s breast cancer project. However, it quickly became apparent that there were huge variations in StimuLab’s project properties, and we realized that project results and impact would vary in time, depending on how complex the challenges were.

StimuLab has chosen to support projects ranging from contained, single-owner services to complex multi-stakeholder challenges. By using a simple chart to arrange projects, we can support dialogue, understanding and assessment of cross-disciplinary needs, relating to their location in the chart. It also creates a better understanding of project properties, ranging from low to high levels of regulatory and cross-sector entanglement and complexity, and what that entails when it comes to the Ministry’s initial anticipation of results.

Source: StimuLab

The breast cancer project, for example, would be placed in the bottom left quadrant. It involved a single stakeholder – Oslo University Hospital – and dealt with a contained challenge. The task was complicated, but it was possible to diagnose the problem, reorganize the service, test improvements and achieve results in less than six months.

High-level, complex challenges in the top right quadrant, however, require step-by-step development with multiple stakeholders. Improvements can result in significant socio-economic effects, but progress isn’t as rapid as a contained service in the bottom left quadrant.

Each project’s placement in the chart is also useful for assessing the level of skill needed. Our experience shows that service design can generally solve contained projects with a single owner (lower left quadrant). However, as previously mentioned, service design in itself is less suitable for dealing with high complexity and multiple stakeholder challenges (upper right quadrant). These projects require interdisciplinary expertise, where systemic design capacity is vital.

Drowning in Debt Project

The project “Drowning in Debt” probed how financial information about any person, whether public or commercial, can be made available comprehensively and securely. PwC worked with Skedsmo municipality, NAV Skedsmo and Brønnøysund National Register Centre to help prevent any escalation of people’s financial problems, making it easier and faster for them to get debt counselling.

Photo: StimuLab

Key learnings

StimuLab’s approach has proven to be suitable for solving complex issues with multiple stakeholders. Several of the projects undertaken have for the first time managed to tackle challenges regarding the fact that the responsibility for the problem, and the solution to it, is shared among different stakeholders, without anyone being responsible for everything overall.

The highly complex projects in the StimuLab portfolio prove that an approach with systemic design capacity and interdisciplinary expertise rapidly manages to establish a shared understanding of the complexity involved. Whether that’s understanding user needs to discover the flexibility within the system or finding paths for everyone to move forward together.

Design thinking, supported by professional designers, represents a new mindset. It opens up new perspectives for public stakeholders where the value of collaboration across silos to realize innovation potential becomes visible. The effect is long-term commitment and ownership towards coordinated development.

Crucial factors

  • Development based on genuine users and their needs
  • Effective use of the diagnose phase to create a shared understanding of complex issues, as well as time to explore the problem area
  • Open to a reframing of scope
  • Shared knowledge across multiple sectors, presenting common ground for a mutual mission statement
  • Applied exploratory methods to find new possibilities and solutions, beyond today’s government practice

Several StimuLab projects have managed to solve complex issues across fragmented systems. Systemic design has shown it can meet high levels of complexity by integrating the mindsets and toolsets of systems thinking and design. As a unified field, it helps describe, map, propose and work through complex situations. The use of systemic design, along with service design, has been crucial to the success of StimuLab.

About StimuLab

Benedicte Wildhagen is Senior Design Advisor at Design and Architecture Norway (DOGA), and Ellen Strålberg is Senior Adviser at Norwegian Digitalization Agency. They are both in charge of the collaborative running of the national StimuLab-program, which stimulates public innovation from the perspective of citizens.

Designers and consultants involved

Comte Bureau, PwC (LiveWork), Designit Oslo, Rambøll Management Consulting, Halogen, EGGS, Knowit, Deloitte, Agenda Kaupang, Menon Economics, Making Waves, PA Consulting Group, SopraSteria.