Want Safer Communities? Try Design Thinking

Americans have long been enamored with technological progress and the latest high-tech gadgets. However, the Design Thinking trend that has transformed business over the last decade recognizes how even the greatest technology must be firmly rooted in a human centered approach.

Protecting our communities is no different.

While the seemingly stolid field of security appears far removed from a concept beloved by Silicon Valley, understanding those protected, those protecting and those wishing to do harm is fundamentally a human endeavor. Unfortunately, the security checklist of many organizations emphasize the physical and technological, such as cameras and locks, rather than how these tools are supposed to interact with humans, which creates a serious gap in their capabilities.

For example, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy at least 400 schools in a dozen states have installed panic buttons before the start of this academic year, certainly a laudable move. Nonetheless, it leaves unanswered the central question of if and how these devices are being paired with training for staff, students and parents to create a more comprehensive security architecture for these institutions. Such training efforts would enable a school's key constituencies to identify warning signs and ensure, as much as is possible, that these devices would never have to be used.

Even professional security operations have similar human deficiencies, such as shown when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab--the "underwear bomber"--successfully boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in 2009. In addition to the intelligence red flags before his flight, that Abdulmutallab started a long international journey with only a small carry-on and paid for his ticket entirely in cash could have alerted personnel that he deserved additional screening attention. Instead, he sailed through metal detectors that missed the container he was carrying filled with the explosive powder PETN.

In fact, schools, as do faith-based communities and nonprofits more generally, have the added challenge of protecting large and active communities with only limited resources. In these cases we must employ business creativity guru Jacob Goldenberg's principle that the most innovative answers are derived from, "turning the source of the problem into the foundation of the solution." In this regard, by engaging volunteers from these same communities through training and raising awareness we can significantly complement their security preparedness. Not only is this cost effective, but community stakeholders and volunteers also have the cultural familiarity to better identify suspicious behavior and out-of-place objects in their environments, thereby addressing a situation long before it escalates into a serious incident.

The Jewish community, which faces acute security challenges, provides a few case studies of how this can be applied in practice. For instance, the nonprofit Community Security Service (CSS) embraces a civic focused model by training volunteers from the community in professional operational security techniques. The more than 3,000 people who have been trained by CSS not only saved millions of dollars to participating organizations, but their unparalleled knowledge of their institution enables them to also act as sophisticated "eyes and ears" for the police. During the recent Jewish High Holy Day period, CSS volunteer teams helped protect dozens of synagogues across 3 states over this high-risk time.

Another example is The Jewish Federations of North America and Secure Community Network becoming the first faith-based community to partner with the Department of Homeland Security in their "If You See Something, Say Something" public awareness campaign. By producing tailored materials that resonate with their constituents, these organizations are empowering their members to take a responsible role in their own safety and thus flipping the focus from technology to people.

This approach should not be understood as condoning or encouraging the creation of a fortress-like or alarmist mentality. Indeed, our openness and embrace of others is the great strength of both our communities and our country. Rather we must seek to foster a "culture of responsibility" that enables participation from so-called "ordinary people" who are simultaneously the most affected and most able to contribute to their security. Cameras, bollards (physical traffic barriers), and the myriad of emerging technological tools of course have an important role to play, yet a smarter path is to layer them with an informed and engaged community. Only when a janitor, parent, student or congregant notice something odd and notify proper respondents will we have fully utilized our best asset--people.

The Great Recession has taught us all to do more with less. Applying innovative human-centric techniques that enable civic engagement around these issues not only will create quantitative savings, but also qualitatively better security for our family, our friends and our communities.