Mariama N'Diaye, a design fellow at the MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD), works to transform the public sector through design thinking and innovation. With a diverse background in urban planning and business administration — she’s pursuing a dual master’s degree at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the MIT Sloan School of Management — N’Diaye has dedicated her career to addressing complex social issues within government systems and uplifting marginalized communities.
“Several years ago, my very first summer on the job [at Bloomberg Associates], my boss printed out IDEO’s design toolkit and said: I haven't seen this toolkit before but I want us to see if there are any opportunities to use it in our work,” N’Diaye recalls as a pivotal moment in her design journey. “In my work, I found that we were often making a lot of assumptions about people’s experiences and the way things ought to be done. I realized that the very individuals who should be at the forefront of public sector initiatives were usually left out of the decision-making process,” she observes. “These experiences made me fall in love with design and the possibilities it offered. I kept thinking: how can we design things better, working with the public sector?”
During her time at Bloomberg Associates, N’Diaye served as a project manager on the social services team for four years, making a tangible impact on communities worldwide. From initiating the first “homeless count” in Paris, France, to streamlining support services for migrant populations in Milan, Italy, N’Diaye consistently found herself applying design thinking to re-imagine public sector initiatives and better serve communities. In the city of Houston, Texas, her focus was to reduce the number of students being arrested on school campuses, while her last project, in Lima, Peru, involved working with the city to create a domestic violence awareness campaign during the first year of Covid-19.
The public sector can be challenging to navigate. It is often characterized by bureaucratic processes, diverse stakeholder interests, and a multitude of complex problems to solve. Government practitioners usually operate in a fast-paced environment with limited time for structured learning, making it difficult to implement traditional curriculum-based approaches. The reliance on existing frameworks and a lack of testing and adaptability are additional factors that can hinder the successful implementation of innovative solutions.
As N’Diaye quickly discovered, integrating design thinking into government practices effectively was both a considerable opportunity, and a significant challenge. “There are three questions that keep popping up: how do we engage? Who do we engage? And to what extent do we engage?” summarizes N’Diaye, explaining the principles of engagement ladders and underlining how demanding it can be to identify “community champions.” All these questions, combined with a political environment in which everyone has different motivations conditioned by short election cycles, can be taxing.
A Black woman who grew up in New York City’s Little Senegal — which she describes as “an amazing enclave of culture and dynamic relationships among Senegalese and West African people” — N’Diaye used her own life experiences to reflect over the years, trying to understand what it means to be a Black person in America. “Traveling the world to other places where my extended family lives, such as Paris’s banlieues (the suburbs), I realized: you’re dealing with the same things — housing issues, transportation issues, police, education … I started to map patterns showing how Black communities in predominantly Western spaces are usually in the margins of society. This became my undergrad thesis, and all this connects to design thinking, because I always try to understand why this is happening,” she says.
Keen to deepen her understanding of design thinking and government innovation, N’Diaye pursued a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed her to study how different cities support migrant communities and the role of design thinking within those contexts. Her research in various European cities — Milan, Paris, and Dresden — during the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the potential of design thinking even amidst adversity.
Using design thinking as a lens also helped her see past conventional tropes: “I keep hearing people saying: government is bureaucratic and slow; everyone is corrupt … But I just refuse to believe that! I just refuse to believe that there are so many people who are all corrupt, not wanting to change society,” exclaims N’Diaye, calling herself “a pissed-off optimist,” quoting George Aye, an ex-IDEO designer. “Over time, I decided to give people the benefit of the doubt and say: if our approach was different, then that may spark some change. And then, I saw design thinking in action, being implemented. I saw amazing work happening in Atlanta and Houston. Our work in Milan felt transformative at the time. I really believe that there’s enough good and motivated people to create change,” she adds.
At MIT, building upon her experiences and pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning as well as an MBA, N’Diaye has been collaborating with the Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB), more specifically on redesigning the Lean Governance Innovation Design (LGID) curriculum. At its core, LGID focuses on empowering government practitioners to tackle complex challenges and drive innovation within the public sector. By combining principles of design thinking, behavioral science, systems thinking, and entrepreneurial methods, LGID equips practitioners with the tools and mindset needed to navigate the intricacies of implementing innovative solutions. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of collaboration, iteration, and continuous learning, guiding practitioners through the entire innovation life cycle, from problem identification to solution implementation. N’Diaye also assisted GOV/LAB in a recent project in Freetown, Sierra Leone, collaborating with the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation on assessing a multi-agency innovative effort's obstacles to successful uptake.
Looking ahead, N’Diaye considers not only end-users within communities who could benefit from improved public policies, but also public servants working in the field. “I'm really passionate about mid-level managers in government, civil servants who are busting their behind to create innovative change within their bureaucracies,” she says. Especially interested in positively impacting people in Africa, N’Diaye wants to enable change agents within governments to tackle a vast array of challenges such as pre-K enrollment, criminal justice system, high school graduation and college attendance, and unemployment.
Considering her time at MIT and the MAD fellowship, N’Diaye appreciates the transformative experience it has been for her: “I got to travel and read books that weren’t part of my curriculum. I’ve gotten the chance to take all kinds of courses. I love learning, and that’s something MAD has truly supported.”
Collaborating with other MAD fellows and being sought after for her expertise across the MIT Sloan campus has reinforced her belief in the potential for design thinking to have a broader impact across disciplines. “I have had the luxury of time, and the ability to dive deep into my areas of interest,” she says, describing how this allowed for both professional and personal growth. “Hadn’t it been for MAD, I would not have had as much design-oriented work this year. I think I’ve figured out my path in life. I keep being brought back to design and governance, but somehow, this is the first time I got to dive fully into it, exploring what it means to me and shaping who I want to be as a designer,” she concludes.