An overview of our first THNKLab: Design Democracy

Steffie Verstappen
Article by: Steffie Verstappen
An overview of our first THNKLab: Design Democracy

“When you want to increase innovation, build your own greenhouse.”


This opening statement suited quite perfectly the very first THNKLab that took place at the PICNIC ’10 Festival on 23 September. THNK indeed built its own greenhouse and used it as a venue for the prototyping of its problem-solving approach. The focus of the THNKLab was on learning on all different levels. How does the learning process work, how to facilitate it and make it most efficient while making optimal use of the enormous diversity of people involved in the lab?


These very fundamental questions were explored by way of applying a generic design approach that focused on ways to resolve one of the more pervasive societal dilemmas of our time, the way in which we have designed our democracy: how to rebuild trust and bridge the gap between voters and politicians? The THNKLab created a temporary no-comfort zone: a transparent environment in which everyone can watch, with no fixed set-up, leading to an open discussion, but with a strict deadline and methodology.


Four teams, composed of individuals from very different backgrounds, embarked on this challenge together, aiming to have actually created something in the end—a meaningful prototype or set of prototypes. One team was composed of established professionals at management level: scientists, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, and administrators. The remaining teams consisted of citizens with a world of valuable experience and ideas. The teams went ahead and got to the meat of the question at hand surprisingly quickly. In the process, they were guided and inspired by four talented and engaging instructors of the Stanford that came over to Amsterdam especially for our THNKLab.

A circular process: Empathizing, defining, ideating, and testing

The process consisted of four different stages, prior to drawing conclusions about the final prototype: teams started off by empathizing, then went on to defineideate and finally to testtheir final prototypes by feeding them back to the initial user that they had empathized with. To challenge our comfortable situation, the overall lab was kicked off by grassroots journalist and scientist Jeff Jarvis and cultural philosopher Ad Verbrugge, who respectively offered a short argument in favor of and against democratic governance as ideal-typical notion of political order.

Empathizing: Ethnography is back

In the empathizing stage, all teams went out into the real world to put THNK’s human-centered approach into practice. All identified a random passer-by to interview on their perception of the current political order. Different passers-by—in THNK jargon they are called ‘users’—were questioned on their perceptions. Has the current democratic order reached a state of systemic crisis? Is there a gap between voters and politicians? How do you feel about your position vis-à-vis the political order? The outcomes of these ethnographic interviews went on to serve as the basis for the thought experiment that followed, in which participants attempted to get a handle on how to learn from and about others. How do we make sense of the wealth of information that they bring so that it sparks the unexpected ideas and insights that we are ultimately after?

THNKLab Design Democracy: The story 2
To solve real-world problems, one of the most important things you can do is empathize with others. #empathy #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

Defining: What is the actual problem?

The stage that followed is all about defining the problem by determining a point of view. These points of view are distilled directly from the empathizing interviews with users, and consist of three components: a description of the user, their need, complemented by the most important (and often surprising) insight we have had related to the user and their need. The most challenging part of this stage is to be as specific as possible. Reaching specificity is encouraged by yet another prototyping exercise: teams start off by noting what they have collectively captured about the position of their user and they iterate from there until maximum specificity is reached. Most importantly perhaps, this stage offers the opportunity to redefine the initial problem altogether, so that it becomes optimally relevant to and resonant with what was learned by talking to the actual user.

The problem definitions that our four THNKLab teams came up with were the following:

  • An engaged youth (user) needs to reveal to peers (need) the mysteries that he sees between complexity and simplicity (insight).
  • A wanderer lacking in maturity (user) needs to gain political experience and exposure (need) in order to regard politicians as friends (insight).
  • An unempowered student (user) needs to feel a concrete connection to society (need), because the world feels overwhelming without structure and it makes us feel lost (insight).
  • A reflexive and holistic troubadour (user) needs a podium to spread the word (need), because he has significant insights into man’s search for meaning (insight).
design democracy
How do we make sense of the wealth of information around us to spark the unexpected ideas and insights that we are ultimately after? Click To Tweet

Ideation by deferring judgment: "Yes, but" is not allowed

In the ideation phase that follows, four very different prototype ideas were picked by each team and further explored in terms of their presumed ability to help problem solve the situation of the team’s user. The most important characteristic of this stage of the process is awareness of the fact that we are not actually trying to find the right answer but, rather, that ideation offers us the opportunity to explore the available space within which to search for solutions.

Moment of truth: Testing our prototypes

The final phase of testing is all about physically designing your solution in order to speed up your evaluation of what things work and which ones do not. ‘Low resolution’ techniques are used in order to conserve time and energy, but still be able to make a fair first judgment about the feasibility of a certain idea. Each team was provided with their very own cartoonist team member, who added to the process by producing a telling illustration. The process of testing was then wrapped up by presenting the best prototypes to the user and receiving their feedback on whether they felt that the proposed solution would work for them.

From an Open Source political party to the singing potato

The different teams came up with diverse and highly innovative solutions. Many of them made use of the latest technologies related to mobile phone and Internet applications. For example, one of the suggested mobile phone applications made use of augmented reality in order to facilitate citizen access to information about urban planning and political parties’ positions on it. Another phone application facilitated a national Job Hopping Day that should offer citizens the opportunity to broaden their horizons by stepping into someone else’s shoes for the duration of one day each year and, thereby, gaining new insight into parts of society that were unknown to them before.

A real audience favorite was the prototype of the ‘singing potato’ that is to simplify complex messages by singing a song to you before you eat it. Variations on this idea might be the inscribed banana peel that reads: “My child died in the fields”, or the orange that is quoted to say: “I am cheap because I was grown by slaves”. In addition to the fact that this may offer an avenue to present challenging and invasive messages to an unusually wide consumer audience, it may also kick off a true reinvention of the uses of trash.

THNKLab Design Democracy: The story 3
The prototyping phase is all about physically designing your solution in order to speed up your evaluation of what things work and which ones do not. #prototyping #innovation Click To Tweet

Conclusion: We are onto something

Without exception, users were very excited about the prototypes that were being presented to them—the perfect proof that THNKLab participants listened to and empathized with their users very well, and that our approach actually works! Overall, the biggest message of the day was felt to be that we are on to something: we need to spread the word and share the energy. And apply it to the smaller, but surely also to the big and bold challenges of our time. In the end, creativity is about providing meaning, and preferably facilitating the emergence of shared meaning, by way of a hybrid approach that is able to provide a healthy basis from which society’s rich traditions and the organizational capacity of civil society can flourish.

To discover and prototype innovative solutions to today’s social challenges, join the THNK Creative Leadership Program. Visit the program page to find out if you qualify or contact us at