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What I Learned From Sanford’s Innovative Course on Innovation

May 5, 2016

By Zach McDade

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  • Zach McDade in HCD course

    The Science of Sorting

    Zach McDade wrote this blog post. Zach participated in the inaugural Human Centered Design course. Here he is looking through notes his team collected and organized. Prior to coming to Sanford, Zach helped found the Urban Institute blog and served as its managing editor for four years. He also conducted empirical quantitative and qualitative public policy research at Urban Institute.

When I began my MPP at Sanford in August, one of my goals was to find a solution to a problem. In my experience, the dominant policymaking process was for well-meaning analysts in affluent institutions simply to deliver policy solutions onto communities. Too often there was no intermediate step to actually engage with those communities first.

I can’t believe that that is usually (ever?) the best approach. Surely community members know best which policy problems deserve priority. Surely community members have necessary insights about how to solve those problems.

Within weeks I learned that Sanford’s innovation team had a potential answer. This year, for the first time, Sanford offered a course in Human Centered Design, which is both innovative as a course and teaches the tools of innovation to rethink the policy process.

HCD principles are well known in the tech sphere. For example, designers watch people struggle with and then learn how to use a prototype smartphone. Watching people engage with the prototype for the first time gives designers key insights about how to improve the prototype for maximum usability.

And shouldn’t that be exactly how your new $600 phone is made- with you as a co-creator, ensuring that it actually serves your needs?

Public policy should benefit from the same philosophy.

In January, Sanford students began to learn how it can, in the school’s first HCD course. The class met for 8-hour days over a full week before the term began, giving students the opportunity to dig deep into the material. (It also cleared credits that gave students more open and flexible schedules during the semester.) The course was also innovative for including local government employees as students. They had invaluable insight and it was a great opportunity to network with actual policymakers.

More important than its design, the class’s content changed the way I think about policy. Over just one week, students worked on two major policy issues in Durham: transit accessibility and lack of affordable housing. To begin, we studied key principles of behavioral science, ethnographic research, and Durham’s policy history.

Then we spent a full day out in Durham, engaging with policymakers, stakeholders and, most important, the every-day citizens who benefit from policy.

We had long conversations with our stakeholders that were simultaneously free-flowing and structured. We took careful notes recording dozens of people’s experiences with transit and housing. And we learned and applied a set of principles to organize and physically engage with the notes we took. It might sound weird, but the process was actually quite powerful. Physically arranging and rearranging our interview notes let us discover hidden relationships between people’s experiences and the insights that would match them with policy solutions.

More important, the policy responses that we designed actually depended on the input and knowledge of the community. And the next stage of the process doubled down on that philosophy. We designed a low-fidelity (i.e., not fancy) prototype policy response and took it out yet again into the community. We showed it to people and asked for their input to make it better.

To be clear, not every policy problem can be tackled with HCD – and HCD alone is not sufficient to restore power and autonomy to communities. But it highlights a philosophy that every policy school should teach. Sanford’s innovation team has brought that philosophy to us.