Designing new institutions: Ideas and tools for an emergent discipline

This paper describes how new institutions can be designed, proposing elements of a discipline that, like buildings architecture, can bring together theory, practice, interdisciplinarity and critical thought.  

Its premise is that the world badly needs new institutions to fill crucial governance gaps – from decarbonisation to mental health, data to AI. These gaps have grown in recent decades – partly the result of ideological aversion to creating new public organisations, and an often-misplaced faith in markets; partly the result of diminished political confidence; and partly the result of a lack of good thinking on how exactly to design such institutions to make the most of contemporary values, tools and technologies.

The paper surveys some of the options, from the very local to the global, and from the very commercial to the public and civic. It sets out frameworks and choices, current trends and possibilities, and suggests how to mobilise new tools for the design and operation of institutions. 

It makes the case for thinking in terms of ‘meshes’, ‘multiple centres’, ‘outside-in’ methods and new approaches to voice.

It suggests ways of thinking about design – from thinking in terms of assemblies to analogies with developments in architecture which has partly shifted away from the grandiose megalomania of some 20th century buildings towards attention to context, environment, lightness and more.

The primary goal is to help in the design of institutions for the transitions ahead – to a zero-carbon world, to handle inequality, ageing, democratic distrust and a world of powerful AI.   The paper suggests some institutional needs, from energy transition funds to urban transport systems overseers, data guardians to fair pay funds (it does not cover the related, important – but distinct – question of how to change existing organisations). 

An earlier version of the paper helped prepare the way for the creation of TIAL, the Institutional Architecture Lab, which begins work in 2024.  This paper sits alongside resources available on the TIAL website to guide the design of new institutions.  For inputs of all kinds, I’m very grateful to my two collaborators in TIAL, Juha Leppänen and Jessica Seddon.

Geoff Mulgan