Designing for Dignity in Government

We are all designers, but the values we embody as we design make all the difference in the world. This is the first of a couple blogs I’ll be posting over the next month outlining some reflections on my first six months working as a civic innovator.

An Understanding of Design

Design is already a convoluted term with abstract definitions, so let’s start by acknowledging the plurality of theory and practice of design and move forward with the assumption that design is intentional decision making. Yes, this is about as broad as it gets, but think about it for a second with me. You made an intentional decision about the clothes you wore today, did you not? So you designed your outfit. Did you make an intentional decision about how to get to the office? Car, bus, Uber, walk, or bike? Which route did you take? The sum of these decisions is a design — the design of a journey. What about the meeting itinerary you wrote? You decided which topics your team would discuss, how long they would discuss them, and who would take point on which topics. You just designed a meeting. Maybe you’re an executive of a large company and your decisions effect thousands of people. The sum of your decisions about who to hire and who to fire, how to engage your customers, how to create value, and how cultivate organizational culture all lead to a corporate design. How are these decisions different than the decisions a traditional designer would make about the form, feature, and functions of artifacts such as digital interfaces, ephemera, consumer products, and the experiences thereof? In each case, one utilizes human creativity to conceive and plan something (whether an experience or an artifact) that helps accomplish a goal or fulfill a purpose.

The truth is we are all designers, though the principles on which build our approach to the design of our ‘everyday’ varies vastly. These principles do not only implicate the path we take to a desired outcome, but they determine our starting point — the perspective from which we view our path towards the horizon of our desired outcome. This is where the “human centered” of Human Centered Design comes in. Human Centered Design starts with human considerations, not institutional considerations — principles of practicality, economics, business mechanics, and technology. The celebrated design professor and theorist Dr. Richard Buchanan spoke well to this notion when he stated “the principles that guide our work are not exhausted when we have finished our ergonomic, psychological, sociological, and anthropological studies of what fits the human body and mind. Human centered design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in varied social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.”

Designing For Hope

Human dignity is the ethos of Human Centered Design, and it is the first principle that guides the work of the Innovation Team here in the Mayor’s Office. That’s why when the Mayor asked us spend our first nine months on the job addressing the educational, employment, and justice system disparities that face young men of color, we made it our number one priority to listen — to listen to the young African American men in our community, their stories, hopes and dreams, and candid thoughts about the realities of injustice they face every day. These conversations weren’t intended to only narrowly understand the mechanics of the lives of these young men, but to glean the insights only they could provide in creating an entirely new framework for understanding how injustice takes shape, evolves, and embodies itself in our society. Additionally, this approach wasn’t just a front-end research component intended to kick off a design process, it’s an ongoing posture we apply to the development of our work. It’s a way of working that sees the problem and the solution take shape together, as opposed to the traditionally linear approach in which the problem is understood first, then set aside in pursuit of the solution.

What we’ve discovered through this work is that while young African American men in our community are very concerned with access to economic opportunity and equitable treatment in the justice system, there lies a deeper fundamental concern about how these things affect personal dignity and value. Our conversations tended to veer towards ideas of hope, value, meaning and purpose. When these young men were describing what thriving looked like to them, they painted a picture in which economic stability and equitable opportunity gave shape to their vision, but the texture, nuance, and color came from the haunting question — “is hope only reserved for the privileged?”

This compelled us to ask, “how does one access things like hope, value, and meaning?” Without getting to far into the weeds of an existential diatribe, we learned that these things were easier to find in the relational as opposed to the transactional, and in the sustainable as opposed to the provisional. For example, if a summer job training program provided a young man with a new professional network and mentorship that could open doors for him down the road, it was immensely more valuable than the summer job training program where he was utilized as cheap labor. If a place to sleep came with an environment and resources to cultivate stability, it was immensely more valuable than a bed whose welcome came with an expiration date. If an encounter with the police lead to an opportunity to work with a mentor and leverage art as a means of relational and social restoration, it was immensely more valuable than being booked in a detention center.

The only problem is that the qualitative difference between the relational and the transactional, the sustainable and the provisional, hasn’t really been measured cumulatively in Seattle. The places where hope and value are being created every day in our city are numerous, but they are mostly invisible to the mechanics by which we measure success. This is where Human Centered Design is embodied in the charge given to us by the Mayor — it is the imperative of Human Centered Design to anchor human dignity in the development of policy and programs, but if there is no means of institutionalizing this value then our ideas, no matter how innovative, will not have the impact we hope for.

So how do we begin to close the gap between the lived experience of the community and the policies designed in our institutions? That’s coming next — in part two of this blog series we’ll look at some of the specific recommendations that the Innovation Team is making to the Mayor, and how they reflect these principles and values of Human Centered Design.

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