Ensuring a people-centric perspective for sustainable peace : Take-aways from the Fragility Forum Design Thinking Solutions Labs

by Viola Csordas & Camilla Arvastson · August 4th, 2020.

During the virtual World Bank Fragility Forum 2020, as announced in a previous blog post, we hosted a design thinking (DT) solutions lab on "Improving Service Delivery Through Security Sector Governance and Reform (SSG/R)". The session aimed one the one hand at operationalizing the linkages between SSG/R and building sustainable peace, and on the other hand leveraging DT as a methodology to ensure a people-centric lens throughout project design processes.

While we are going to continue to further develop and build on DT as a project design methodology, we already wanted to share some first impressions from our workshops and the plenary session.

Design thinking for a human security lens to project design

A people-centered approach is key to tackling fragility, conflict and violence, as stated in the World Bank’s Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence and the Sustainable Peace agenda focusing on a bottom-up approach from the local to the global level. Similarly, the OECD-DAC highlights, in the 2018 States of Fragility report, that people-centred development has the best chance at enduring, sustainable results”. Particularly for conflict prevention and peacebuilding interventions, aiming to address inequalities, exclusion and discriminations that fuel grievances, such a people-centric approach is essential for sustainable results.

And yet, while certain types of SSG/R methodologies have started focusing on community security and justice needs, such as our community based approach to criminal justice assessments, this lens is not consistently applied.  Covid-19 related restrictions on travel and hence access to vulnerable populations and marginalized groups have further increased the distance between SSG/R project design processes and individuals.

DT has been developed as a problem-solving methodology for user-friendly product development in the business world. Extrapolating this focus on the end-user to use as a methodology into the SSR world offers a way to think about improving service delivery (of security and justice services by the government) to meet the needs of the end-users (individual users of security and justice services). Applied this way, DT offers an approach to develop human-centric solutions, keeping the individual at the centre of project and programme design.

One of Design Thinking’s core assumptions is that it develops user-centric problems by constant feedback loops between idea, feasibility and users.  This is done with the aim to identify underlying issues and create solutions that might not be instantly apparent - and frame them in a people-centric way. And on the other hand, ongoing testing and piloting of ideas creates strong feedback loops and reality checks that allow for adaptive and flexible planning.

Therefore, this methodology could be very valuable for any project working in fragile and complex environments, as its flexibility going back and forth along the five phases makes it a dynamic tool and helps anchoring human security and local ownership into an SSG/R programme. Moreover, in the face of ongoing travel restrictions, DT offers a way to include as much of a field perspective throughout the process as possible.

Examples from the Fragility Forum Solution Labs

For the Fragility Forum, we took participants of small group sessions through  DT’s five-step approach, Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test, to explore user-centric solutions for four fictional personas in Iraq who were facing various security and justice challenges. While applying a user-centric lens, this also offered concrete examples of how SSG/R can be applied to tackle root causes of conflict and fragility, and helped participants identify mechanisms aiming to increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of the security and justice sector, as well as define a positive role for the security and justice sector, so it reinforces pockets of resilience within communities.

Working on the story of Wasim, an internally displaced young man who had to flee his community due to ongoing conflict, and had been exposed to the impact of natural disasters in his informal settlement, participants focused on a range of possible solutions. These varied e. g. from building community resilience to better adapt and manage natural disasters, to the integration of leadership and civil-military relations into the education and training of security personnel.

Other groups were working on the situation of Alem, a man whose belongings had been stolen and who faced problems with the justice system, identified urban security and access to security as the main problem to tackle through increased trust, effectiveness and security forces presence. An other group focused on the importance of access to justice on both local and federal level.

Finally, some groups were working on the situation of Aisha, a young female student who had experienced police violence when protesting against poor governmental services and corruption, and was looking to hold the responsible officers accountable. Some of the prototypes identified the need to build trust through better training and internal management of the police forces, whereas other prototypes discussed effective accountability mechanisms and decentralization as areas of focus.

Does DT work for security and justice project design?

When designing security and justice sector reforms in fragile contexts, there are several inherent tensions, trade-offs and conflicting objectives to be reconciled. The DCAF Fragility Forum DT solutions labs showed first evidence that design thinking can be a useful methodology to help tackling some of them:

In order for SSG/R to prevent conflict and contribute to building peace, it requires a bridge over the gap dividing the security and justice sector on the one hand, and communities and individuals on the other. Design thinking works extremely well to make sure that the stories, problems and needs of the individual end users of government services stay at the center of SSG/R design process.

In fragile and conflict-affected spaces, there is also the question who should be providing security and justice services, whether it is the state and its official institutions as the main service providers, or more informal, community driven solutions, such as traditional leaders, customary justice and vigilante groups. Approaches that integrate, top down and bottom up tools, building  community capacity and facilitating institutional intake of local knowledge and local solutions, can provide the necessary balance. Design thinking, by focusing on the individual, was able to provide a useful perspective, especially because it gives space to fully take into account individual level capacities and communities’ resources. In turn, such approaches can support beneficiaries to become agents of change and strengthen the social fabric.

Another tension that became apparent in the group work is having to decide between aiming for structural, legal and strategic reforms, or focusing on behavioral changes, such as leadership training, sensitization and introducing performance incentives in human resource management. Finding the right balance is key, and design thinking’s focus on the individual can also be used to analyze security and justice institutions from an individual’s perspective, through -for example- the eyes of the individual police officer and solider. From a peacebuilding perspective, this can help break up perceptions of “out- groups” and “us vs. them”, ending the cycle of dehumanization by bringing into individuals into focus. Therefore, DT underlines the fact that approaches that focus only on the tangible, the technical side of SSG/R risk, fall short of sustainable changes.

Policy makers also have to navigate between the strategic planning level, dealing with budgets and results frameworks, while making sure that policies are still relevant for the individual. Strengthening feedback loops between policy makers and communities is a necessity to the institutional reform processes to community needs. Strengthening these feedback loops can be done for example through public perception surveys, participatory assessment and evaluation methodologies, and design thinking methodology can contribute to bridging that gap and include the individual in institutional reform processes, adding for example people-centric lens to Public Financial Management and budgeting processes.  

Similarly, the small group work put a spotlight on the difficulty of developing concrete and actionable proposals, while taking into account the holistic nature of SSG/R and subsequently, the high level of complexity for interventions required to truly address the underlying problems. Design thinking can be adapted to take this complexity into account and offers a unique opportunity to developed multi-facetted solutions. We’ve observed groups which started with the same persona ending up with very different prototypes, identifying different focus areas and emphasizing different angles of the same problem, Therefore, going through the design thinking process with as many and as diverse groups as possible to ideate and prototype as many different proposals as possible is a valuable first step. Then in the end, all these have to be merged and brought back together into a testable prototype which includes all the various perspectives. Done this way, DT has a huge potential to come close to presenting a comprehensive picture.


The lessons from our session at the World Bank’s Virtual Fragility Forum show a great potential to include DT into strategy, programme and project design for reforms in fragile and complex environments, particularly for holistic reform programs such as SSG/R. Our session at the Fragility Forum is one aspect of our continuous work developing cutting-edge methodologies for SSG/R programming and we are working on further developing DT as a useful methodology for people-centric SSG/R programming in the future. 

Additional resources 

Design Thinking Workshop: Improving Service Delivery Through Security Sector Governance

Design Thinking Workshop: Presentation of prototypes and initial findings

- Presentation document

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