Baker News October 9, 2018

Student Reflection: How Might We…?

by Rachel Leeds

We are proud to publish student reflections on our programming and events. Check out this insightful reflection on our Policy Innovation Workshop by McCourt student Rachel Leeds.

There was a buzz of energy in the room. Staggering quantities of colorful Post-It notes were being arranged on the wall, and amidst the laughter I could hear phrases such as “…I wonder if…” and “…this might sound like a crazy idea, but…”

We were a group of thirty-plus graduate students who had convened for a design thinking workshop co-hosted by the Baker Center and the Policy Innovation Lab. Armed with only Post-Its and Sharpies, we were trying to tackle a complex and salient issue for any Washington, D.C. resident: gentrification. More specifically, the Policy Innovation Lab wanted to crowd source some insights on how we might mitigate the negative effects of gentrification in Wards 7 and 8. To help us do this, they had prepared four personas that represent typical residents of those wards, complete with demographics and their interests, concerns, and hobbies. The personas were incredibly powerful. Having a name (even a hypothetical one) at the center of our brainstorm kept us focused on that specific individual and how they would relate to or interact with our proposed solution. It’s a crucial technique for ensuring the design thinking process is genuinely human-centered.

My group ended up proposing to advocate among investors already planning developments in Wards 7 and 8 to create an “angel fund” to encourage young residents to submit proposals for their own businesses and start-ups in their neighborhoods. Seven other groups had their own ideas, ranging from better resources for after-school care to creating community spaces for newcomers to get to know long-time residents. Three hours wasn’t enough time to start prototyping, but I could already imagine the insights and energy that would have been generated as we further refined our ideas to align with the most pressing issues in those wards.

The workshop was a reminder of design thinking’s unique capacity to quickly energize a diverse group of people in a positive and solution-oriented way. Design thinking values and valorizes the inherent knowledge and skills of each participant. A relative lack of experience with the issue at hand becomes a strength as it allows participants to adopt a beginner’s mindset. Being relatively detached from the problem, and ignorant of the complex dynamics that might otherwise narrow the perspectives of “the experts” and hinder their creativity, our group of novice designers was able to capture dozens of ideas in less than an hour. Not being experts also meant that we had no reason or capacity to judge others’ ideas. There were no holds barred, and as a result, the creative juices flowed and a spirit of abundant possibility pervaded.

By the end of the workshop, it was clear to me that innovation and design thinking have a critical role to play in policymaking, and that design thinking still has some untapped potential. In order to be a truly transformative tool for policymaking, I envision the following:

  • Designing with our clients and constituents, not merely for them or with them in mind;
  • Routinizing design thinking by assigning prototypes rather than policy briefs; and
  • Tackling more large, complicated, systems-level questions like the one that framed this workshop.

Design thinking was once a niche tool for product designers in Silicon Valley, but it is now cutting its teeth in the worlds of service delivery, management, and local politics. As design thinking continues to evolve, I wonder… how might we evolve with it? How might systems awareness make us better policy designers, service providers, and leaders? How might we use ambiguity to our advantage? How might we…?