Design Thinking: A Tool for Rehabilitation

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Design thinking, with its user-centric approach to problem solving, is being used as a tool to help facilitate reform within the United States prison system. Overpopulation due to mass incarceration, the racial and socioeconomic disparities of folks who are incarcerated, and high recidivism rates are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems that currently exist.  While reform seems like a daunting task, different restorative justice programs are applying design thinking in an attempt  to rehabilitate folks who are incarcerated with the end goal of lowering recidivism rates.

So what exactly is Design Thinking?  According to the Neilsen Norman Group

          “The design-thinking ideology asserts that a hands-on, user-centric approach to         problem solving can lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to differentiation and a competitive advantage. This hands-on, user-centric approach is defined by the design-thinking process.”  

The process has 6 phases and is meant to be iterative and flexible, each phase can be revisited in order to maximize results.  Below is visual of the process.

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The following are just two examples of how design thinking is being used as a tool in restorative justice initiatives.  

The Design Against Crime Research Center  uses design principles to create products that thwart crime.  They have partnered with others and started the Makeright Initiative bringing design thinking into Serco’s HMP Thameside prison.  The folks incarcerated in the facility are being taught design thinking as a process to create anti-theft bags.  They start by creating user profiles and continue with the iterative design thinking process in order to design anti-theft bags.  The program goals are twofold.  One is to give the students applicable skills for future employment opportunities to help create a more successful reentry.  The other is the thought that by learning the user centered process, which includes the designers ability to empathize with a user, the chances of re-offending will be lowered.  

In 2013 the Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJ+DS) started a  program called Designing for the Inside Out. The workshops teach design thinking to incarcerated folks across the country. The design goal is to create spaces where restorative justice practices and initiatives can held.   As in the Makeright Initiative the incarcerated folks are taught design thinking, given them a skill set that can be used for a more successful integration into society.  The workshop also gives future users of places, the incarcerated folks in the workshops,  a chance to design these places. It is taking the user-centered approach to an extreme literalness and giving the designers a true sense of agency within the restorative justice practice.     

In both of these examples, while the product is important, it not necessarily the only goal.  It the process one learns and how it can be applied throughout their life that is part of the rehabilitation. It’s the way a person has to change the way they think about the world, themselves, and other people, which makes it such a valuable tool for rehabilitation in restorative justice initiatives.  

To quote Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology

             “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”  

The empathetic design process of design thinking being taught and how it can change a person’s perspective is where true opportunity to create change lies.