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February 5, 2017

The value of surprise

Too busy.
Engagement fatigue.

All of these have been used to describe citizens and stakeholders in processes that we have been involved. In many communities, there is an increasing volume of engagement activities that are happening (this doesn’t mean they’re done well, but they’re still happening).

In these situations, the concept of “vuja de” can be very helpful.

We’ve all heard of “deja vu,” the feeling of having already experienced the situation that you are in. The idea of “vuja de” is the opposite, and we have comedian George Carlin to thank for the phrase….

As it applies to the design of community engagement processes, vuja de is a wonderful concept to consider – especially in situations where you’re engaging with people that have experienced many processes before.

“You’re in a situation that is very familiar, something you’ve seen or done countless times before, but you feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new.” – Warren Berger

When engaging communities, there is a risk of “been there, done that” over time. This is why surprise is such a valuable tool.

Situation: You’re about to start a workshop with a group that has “seen this all before.”

The participants have gathered. They are waiting for the same kind of process to unfold – a presentation, a facilitator with a flip chart capturing their ideas, a summary of the conversation, and a thank you to wrap things up. In this situation, participants often show up partially disengaged right from the start (this is certainly compounded by the age of smartphones).

How might you surprise the participants to get their attention, spur them to think about the problem in a new way and have some fun?

One exercise we have used in this situation is “forced analogy.” We present small groups with a seemingly random image and ask the group to come up with a variety of ways that the community/organization/issue is or is not like the image they have been given. For example:

How is our community like / not like Prince?


How is our organization like / not like a pizza?

In just five minutes, you can surprise participants in a way that disturbs their assumptions about the workshop, gets them to creatively and collaboratively work with their fellow participants and have a few laughs along the way.

Situation: You’re engaging the community in an area that people visit all the time and are used to what it looks like.

We use a number of different place-based engagement tools. These help engage people in the spaces that we are talking about – making the feedback more tangible and lowering barriers to participating. One of our best tools for this is our sounding board. While the physical design of the boards has evolved over time, they have always been designed and located to surprise people. We want to elicit the question: “What’s that thing?” to draw people in, learn about the project and share their ideas. By placing a new object in the landscape and using eye-catching designs of the structure and information, we can surprise people and leverage that into great feedback.

An example can be found in the ourWascana project in Regina, Saskatchewan. We wanted to capture people’s views about Wascana Centre while they were experiencing the space, so installed our sounding boards (the second iteration of the design of these) within the space itself. Using bold colours and strategic placement, we were able to obtain thousands of responses to our questions. The image below shows one of the sounding boards in action.

In addition to the board itself, we also used information design to inform people about Wascana Centre – an incredibly diverse and dynamic space in the city. The “Wascana at a Glance” infographic was bold enough to draw people from a distance, but interesting enough to keep people’s attention as they learned about the space and the project. This then inspired citizens to answer our three questions, which were posted on the board.

There are many other examples, big and small, of how we use surprise to create more compelling and effective engagement experiences. How might you use surprise to improve the quality of conversations in your community?

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!



Most of us have a complicated relationship with Request for Proposals (RFPs). Speaking with the folks who issue them and those who respond to them, no one seems to find this a satisfactory process. We all agree that a transparent process is essential in the spending of public dollars, but there are unquestionably some things that can be done to improve how these processes occur.