Design Thinking for Public Policy

5 min readOct 15, 2021
Source: Claro

Design has come a long way from being a noun to a verb. Thanks to the efforts of IDEO and Stanford d.School, and the work and lectures of Tom Kelley, David Kelley, Roger Martin, and Tim Brown, among others pioneers, that design thinking has become a part of popular folklore. Corporates have woken up to this technique, although with varying levels of commitment and outcomes. Some remain just about curious and treat it as nothing more than a fun way of getting people to ideate and yet others have vowed to transform their culture while leveraging design thinking and, in the process, improving the discipline of creative problem-solving.

So what is design thinking and does it have limits?

Design Thinking is a human-centric, systematic approach of problem-solving. While sometimes the approach may lead to the creation of new products with clever technologies, it is mostly beyond products, let alone technology. The three keywords in the definition are human-centric (and not a product, or process, or profit, or competition centric), systematic (and not commonsensical, ad-hoc, or routine), and problem-solving (and not product design or R&D). The approach is especially a potential boon for the Indian fraternity for we aren’t known for our discipline in problem-solving, and our celebrated comfort with improvisation, also known as jugaad.

As for the suitability to design thinking, it’s a go-to approach when 1) you are dealing with high levels of ambiguity, 2) have access to the customer, 3) have time by our side, and 4) where you engage a diverse team.

Another big question is: who is the customer?

We have a rather narrow view of the customer, as somebody who’s paying for our products and service, or making decisions, or consuming the offering. However, a more encompassing view of the customer is anybody whose problem you wish to solve. This might mean the buyer, the vendor, the employee, supervisor, subordinate, team member, spouse, or children. And that's the human-centric view in its essence.

Now that we understand who the customer is what design thinking entails, let’s ask the question: Should we really wait for a problem to emerge? Should the problem even be the starting point?

Not necessarily. Design thinking, or for that matter any approach of problem-solving, doesn’t demand you to identify a problem. It would well be an opportunity, a desire, an expectation, inspiration, or plain desperation. That’s why the starting point of design thinking is Inspire, where the leader sets the objective of what the team should achieve and under what constraints. Below is the design thinking model that I discuss in detail in my book, Design Your Thinking.

Design Thinking process model

The means of problem-solving starts with Inspire, as discussed above, then moves to Empathize and Define where the real issues are understood from grounds-up and key objectives are identified, before Ideation sets in to go about a high quantity of ideas to be Prototyped and Tested and eventually Scaled to realize the desired impact.

How does the process change when it comes to the context of Public Policy?

A large expanse of design thinking work has taken place in the milieus of business, technology, and human behavior, but not so much around policies, let alone public policy. Public policy deals with a wide array of concerns, ranging from education to sanitation, women empowerment, water conservation, and certainly research and publication on what’s yet not a concern area. There are three unique challenges that the context of public policy offers.

Firstly, there are multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting interests. For instance, if we take the case of education for the underprivileged, the children may seek fun, parents may desire early employability, teachers may wish for greater relevance, while the government may be eyeing the next election. Not to forget the battery of entities involved, including the NGOs, experts, policy think tanks, and philanthropists, whose agenda may range from publishing another research paper to getting soundbites on a press release. That’s where a holistic approach, such as design thinking, that simultaneously aims at achieving human desirability, technical feasibility, and business viability, is even more relevant.

Design Thinking in the realm of public policy action

Secondly, the results take a long time to be seen, as often there’s a high causal ambiguity between what’s done and what’s witnessed on the other side. It makes the ardent design thinking enthusiast restless, for the premise of the technique is ‘rapid prototyping’ and quick validation of ideas as we move from ill-informed hypotheses to something that seems to be working. It’s never a single idea that does the magic, but a concert of seemingly innocuous concepts that lead to a tangible outcome, and to know what has really worked remains akin to crystal gazing. That’s where the whole validation exercise needs to be relooked at where some of the influencing factors must be delineated and we run parallel experiments to see the efficacy of those ideas.

Lastly, the importance of scale. I maintain that scale is the real proof of innovation. You may have a fantastic idea (at least in your head) and then it works in a very tailored context and that too when you are around. How good is that? Unless it’s reliable, repeatable, and scalable, an idea doesn’t mean much. Since in many avenues, it’s typically a custom-made situation where farmers use water judiciously, or apartments are more conscious about water conservation, or the people use public toilets more so in a certain district, scaling to those best practices remain an issue. There could be so much of an idiosyncrasy in these contexts that such ideas work as an exception than a rule, and that’s where design thinking must be relooked at.

Since public policy offers some unique challenges, it’s not so much about modifying design thinking to suit public policy research and action as to learn from this domain and buttress the validity of design thinking across contexts. That’s what would be my next expedition, this time to Kautilya School of Public Policy.

Ack: Some of these thoughts are inspired by my recent visit to Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment and conversations with Veena Srinivasan who heads the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation.




Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.