Public Design

  • Public Design

Public Design applies design thinking to realise integrated solutions that contribute to intended transitions. The stakeholders are at the centre of a Public Design approach, from end-users to government workers and other actors. They all set to work together through a co-creative and iterative process. They begin by reflecting on the precise nature of the problem, without switching immediately to the solution mode. After carefully defining the problem, they work together on tangible concepts and prototypes, which are immediately testable in the real world.

The RIO-method and the double diamond

In Public Design KWR applies design processes such as the RIO method1. The RIO method is based on three principles:

  1. It is a reflexive (‘R‘) approach. This means that the stakeholders reflect about assumptions, objectives, roles and needs.
  2. Work is done interactively (‘I‘). Together with the stakeholders, problems are formulated and solutions sought in which different perspectives are represented.
  3. It is a design (‘O’) [Dutch term’s initial] method, in which the process develops iteratively rather than linearly.

The problem space is explored and defined together with all stakeholders, after which the investigation turns to the solution space2. This process involves different phases: first (i) the exploration of a broad range of options (divergence), then (ii) the choice of a specific option (convergence). In this way we clarify all the needs of the stakeholders, allowing us to achieve a sharper and broadly supported problem definition, and then, with sound scientific knowledge, and together with all stakeholders, to develop solution pathways or scenarios. The process directs a great deal of attention to describing the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives. The end-result is a future vision in the form of a conceptual design or tangible concept (prototype) which is broadly supported.

Figure 1. Public Design: the different phases of the process in the problem space (brown) and the solution space (blue).

Collaboration, inclusivity, support and confidence

The application of Public Design promotes collaboration and inclusivity, and increases the support for and confidence in the developed plans and solutions3. By means of interviews, surveys, focus groups and (field) trials, KWR conducts research with stakeholders – from organisations to citizens and customers. In this way, we develop knowledge about their perspectives and behaviour; for example, about the way in which different types of customers deal with water, and what their views are on water conservation. Thanks to knowledge about how residents and other actors experience the different problems, and what needs they have, we can tackle the right problems with appropriate solutions. Our knowledge of risk perception, acceptance, confidence and (habitual) behaviour provides a strong basis for sustainable solutions, and contributes to having everyone involved in necessary change processes.

Governance research

Governance research, for instance on the allocation of responsibilities, costs and risks between different actors, provides space for new ideas and solutions. By engaging stakeholders in area planning and co-creation processes, our (action) researchers enable transformative learning. With the right knowledge and tools, we assist the stakeholders in understanding how they can steer towards the targeted changes and values. This helps these actors in shaping their role in these change processes. By laying out and testing the different options, choices are made more consciously and on the basis of knowledge.

Policy ideals translated into practice

An additional component of Public Design is the operationalisation of water-cycle policy ideals, such as ‘participative’, ‘integrated’, ‘adaptive’, ‘resilient’ or ‘circular’. Public Design helps organisations translate concepts of this sort into measures and courses of action. Through methods such as participative scenario planning, learning alliances, living labs and serious gaming, we lead organisations and networks in the exploration of probable, desirable and/or even problematic future visions. KWR research in this way contributes to the realisation of the multiple values of water in the sustainability transitions.


  1. Grin, J. (2020). ‘Doing’system innovations from within the heart of the regime. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 22(5), 682-694.
  2. Bason, C. (2017). Leading public design: Discovering human-centred governance. Policy Press
  3. Marit Groeneveld, M., van Tilburg, L., Lagendijk, M. (2020). Design bij de (Rijks)overheid: Hoe public design kan helpen bij de aanpak van complexe opgaven bij de (Rijks)overheid. Dienst Publiek en Communicatie (DPC). Ministerie van Algemene Zaken.