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New ways to tackle big challenges
By Jessica David / September 7, 2016 /   Loading Disqus...
Albert Einstein famously said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I think he’s on to something. This August, to develop our local problem-solving capacity, we sponsored a Rhode Island cohort of the RISD Institute for Design and Public Policy as part of our Centennial commemoration. As we said at the time, we need new ways to tackle the big challenges we face.

Twenty Rhode Islanders from across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors participated in an intense, five-day immersion into the processes of human-centered design. I had the good fortune of being able to glimpse the group in action and attend their closing reports. I was inspired by how thorough the participants were in their explorations, their openness and creativity, and their bravery in asking new and different things of themselves.

To give you a sense of what the program entailed, we thought it best for you to hear directly from Greg Victory, who designed the program along with faculty Enrique Martinez and Justin Cook.
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On the first day, when I welcomed the cohort to the RISD Institute for Design + Public Policy (IDPP), I started out by saying, “The solutions you develop over the next five days and eventually report out on, are not really that important. Although they serve as jumping off points for projects or programs, it is the relationships that you develop, the skills and behaviors to learn and fine tune and your entry into a community of practice."

The Rhode Island IDPP, offered through RISD Executive Education with generous support from the Rhode Island Foundation, is a “local” version of a five-day intensive workshop, which focuses on the nexus of inclusive design and public policy. The goal is to identify and develop collaborative solutions to pressing problems. In this case, it was Reimagining a more civic Rhode Island.

Through the generosity of the Rhode Island Foundation and the expertise at RISD, the RI Institute for Design and Public Policy jumpstarted a cohort of leaders who are now joining a national movement.

Michael O’Bryan, founder of 360 Thinking, an innovation and creativity consulting company, wrote an article in Wired Magazine entitled: Innovation: The Most Important and Overused Word in America. In that article, he said, “We need people to possess a series of thinking skills and behavioral traits that result in their ability to discover, develop, and test ideas and solutions that will result in positive changes not only in their prospective fields but also in their daily lives. Therefore, innovation should not be discussed as a specific term but as a series of skills and behaviors that a person must possess to be innovative.”

What participants experienced in the Rhode Island IDPP is design as a process; a strategy for solving wicked problems, like engaging more of their neighbors, friends, and colleagues in the civic process.

The cohort agreed that one of the major benefits of “our size” is access: to knowledge, to people, to institutions, to decision makers. And for five intense days these 20 RI leaders representing the private, public, and nonprofit sectors worked collaboratively, accessing the talents and skills of each other, of their faculty, community and government leaders, and local residents to develop solutions to the problem. Our two, world-class instructors, Justin Cook and Enrique Martinez, expertly guided the teams through what could be described as a chaotic, emotional, and exhausting process. The experience included talks by designers, disruptive scholars, government and community leaders, and sometimes emotion-laden discussions about what is “civics”.

They all became part of a movement to infuse inclusive and human-centered design at all levels of government. Dr. Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, chief learning officer/executive director, Innovation Lab at the United State Office of Personnel Management, shared with the group how important this movement is during her talk at the Institute.

RISD’s 17th President, Rosanne Somerson, is fond of saying, “Our approach is much more about the notion that the outcome is the unknown. That can be very uncomfortable. It can be horrible. It can be depressing and scary. But we teach students how to get through those moments so that they can actually get to really new places.”

And these “students” certainly got to really new places. Some of their “innovative ideas” included simply changing the layout of the space for public meetings in order to engage more participants; celebrating RI’s rich history of citizen movements through a civics passport; developing a “dating like app” called Walk in My Shoes to help Rhode Islanders understand the stories of others; “taxing” 10% of all political donations to support civics education across the state; and even a lottery system which fills half the seats in the General Assembly with Rhode Island residents.

So how do students in this new community of practice describe their experience when it’s over?

“Awesome. Insightful. Game-changing.”
“Engaging, Revealing, Impacting”
“Inspiring, unexpected, empowering”

At RISD, we believe that this growing movement can, and will, change the world. Thank you to the visionary leaders at the Rhode Island Foundation who have whole-heartedly supported the movement in Rhode Island.
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