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Toi Aria – design for public good

A snapshot of the Toi Aria team and collaborators.

Let’s be real for a moment about design. Most people think it’s simply the fine art of making things look pretty and/or functional. It can’t really help make the world a better place beyond looking a bit nicer, right? That’s where you’d be wrong. 

Massey’s School of Design has an initiative that’s working to make a difference with design. Toi Āria uses a design-led approach to help the public sector develop ways to engage with people better. Projects have already included initiatives directly linked to the public sector agencies like Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Education and the Greater Wellington Regional Council, amongst others.

Toi Āria director Anna Brown says such initiatives are vital. “Toi Āria: Design for Public Good is a new initiative located within the College of Creative Arts at Massey,” she explains. “Our goal is to improve lives by reforming the design and delivery of public services. We’re bringing a design lens and a citizen-centric focus to social policy and public services, with the aim of creating a more inclusive and effective public sector. We use human-centred design because it’s the most potent agent of positive social change we know. It is empathic, collaborative and iterative. It ensures the voice of citizens is heard in policy creation and the latent needs of service users are met through the design process. Our focus on public good means that every project Toi Āria undertakes adds to a repository of open and shared knowledge for the public sector and helps build and evolve methodologies relevant to our cultural context.”

And that’s not all that’s going on, she says. “Harnessing the research power of Massey University, Toi Āria brings together leading design researchers, practitioners and policy makers, to deliver design-led, evidence- based, service innovations,” explains Brown. “By operating in the ‘third space’, neither public nor private sector, we can leverage the creative and intellectual freedom of the university environment, ensuring innovation is grounded in rigorous method and research. At a national level, Toi Āria is a New Zealand- first for a tertiary provider and is part of a movement to radically re-design government services to better understand and meet people’s needs.”

Toi Āria’s largest project to date – which they’ve been working on for the past six months – is a collaboration with the Data Futures Partnership called Our Data, Our Way (ourdataourway.nz). “The Partnership wants to champion increased data use in New Zealand, but understands people have important questions and concerns around privacy, security and potential misuse of
data which must be addressed by those seeking to use people’s personal information,” Brown explains. “We have designed Our

Data, Our Way to provide an opportunity for all New Zealanders to have a say on how personal data is used and shared in New Zealand. The project has culminated in 27 workshops held across New Zealand, from Whangarei to Invercargill, and an online tool which presents data use examples that help individuals explore how they feel in specific data sharing and use situations. Working with the Partnership, we have designed the conversations and digital tool (built by the great team at Springload) to help develop guidelines to create the right systems, settings and conditions to allow our data to be used to make New Zealand a better place.”

Toi Āria began in 2016, Brown says, and so far reception has been positive. But more importantly, it’s helped play a role in how design can bring about change in policy making, local and national government initiatives, and public sector programmes. “Our role in an academic institution allows us to be the critic and conscience of society, and I think we have a duty to live up to that,” she explains. “Of course we’re learning as we go, and it’s akin to being entrepreneurs in an academic environment, with all the excitement of starting something new, and the terrors of making the wrong decisions — however we aim to maintain our core mission of improving lives through design research and strengthening the connection between community and government.”

So where do things go from here? Brown has a pretty good idea. “Forwards, onwards, together, with people, with communities, with New Zealanders.” 

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