A Slice of Silicon Valley in Washington, DC

Presently, the innovative concept of human centered design appears to be headquartered among the sleek, modern edifices of Silicon Valley. When one considers human centered design, one most surely conjures images of young professionals troubleshooting problems in cutting edge facilities located in sunny California. Imagine, then, one’s surprise upon discovering that one of the most influential hubs of human centered design is located not in Silicon Valley, but instead in the basement of a nondescript building in Washington, DC.

Sandwiched without fanfare between statuesque courthouses and pillared government buildings, the Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building houses The Lab@OPM. This lab, established by the Office of Personal Management in 2012, is one of the most notable successes of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation, which sought to reinvigorate innovation in the United States in order to boost the American economy and quality of life after the housing crash of 2008. The lab self describes their work with this mission statement: “We use human-centered design to build an innovative and creative Federal workforce putting people at the center of our problem solving process to improve public sector challenges.” With this purpose in mind, the Lab@OPM has been updating a multitude of the most flawed federal programs for the last several years.

Easily among its most highly publicized projects, the Lab@OPM was tasked in 2016 with revamping the much-maligned USAJOBS.gov, the federal employment portal famous for its plethora of glitches, error messages, and lack of navigability. Acting- OPM director Beth Cobert realized that USAJOBS.gov was so confusing that it was driving applicants to abandon their applications altogether, so she empowered the Lab@OPM to use their human centered design techniques to remedy the grave problem. After conducting a multitude of user interviews in order to derive insights that could transform an applicant’s experience and rapidly prototyping possible solutions to the dysfunctional software, the Lab rolled out an improved USAJOBS.gov. This revamped website boasted new features, including technology allowing applicants to track the progress of their applications, save progress on a pending application, and check on required documents without leaving the application process. The program was toted as a success, with director Cobert hailing the effort as, “improving our ability to attract the best and the brightest to apply for jobs in the Federal workforce.”


The Lab@OPM in the midst of its innovation process for the relaunch of USAJOBS.gov.

Besides the success of their USAJOBS.gov revamp, the Lab@OPM has enjoyed several similar successes. In 2015, they assisted the US Department of Agriculture to redesign its lunch application form, shortening the lengthy paperwork to a single page application. Current projects include improving the way veterans are trained and integrated into the workforce and adjusting federal employee healthcare plans to improve coverage. Silicon Valley might boast institutions such as IDEO as hubs of human centered design, but Washington DC’s Lab@OPM has proven itself a reputable source of innovation on the opposite coast of America.





Too Much Fried Rice

I spent eleven weeks in Indonesia this summer during which time I experienced the hospitality, kindness, and culture of the Indonesian people. I was so thankful to be welcomed into dozens of homes. As I shared meals with people all across the islands, I dined with the host of Indonesia’s Got Talent and enjoyed the culinary creations of world renowned chefs; but for the most part, I ate with impoverished families.

Fried rice from a Dutch restaurant in Jakarta 

The cheapest, most accessible food in Jakarta is nasi goreng, fried rice. The second most available food is mei goreng, ramen noodles. Wealthy families can afford to purchase meats and vegetables, but kids who take care of themselves and their younger siblings can often only afford a gas station meal.

I spent the majority of my summer in a slum city, Kampung Ambon. Every night, the kids and I would stop at a restaurant the size of my closet for instant noodles for 2000 rupiah, about $0.15. The kids never complained, but as we ate meal after meal, I grew to understand why the kids look half their age and don’t do well in school: they eat a pile of salted carbs for every meal.

Cooking fried noodles on a nearby island

After one bumpy train ride back to Jakarta from another part of the island, I picked up a Styrofoam container of dry noodles. As I added hot water, I realized there was a hole in the bottom. I put my finger on the whole and started shoving the burning-hot noodles in my mouth with the toothpick-sized plastic spork (I hadn’t been able to buy a meal in 24 hours). One of my teammates noticed and told me I was being ridiculous. I told him I was doing what the kids do when they encounter a defective container and can only afford one meal. He generously bought me another bowl of noodles. As I sat on the train station floor eating a dinner of which my mom would not have approved, I was moved to greater compassion for the kids of Kampung Ambon, and the Indonesian people as a whole.

Many Indonesians cannot afford anything of nutritional value, but even if they could, healthy food is really hard to find in Jakarta. This is surprising given that Jakarta is the second largest metropolitan area in the world. One would think that there would be a host of culinary options. Sadly, grocery stores are often sold out of vegetables and the unrefrigerated eggs rot shortly after arriving.

The question becomes, “How might we redesign the food distribution system in Indonesia?”. Obstacles to this process include government corruption, bureaucracy, and a limited food supply. I would recommend focusing on providing food to one kampung at a time, refining the system as it expands across the nation.

Innovation is the key

This is the post excerpt.

Welcome to a whole new class at Trinity Valley School. Mr. Bhatt and I are thrilled to partner on this honors course to give you all a taste of the intersections of economics, business, entrepreneurship and innovation. You will learn a lot. You may struggle a bit. But above all – you will grow. We look forward to what you design, develop, test, and reflect on as we move through this year.