In November, I was incredibly fortunate to be selected for the first IDEOU Impact House–an immersive experience exploring how design thinking in business can contribute to positive social impact. For a week in San Francisco and Sonoma County, I lived, learned and laughed with an extraordinary group of people from around the world. Facilitated by the wonderful folks at IDEOU and the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Social Impact Strategy, this multidisciplinary group of global changemakers gave me one of the best learning experiences of my life.

The Impact House Fellows at IDEO headquarters in San Francisco, along with members of the IDEO crew, including CEO Tim Brown.

I’m still trying to process all the amazing information, insight and experiences that were shared, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts about how elements of design thinking can inform how city-builders do their thing. For those new to design thinking (also called human centred design), it is an approach to problem-solving. According to “It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. Human centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.”


Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

A foundational element of design thinking is empathy. Design is about solving problems to benefit others. To do that, you must put yourself in the shoes of those for whom you are designing. When creating a consumer product, for example, you think about the eventual user of that product. In city-building, however, the complexity is infinitely greater–you are designing for a much broader diversity of people. Many of our cities are at such a scale and have such a diversity of citizens that it can feel overwhelming to even attempt to empathize with all those who will be impacted by our decisions as city-builders.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

One of the challenges of the increased specialization we see in professions today is isolation. These professional silos can keep us from understanding people – the very people who we are designing for. In design thinking, the goal is to focus on impact over simply checking the box in your to-do list. Some key questions for city-builders:

How might we see beyond our professional silos to appreciate the impact we have outside our job description?

How might we expand our sense of empathy for future generations?


Strong ideas, loosely held

This concept of having strong ideas, loosely held was often discussed during Impact House. This means that designers are able to explore concepts with vigour, but should not cling to them to the detriment of the goal: designing better places for people. This requires a unique balance of energy, expertise, curiosity and humility.

In the process of building cities, people often dig in their heels. Professionals can hold onto their ideas and views too firmly, closing their eyes and ears to the experiential expertise and knowledge of citizens or other stakeholders. As Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer wrote:

“As a society of professionals, we’ve received educations previously reserved for royalty, made travels once only known to explorers, and developed skills in ourselves that are indistinguishable from magic. However, all these concepts we’ve accumulated are more map than territory: if we fixate our conception of the world on the systems that we build to represent it, we can lose sight of the world. Instead of seeing the world, we see only our ideas about the world. Since we’ve established that we have all the insight, we don’t allow more to come in. This is why we need to maintain what Buddhists refer to as (italics) beginners mind: a certain playful absence of assumptions. As Shunyru Suzuki writes, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.'”

While city-building professionals can sometimes be stuck in a rut, citizens and organizations often aren’t open to changing their own ideas and views. This can mean ignoring the real value of expertise from professionals, or discounting the argument of a greater benefit if it does not align with their own perspective. An open mind on both sides goes a long way toward effective city building.

The backgrounds of all the players involved in city-building varies immensely. A key question remains, for professionals, organizations and individuals alike:

How might we bring our best thinking to the problems of city-building, but balance this with the humility and curiosity to hold these ideas loosely?


The power of the prototype

Rapid prototyping is a key tool for designers. Prototyping offers an opportunity to test concepts, often with the end user as part of the process. Rather than diving into an endless journey of research and analysis to come up with the single, perfect solution, prototyping allows designers to test the value of concepts in tangible ways–learning by doing and experiencing.

As Tim Brown of IDEO said during our time together: “Ideas are only relevant when we interact with them in a tangible way.” A great example of a prototype comes from IDEO, when they were creating a new app for Sesame Street. In a short amount of time, using a giant iPhone foam-core cut-out, some music and a camera, they were able to explore and describe a concept for Elmo’s Monster Maker app. The results were totally effective (and kind of hilarious):

The complexity of city-building makes the scale of prototyping different from product development, but certainly not impossible. An example can be found in the tactical urbanism movement, spearheaded by the work of great firms like Street Plans Collaborative and The Better Block. This approach has shown that the relative permanence and expense of city-building doesn’t have to kill the potential of prototyping. Here’s a terrific example of a project in Atlanta:

A question for city-builders:

How might we create more opportunities for our citizens to interact with potential solutions in our cities, before they are finalized?


Change by movement vs Change by mandate

Brian Walker and Joe Brown of IDEO brought insights into organizational change–focusing on the difference between change by movement and change by mandate. Some key differences between the two:

Change by mandate:

  • Comes from authority
  • It’s fast
  • Directs people to act
  • Can lead to disenfranchisement

Change by movement:

  • Comes by influence
  • It may take longer
  • Engages people to act
  • The results may be more sustainable over time

As we build our cities, the goal should be to create change by movement – engaging citizens, organizations, experts and decision-makers alike in the process. As the folks who have actively chosen to make city-building part of their professional or volunteer lives, it is the responsibility of city-builders like us to continually work to “broaden the tent.”

“People support what they create.” – – Brian Walker

I can think of four related elements that can create change by movement in city-building over time:

Establish relevance–Let folks know how this applies to their lives.

Encourage learning–Create and share information that helps make sense of the complexity of city-building.

Ask for insights–Give people an opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process. (see my thoughts on a threshold of responsibility for this)

Close the loop–Decision-makers share how insights helped inform (or didn’t) the eventual decisions.

Rather than seen as a standalone project, these elements can be considered in any number of city-building activities, regardless of scale. With this in mind, a question for fellow city-builders:

How might we unlock the collective potential in our communities to build increasingly better cities?


An anti-vision for Intelligent Futures

Joe Brown of IDEO said it plainly (and hilariously):

“I think too many companies are cold, mean and stupid.”

It’s a pretty low bar, but we’re really trying not to be that 🙂

I’m sure there will be future posts and reflections as I continue to process the experience and collaborate with my Impact House Fellows around the world. In the meantime, we’ll keep applying design thinking to explore new, creative and more impactful ways of building better cities.

Finally, a GIANT thank you to IDEOU, UPenn CSIS and all my fellow Fellows. It was a truly transformative experience!