Designing for Digital Thriving: Reimagining what good looks like online

How might we design healthy, inclusive digital spaces that enable individuals and communities to thrive?

In partnership with

Riot Games, Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Fair Play Alliance and IDEO

The Challenge

In 2022, we launched an initiative to establish and champion responsible design practices that foster healthy, inclusive communities in a rapidly changing digital world. From October to December, we hosted an open innovation challenge to invite the world to share with us their design frameworks and tools, and propose innovative ways of interacting and creating digital spaces, that build a shared foundation for responsible design.

The Outcome

We received 179 submissions from around the world with our Open Call! Following multiple rounds of evaluation with 50+ judges, design reviews, and partner workshops, we awarded a total of $200,000 across the top 10 proposals.

Challenge Question:

How might we design healthy, inclusive digital spaces that enable individuals and communities to thrive? 

Open Innovation:

Open innovation is a participatory, decentralized approach to innovation that iterates on the ideas of many to make the greatest impact, the fastest. 

This work can’t be done alone. In contrast to the traditional innovation model which involves a select group working behind closed doors, open innovation seeks to invite unlikely suspects into the creative process, tapping their diverse experience to generate insights and accelerate ideas.

For IDEO, open innovation is a collaborative approach to social impact that brings people together worldwide to share expertise and build on each other’s ideas, driving change further and faster than operating in isolation.

Challenge Themes:

To prompt submissions, participants were prompted with opportunity areas, which include:

Theme 1: Welcoming All Voices

Theme 2: Fostering Healthy and Resilient Digital Spaces

Theme 3: Building a Digital Future for Kids and Families

Open Call Highlights:

Challenge Winners:

Meet our Winners!

Global Nomads Group Content Creation Lab - $50,000

Fostering Digital Wellness Through Education and Empowerment - $50,000

Plot Twisters: Online Game World for Nurturing Self-Reflection & Emotional Literacy - $50,000

Take Another Perspective: A Character-Playing Simulation - $10,000

Transform Youth Mental Health Through Innovative Peer Support - $10,000

Tilli's Digital Safety Magic Box | Playful Learning for Kids and Caregivers - $10,000

Tempok: A Coming of Age Ritual for Digital Life - $5,000

JOTLANDIA: Collaborative Storytelling for Kids and Adults - $5,000

Deep Data Detectives (D3) Adventures - $5,000

Gamifying Digital Literacy for Older Adults to Increase Autonomy - $5,000

Emerging Themes for Future Design:

Mental Health Support Needs to be Engaging, but No Longer Needs to be Smothered in Chocolate
This arose most clearly in our sessions with Headstream, and was a strong theme across the challenge submissions. As a positive sign that we may already well be on the path to destigmatizing mental health, there appears to be a growing acceptance and desire for clear mental health supports as a part of everyday living. Plot Twisters and Uplift both center mental health in their messaging, without any need to disguise the core reason for their existence. How might we continue to elevate mental health support in an environment that is increasingly more receptive to these resources?

Play as the Vehicle to Foster Empathy, Immersive-ness, and Perspective-taking
Digital spaces are varied and have multifaceted needs. Reviewing the submissions of this challenge revealed how play is here to stay as a strategy for thriving and inclusive communities. Across cultures and ages, play is a universal need that resonates deeply with humans. We see this taking a few different forms. People are craving immersive experiences – ones that support transformation of our behaviors and our society at large. Participatory and collaborative forms of play create a sense of belonging and empathy to help spark joy in otherwise difficult or uncomfortable moments. Across all ten winners, we see play emerge – from straight out games to character play experiences to lighter touch gamified interactions. Ask Mabel, Plot Twisters, and Tilli’s Magic Box use games as a method to increase autonomy, nurture emotional literacy, and support social-emotional learning. Digital Wellness Institute, Take Another Perspective, Jotlandia, and Tempok show the power of engaging experiences for learning, storytelling, and resilience. And finally, Deep Data Detectives, Global Nomads Content Creation Lab, and Uplift demonstrate play as a means of community and connection building.

I’m Not Just a Soccer Parent…I’m a League of Legends Parent + Reshaping our Relationship to Screen Time
Many of our top proposals have addressed the need for building better connections between younger digital users and their parents and caregivers. Rather than viewing technology as a wedge that pushes generations further apart, they are seeing opportunities for families to support one another and strengthen their ability to thrive in digital spaces. We’re all familiar with the ways a parent can be supportive of their child’s participation in sports - helping them practice to refereeing games, managing teams, talking them through the lessons of the experience, and even the coveted orange slices to boost the energy. What if parents had the same knowledge and capacity to support their child’s online exploration? How might a child gain better tools and develop emotional skills as they navigate the complexities of digital spaces? To develop positive habits and relationships to technology and communities they build online? Many of our proposals shared exciting ways that families can take the digital journey together. A number of our winners such as Tempok, Tilli’s Magic Box, and Jotlandia focused particularly on intergenerational relationships with technology.

The TL;DR about Gen Z and Digital Thriving
As part of the evaluation process, we held a pair of workshops with Youth Advisors from Headstream, an organization focused on influencing and reshaping the social tech, ed-tech, and digital health sectors to better serve the needs of young people. In reviewing some of the top proposals, the advisors were able to unpack and explore many of the tensions inherent in digital spaces, including what equity and accessibility might look like, and what types of tools they are likely to actually use. This Challenge was a way to inspire insights from what matters - and what doesn’t - to Gen Z as they pursue digital thriving.  

Defining Digital and Embracing Fluidity

Exploring this challenge has revealed nuance and complexity around how we might define digital spaces and interpret digital thriving. While it might be convenient to think of digital spaces as distinct and opposite to physical ones, many of the most exciting proposals and stakeholders acknowledge a blurring of these boundaries. People - especially digital natives - shift fluidly between virtual and IRL experiences. For them, thriving can’t be compartmentalized into just one space or the other. This is a nod to our evolving understanding of what we might all need to nurture our well-being more holistically.  

The Ecosystem of Digital Thriving

The challenges to digital thriving can’t be solved in a vacuum and encompass much more than mental wellness. Our well-being in digital spaces is affected by many actors that form an ecosystem of resources and support. Tech companies and the gaming industry must work alongside families, expert organizations, government, media, and other industries to fully support the vision of creating healthy online and IRL experiences. The initial research on Digital Thriving by the FPA is rooted in gaming as a foundation/ microcosm for digital communities. The Challenge helped ground these initial Digital Thriving definitions and insights in tangible outcomes and expanded the community conversation to examine how digital spaces, mental health and other resources can come together. Ask Mabel looks at how digital literacy enhances confidence and wellbeing in aging adults, while Utsawi combines mental health tools with fintech and peer support to lift up young women in conflict-affected regions.

Inclusion May Take Different Forms around the World, but Everywhere there is a Need to Bring in Voices that have Traditionally been Excluded

At the start of the Challenge, we debated what terms to use: “BIPOC,” “DEI,” “marginalized,” “underrepresented.” While different words may be used around the world, there are groups in every region that have traditionally been left out of – or worse, harmed by – shared digital spaces. This challenge helped to surface a number of groups that we can empower through digital spaces designed intentionally for and with them. Ask Mabel aims to empower aging adults, Utsawi gives young women in crisis zones a chance at success, Busara Center finds ways to identify caste-based discrimination in India and introduce interventions, Liberate the Block and Dah-Varsity encourages BIPOC students, and Karam provides leadership opportunities to young Syrian refugees.

Authenticity and Accessibility in Digital Learning

In today’s ecosystem, learning extends far beyond the classroom. With remote learning apps being a core need, people desire more tools and platforms beyond streaming–experiences that create connected, intimate, and personalized experiences. This challenge saw submissions from around the world place emphasis on supporting accessibility (from diversity and inclusion in representation to key features like transcription and adaptable UX) and showcasing vulnerability and authenticity in voice. There was a great range of digital learning strategies and tools demonstrated - such as immersive gaming (Plot Twisters), text-based learning (Ask Mabel), data science in community development (Data Detectives), and even 360° production studios used to promote digital togetherness (Uplift).

What's next?

Though this Challenge has concluded, the work toward building healthy, inclusive digital spaces that enable individuals and communities to thrive is far from complete. Here are some concrete events to look forward to promoting our mission:

  • SXSW panel at Design Track in March 2023: This panel will feature  Michelle Lee (IDEO), Michael Preston (Cooney Center), Weszt Hart (Riot Games) & Natasha Miller (FPA) to share learnings from the Digital Thriving research project with the outcomes of the challenge.
  • U.S. Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) roundtable in early 2023: This roundtable will be an opportunity to bring together a gaming influencer, Dr. Murthy, and a mental health expert moderator, for frank conversation about the opportunities for digital gaming spaces in promoting connection, fostering wellness and how these fit into the U.S. national health policy agenda.
  • Game Developers Conference Presentation of Digital Thriving Taxonomy in March 2023: This open innovation challenge sits in the context and was intended to pressure test an emerging knowledge base co-created by the Fair Play Alliance and Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop through their Digital Thriving Project.  The aim is to present a collection of well-founded, promising and proven approaches, toward the development of a playbook for digital thriving, supported by the Riot Games Social Impact Fund at this annual conference

Call to action:

We'd love to hear from you! Please reach out:

Contact us if you are interested in partnering to bring one (or more) of these ideas to life, if you want to talk to us about how digital thriving is showing up in your own companies/ communities, or if you're interested in working with IDEO's Play Lab to tackle a different bold initiative together.

Stay tuned for more opportunities on how to support these winners and continue the conversation on designing for #digitalthriving.