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Designing for Cities by Paul McConnell, Michael Clare

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Chapter 1. Introduction

Connected products, services, and platforms are increasingly appearing in cities as shared public resources and civic management tools, reshaping the way we live within urban environments. By understanding diverse populations within cities and by prototyping solutions to address civic challenges, designers can create experiences that provide value for citizens, government, and commerce.

As the world becomes more urbanized and connected, common design methods—such as creative problem solving, prototyping, and testing with people—can be applied to help cities, allowing civic stakeholders and commercial interests to meet the rising expectations of citizens and to improve infrastructure, management, and quality of life.

This report contains background, examples, and approaches for leading civic-centered efforts gleaned from our efforts at developing products and services in New York City with our partner teams at Intersection. Our work designing solutions for stressed commuters with our Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) NYC subway project, harried travelers at LaGuardia Airport, and an entire diverse city for the largest free municipal WiFi network in the world (LinkNYC) has given us ripe opportunities to develop methodologies for designing large-scale, technology-enabled experiences.

Even if your current assignments don’t directly involve civic projects, the techniques detailed within this report can help bring form to ambitious ideas, as there will always be a need to align large groups of stakeholders, apply form to emerging technology, and make relevant connections to people you’re trying to help.

Unique Challenges to Designing for Cities

Though designing for cities and designing for the private sector have many similarities, there are challenges unique to the scale of urban environments. When designing for the private sector, designers usually have the luxury of being able to narrow the demographic they’re serving to an isolated target market. In contrast, with civic design, you must design for diverse populations and cultures with unique goals. When designing for commerce, you need to ensure your solution generates value for your consumer. And for business, civic design may require that you also create value for the community or city government. Finally, designing for commerce historically focuses on a single product or service controlled by an organization, while civic design requires the understanding of how a solution will fit into a complicated system of stakeholders with unique objectives.

Changing Landscape

Digital technology is fundamentally changing the way we live in and interact with the world. It is no longer confined to specific objects, as it was when we could point to a television, radio, or telephone and identify them as individual pieces of technology. Digital technology is now an additional layer on top of many of the touchpoints and spaces with which we interact. This new landscape is causing organizations, both public and private, to adjust core practices or entirely reinvent themselves to stay relevant.

Amid these massive changes, cities around the world are trying to figure out how to best use technology to shape and improve their futures. They want to understand what value technology might bring, and how to develop, implement, and support innovation that will enhance the operations of different government agencies, serve as ways to generate revenue or reduce expenses, and improve quality of life for citizens. These challenges that cities are facing represent a chance for designers to help define opportunities and shape future experiences in cities. Leveraging their expertise in systems thinking, understanding people, and shaping concepts for diverse stakeholder groups, designers are poised to play a key role in designing for cities.

Why Are Designers Suited for This Challenge?

The methods and approaches that are core to creative and empathetic problem solving—already native to the design community—are suited to help address the ongoing challenges in cities. There is a unique opportunity for those who can ask the right questions, empathize with people, facilitate discussions, and bring form to ideas. Thinking like a designer is not limited to those who might consider themselves a professional designer. These capabilities can be extended to urban planners, government employees, entrepreneurs, technologist, and active members of the community. The following are traits often seen in designers that add great value when working at the urban scale.

Understanding people

Designers place extraordinary value on understanding people in order to shape effective solutions. Many in the design community have embraced the popular human-centered design approach in order to develop concepts for products and services. This approach builds on methods traditionally associated with ethnographic research, industrial design, and interaction design. As the name implies, the people that designers are trying to help are at the center of their process. By understanding their needs, behaviors, and motivations, the method promotes more relevant solutions for actual problems.

New perspective

Some might wonder why designers should attempt to address such complex subjects as cities, which are usually the domain of politicians and academics. While civic problems might seem beyond the reach of a designer, looking at a problem from a different perspective often leads to breakthroughs. Designers often spend their careers working within a range of industries, which allows them to quickly enter new fields and apply fresh perspectives to problems that others have spent years trying to solve, enabling them to approach the challenge in a new way. This experience gives designers an ability to quickly apply analogous learning to new problems.

Making the complex simple

Design often steps up in moments of confusion to solve complex problems and shape inspiring experiences. When the collaboration between technology and design occurs, it can lead to remarkable results. Dieter Rams’ successful designs for Braun came from a desire to take complex and unfamiliar new technologies that people were unfamiliar with and make them simple and easy to interact with. Google transformed the complexity of searching the entire Internet into a simple text box and a button, making it more approachable and easy to understand. When designing for cities, we can expect to face a lot of complexity in the challenges we are trying to overcome. Designers can help make products and services more simple, easier to understand, approachable, and more usable.

Figure 1-1. Braun was an innovator in merging purposeful design and emerging technology for many products, including the SK4 record player (image Modernica)
Delivering great experiences

In order to keep pace with consumer expectations of well-designed, user friendly, high-quality products and services, private sector brands continually strive to improve the experience and demonstrate a clear value. If not, customers have a wealth of options.

People not only require this of consumer products, but of the cities we live in and government-provided services. “In the past, there’s been an assumption that if it’s in the public sector it doesn’t have to be as good as in the private sector. That is ridiculous,” says Ben Terrett of the UK Government Digital Service. Designers familiar with working in this space can take the same approaches, tools, and expectation of quality that they deliver in the private sector and apply them to public sector challenges.

These unique traits make designers ideal candidates for joining teams that seek to innovate within cities, complementing the skills brought by the diverse range of team members required to achieve success in the public realm.

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