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How Codesign Drives Digital Modernization in Canadian Government

The Esri ecosystem makes it possible to transform how government services are delivered by using a geographic approach and bringing spatial data to Enterprise IT. In a series of blogs, I expand on what success looks like for the Federal Government and the communities it serves.  

In this third blog, I discuss the importance of government and industry collaboration in the wider Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, and the need for a new approach called codesign. I define codesign as the joint creation of value with stakeholders while emphasizing the critical role of design thinking in the process. The article also highlights what is required for successful codesign workshops and how codesign will accelerate digital modernization in Canada and promote coherence between strategy formulation and solution maintenance.

In Information and Communication Technology (ICT) communities, government and industry know they must work together to keep pace with technology and optimize services to Canadians. However, doing this can sometimes be challenging. By fostering an environment and an organizational culture that goes beyond traditional engagement, government can empower collaborative design – or codesign – along the entire lifecycle of good ideas.   

Scandinavian countries have been pioneers in this area for decades, with tremendous results being observed in their implementations of digital government.1 Admittedly, Canada’s federal government has its own set of challenges and is trailing behind. However, one would be remiss not to notice the impetus behind digital modernization and the appetite for more meaningful ways to engage with industry to accelerate it. 

One strong proposition to help tackle this challenge is called codesign. The idea is not new, imported from the likes of IBM, cities like Copenhagen, or a plethora of accelerator labs peppered in defense organizations elsewhere in the world. But what does it mean? How does it work? And what can we do – in Canada – to succeed with these approaches?  

To understand codesign, we first need a few definitions:   

  • Codesign is first constructed from the idea of co-creation. As Weiler, Weiler and McKenzie from the Stratos Innovation Group put it, co-creation is “the joint creation of value by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context.”2 It relates to creating something new, to innovate, while considering both the possibilities and the business needs as part of a single problem to solve. This is in direct contrast to traditional market research.3  
  • Design according to Harold Nelson is: “[to] create that which is needed but does not yet exist.”4 As most obvious in industries like consumer goods, but also prevalent in services like management consulting, design is contextual – informed by the lived experiences of those who will benefit from the goods or services. Poorly designed goods fail to sell, poorly designed services fail to entice.   
  • Lastly, design thinking refers to the conceptual approach used for successful design. Now firmly embedded in business strategy elaboration processes, design thinking is paradigmatic of innovation. Normative efforts such as those of academia typically refer to design thinking as a process to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.5 However, when broken down into its essentials; complex adaptive systems theory, reflexivity, visualization, expert group facilitation, foresight and others, design thinking is a cognitive toolbox, or what Ofra Graicer describes as a “a weapon of the mind” in the context of Defense.6   

When to use codesign? 

The short answer is when it adds value and helps government and industry tackle complex problems across the traditional engagement timeline. As a technology company with world-renowned expertise in GIS professional services, we have observed tremendous successes at the technical end of the spectrum, deploying applications and integrating our tools with other user applications. But codesign adds the most value when also considered “upstream”, where technology informs strategy working groups who can act as early accelerators towards implementation.  

The optimal approach is one where codesign informs the thoughts and actions of the key stakeholders across this entire engagement timeline, or what we dub the lifecycle of good ideas. The net effect is alignment between strategy and solutions. If, as Kotter suggests, transformative change depends on putting a team together, developing vision and strategies, communicating the change vision, and keeping momentum, Codesign is key.7  

Collaborative design process at Esri Canada and engagement timeline

Who participates in codesign?  

In contrast to other methodologies, participation for codesign workshops is driven by the type of problems to be addressed rather than the role of an individual in solving it. What is best addressed are problems presenting no clear cause-and-effect relationships and characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability. 

Participation needs to be primarily knowledge-based.  Diverse yet engaged participants need to be sought from across hierarchies and from all ends of the producer-consumer chain.  Diverse perspectives and mental frameworks are required for divergent thinking. For a typical codesign workshop, this would mean having management and technical staff from both government and industry, and representatives of the ultimate user of the service.    

Who leads codesign?  

Each codesign workshop, or series of workshops, needs to be led by a professional facilitator. This facilitator should be trained in design thinking, contextually aware of the industry, and versed in the language and business process being considered (whether envisioning, strategy elaboration, or more technical design efforts). This facilitator will steer the process of learning and creating within the group and report to the codesign sponsor or client. These facilitators can be difficult to find, but working with education and accreditation agencies can help generate the right facilitators. At Esri Canada, we actively train success managers and professional services leaders to incorporate these skills on top of Agile methodologies and others.  

What are the critical capabilities of codesign? 

Codesign is the glue between our internal communities and our clients. Starting with infrastructure, virtual and physical, is the ability to prototype technical solutions as well as engage in conceptual envisioning sessions with senior executives. It is gathering feedback from different perspectives, whether immersed in a technical problem or through discussions. It is also a demonstration platform, where we present those solutions, such as the one built expressly to support the Government of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. That said, not all industries or government organizations need to deploy all those capabilities to leverage codesign. A well-facilitated envisioning discussion – with incorporation of design thinking– easily qualifies as codesign.   

In summation, codesign is first and foremost a mindset. It serves to break assumptions and barriers to communication, creating a level playing field for innovation with all stakeholders. When led by expert facilitators, conducted with diverse participants, and aligned to business processes across the lifecycle of good ideas, codesign is of ultimate potency for success and leads to transformative change.  

By adding value to Canada and to Canadians, industry – and particularly Esri Canada – share the same objective governments have. Our success is a byproduct of consistently doing so. Given our different means yet shared ends, we are ripe for codesign!   

Check out the other blog posts in this series:

1 Steen, M., Manschot, M., and De Koning, N. Benefits of co-design in service design projects. International Journal of Design. 2006, 5(2), 53-60. 

2  Weiler, Monica,  Weiler, Anthony and McKenzie, David. Co-design: A Powerful Force for Creativity and Collaboration. Stratos Innovation Group. 2016. 

3 Ibid. 

4 Nelson, Harold G. and Stolterman, Eric. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, 2nd Ed MIT Press, 2027.  

5 Standford d. School 5-step model. 

6 Graicer, Ofra. Quoted from keynote presentations. Archipelago of Design.

7 Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press. 2012. 

About the Author

Mathieu Primeau is Esri Canada’s Senior Customer Success Manager for the Canadian Federal Government in the National Capital Region. He brings 20 years of experience in GIS and expertise in design-thinking facilitation and event moderation. Mathieu has helped numerous defence organizations around the world learn and develop strategic skills. Prior to joining Esri Canada, Mathieu served as Commanding Officer of the Mapping and Charting Establishment and Special Advisor to the Deputy Minister of National Defence.

Profile Photo of Mathieu Primeau