Design thinking can solve your city’s biggest problems

Photo credit: MediaXperience Film House

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

In the 21st century, communities face greater challenges than ever before. Population growth, public health, climate change, and equity and inclusion are just a few of the massive concerns civic leaders must work to address daily. There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to these problems, and there shouldn’t be.

To tackle growing concerns specific to your community, collaboration with creative problem solvers is key. With design thinking, architects and designers can help you a create a healthier, happier, more livable city for the people who already make it a wonderful place.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a collaborative process, not a simple frame of mind. The process engages people who understand and wish to address a particular need.

“Design thinking is a facilitated way of getting towards a clear direction for a team to create solutions,” says Nathaniel Axios, design director at IBM.

Axios facilitates design thinking for public sector clients who wish to improve their services. He says that design thinking begins with defining a problem statement or aspiration. From there, collaborators embark on a variety of activities that include brainstorming, refining, prioritizing, and prototyping.

“Clarity and decision making are routinely the toughest challenges,” says Axios, whose experience has led him to understand that design thinking is the quickest and most effective way to achieve positive results.

While there are varying activities and methods of design thinking, one thing is constant: people are always at the center.

“Design thinking methodologies put users as the core focus or the north star for how decisions are made,” says Axios. On a community scale, reaching desirable outcomes for the largest group of people is the end goal.

Steve Luoni, Assoc. AIA, is director and design principal of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, which works to address urban and rural problems around transportation, housing, and food scarcity. Luoni sees resources as the primary drivers behind design thinking.  

“Design thinking is about approaching a problem or challenge that needs the definition of a relationship,” he says. “Resources are important. Most design starts from the quality and amount of resources that one has and shaping a framework by which to take action.”

Resources include people, time, money, and infrastructure. It’s important to take inventory and assess available resources during a design thinking process – that will help you prioritize and craft a realistic solution.

How can cities incorporate design thinking?

Using design thinking in your city will require a commitment, but not an unreasonable one. Gather up planners, citizens, elected officials, and architects. By diving into the process together and keeping an open mind, your team will feel less burdened and likely reinvigorated to tackle seemingly insurmountable issues.  

“Communities are made up of a lot of people. Because we’re all so busy, the idea of surfacing the challenges of everybody in a community is not a lightweight ask,” says Axios.

Start with conversation and get to the root of a challenge with diverse stakeholders. Take the design thinking process head on, test your results to the community, and take action through policy and planning.  

Design thinking can drastically improve a city’s physical infrastructure as well as its social infrastructure. It’s meant to be an easy, productive experience that can help you respond not only to large city-wide problems, but even smaller, more personal ones.

“It’s something that everybody should do, regardless of the type of work they’re doing,” says Axios. “For my own community, I think about how I can share this methodology with people so they are equipped to do it themselves. It’s very accessible.”

Luoni, who has worked with numerous civic leaders in Arkansas, encourages them to open up to the possibilities of working with designers.

“Embrace the speculative qualities that a designer brings to a project,” says Luoni. “You have to suspend your beliefs or orthodoxies for a moment, and just speculate. Don’t be afraid to be disruptive. Nothing is too radical. What you’re doing is laying out the terrain of options.”

Architects are the right partners to help solve problems in your community. Their training and experience shapes them to be design thinkers, and they’re eager to bring that to the table through use of design thinking.

“When you do this with someone who’s not used to it, they usually find it completely enjoyable and liberating. It changes the way they think about place,” says Luoni.

Architects look broadly at problems, define various outcomes, and help determine the most beneficial solutions. Just as they are the trusted advisor when working on a building, they can be a trusted advisor for your city, helping you craft a blueprint for better.

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.