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ID Alumni Lead National Progress as Presidential Innovation Fellows

By Thaddeus Mast

April 10, 2023

Presidential Innovation Fellows
White House Initiative Selects ID Graduates From Thousands of Applicants

Every year a handpicked group of visionary leaders from across the United States convene in Washington, D.C., to imagine a better future for the nation. Over the past 10 years, three alumni from the Institute of Design (ID) at Illinois Tech have joined the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) cadre.

It was a pretty wild leap into uncharted territory. I had a role I loved at a great company, gravitytank [now part of SalesForce], but I had developed an itch for civic tech that first started a few years earlier with the launch of Code for America.
—Jed Wood (MDes 2005)
Jed Wood

Jed Wood

The PIF program was started in 2012 under the Obama Administration “to attract top innovators into government, capable of tackling issues at the convergence of technology, policy, and process.”

Jed Wood (MDes 2005), along with thousands of other industry experts, enthusiastically applied. He was among 17 experts ultimately admitted to the first PIF group and was placed on the RFP-EZ project that aimed to develop an online marketplace for easier and cheaper collaboration between tech companies and government agencies. The project tested his skills and his ability to learn on the fly, which were encouraged during his time at ID.

I did a lot of quick and dirty code hacking. I was also the de facto UX guy on the team. When I attended ID, I was a bit of a rogue in my interest in learning to code as a tool for creating prototypes and improving UX. Thankfully, faculty members were really supportive.
—Jed Wood (MDes 2005)

After the year-long program in the nation’s capital, Jed’s main takeaway was that collaboration in a sometimes stagnant environment is key to moving forward.

Jed became the first ID graduate to join the program, but he was not the last. ID prides itself on small classes with high collaboration and personal guidance, and its graduate school has the most alumni in the PIF program for its size. Now, a unique new dual-degree program—the Master of Design and Master of Public Policy and Administration (MDes + MPPA)—focuses on preparing students to effectively address complex civic and social challenges.

We often found government employees who really cared about their fellow citizens and wanted to make things better, but were stymied by policies or tradition. Finding those allies and joining them in creative problem solving is the best chance to get things done. Jumping in as the ‘private sector expert here to fix all the problems’ doesn't work.
—Jed Wood (MDes 2005)
Steven Babitch

Steven Babitch

Steven Babitch (MDes 2007) was selected in the 2015 PIF group, where he used his expertise in human-centered design in a nascent program that aimed to inject design thinking and modern product techniques into government. He was assigned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and tasked with discerning how to effectively share threat intelligence with industries and organizations in an effort to mitigate criminal and national security threats.

Angelo Frigo (MDes 2003) is the latest Presidential Innovation Fellow from ID, joining the 2020 cohort with less than two dozen other creative thinkers. He was attracted to the program after seeing the results of prior PIF groups, particularly the work that resulted in the program.

PIF Class of 2020

PIF Class of 2020

A background in developing a digital customer ecosystem for McDonald’s that included mobile ordering and drive-thru connections proved Angelo’s expertise in connecting physical and digital environments.

Angelo points to the late ID Distinguished Professor Emeritus Chuck Owen when describing the foundations of his design process learned at ID: “breaking down complex systems and abstracting goals to allow for creativity at each intersection.”

It’s OK to be bold as long as you’re disciplined. At ID, we believe that anyone can learn to step back, shine a light on a problem, and inspire action by showing—with possibility, but also reason and practicality—what an alternative future could look like.
—Angelo Frigo (MDes 2003)

Angelo partnered with the Office of Management and Budget to improve the public’s experience of federal agencies—in this case, treating the public as customers who should have a fully satisfying experience with their federal government.

Dean Anijo Mathew traveled to DC in March to meet with the Office of Management and Budget and discuss how it and other agencies might adopt more design-led innovation at the federal level.

Using design at the local and national level to improve our civic systems and institutions is an incredible opportunity, one in which our students are positioned to excel. What I find exciting is not just how ID students can help reimagine our systems and structures, but what they will forge in doing so. This is the kind of collaboration that will produce and determine new directions in design.
—Dean Anijo Mathew

The kind of design practiced at ID, where human-centered design and systems design were pioneered by people like Chuck Owen and Vijay Kumar, have since been widely adopted by large, forward-thinking businesses.

Today, the PIF program, ID’s Graduate School and Academy classes in Civic Design, as well as an increasing interest among students in the public sector, demonstrate design’s increasing influence and demand in government, nonprofit, and policy work.