in Life

Designing a better city

On design & policy. Have you ever noticed how small the print is on subway ticket purchasing machines? How often do you think about the hundreds of touchpoints throughout your day that comprise whether you go home feeling like you had a good day or not? Every part of the experience of your interaction with the communities where we live and work are design decisions made by someone faceless. The choice could have been the result of a series of meetings 95 years ago or a change made last week. We rarely know the difference.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of tech, marketing and just digital strategy as a whole. People like me spend a lot of time in offices and within entities using brainpower to ultimately figure out how to sell more widgets. Maybe those widgets are enrolling more college students or selling more sneakers or helping a brand humanize itself to stakeholders. 

Along the way, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering ways to be a broader contributor to real problems that we face in communities across the country, but wasn’t precisely sure how to fuse together the design and tech parts with policy.

Being new to a city is a special kind of hell. Unless you already have familiarity with the place you’re moving to or have some other connection (work, relationship or family) that can bridge you from ‘stranger’ to ‘part of the tribe’ it can take years to on-board your way through the morass of written and unwritten ways that our communities are designed to thwart outsiders. Not all of this deliberate, but these challenges have real impacts.

Every place is different. For every community that’s hostile to outsiders, there are others desperate for an injection of interest from afar.

With the increasing number of quasi-governmental projects springing up that want to figure out how to bring tech innovation to government, I’ve been contemplating how to use design as a tool to expand our vocabulary and imagination about the future of our communities.

Here’s the thing, I’m not as interested in whether we can create tech solutions to structural problems. If building a better website or doing user research to solve a community problem like access to summer meals for kids or helping making paying utility bills more efficient, then I’m all for figuring out the ways that tech can help us.

What if we could use the tools, frameworks and vocabulary of design to inform policy? Ideas are important, but only when they lead to impact. We need entities that help policymakers, stakeholders and citizens work together, engage and collaborate to solve problems. 

Strategic Design is a discipline that comes to us from Finland and it’s mostly concerned with solving big structural problems that cities, governments and organizations face. 

“Strategic design has a set of direction, over and above being a set of tools, a vocabulary and a series of projects. Its focus is in enabling systemic change through re-shaped cultures of public decision-making at the individual and institutional levels, applied to the primary problems of 21st century governance.” — Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

While we already have wonderful folks at places like Code for America, 18F and the US Digital Service, what I’m talking about is far broader than tech conversations. Lately, the folks at Y Combinator have decided they want to tackle these issues too. 

I am sincere in my belief that the frameworks and vocabulary of strategic design can help advance our communities forward, by helping us think broadly about how we create barriers to progress for ordinary citizens everyday. 

Here’s how we move forward: Assembling an interdisciplinary group of doers. I’m calling this thing Design of the City. Designers, strategists and people in-between are welcome on this journey. I imagine at first there will be a few of us, but once we figure out what we’re doing, we’ll expand rapidly.
Engage with governments, non-governmental organizations, civic groups and even companies to view high-level challenges and use design tactics and processes to consider the aspects of these problems and develop solutions.
By engaging with an outside group of stakeholders who become embedded within the entity for a set period of time, we’re able to move quicker to begin diagnosing the challenges with traction. I don’t think this prevents the barriers that impede in-house solutions, but the fresh sets of eyes can be vital. 

I believe there are people who want to do more than just build products, we want to construct communities, services & structures that serve populations for the next hundred years. Much like the physical infrastructure of many cities, we have a policy and governance framework bequeathed to us from forebears that could not have imagine the distances we’d travel. We need to reflect and imagine a new set of rules, frameworks and invoke an imagination that allows to envision communities as vibrant and flexible.