Design Thinking: Empathy and Ideation in Policy Development

By Robin Nichols

“The key of a design thinking structure is enough flexibility with enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries.” Tim Brown, CEO. IDEO

The 2017-2018 year for the Innovation Lab started with an influx of enthusiastic new policy students, including those pursuing Masters in Public Policy, Masters in International Development Policy, and Masters in Policy Management. The previous members of the Lab took on leadership roles to lead us through the following teams:

·       Housing

·       Economic Development

·       Workforce Development

·       Sustainability (Transportation and Environment)

The Lab grew not just in numbers, but also in diversity. Students from all over the world (i.e. China, Tajikistan, India, and more) applied with the goal of getting involved in the D.C. community. As policy students, we all jumped at the chance to complement our classroom learning with real world experience, and provide diverse perspective on the challenges that face communities in Anacostia.

Last fall, we started the process by visiting community sites, hosting community members on campus, and meeting with stakeholders. We then hit the ground running this New Year, hosting a Design Thinking Session in January attended by:

·      Brenda Richardson: Earth Conservation Corps, PSA 702, long-time citizen activist, Ward 8 resident

·      Malusi Kitchen: Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC)

·      Steven Swann: Bread for the City

·      Kate Mereand: Lab alumnus, DC Department of Small and Local Business Development

These individuals were critical throughout the session, providing their perspective and input during the day’s activities.

Empathy Maps

Empathy maps focus on identifying what other people are thinking, feeling, doing, seeing, and hearing as they engage with their community, their families, social networks, and local institutions. In teams, students assumed the profile of a DC resident, and dove into the unique challenges that individual may face. The profiles presented ranged from a family of four, to a single mother, to a young woman facing student loan debt.

By narrowing our lens to an individual’s perspective, we discussed the person’s possible daily activities, concerns, and aspirations. Most importantly, as we tried to truly put ourselves in the individual’s shoes, we received real-time feedback from Brenda, Malusi, Steven, and Kate. Their contributions were invaluable to identify and gain a deeper understanding of people’s challenges and needs.

Crosscutting Ideas & Takeaways

With the feedback from Brenda, Malusi, Steven, and Kate, we determined a few overarching challenges that impacted each profile, including trauma, recidivism, mental health, and limited education. As we debriefed, we found ourselves focusing on an overarching theme of connectivity – specifically, the lack of connectivity within the community and between organizations serving the community. Much good work is being done in Wards 7 & 8, but people may not be aware or may not have the ability to benefit from it.

As we move forward with our teams this spring, we will keep in mind these challenges and tailor our approaches accordingly. As good Design Thinking practitioners, we will start with empathy as we narrow our focus this semester in the Lab!

Why Empathy Matters

How empathy — the heart of design thinking — can help policy become more inclusive and effective.

By: Kristina Rodriguez, Policy Innovator

“Hear what they Hear. See what they See. Feel what they Feel.” -Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care, Cleveland Clinic
 Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Last December, Policy Innovation Lab Co-Director Director Kayla Auletto outlined the design thinking process and it’s application in the public policy space. After several months as a Policy Innovator, I find myself reflecting on the importance of this process.

 Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford ( )

Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford (

Throughout the Fall and Spring semesters, I’ve worked with other Innovators to Empathize with community members and partner with them to Define the problems we (together with community members) should address. I found myself at community gatherings and small meetings, attempting to soak up as much information as possible. At the end of these conversations, I walked away with the same feeling — I know nothing, and it’s okay.

 After a meeting with Brenda Richardson (Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps) about her experiences in Wards 7 and 8. Honored to be part of her first selfie!

After a meeting with Brenda Richardson (Managing Director of the Earth Conservation Corps) about her experiences in Wards 7 and 8. Honored to be part of her first selfie!

Meeting with community members forced me to acknowledge and genuinely confront the fact that my background and experiences may not be the same as theirs and, thus, my solution to an issue may not be their solution. This was admittedly uncomfortable at first. For most of my schooling and career, I’ve been trained to always have the answer…and when I don’t, to “fake it ’til I make it.” I quickly learned that this may not always be the best approach.

On one hand, it’s productive to do your research and be fully “prepared” for a meeting, but what about situations when research just isn’t enough? I learned that there’s a point where research provides little to no information about what other people see, feel, and experience. This is where empathy becomes crucial. Being willing to listen to others and step into their shoes can lead to amazingly generative conversations that meaningfully fill gaps in your knowledge.

Earlier this week, I came across an article on the Mind/Shift blog about empathy in education (one of my personal policy interest areas). The article highlights the experiences of school and district leaders who participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge to better understand the effects of policies on the ultimate recipients — students. Overall, adult leaders walked away with new insights about their students and teachers. One principal summed it up perfectly, he realized that, “how he experiences school is different from anyone else; each student has a unique experience.”

Design guru, Tim Brown, has also shared his thoughts on empathy as crucial to understanding complex social systems and designing solutions that support many and various needs. In one of his blog posts, he highlighted the video below from Cleveland Clinic:

The video show just how complex a health care system or hospital can be and raises questions about how a good system design could address all of the illustrated needs and circumstances that could be entirely overlooked with a top-down idea. This has been my reflection for applying empathy to public policy.

What should be the first steps in designing effective policy that truly addresses community needs?

Listen. See. Feel.

Environmental Justice and Equity: Tools for Assuring a Healthy Environment for Residents East of the Anacostia River

By: Chandarprabha Sharma, Policy Innovator

A 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by the year 2045, Washington D.C. would lead the East Coast in number of tidal floods per year: it projects nearly 400 floods each year. Unlike humans, nature may not discriminate, however the impacts of climate change and environmental disasters tend to be worst for the people who are already socially and economically disadvantaged.

While civil society actors and the government works for development in Anacostia, the economic, socio-political and demographic challenges must also be understood from the lens of Environmental Justice. Climate related disasters would serve to aggravate existing inequalities in Anacostia. Thus, actors dedicated to the development of Anacostia will find Environmental Justice to be a great ally as we address inequality in the region.

 Source: Anacostia Waterfront Trust

Source: Anacostia Waterfront Trust

To prepare against the threats of climate related disasters, we must look at disaster management from the lens of Environmental Justice. This includes mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Mitigation: Mitigation involves land use planning and urban development policy. As developers turn toward more aggressive development of land and property East of the River, an emphasis on Environmental Justice would help ensure that the poorer residents are not pushed out to the more environmentally sensitive, degraded or flood prone areas. Green infrastructure solutions would help mitigate flood impacts and the parkland in Anacostia must be leveraged for this.

Preparedness: According to a National Capital Planning Commission report in 2008, the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC) had proposed stringent requirements for stormwater management. However, the report noted that, since AWC was absorbed into the District Office of Planning, the Federal government’s stance on the more stringent guidelines has not yet been determined. Leveraging Environmental Justice principles for policy action would ensure that the government does not neglect the District’s poorest residents in flood preparedness, policies and resources.

Response: The ethos of Environmental Justice strives to ensure that no section of the society must be systematically ignored in response measures. In 2005, New Orleans grappled with the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Various studies have shown that evacuation measures depended entirely on personal transport. 60% of poor African-American households in New Orleans did not have a personal vehicle and could not be evacuated immediately. It is imperative that we learn from such lessons and that they result in better disaster response policies for communities adjacent to the river, particularly those east of the Anacostia River.

Recovery: We must understand and acknowledge the disproportionately devastating impacts of climate related disasters on Anacostia’s poor residents. Failing to do so may lead to systematic injustice toward Ward 7 and 8 residents in decision-making and resource allocation for recovery after a natural disaster.

On 19th January 2016, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in civil rights, but his dream of social justice remains incomplete, especially in Anacostia. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, Dr. King hoped that “the lion and lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid”. 

Environmental Justice is a strong tool to ensure the same for residents living east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. and in similarly vulnerable communities throughout the country, indeed, the world.

How Big Cities Are Ignoring Their Single Parents

By: Shashank Rai, Policy Innovator

Over the last fifty years, the number of children living in single parent households has doubled, with more than fifteen million kids living in fatherless households while over five million children are being raised in households without a mother. There is a race element to the problem as well with 54 per cent of all black children being raised by single mothers nationwide. Only 12 percent of black families below the poverty line have both parents present, compared with 41 percent of poor Hispanic families and 32 percent of poor white families. In all but eleven states, most black children do not live with both parents. In comparison, 70 percent of white children and most Hispanic children, in all but two states, do.

 Image source:

Image source:

Why this might be one of the gravest social problems in the country today is obvious — children growing up in single parent households are more likely to grow up in poverty and are at a much greater risk of delinquency. But it also has a growing urbanization side to it, something that the big cities in the US have failed to cater to adequately. As a NerdWallet study points out, the smaller cities in the country have been able to provide for the most important needs of the single parents much better than the bigger cities. This is a little counter-intuitive because one would imagine the bigger the city, the greater the opportunities, and hence greater the capacity of the single parent to provide for their family. However, big cities entail much higher costs of living and child care. This, coupled with low skill levels of a large majority of single parents, makes sustenance a much greater challenge.

Empirical evidence points to three major factors that seem to be failing the single parents in big cities. These include high costs to cover rent and child care services, a lack of an established support mechanism for single parents in poor communities in the cities, and factors affecting lifestyle such as greater distance to workplace, low quality of budget schools, and poor employment and skill development opportunities. And while there are dedicated resources for the welfare of single parents in almost all cities, they fail to provide adequately for funded training or paid work experience for the parents, child care services, and in-school support to manage children. Community support programs to help parents focus on family management issues and help improve relationships with children and other family members have also seen very few success stories.

Hence helping single parents to take the leap to move above poverty is a challenging task because it requires building numerous microcosms that provide resources to cater to the three impeding factors mentioned above. These realities call in for a relook at how the cities plan for single parents. Newer policies for flexible working hours, child support at workplaces and at schools, counseling and drug rehabilitation services for parents, and maternity leaves are all initiatives that will go into the building of a support structure that can help single parents sustain their families. These policy initiatives need to be further strengthened by improving coordination and collaboration channels between NGOs and the government. As the number of single parent families continue to rise in the country, it is not only the well-being of the present generation that is threatened, but also the future of nearly half of the next generation. Not acting now to stem this tide is a risk we can ill-afford.

Elevated Visions and Displaced Communities

By Kristina Rodriguez, Policy Innovator

How Chicago’s 606 elevated park and trail sparked a new debate about community development and gentrification.

On June 6, 2015 local businesses, non-profits and Chicagoans from across the city gathered upon the reclaimed Bloomingdale Trail to celebrate the opening of the 606 — Chicago’s first elevated park and bike trail. On the streets below, activists and local residents feared for the future of their homes and communities surrounding the trail.

Inspired by the New York City Highline, Chicago City officials put forth a proposal in 2004 to apply for project funding. The proposal also led to the creation of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail — a community organization tasked with leading the 606 development efforts. Over the next decade, the organization cultivated a strong alliance between the City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the Trust for Public Land. These organizations worked together diligently to host community meetings and craft the park design.

Map of the 606 Trail and Surrounding Communities



The 606 also became a signature project for Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who called for the creation of 800 new parks and green spaces around the city. His administration’s support helped solidify the development as a viablepublic-private partnership and sparked enthusiasm across the city.

Unfortunately, not all residents were fervently supportive of the project. For several years preceding the 606 grand opening, residents became increasingly aware of skyrocketing rents and median home sales prices — some as much as 52%. To them, this was an indication that the trail could eventually push them out of their homes. Rising property values would most negatively affect low-income, Hispanic households along the western half of the trail where 60% of households earned less than $50,000.

In response to growing resident fears, community advocates led by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association began campaigns for measures like tax abatement programs to help residents stay in their communities. The campaigns continue to research best practices for preserving affordable housing in the surrounding neighborhoods and the long-term impacts of development in these communities remains to be fully assessed.

However, as similar projects pick up steam across the country, the fight for equitable development continues. Innovative solutions for maintaining affordable housing and stabilizing communities will become paramount if we imagine a world of progress for all.

Cross-Sector Collaboration to End Veteran Homelessness

By: Shiri Yadlin, Policy Innovator

In 2010, President Obama’s Administration put forth the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a campaign designed to inspire cities to house every homeless veteran within their jurisdictions by the end of 2015. With this deadline rapidly approaching, let’s take a look at how the country is doing.

As of December 21, 2015, fifteen jurisdictions have achieved this goal, including large urban centers such as Houston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Entire states such as Utah and Virginia have also completely eradicated veteran homelessness within their borders, and 1,000 other jurisdictions have pledged to do the same.

The Way Home Campaign recently announced that DC has housed over 1,300 of the 1,500 homeless veterans identified at the beginning of 2013, putting our city on track to finish the in this next year.

These achievements are nothing to scoff at. They were only possible through tireless efforts of a myriad of dedicated organizations: collaboration of governments and non-profits, social service agencies and real estate developers, social workers and bureaucrats. Governments were willing to provide vouchers, landlords willing to accept them, and case management teams outreached with perseverance, building personal relationships critical to a successful campaign.

The success of these cities and states is a beautiful example of human-centered design and collaborative innovative policy solutions coming together to create actual results. Each of the jurisdictions that have achieved the Mayor’s Challenge have done it in a similar way — using the Housing First model to place veterans in homes without preconditions, and following up that housing with wrap-around supportive services to ensure the newly-housed veterans have the support they need to be successful in their new homes. These homes are permanent, not transitional, and therefore provide a sense of ownership for the new tenants.

Studies continually demonstrate that Housing First is not only just and practically effective, but cost-effective as well. Once these individual are housed, their use of expensive emergency services such as Fire, EMS, ER, and even Jail dramatically decreases, making permanent housing much cheaper in comparison. It appears the country has finally found a way to end homelessness: giving people homes.

The recent success of Montgomery County, Maryland, the most recent of these jurisdictions to meet the Mayor’s Challenge, reminds us that chronic homelessness is a problem we know how to solve. With so many unsolvable and seemingly insurmountable policy problems we face in 2016, isn’t it refreshing to have one where we know the solution? As we seek to finish the job of ending veteran homelessness and turn our attention to chronic homelessness, now is not the time to let up.

This is a problem we know how to solve. We just need the will-power to do it.

Design-Thinking for Public Policy

By Kayla Auletto, Co-Director of McCourt Policy Innovation Lab

The public policy design process is a complex one. It usually involves identifying a problem, developing possible solutions, identifying key stakeholders, and a period of negotiation that can range from a grueling battle to a simple compromise. Public policy success is usually measured by outcomes and treatment effects. Did this policy save lives? Did the program decrease unemployment rates? Has the budget deficit shrunk?

What’s missing from this traditional approach, however, is a focus on the population that the policy is meant to affect. Too often the policy design process is focused on key power players- the legislator, the lobbyists, the association, or the PAC. And too frequently is the intended beneficiary left out of the discussion.

Enter: a human-centered design approach to policymaking.

Human-centered design is an approach used most notably by IDEO. Theyexplain it this way:

“Embracing human-centered design means believing that all problems, even the seemingly intractable ones…are solvable. Moreover, it means that believing the people who face those problems every day are the ones who hold the key to their answer.”

While this design-thinking approach grew out of the technology and product development industries, it has been applied to the social sector by organizations like IDEO, and our partners at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. What the McCourt Policy Innovation Lab is doing that is truly innovative, though, is applying this process to public policy design. Not only are we putting the people of Wards 7 and 8 at the center of our policy design process for the Anacostia Waterfront redevelopment project, but we are engaging in the traditional 5-step design thinking process.

 Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford (

Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford (

As we seek to be pioneers on this ‘human-centered design for public policy’ journey, we will make a number of stops in the 5-step, iterative, path. We’ve spent this Fall semester trying to Empathize and Define the problem we are addressing, to learn about its context, to research possible solutions and best practices. As we move into policy design and innovation next semester, we will begin with Ideation, and move into Prototyping and Testing our policy proposals with the community East of the River. This will be a learning experience for us Policy Innovators, and we hope you stay with us for the ride.

Making It Real

By Margaret O’Bryon, Executive Director

How can the McCourt School of Public Policy become more deeply engaged in its local community? How can McCourt students passionate about applying new skills connect with local communities eager for help in addressing intractable policy challenges?

These two questions spurred the creation of McCourt’s Policy Innovation Lab in February of this year. The concept for the Lab grew out of extensive conversations with students, faculty, alumni, community leaders, and public officials, together with an examination of community engagement strategies of universities and schools of public policy across the country.

The Lab’s aim is to provide an innovative, community-based framework and venue for policy students to work collectively in developing forward-thinking and pioneering policy solutions to local issues. The Lab’s initial policy project focuses on how the future development of the Anacostia River parkland can add lasting value to Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods and residents. Policy Innovators will answer a series of questions: What are the innovative strategies, policies, and practices across multiple issue areas for creating this value? How can the parkland along the Anacostia River be developed in such a way that will bring optimum community benefits, most importantly greater economic and social equity and inclusion for residents and communities in Wards 7 and 8?

The Lab’s unique approach has five pillars:

· Tapping student ingenuity, knowledge, and experience to tackle local policy challenges, emerging questions, and intractable dilemmas;

· Creating deep and lasting partnerships with non-profits, government, community leaders, residents, and activists;

· Drawing upon the knowledge and creativity that exists in the DC community to help inform and design policy recommendations;

· Connecting students, faculty, and research experts from multiple disciplines as university-community partners in the work of the Lab; and

· Employing human-centered design thinking and other innovative approaches to community engagement and policy prototyping. This process puts the community’s needs in the center of devising policy and other solutions and is geared toward understanding the way people do things, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world, and what is meaningful to them.

This semester Policy Innovators are becoming acquainted with Wards 7 and 8; gathering skills and information from outside experts critical to the success of the project; and conducting multi-faceted research, including best practices from other communities in the US and abroad. Lab policy teams are becoming experts in issue areas ranging from employment and workforce to affordable housing; community wealth building to the environment; safety and security to education.

The Lab is a new endeavor, still in its developmental stage. It is populated with an amazing group of talented and committed student Policy Innovators. It is guided and informed by an extraordinary set of partners and an approach to policy development grounded in community.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The Policy Innovation Lab is an effort to make these words real.

Building "data capacity" with community nonprofits

By Matthew Emeterio, Deputy Director - Data Capacity

The McCourt School Policy Innovation Lab was founded in early 2015 as a pilot project—an experiment to engage policy students and faculty in generating innovative solutions to intractable and seemingly insurmountable public dilemmas in their own back yard. Our goal is to apply design thinking to the potential redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront in Wards 7 and 8, and develop policy solutions for equitable growth through a human-centered design framework.

We began with an initial report for DC Appleseed and the Federal City Council that identified key factors for equitable economic and social development east of the Anacostia, and will continue to focus our attention on community engagement and policy solutions for these neighborhoods. However, alongside these long-term goals, we began to seek more immediate opportunities to help local nonprofits build their capacity in data analytics in order to take advantage of our policy students’ unique backgrounds and skills. Thus, the Data Capacity project was born.

The Data Capacity Project

We knew that our main resources were policy students with strong quantitative backgrounds and an interest in urban policy solutions. We also knew that many nonprofits in the DC area are operating with limited resources, particularly staff time; many have data needs that they simply don’t have the capacity to meet.

We started reaching out to nonprofits in the community to find out how we could apply the unique skillset of McCourt students - quantitative methods, microeconomics, policy analysis - to meet the community’s needs. With the help of Rick Moyers at the Meyer Foundation[link], we connected with FairChance, an organization that helps youth-serving nonprofits build capacity. FairChance works with bi-annual “classes” of nonprofits, implementing best practices and training for management, and was planning on adding a data acquisition and analysis component. It seemed like a great fit.

Next steps

With guidance from FairChance, small teams of 2-3 students will work closely with a nonprofit in the community to thoughtfully implement data acquisition and analysis. Above all, we want to help nonprofits find sustainable, practical, and usable solutions for their data needs—we don’t want create tools that will be abandoned a month or two.

In order to do this, Data Capacity teams will collaborate the managers and staff of the organizations from the start of the process in order to develop methods for acquisition and analysis that can be easily replicated by staff going forward. Replication is important: We don’t want to create complicated tools for complexity’s sake, but engender a culture of data. We want to help nonprofits think about their organizational issues through the lens of quantification, develop ways to collect it and analyze it that use tools that they already have.

If we can do this thoughtfully and correctly, then organizations will be able to sustain that culture and to use data-driven insights as a tool to improve their services and programming in the future.