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Thinkpublic: Social Innovation and Design

Thinkpublic was established on 2004, by Deborah Szebeko, in UK. It is a public service and communication design agency focused on “use creative and design based approaches to help organizations to innovate, improve their services and address social issues” (Thinkpublic, 2010) like crime, education, employment, ageing and health among others. They work with the public sector, third sector and social enterprises with the strong conviction that people who deliver and use a service or a product possess the best notion about the strengths and the weaknesses of them. Therefore, their efforts lay in making public services better by enabling the people who use and provide them to design improvements. In other words, Thinkpublic uses the consumer's experience as a map to identify where improvement can happen. Hence, their collaborative and so-creation process, which consists in involve the users in the problem and in the search of solutions, generates a deep understanding of the needs and the gaps of services and products. As consequence, this leads to the creation of responsible and sustainable solutions.

Being creativity the main approach to their operations and internal processes, it is important to analyze and understand the company's dynamic and its management regarding to creativity and innovation since this practice is the core of their business process.

Thinkpublic was invited by the MA Design for Development programme, as part of a seminar, to deliver a workshop in Kingston University facilities (FADA Innoversity Space) and also, as a complement, the programme attended an exposure day at their office in London. Paul Thurston, head of the design department and Fiona Lynch, part of the Care Support department were in charge to develop both activities which had the objective to inform about the company's strategies, approach and methodology and also to share information about the undertaken process of introduction of their unique services to the market.

For Thinkpublic, success comes from combining the correct control of trends within society and the inclusion of this society into new ways of thinking. Success comes from driving innovation, changing people's life for better, creating jobs, contributing to economic growth and the generating social well being. “At Thinkpublic, we're proud to be doers as well as thinkers, and we're even prouder of the lasting, productive and collaborative relationships we helped to build” (Paul Thurston, 2008) As a creative organisation they respond dynamically to the external environment's change while keeping a creativity-oriented internal methodology in which employees feel free to express themselves and communicate their ideas in a judgment-free space. Thinkpublic's founder, Deborah Szebeko, is considered as a social entrepreneur due to the foundations in which she build her company, the motivations behind the innovation in the public sector and the criteria she used to introduce the new service to the market in 2004. “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society's most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change” (Ashoka 2010). For Thinkpublic, leave societal needs to the government is not part of their agenda; as social entrepreneurs they want to solve problems by changing systems or improving them sharing knowledge and persuading societies to make change along them. They are both, visionaries and realists. They are motivated to engage communities' support to maximize the quantity of people that will hold on to their vision and implement it together. Therefore, Thinkpublic is also a mass recruiter of local change makers.

Paul Thurston, the head of the Design department, says that in order to introduce their service successfully to the market, they worked always with a collaborative strategy, however some special skills were needed to implement the project. He encloses these skills in a type of leader which he called “innovative entrepreneur”, a person who possesses a strong mind and the capability to invent and be original. As innovative leaders they differ from others due to their extraordinary creativity, eagerness, confidence in subordinates, and absolutely respect and authentic goodwill for all co-workers. Also, they are not afraid to hold new concepts or reconsider old practices and to involve the community and users in the process of creation. Moreover, Thinkpublic's entrepreneurs go beyond their personal interests and believe on the competencies of their staff using them in order to improve the organization and achieve their goals as a whole team, celebrating the contribution of each participant.

It is useful to explicitly define what creativity and innovation is and how Thinkpublic applies those concepts. Both definitions have been working in different ways over time and often they are used interchangeably (Stamm, 2003). Creativity is typically defining the act of producing new ideas, approaches or actions, “the act of coming up with an idea” (Stamm, 2003). It can be also stated that “creativity is all about novelty or difference – a deviation from conventional tools and perspective” (Bilton, 2007). As human beings the way of thinking may be very different one from another, however, it has a great impact on the decision-making process of the organisation. For Thinkpublic, thinking “outside the box” is a fundamental part of their process, but they recognize that this process should stay under the boundaries of reality considering the limitations that the context in which the idea is been generated is imposing. They encourage their employees and customers work together in a more creative way, applying methods that encourage the creative process and facilitating spaces in which individual views can be displayed, generating discussion and, as a final result, produce new ideas with value and potential to be developed. Creativity is seeing as an individual act, but since they have a co-creation approach, it depends on the dynamic interaction of their multidisciplinary team. A clear example of this is their “Social Labs”, which attempt to train people in creative thinking and collaboration. They use tools and techniques, like workshops, film makings, intervening, aimed to help on developing new approaches to the current challenges.

Innovation, in the other hand, is the “creativity process plus successful implementation” (Stamm, 2003:). In addition, in this process with many different inputs intervene in order to achieve an innovative output. The notion of innovation is also related to the application of such creative ideas in a determine context, it must be tested against the external context. “In order to meet the criteria required under patent law, innovation must represent a significant “inventive step” beyond what is already known or done in the field, and it must make possible a new application or technique in practice: (Bilton,2007). In the environment of this organization, the term innovation is used to refer to the entire process by which they generate creative ideas and converts them into novel, useful and viable products or services within a context, and also inside business practices. Therefore, for Thinkpublic, it is indispensable to apply creativity in the generation of innovative ideas by individuals or groups, as a necessary step within the innovation process. Amabile T, (1996) suggests that "...creativity by individuals and teams is a starting point for innovation; the first is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the second.”

Since the public sector is constantly changing, innovation, the result of creative thinking, is imperative. Managing creativity and innovation in Thinkpublic is delivered basically in order to make the process of creativity, by which new ideas that make innovation possible are developed, happen. The essential methodology that Thinkpublic uses is the facilitation of workshop to setup brainstorming inside the company and collect ideas. For Thinkpublic, in managing creativity, one of the main tasks of a leader is to understand the problem space and help the co-creative group conceptualized it and then work within its possibilities to be solved. In these meetings all the ideas are considered and discussed, even the ones that seem to be most immature, in the same or different sessions. The most important rule during these brainstorming workshops is that the participants must feel free to share their ideas, creating for them an environment that fosters innovative thinking without any early judgment. For them, it is vitally important to take into account when dealing with creative people two principles; participation and autonomy. They let the team to participate and contribute in decisions giving them autonomy on how to carry out their role. The role of the facilitator in Thinkpublic is to provide an environment in which everyone feels free to talk and give the ideas. From facilitator's point of view all the participants have the same level of hierarchy and also the same rights no matter which is their position in the company or if they are not part of the shareholders (as explained before, they also include in this practice to their stakeholders, like clients). The facilitator is responsible to provide tools to make the meeting more fluent and make the results clear for everyone. He or she must make sure that everyone is having a share in the decision that has been made so that everyone owns the decision and will be committed to it.

The main objective is to encourage people to be creative and give them the sense of ownership of the ideas in order to build their confidence. Their organization's principles to motivate innovation contain positive elements that support creativity:

- Value on creativity and innovation

- Risk taken orientation

- Sense of pride and ownership

- Offensive strategy of taking the lead toward the future

- Methodology of developing new ideas

- Open and constant communication

- Reward and recognition

After collecting all the ideas and finishing the discussion about all of them, some will be selected as the ideas which worth more evaluation. Right after someone could prove that an idea can provide some values for the customers or solving a specific problem that idea will be taken to further evaluation. This process of discussing ideas can take several meetings or workshops. Sometimes more research is needed to be able to decide. In the facilitated co-creation workshops, the group of participants will decide about the idea but the facilitator does not have the right to give his or her idea.

The ideas should be evaluated to make sure that it is the right decision to develop that idea. For Thinkpublic, the possible solutions should answer some questions regarding the company's objectives and strategy:

* Is the idea going to work?

* Are the resources of the company enough to develop the idea?

* Do the staffs have enough knowledge to do it?

* Is this idea project the values and methodology of the company?

* Does it provide essential values to the customer?

Researches and market studies should be done to find out if an idea has a suitable answer for all these and similar other questions.

After evaluating the ideas the best one will be chosen to be developed. The development process depends on what the idea is about. It may need analysis and design before starting the actual developing the idea. Their innovative approach and the use of different methodologies allowed them to collect valuable information and insights from the users. “Think Public's work methodology moves towards a more and more collaborative relationship with the institutions and with the users by keeping the projects grounded in the experience of the people (Thinkpublic, 2010)”

There are some barriers to which the organization must to face when generating ideas and also decision-making. Barriers to creativity and innovation inside the company based on creativity and innovation that works with a multidisciplinary approach, like Thinkpublic, usually lay on the conflicts between groups. The difference in perception between the group and individuals regarding a concept or topic, can lead to mutual misunderstanding and opposition. This situation often makes the creative process stifled by generating a climate of tension which impacts not only the group involved in the discussion but the whole team in general. Interpersonal conflicts affect relations between groups and thus to the organization, it can delay projects, increase costs, and can cause experienced employees to leave. Another important barrier they mentioned is the huge degree of piracy to which the society is exposed. It is not uncommon to find the process of a creative thinking interrupted due to the fact that people prefer to take existing concepts and ideas instead of being creative. Also, since Thinkpublic has a social approach based on giving their stakeholders the opportunity to join the products and services that will ultimately be for them, it is hard for the organization to insert itself in some spheres in which the economic system is based on consumerism and the concept of business has only a for-profit approach. Therefore, connect potential stakeholders to their thinking and inspired them to get engage with their values is a hard work to do. As De Bono remarked, “The main difficulty of thinking is confusion. We try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope and creativity all crowded in on us. It is like juggling with too many balls.” (De Bono, 1999), Thinkpublic finds as a barrier to creativity the impact that emotions like fear or sadness have on this process. They believe that the process of generating ideas must leave negative emotions aside, exposing this process to less interference.

When Thinkpublic measure their success, they consider that innovation happens before benefits appear. As part of their vision they believe that innovation gives benefits in a long term and they try to align their objectives with the needs and aspirations of their stakeholders. In addition, they don't stick to the statement that evaluation of success comes at the end of a process or a project; they think that this evaluation works in a better way when it is part of the project from its initial stage. This strategy make employees more focused on their creative and innovative goals. They are currently looking at ways to improve the way they measure their projects and ideas in order to be able to prove if they are creating a positive impact. However, they support their success also in the value of their networking and in the fact that it had grown rapidly. Besides that, they are working, in a more aggressive way, with the national, regional and local level organizations.

Overcome the barriers and develop systems to improve and measure their performance makes the organization stronger. Recognition is part of their success. This shows the accurate with which their development is oriented and also works as a showcase that helps them to engage interest within the field. In 2008 Thinkpublic was the winner of the British Council's UK Young Design Entrepreneur (UKYDE) award to which Deborah Szebeko said “we hope that the award can increase awareness of what design can add to solving social challenges in the UK and allow Thinkpublic to work with additional public service organizations in the future” (Thinkpublic 2008). After 6 years working in the field they have the recognition of several enterprises and organizations who celebrate entrepreneurs.

Finally, after exposing the processes of a company that works in the public sector, it can be said that creativity and innovation are a key factor of success. Also, the methodology to encourage creativity and innovation used within the organisation must be strongly attached with the meaning of success of the company. Even though innovation is vital for businesses and it is becoming more important for companies, there are many risks and difficulties that are coming along with the innovation process. The public sector is changing rapidly, and so the needs and the requirements of the people involved. Therefore, it is not only important for the company to offer a unique product or service, also it is demanding for them to apply a correct process in the decision making process and during the creation of new ideas. Otherwise, their impact would not be strong enough to introduce their unique vision into the society. Also, a good idea and a good development of it is quickly copied, this make services and product hard to distinguish. As a consequence, companies are pushed to improve their products or invent new ones. In addition, a well conducted creative and innovation process keeps organizations updated with the trends and potential changes, which give them the possibility of a quick reaction to attend new needs and more likely to take risks.

Management has a vital role in building a creative and innovative organization, but to make it successful it must work with leaders to define the limits of responsibility and to build the necessary bridges between the different roles of the creative team generating a structured group that supports creativity.


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BSM702: Managing Creativity and Innovation 9