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Design in the Public Sphere

Design in the Public Sphere

For a week in early August, selected leaders and strategists from federal agencies such as the US Department of State and the US Department of Defense will join peers from state, civic and private organizations for the inaugural Institute for Design + Public Policy at RISD. Focused on how to use human-centered design as a tool for addressing complex public policy issues, the intensive, hands-on program developed by RISD and the State Department is the first partnership of its kind in the country.

“The idea was hatched last summer during a conversation with Amy Storrow and Paul Kruchoski at the State Department’s Collaboratory in Washington, DC,” notes Greg Victory, executive director of Continuing Education at RISD. He was in the capital visiting Hannah Koenig 14 BRDD, a Brown/RISD Dual Degree alumna who was interning as a RISD Maharam Fellow at The Collaboratory at the time and is now its designer in residence.

Since those initial conversations, Victory and the Collaboratory team have been working to organize a week-long learning experience that will be co-taught by State Department Senior Strategy Advisor Zvika Krieger and RISD faculty members Justin W. Cook and Enrique Martinez MID 98. “This program plays to RISD’s strengths,” Victory notes. “In partnering with the State Department for an immersive and collaborative experience, we aim to empower policy makers and strategists to be change agents who focus on the human aspects of every decision they make.”

“Policy-making organizations are still not inviting designers to the table where big decisions are made,” says Martinez, a senior critic in Architecture. “Now is the time to explore how key strategists in these organizations can use design tools to their advantage in the work they do.”

Cook points out that although “design has always been concerned with connecting thinking to doing, strategic design shapes ideas by reframing problems, defining opportunities, specifying intentions and stewarding efforts toward the realization of better outcomes.”

Diverse participants, collaborative process

During the program, which takes place at RISD from August 2–8, the two dozen strategists and policy makers selected to participate will work with concrete tools that help translate the idea of collaborative innovation from an abstract concept into a replicable process. The 14 women and 10 men participating come from a wide range of backgrounds, serve in diverse roles and are at various stages of their careers.

Among the participants is a former spokesperson for the US Embassy in Kabul and a former US chargé d’affaires to Venezuela who was expelled from Venezuela by that country’s president. There’s also a subject matter expert for the CIA’s Thinkspace, a Department of Defense advisor for Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, a social entrepreneur and “philanthropunk,” a process improvement consultant for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, an energy efficiency expert and community liaison from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a FEMA project specialist for the US Department of Health and Human Services. All participants share a desire to learn more about what human-centered design can bring to the arena of public policy.

“We are thrilled with this cohort,” notes Storrow, a senior advisor for innovation and director of The Collaboratory.  “They’re a remarkable group of people. It will be fascinating to see what they do together at the Institute. We’re also looking forward to seeing how they introduce design methods when they get back to their workplaces. Clearly, none of this would be happening without RISD. RISD is magic!”

After an introduction to the design process and hearing from experts in strategic design, participants will grapple with a case study based on the decentralized models of electrical power supply that are currently challenging traditional electricity production paradigms around the world. Site visits to four regional enterprises focused on sustainability will be followed by two and a half days of intensive studio work. During that time, participants will collaborate in groups to develop proposed solutions that will ultimately be presented to a panel of guest critics poised to offer valuable feedback.

The energy market case study is expected to help policy makers begin to grasp the real value of the design process to the work they do. “We’ll use this platform to introduce a toolkit for design action that participants can take back to Washington and use in their everyday decision-making challenges,” says Martinez. “We’ll give them the foundation and confidence they need to chew up this kind of problem.”

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