Design Thinking and Good Governance

Public Policies should be based on empathy which Design Thinking makes possible

Whosoever has heard about the word “Design Thinking” for the first time might think that one is referring to a house designer or an architect. However, design thinking is anything but that. Infact everyone who has been a successful person in his or her profession, would have practised Design Thinking. When I myself read about design thinking some years back I too thought this was all about designers, engineers or architects. Until recently I too had no clarity about this subject. It was only after my interaction with Prof Anunaya Chaubey the Provost of Anant National University Ahmadabad that I got to understand that Design Thinking is more than just a process and its application is essential in every field of life especially to ensure better governance. With an aim of creating more and more professional design thinkers, the Anant National University which is India’s first design X university has launched specialized degree courses of Design Thinking. Design Thinking requires a person to be empathetic and explore things by feeling its importance.

Panchayati Raj and Design Thinking

Inspite of the fact that the Panchayati Raj system and Urban Local Bodies are empowered enough in many states and UTs of India but the policy making is not decentralized even now. Bureaucrats and civil servants take decisions which are then enforced on ground. Let me quote a small example from Jammu & Kashmir. The 5-year-term of Panchayats came to an end in December last year in Jammu & Kashmir. The fresh panchayat elections have been deferred and would be held after Lok Sabha elections 2024 and the Government decided to make Block Development Officers -BDOs as administrators for village Panchayats. This goes completely against Design Thinking. Ideally, Panchayat elections should have been held even a month before the term of Panchayats was to end. If there are challenges then some brainstorming or design thinking could have been done on this. I am sure instead of BDOs, the District Development Council (DDC) members (Member Zilla Panchayat) whose term will end in 2025 should have been empowered to be the administrators of the panchayats. The DDC Members too are elected representatives and every district in J&K has 14 such councilors (DDC Members) but the way Govt decided to give the Gram Panchayat administrator powers to BDOs makes it clear that our administrators too lack Design Thinking.

In a social context, empathy is often what drives us to take action but that is missing when decisions are taken without considering Design Thinking.

Design Thinking and Public Policy

In today’s complex and changing society, public policy and governance face an increasing demand for effectiveness, efficiency, and above all empathy. Many of our centrally sponsored schemes and welfare programmes are indeed based on empathy. PM Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojna -PMGKAY or PM Awas Yojana -PMAY, Swachh Bharat Mission , MG-NREGA , Right to Education Act -RTE or Forest Rights Act -FRA are some of these Govt programmes and rights based legislations which have been formulated emphatically. I am not sure how much has been the role of design thinkers while making these Govt programmes but yes to make these schemes and laws effective a great role can be played by Design Thinkers as conventional policy-making processes often seem disconnected from the citizens. The way pro people legislations or welfare programmes are enforced on ground are mismatching with the real-demands and needs. The only solution to this challenge lies in ‘design thinking,’ a method typically associated with fields like product design and business strategy. I can give hundreds of illustrations wherein lack of design thinking has spoiled our programmes like the rural waste management programme that is being executed under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Gramin (Phase 2). The laws like RTE Act, RTI Act or Forest Rights Act are not benefiting large sections of society and the reasons can be understood through design thinking.

Forest Rights Act

Design Thinking is a methodology that provides an innovative approach to problem solving and is characterized by focusing on solutions rather than the problems. Sometimes at the policy level we realize that the traditional way of addressing issues was better than laws enacted by the legislature around these issues. Let us take an example of the forest related laws enacted from time to time in India. The Indian Forest Act of 1865 was the first legal framework which systematically introduced State’s control over the forests in India. This law was amended in 1878 and after some decades the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was enacted repealing the previous laws. The Indian Forest Act 1927 is still applicable in India and it was extended to Jammu & Kashmir as well with effect from Oct 31st 2019 soon after article 370 abrogation. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 didn’t give the rights to tribals or other traditional forest dwellers. It took the Govt of India at least 60 years to enact a legislation that granted forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers the rights that existed before the British Rule. In 2006 Govt of India came up with Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 also called Forest Rights Act -FRA in 2006. This law was enacted on 18 December 2006 and the preamble of FRA says that this law was enacted to rectify the mistakes committed by Govt in the past. This law is indeed based on design thinking as its preamble is empathetic and seeks forgiveness from people for committing historical injustices with forest dwellers and tribals.

Unfortunately, this law also isn’t giving us better results even after 15 years of enactment. This means while enforcing the rights based legislations or schemes Govt must involve design thinking professionals.

Policy & planning is design activity

Public policy making is a design activity but this isn’t taken up that way. The ‘design thinking’ is a problem-solving approach characterized by empathy and curiosity to explore more and more. This further opens ways to interpret how target populations engage with their world. For a huge and diverse nation like India which had distinct geographies and diverse cultures the design thinking plays a crucial role. The policies that are formulated by NITI Ayog or some other national level institution can’t be uniformly implemented from Tamil Nadu to Tripura or Kashmir to Kerala ? During my interaction with Prof Chaubey the Provost of Anant National University I discussed the issue related to snow clearance work not being included in MG-NREGA . For last many years this author has been writing about it and doing advocacy for including taken up snow clearance works in villages under MGNREGA as many Himalayan states like Himachal , Uttrakhand , J&K and Ladakh get snowfall in winters and during the same time people are jobless. This would have been the best thing to make MNREGA workable but the policy lacks design thinking ? There exist gaps between how governments operate and what the citizens expect from the government.

A new approach of Design Thinking has to be applied by governments across the world that involves engaging with citizens, by creating effective policies and ensuring better service deliveries in a time bound manner. Tim Brown who is CEO & President of US based design company IDEO says that Design is one of the most important drivers of the quality of experience for users of services. He adds that for governments to remain credible to their citizens, they must treat the design quality of their services as seriously as the best businesses.

Role of Design schools

According to the United Nations Development Programme -UNDP, Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach and a human-centered innovation. The United Nations System Staff College -UNSSC in its report has said that innovations and system thinking plays a great role in achieving sustainable development goals -SDGs. In the future, like the AI professionals, all the sectors would require Design Thinking professionals. Do we have enough institutes that prepare our youth to take up Design Thinking as their career?

In India there are only a handful of institutes which offer courses in design thinking and Anant National University,-ANU India’s first DesignX university which was established in Ahmedabad Gujarat in 2016. This university is dedicated to train students to devise solutions for global problems through creative thinking. The core of ANUs pedagogy is sustainable design multiplied by a host of knowledge disciplines and technology to make problem solving more impactful.


Design Thinking gives us creative solutions that come from thinking outside the box. It is based on five important things which are listed as :

Empathize : research your users demands and needs

Define: state your users’ needs and problems.

Ideate: challenge assumptions and create ideas.

Prototype: start to create solutions.

Test: try your solutions out

Are these things considered by the engineering departments when they prepare tender documents? Did Swach Bharat Mission Gramin Mission Director in J&K involve Design Thinkers before rolling out the Rural Waste Management programme? Did Srinagar Smart City Corporation involve Design Thinking professionals while taking up different works in Srinagar?