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How can the Caribbean prepare for a post-COVID-19 world?

Categories: Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago, Development, Disaster, Economics & Business, Governance, Ideas, Politics, COVID-19

Associate director for design thinking for social impact and professor of practice at Tulane University, Lesley-Ann Noel. Photo courtesy Noel, used with permission.

As is the case with a few other countries, the Caribbean is beginning to see a plateau in the numbers of new COVID-19 infections, as well as deaths resulting from the virus. Some regional territories, like Trinidad and Tobago, are supposedly meeting the criteria to slowly roll back lockdown protocols [1].

As Caribbean nations begin to look to the future, however, concerns abound as to how already vulnerable regional economies will adjust to a post-COVID world.

Lesley-Ann Noel [2], associate director for design thinking for social impact and professor of practice at Tulane University, believes that design thinking is a great way for Caribbean nations to reengineer many aspects of life — and governance — after the pandemic. Speaking with Global Voices via email, she explained how this might happen in the Caribbean context.

What is design thinking?

According to Noel, design thinking is a process — a mindset — that implements how designers think and work as a way of finding solutions to problems. The solutions that come out of this approach are typically empathetic responses [3] to human needs.

As the region faces heightened levels of both social and economic uncertainty, change is inevitable, leaving many questions as to how Caribbean governments intend to plan for the near future.

To Noel, it's the perfect opportunity for regional leaders to use the process of design thinking to plan for and implement change:

We have an opportunity to redesign many things after this pandemic. It's a good time to reengineer social services, education, healthcare, among other areas, particularly because all of the pre-COVID-19 ways [in which] we accessed these services will have to change once the ‘stay-at-home’ orders are lifted.

Design thinking, Caribbean style

Noel suggests that regional governments can first learn about the concerns and consider the solutions proposed by various members of the community:

Designers are […] very good at facilitating cross-disciplinary conversations. One of my favourite parts of the process is talking with people and learning about their concerns and dreams. Designers and design thinkers borrow anthropology skills to understand human needs. So, there is an opportunity to dig deep and check with people about the systems and services that do not serve them well. When we discover and pay attention to these ‘painpoints,’ we can design better solutions.

Of course, this measure can be paired with other techniques. Governments can also use a “prototype” approach, which many tech companies tend to use. They quickly find a solution to the challenge at hand, then follow up with people about the “efficacy of the solution.” After receiving this feedback, they can then make the required adjustments, as part of a design thinking process that is “participatory and collaborative.”

Caribbean governments can also use the creation of forums in which people propose expected solutions. This, Noel says, will allow leaders to see a variety of ideas and draw inspiration from unusual sources.

Can design thinking work in the region?

Many Caribbean territories still have rigid systems that make possibilities for change subject to high levels of bureaucracy. While Noel acknowledges that this type of red tape can get in the way of governments using design thinking, she believes the Caribbean's creative and experimental nature offers an ideal environment to test this type of thinking and devise practical solutions to pressing issues.

Even so, she cautioned against the temptation to think that “things can be fixed easily and quickly”, explaining, “Speed can also result in not listening carefully to people and properly analysing the issues deeply.”

Hope for education?

Noel thinks design thinking can work really well in the field of education [4] because it has the capacity to not only help plan for the future of schooling but also to “work out the kinks” in the region's educational systems.

As a collaborative effort, design thinking could allow stakeholders — teachers, students, parents and more — to come together, identify needs and challenges and propose and implement solutions. These will begin slowly on a small scale to be reviewed and then implemented by the government on a larger scale.

“A Designer's Critical Alphabet,” a card game developed by Lesley-Ann Noel, to introduce designers and design students to critical theory and help them reflect on their design process. Image courtesy Lesley-Ann Noel, used with permission.

Her second application would be to the curriculum, by implementing this problem-based methodology and adopting more creative mindsets in academic as well as everyday life. Noel's PhD research [5] considered these very theories within the context of a Standard 4 primary school class in the rural village of Moruga, in south Trinidad.

Governments like Singapore [6] have already used this type of thinking to reshape their country — from the way hospitals deal with elderly patients [6], to helping families deal with the mental and emotional aspects of family court [6] cases:

Noel is confident that this type of thinking will assist the Caribbean in coming together and thinking differently about the future. Interestingly, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has already begun to use this design thinking approach: the Ministry of Communications’ “Roadmap to Recovery” website [10] allows citizens to submit proposals for the ways in which they think the country should be re-opened.

The balance between optimism and realism that design thinking provides can also be used on a personal level post-COVID-19, Noel suggests:

One small way that people can use a design thinking approach in their personal lives might be in asking, ‘How might I create the future that I want post-COVID-19?’ and use the problem-solving approach and the experimentation and creativity to design several possible futures for themselves. That might help people move beyond the fear that this pandemic might create for us […] to a place of hope and possibility.

Rather than adding to the panic, design thinking offers a tangible way in which to bring people and ideas together, and come up with a practical, achievable roadmap for a better, more resilient region — one that is stronger together, and empathetic to wider societal needs.

Not only will this kind of thinking help shape a better future, Noel says, but it's already a part of Caribbean identity:

Caribbean people design [11] all the time [12]. So, this way of thinking is compatible with our way of life.