Design thinking isn’t just about creating better products and services; it can be used to make entire cities better. Design enables cities to make changes that both save money and hit their target, say strategic designer Marco Steinberg and Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, Secretary General of the International Design Foundation.
Think of an 18th century craftsman, diligently swirling a paintbrush to create an ornate flower on a one-of-a-kind china plate. Then think of a 19th century factory producing millions of identical plates, all sharing the same shape and colour determined by a designer. In the 1930s, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designs the iconic Savoy vase, and in the 1970s industrial powerhouse Braun brings a designer to sit on their board of directors. In the 1980s companies start to rave about service design, which is only natural, since nobody in their right mind will pay good money for a service that feels unpleasant or stiff. The next big milestone in the history of design will be for the public sector to embrace design thinking and apply it to develop and reorganize public services. Here are some ways in which design will make cities function better and improve citizens’ lives.
1. Let's bring planning and doing back together
MS “When we talk about design, we mean a simultaneous process of thinking and doing. The two can’t be separated. In cities, however, the two have been taken apart: civil servants and officials plan things, and then they get someone else to actually make them happen. The problem is that a lot of things are impossible to know - and plan - before you actually start doing them. Industrial manufacturing and design were born together, but as we became more and more specialized, the two drifted apart. Then we started to understand that if we want to create better products, we need to integrate planning with doing again.
Cities are following in the business world’s footsteps. Society doesn’t have the resources to uphold today’s level of public services, and at the same time commercial companies have raised the bar of what people expect from those services. Ordering from Amazon is extremely convenient, and they are smart enough to suggest products I’m interested in. They conform to my inner logic, whereas the public sector has long expected people to learn the often complicated logic of their organizations. Sometimes the public sector even creates services based on what an existing organization can be expected to stretch to, not on what people actually need.”
2. We can’t afford existing services, so let’s design completely new ones
MS ”When it comes to cutting costs and saving money, we tend to try to keep doing what we’ve always done, just smaller and cheaper. We slash budgets first and decide what to do later. But when you create services that are both better and more efficient, they’ll also inevitably save money somewhere. If someone tells me to make them a car, but they’ll only give me two wheels and a motor, it’s not going to be a car anymore. It’s going to be something else. We can’t solve the problems we have with elder care services, education or healthcare by more austerity measures: we can only solve them with creating completely new ways of meeting citizens’ needs. We burn a lot of money on services that don’t do that at all. There is always the danger that we’ll just make bad or completely wrong services a bit more pleasant. We should be taking design thinking to top levels of public decision-making and use it to ask whether we should even be providing these specific services and solving these problems in this way altogether. Designers shouldn’t just be involved in one-off projects in places where their value is already understood. They should be sitting at the big tables where real decisions are made. If we knew what we know about learning today, I doubt designers would end up creating an education system like the one we have now. We might not even have the concept of a school day or classroom.”
3. Do cities understand how design could help them?
TL ”That’s a good question. Do our public organizations have the guts and vision required, or do existing hierarchies and old ways of working stand in the way? It’s easy to start with small experiments, but we need to think about the bigger picture, about what we’re really trying to change here. Designers need to be able to articulate the value this skill called design thinking has in society. How does it help us meet the big goals we have as a society?
Design thinking has a lot to give when it comes to urban development: key lessons include customer understanding, public engagement and co-design methods, as well as experimenting more and visualizing things better. Above all, design thinking gives cities tools to emphatize and concretize. There’s a huge need for this, especially in public schemes that demand structural changes; in quick-paced service development that demands carefully targeted solutions that are guaranteed to work; and when we’re designing both spaces and their functions simultaneously. The biggest gain from involving design in these things is that we can predict the future more accurately, so the solutions we come up with will be more likely to actually work.
Sometimes we associate design with being just a fun tool for motivating people, like using colours, materials and spaces to simplify complex things. Or just as an icebreaker, like cutting nametags out of fabric instead of ordinary paper. Small but significant things, sure; but when the scale for applying design varies so greatly from these kinds of small details to huge changes affecting society’s most profound structures, no wonder engineers and technocrats have trouble understanding what designers can actually do.”
MS “Where there has typically been a shortage of money and resources, there’s also usually more ability to embrace new things. I see that potential especially in education, youth services and social services at the moment. On a national level, it’s small municipalities that are more open to alternative ideas, often because the money is so tight that the only option is to think of something completely new.”
4. Can designers work in public offices?
MS ”We designers tend to gravitate towards fun, hip projects instead of taking on more complicated and tough challenges. We’ll sooner work on a mobile app on public transportation than try to change a hospital operating theatre, where there are actual lives at stake. We should be tackling the untrendy, boring, difficult things, too, like sewer systems. If we don’t dare to do it, we can’t blame politicians, either. Even though we have plenty of talented designers, very few have enough experience or knowledge needed to understand the language and logic of the public sector. Our design schools haven’t trained people for that, they’ve been focusing on the business world and commercial success, like how to make chairs and market them. We can’t expect to find fully fledged experts ready to seize problems concerning billions of euros in a country with no education on these skills. That’s why we should be recruiting the best people in the world from outside Finland.”
TL ”The identity shift from a star designer to an urban developer is huge. In the public sector, you’re a jack of all trades who has to build up their role from scratch in every project. You need to be good with handling stress. A designer should also have some kind of understanding of how the public sector works. You don’t need to know the intricate decision making processes of each organization, but you should be able to identify structural obstacles and ways to work around them. You should also be familiar with the organization’s timeframe for making things happen. If you plan to get something done in a week, but the organization isn’t usually able to move anything forward that quickly, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
5. When you’re building the first space rocket ever you can’t have an exact idea what the finished thing is going to look like. In these uncertain times designers are well-equipped to work in the midst of change and chaos.
TL ”The word experimenting has a bit of a bad rep, but experiments can be a valuable part of a well-designed process. Instead of planning things to death, we could start changing our urban structure with experiments. Experimenting and trying things out have a huge impact on people’s attitudes as well as actual results. However, experiments should always have clear goals. They shouldn’t be yet another separate project, but a mindset for everyday work.”
MS ”Politicians should be able to make decisions on issues they don’t necessarily fully understand. If you want to create something completely new, there’s no way to know when you start exactly how much that will cost. When they started to build the first moon rocket ever, they didn’t understand much about how to get to the Moon and what resources were needed until they had actually began construction, and then gradually knew more and more. That requires a new way of budgeting and managing risks. Mayors and cabinet ministers need to have the guts to say that we don’t know exactly what solution we’ll arrive at if we use design thinking, but there’s a clear need for it here, so let’s build a team. We can’t wait around until we have all the facts before we start doing anything new. That might have been possible in the past, but today, we might never have all the information. When you start researching something in society, the whole issue might already have changed ten times before you get any results.
Designers have the ability to work in uncertain conditions, and are always looking for alternatives, feedback and experiences from people. The mindset is very different from the classic scientific method, which starts with a hypothesis for the answer we’re looking for and is then either proved or disproved. In the design process we have no idea of the result when we start out, but have the ability to develop the problem towards reaching the answer.”