The Future of Cities is Design for Social Innovation & Sustainability

By Casey Hrynkow
May 16, 2018
Patrick Newbery’s April 5th article, The Future of Business is Design is an inspiration for how civic government can move the needle on important initiatives and projects.

It is indeed uncanny how every relationship in the article can be changed from “business/customer” to “government/taxpayer or consumer of government services”. The following article riffs on Newbery’s ideas to bridge the business/government gap.

Do governments see value in design?

Design thinkers* are, more and more, welcomed into the planning stages of business. The unique angles at which they can attack problems, and bring tools for innovation to bear, have borne solutions of exponential movement towards a greater competitive edge. They also save lives, save money and break impasses.

Civic governments have been slow to adopt the private-sector model. It is partially a case of design being seen as an add-on, enhancement, nice-to-have or decorative skill brought in after all of the “heavy thinking” has been done. Governments are often slow to adopt the lessons learned from the business model. It is perhaps the fact that tenure is measured in relatively short amounts of time. The goals for modern governments seem more focused on re-election than making long-term plans to effect positive social change. And social change is usually predicated on economic growth. To be fair, there is obvious logic to this. Without the tax dollars generated by the economy, there is no money to put into social innovation. Taxpayers pay for the safety net, regardless of its size or strength.

The reality is that governments of all levels will play “hide the nut” with each other to shift responsibility from one level to the other and back again, using each other as scapegoats. Real innovation is disruptive. Elected people do not want to be disruptive (although there have been some outliers like Rudi Giuliani in New York and even Gregor Robertson in Vancouver). So, perhaps, I speak to the Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) of cities when I say that design thinking has the capacity not only to put your city on the map for creating positive change, but it can also save lives, and make lives better.

Design Matters

As Patrick Newbery says, “design matters”. The intervention of design thinking in tackling wicked problems like crime, elder care, homelessness and home affordability offers the opportunity to do something that actually works, rather than moving the problem from one shelf to another in hopes that it will just be less visible.

And here is the crux of why design matters. Is it what “we” had in mind as a governing body, or is it what “we” had in mind as a complete, healthy community?

Governments need to begin to look to design thinking to increase the quality of experiences for their communities. Civic initiatives are often evaluated by asking, does it do what we had in mind when we started? And here is the crux of why design matters. Is it what “we” had in mind as a governing body, or is it what “we” had in mind as a complete, healthy community? And “in mind”… real innovation is not something that comes from what is known, but from what is possible outside of the known. The true context in which the solution will be measured — the health of the community as a dynamic, living organism — is often not considered.

This is a big mistake. It is at the very least wasteful and at worst, arrogant. And it triggers the simple decision by the taxpayer (conscious or not): “Will I continue this relationship?”

Governments working with design need to redefine how they collaborate, by making sure that it is based on a shared perspective: what creates value for the actual consumers, in real contexts, in the face of real change. That’s what Design for Social Innovation is all about. (I will add here that I mean how governments work together with design thinking experts on social innovation, as well as how they work with users/consumers to listen and co-create innovation).

Designing Civic Life

Governments are creating experiences wittingly or unwittingly. They need to consider how these experiences impact their taxpayer as well as the future health of their communities as organisms. There are four attributes that are all integrally related:

  1. The Brand: What you stand for, why your users/taxpayers/consumers care about what you do (yes, governments have brands, and that doesn’t just mean their logos.)
  2. The value provided through your initiatives and services
  3. The quality of all the interactions a community has with you
  4. The future opportunities to deliver more value to your community

The dynamics of this relationship changes over time, but the objective must be for ongoing consumer engagement. Experience Design integrates brand relevance with a focus on engagement in order to sustain the government/consumer relationship. It addresses the behaviors of real people at every stage during the design process, creating value for the human experience.

As consumers of government services, they are the experts. Validating that fact and involving them in facilitated, open ended discussions about how to bring about change can be the key to success.

While the Experience Design perspective provides a good foundation for governments to collaborate with design, it doesn’t provide the answers to questions in advance. It’s a multi-purpose tool, and part of a tool’s value and effectiveness lies in people understanding what it can do, why to use it, and how best to use it:

1. Governments are rarely organized for delivering great end-to-end experiences
Governments are generally structured for operational efficiency. Exposing this structure to consumers is not seen as a good strategy, but this is what open government is all about. If governments make a move consumers don’t like, they’ll hear about it. Giving community members the right tools to help analyze, define and solve problems, scaled to meet their time constraints and knowledge levels, allows governments to involve consumers in the creation of new, more positive experiences by using design thinking. And the public’s knowledge is not always constrained. As consumers of government services, they are the experts. Validating that fact and involving them in facilitated, open-ended discussions about how to bring about change can be the key to success.

2. Brand is what you do, not just what you say
As a government, you have a brand whether you actively manage it or not. Your brand is an asset that can both appreciate and depreciate, depending on how it is used. Figuring out how to “be true” to the brand means that it must be defined, used, and managed in a holistic way. Experience Design provides a way to integrate all the different constituents concerned with the meaning of the brand, including the consumer.

3. Design will only take you where you let it
When design is seen simply as a stage in a process, it will inherit all of the decisions made prior to design starting. If these decisions are based on assumptions or lack of adequate information, the result is a set of criteria that can significantly undercut design’s ability to improve things. At the same time, if the designer’s focus is too narrow, important needs and considerations that should be addressed are left out.

This is where design comes in. It provides tools for assembling and accounting for a variety of inputs including those from government, consumer and brand needs, production constraints, support requirements and more, helping cross-functional teams understand and prioritize information.

The concepts in Newbery’s article sketch out, at a high level, what design and design for social innovation & sustainability might offer to shift social constructs that trap people in hegemonic straightjackets.

Given the freedom to understand and offer analysis of a problem from their own perspective, consumers of government can surprise that government with the insights and guidance they can provide to carry an issue forward and work to solve it beyond the tenure of a sitting government.

As a design firm, Ion has had long-running success with civic governments in both shaping the future for communities as well as shifting culture around things like recycling and wellness. We have facilitated community involvement in shaping not only the language around these complex issues, but in helping the community define what the better future feels like. This emotional connection builds an authenticity to messaging that can’t just be manufactured.

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