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Design Thinking Is Required To Re-Imagine Policing And Prevent More Community Tragedies, Says Trinidadian Professor1

Design Thinking Is Required To Re-Imagine Policing And Prevent More Community Tragedies, Says Trinidadian Professor

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An entire re-design of the USA’s police forces using equity-centered design thinking methods is vital to prevent further community tragedies and the dramatic erosion of police and community relations.

This is the opinion of Trinidadian born educator Dr. Lesley Ann Noel, Professor of Practice at The Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Dr. Noel, born in Trinidad to parents of Jamaican and Trinidadian descent, was responding to the recent wave of nationwide demonstrations against violent police practices seemingly targeting people of color, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks among others.

She believes that a complete re- imagining of policing practices nationwide is now necessary and that the new model must apply equity centered design thinking principles to be successful. Further delay in implementing real change and using the correct methods could be catastrophic.

Design Thinking Is Required To Re-Imagine Policing And Prevent More Community Tragedies, Says Trinidadian Professor1

According to Noel, “Design Thinking is a problem solving method that is borrowed from the field of traditional design. It uses the design process to rapidly develop innovative solutions, often to social problems. However, Equity-Centered Design Thinking focuses on building relationships and co-creating with the community, looking at and addressing systemic inequity and understanding power dynamics throughout the design process. It also focuses on empathy, collaboration and facilitation of conversations. This is desperately needed in our policing initiatives right away.”

Dr Noel believes that the USA is now at a tipping point regarding the relationship between our communities and law enforcement.

“The breadth and scope of the demonstrations we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was a sign that that people were rising up and saying to the police ‘Enough is Enough…We will not be treated this way any longer.’  And there were moments during those demonstrations where we saw glimmers of hope. The actions that those Minneapolis policemen perpetrated against George Floyd were universally condemned, even by most police departments nationwide, who were just as outraged. There seemed to be real opportunities for dialogue and change. And then suddenly it got worse.”

She found the Rayshard Brooks shooting to be particularly disturbing, coming as it did at a time when the wounds were still raw from George Floyd’s death so recently.

“That was a very frightening moment because it really felt as though Mr. Floyd’s death had never happened… That the demonstrations and pain and anger that were so recently on display had meant nothing. And it has, rightly or wrongly, lead to a public perception that white police officers simply lack empathy for African Americans.  And now there is just a complete lack of trust between the police and citizens- especially citizens of color.”

This is where she thinks that equity centered design thinking is not only timely but vital to improving, and possibly saving, police-community relationships

Dr. Noel is one of a new generation of design thinkers who focus on racial and social justice issues. She has developed a modified critical approach to design thinking, where the entire process starts with reflection on one’s own identity and the identities of others and how these materialize in both the design process and the proposed solutions. This approach helps people recognize diversity, and to see it as a strength in the design process, while co-creating solutions that are relevant to diverse users.

Using this approach, in 2019 she collaborated with the Crescent City Corps in Louisiana on a workshop using design thinking to co-create possible solutions towards improving relations between the New Orleans Police Department and the city’s residents. At the end of that one day project, both police officers and the participating residents revealed that they felt better able to understand each other, after spending the day creating solutions together.

“I believe that the one day experiment we did then can and should be expanded and employed at a more in depth level across the nation, perhaps starting in one or two pilot cities, followed by a national roll out. It would be in addition to- and not instead of- the additional work that the police force still needs to do internally in terms of recruiting, changing community interaction policies and increasing accountability within their ranks. Additionally, design thinking is already being used in legal and civic innovation and therefore could be a useful approach in redesigning systems that should ensure community safety around the world. So a lot does need to happen, and the time is now.”

Dr. Noel holds a Ph.D. in Design from North Carolina State University as well as a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of the West Indies and a Bacharelado (Bachelor’s degree) in Industrial Design from Universidade Federal do Paraná in Brazil. She is a former Fulbright Scholar and lecturer at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus in Trinidad and Tobago.

Before joining the Taylor Center at Tulane University, she was part of the 2018-2019 Ocean Design Teaching Fellowship at Stanford University, a group of fellows with extensive experience in design, ocean science, and international policy.

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