From combating praedial larceny to supporting fledgling judicial systems, a recently created Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) program has challenged students to explore the potential of human-centered design for tackling governance problems while allowing them to test prototype solutions both in the United States and abroad.
Associate Professor of Political Science Jeremy Weinstein and d.school lecturer Jenny Stefanotti founded the Governance Collaboratory almost a year ago with the intent of helping civil society activists and government reformers use innovation and design thinking to improve developing countries’ governance.
“I’ve really been interested in ways of trying to foster innovative approaches to making governments work better and increasing citizen engagement,” Weinstein said. “I got to know folks at the design school and… began to think about whether the process of human-centered design might generate useful ideas that would help us rethink the way that governments work and governments engage people.”
For the program’s most recent offering, a spring quarter class titled “Rebooting Governance with Design Thinking,” Weinstein and Stefanotti enlisted d.school lecturer Liz Ogbu. As a designer, social innovator, and “an expert on sustainable design and spatial innovation in challenged urban environments globally,” Ogbu said that she was drawn to the class’s unconventional methods of tackling governance problems.
“I always enjoy [a course] when it’s kind of at that first stage of figuring things out,” Ogbu said. “That ability to use the class as a little bit of a laboratory to test these ideas to see what could work and what couldn’t work was really interesting.”
The course’s enrolment reflected the d.school’s collaborative philosophy of bringing together people of diverse skillsets and ways of thinking, featuring 16 students ranging from undergraduates to law school students.
“We took…probably a little bit more of a mature class than the average applicant,” Stefanotti said. “A lot of people had two, three, even four different, very distinct types of work experience in addition to their degrees and often had undergrad degrees in totally different disciplines from the graduate degree that they were currently pursuing at Stanford.”
Stefanotti noted, however, that students with political science backgrounds or technical skills – such as computer science – were particularly sought-after.
In “Rebooting Governance,” students broke into teams of four to work on two major projects – one focused on East Palo Alto, and one on Sierra Leone — over the course of the quarter.
For Sierra Leone, students worked with Simeon Koroma, founder of Timap for Justice, a non-profit organization that aims to provide justice services for the rural poor of Sierra Leone through community-based paralegals. Students then travelled to Sierra Leone during spring break, in a trip led by Koroma and Weinstein.
“The problem that we were tackling was around the management of the extraction of natural resources,” Weinstein said. “The main reason for going to Sierra Leone was that we can’t work effectively on this problem without a deep and rooted understanding of the communities and what they confront in their interaction with multi-national companies and with government.”
Enrolled students singled out the value of devising, revising and applying solutions in a real-world context.
“The trip exposed me to this whole world of development work and enabled me to see very plainly both its triumphs and shortcomings,” noted Lindsay Gorman, a graduate student in applied physics.
“In governance and policy, we often underestimate the importance of designing interventions that are easy and desirable for our users to adopt,” said Ramya Parthasarathy, a graduate student in political science. “Our teaching team encouraged us to test our assumptions with quick and dirty prototypes. Failing early allowed us to change course, re-think our approach and push our creative limits.”
Weinstein noted the scope of the challenge – and support for solutions – that students encountered.
“From one community to another, we’d arrive and there would be tens and tens of people waiting to speak to us because I think the kinds of discontent and grievances that people have are not often expressed,” Weinstein said. “And the fact that people were really interested in hearing them and understanding them… was a motivation enough for people to come out and really share their stories with the students.”
Rebooting Governance’s second round of projects focused on East Palo Alto. Students worked with Magda Gonzalez, East Palo Alto’s city manager, to help effectively undertake reforms during a time of major demographic transitions.
“EPA is now largely Latino and Asian Pacific Islander after having been mainly an African American community in recent decades,” said Weinstein. “And so you have a lot of new people who’ve arrived – they work really hard, long hours, they don’t feel a strong tie to East Palo Alto. [Gonzalez] was really interested in new and creative ways to generate a sense of neighborhood identity and an attachment to the city.”
Problems targeted included parking issues around rented properties, the lack of a high school district, and the city’s sense of community. At the end of the quarter, students gave final presentations to the East Palo Alto leadership team, who took in the students’ research and projects to further investigate potential solutions.
While the course itself underwent revisions, Weinstein and Stefanotti emphasized the potential for further evolution.
“This course itself is an experiment,” Weinstein said. “One of the challenges that was embedded in the class was that we were taking on some of the really toughest problems to solve with people who were just learning human-centered design for the first time. I think one of the questions is how we can better support students who are beginners.”
Citing student enthusiasm and the general success of human-centered design in governance reform, however, both Weinstein and Stefanotti said that they plan on offering some variant of the class in years to come.
“Given the sort of complexity of the problems that we care about, as well as our desire to see outcomes come out of this and not just insights and learning, we tend to kind of design it a little bit differently in the future,” Stefanotti said. “This class will be coupled with an internship so students would actually spend the whole summer out in the field doing design work, and that would be coupled with a fall course. And the whole thing would actually be baked into a broader incubator program.”