Design Thinking for Childrenchallenges-chat

Innovation is not all about technology. It’s often about how we can do things a bit differently to create value.

Policymaking is hard work. So it’s especially frustrating to see, after all the work is done, that policies end up sitting in a shelf somewhere, gathering dust, instead of being effectively put to use. Bringing design thinking and co-creation to policy-making is trying to make a positive difference for children in Nicaragua. 

Design Thinking for Children


Start Date: 2013-04


Focus Areas:

Region: Latin America and the Caribbean


Keywords: design thinking, human...


Children growing up in Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region face numerous constraints that make it difficult to thrive. Home to the largest concentration of indigenous and Afro-descendant children in the country, the region is also one of the poorest and most prone to natural disasters. This is discouraging as the country as a whole is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere and the world’s fourth most vulnerable country to climate change.

The complexity of these interwoven factors is a reminder that context does matter. When the region’s government and council decided to develop a Regional Policy for Children, it became clear that the policy needed to be crafted in response to these contextual complexities and not as a product of wishful thinking of well-intended people.

The human-centered design is a methodology that combines rigorous inquiry and creative analysis, drawing on the tools of ethnography, journalism, and systems thinking. Design thinking helps designers develop products that people want. It can also help policymakers put themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to serve with their policies, understanding what they truly want and care about, and what is possible given available resources.

In the course of eight months, a multi-sector working group composed of members of the Regional Council and Government in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region, supported by UNICEF Nicaragua and Reboot, a global social enterprise, journeyed through an interactive and innovative path to develop a human-centered Regional Policy for Children:

  • Identifying challenges using a quantitative survey (Lots Quality Assurance Sampling)
  • Building empathy and understanding priorities behind the numbers (over 350 people reached through design research tools, including children taking pictures of their favorite and least-liked parts of their communities)
  • Making connections and finding entry points (co-synthesis of findings and identifying policy objectives)
  • Peeling the onion (in-depth investigation to understand causes and bottlenecks, using service trials to make policy-makers understand people’s lived experiences from multiple angles)
  • Re-imagining the future (through a variety of design exercises, findings became actionable opportunities for the regional policy)

Meet The Team

  • Natalia Adler
    UNICEF Nicaragua
    Chief of Social Policy
  • Elisa Mandelli
    UNICEF Nicaragua, Social Policy
  • Gabriela Martínez
    > more
  • Milja Laakso
    UNICEF Nicaragua
    Social Policy Officer



With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in 2014 UNICEF is able to collaborate also with the authorities and civil society of Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua in applying design thinking into the making of the Regional Policy for Children and Adolescents.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States, and fosters good will abroad.
USAID's development program in Nicaragua, which focuses on democracy, education and citizen security, is designed to:

  • Promote democracy by training young, emerging democratic leaders and providing technical assistance to bolster civil society engagement and improve local governance.
  • Improve HIV/AIDS prevention awareness, counseling and testing.
  • Provide educational opportunities for at-risk youth through scholarships for children in grades 4-6 and for high school students in Nicaragua’s South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) that are highly vulnerable to drug trafficking.
Multi-sector working group

Under the leadership of the Secretariat on Women, Family and Children, a multi-sector working group composed of members of the Regional Council and Government in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region, was created to lead the policy-making process. For more information, please contact Delaida Wilson (


Reboot is a social global enterprise based in New York City with expertise in applying human-centered design to social development. Reboot worked with policymakers and UNICEF to transfer skills and capacity to enable their use of design thinking in the development of the Regional Policy for Children. They also conducted immersive design research, adding an in-depth lens to two policy priorities: (i) the problematic of single mothers; and (i) the issue of social values, discipline and self-development amongst children.

Project Updates

Empathy-driven field research

Designing for Children 2.0 is progressing well in the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) of Nicaragua. The Regional Government of the RAAS signed a formal work plan with UNICEF in early February, set up a co-creation lab, and formed a multi-sector working group to work as the policy design team within the government.

Following the steps of human centered design, the working group teamed up with civil society partners to co-create the field research tools to be used during community consultations. During several weeks, the team travelled to 22 afro-descendant, indigenous and mestizo communities in the region, engaging with hundreds of children, mothers, fathers, teachers and community leaders.

The goal was to understand and empathize with the day-to-day experiences of the people of the region. In each community, children showed the design team the way they experience their community by taking pictures of what they liked (or not). The findings of the field research have since been processed in a synthesis workshop and categorized into five themes for further in-depth research.

11 weeks 5 days ago by Milja Laakso

Design Thinking spreads to the South

Due to the success of applying design thinking into the policy-making process in Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region, the approach is now spreading to new regions in Nicaragua. The Government of the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua recently asked UNICEF to collaborate in the revision of the Regional Policy for Children and Adolescents. The collaboration was made possible with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It aims at putting the region’s people at the centre of the policy and at finding feasible and viable solutions and strategies to respond to their needs. The co-creation process was kicked off at the first induction workshop held at the region’s capital Bluefields. The multi-sectorial working group comprised by regional authorities and UNICEF Staff found common understanding on operationalizing empathy to address the complex, multi-ethnical realities of the region’s children and youth.


26 weeks 5 days ago by Milja Laakso

Regional Policy ready for approval


The Regional Policy for Children is ready (finally!) for review and approval. The process took place in 9 indigenous and Afro-descendant territories (32 communities) where 64 individual interviews and 32 focus groups were conducted by a multi-sector group of 26 government staff. A total of 285 people were consulted (85 community leaders) and 32 children participated by taking pictures of things they liked or not in their communities. The Regional Policy for Children contains 6 focus areas and over 33 innovative interventions based on “what people want and aspire to” (reflected through archetypes representative of different people). The interventions were identified through a series of co-creation consultations with representatives from 6 NGOs and close to 100 representatives from communal, territorial, municipal and regional government.


37 weeks 2 days ago by Milja Laakso

Spreading the Word

UNICEF and Reboot made a series of presentations on the topic in both Washington D.C. and New York in July and August, 2013. This has served to not only showcase the great work of the Government and Council of the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region but to disseminate an innovative approach to policymaking with UNICEF HQ, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Center of Social Innovation. 

48 weeks 6 days ago by Erika Pursiainen

Please get in touch with us if you would like to:

  • Share examples of the human-centered design in action in development work.
  • Know more about the process.
  • Support implementing some of the innovative and context-specific interventions coming out of the Regional Policy for Children.

Get Involved

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Empathy in Policymaking

Samantha Hammer: "Empathy in Policymaking". The Reeboot, January 30, 2014.

Report: Strengthening Children’s Rights Policy in Nicaragua

Villa, Rafael and Samantha Hammer. A Promise to Every Child: Developing a Regional Policy for Children in Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region. New York: UNICEF and Reboot, 2013. 

Introducing Human Centered Design into policy-making in Nicaragua

Adler, Natalia. “Introducing Human Centered Design into Policy-making.” Managua: UNICEF, 2013

Video: Diseñando para la niñez - Política Regional de la Niñez RAAN

UNICEF Television