• 10.02.09

Want to Improve Democracy? Try Design Thinking

Better ballot design could have changed the results of the 2000 election. A better design for information sharing might have prevented 9/11. Now, could design thinking help fix something fundamentally broken in American democracy: how we engage in national debate?

Want to Improve Democracy? Try Design Thinking

Whether the topic is climate change, financial regulation, or health care reform, when asked to “discuss amongst ourselves,” the conversation devolves into who can shout the loudest, hurl the nastiest epithets, or pervert the facts to fit their own agendas. Can this process be saved?


We spoke to Tim Brown, CEO of famed design and innovation firm, IDEO, and author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, (and Fast Company expert blogger) to see what might be done.

Fast Company: Lately, our national conversations about important issues seem to have reached a new low. Could design thinking improve how we engage in national debate?

Tim Brown: What’s missing from the debate right now is that much of our discussion is about what we have to give up, or how we have to make choices among unattractive alternatives. The role of design thinking is to put new choices in the world. We look at people and their needs, and create new ideas and insights. We do that all the time with companies. Right now, whether it’s health care or climate change, there’s a relative dearth of new choices, which means everybody is arguing from entrenched positions.

FC: One of the problems seems to be that there’s a lot of confusion about what various proposals mean. How could that be remedied?

TB: Last year at Davos, I got stuck in a big debate with world leaders arguing about whether there should be 50% less carbon, or 80% less. I thought, “This isn’t helping.” Nobody was talking about what life would be like in 30 years if we make our goals or not.So, over the summer we developed a Web site, called Living Climate Change, that shows what life would be like in 30 or 40 years with various scenarios showing changes in food, transportation, and other things, depending on whether we make our goals or not.

We need to have the same discussions in health care and other issues, with a way to describe what various options would be like. That would allow people to imagine their future and participate in it. Right now, it’s hard to imagine these things, and politicians exploit that.


FC: Certainly, that’s been part of the problem, hasn’t it? That so much of the information out there seems driven by ideology, industry lobbyists, or other forms of self interest. It’s hard to know what to trust

TB: What design thinking offers is that it enters the debate without an agenda. How do we make life better? So much of what’s out there now seems based on a world of 50 years ago.

FC: One of the things design thinking does well is prototyping alternatives. How could that work for something as complex as health care policy?

TB:Design thinking brings experiments to life quickly to see what works and what doesn’t. It also lets us put more options on the table. Google does this all the time. Instead of making judgments based on some political agenda, we should try to make one prototype better than the last.

FC: Good point. What else could the public sector learn from the private?

TB: That it’s important to actively manage a portfolio of experiments. In health, for example, we need to explore the issue of prevention, finance, increased productivity, etc. We can do this in a linear way – dealing, for example, with access now and prevention later.


FC: What could we learn from developing countries?

TB: A lot. In India, health care is completely driven from the grass roots, rather than from the top down. In America, much of our innovation is also from the ground up. There needs to be a way for government to understand the role it can play in encouraging grass roots innovation.

FC: Of course, all this presumes that there’s a willingness to think differently within government organizations.

TB: True. Culture plays a huge role. Great, innovative companies focus on building internal capabilities. We need to see that same capacity in public life. But there’s hope. Recently John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management – essentially the government’s HR agency – came to Silicon Valley to see how Facebook, IDEO, and Google went about building inquisitive cultures. The idea was how to make government service cool again.

FC: Maybe with the market collapse, smart young MBAs will start considering government service instead of Goldman!

TB: Recently, Universum, a talent strategy consulting firm that ranks the attractiveness of employers, called to say that in their latest survey of 6,200 MBAs, IDEO ranked #15. That’s ridiculous since we’re a tiny company, but to me it was indicative that kids in business school are fascinated by innovation. Imagine if we could get government thinking that way — not just to serve but to innovate, to make the world a better place. p>

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.