Learnings from the 26th Governing Council of UN-Habitat

How Human-centered Design (HCD) can impact the implementation of the new urban agenda of UN-Habitat

On Monday, May 8th 2017 the 26th Governing Council (GC26) of UN Habitat opened in Nairobi. The focus of the GC26 was fully directed on the implementation of the newly crafted urban agenda that was developed last year in Quito at the Habitat III conference.

Representatives from governments, associations and institutions from all over the world joined the GC26 — in total over 2000 participants were present in Nairobi. The program was full of various discussions on interesting topics and presentations of project successes and deliveries. In many speeches the focus on the beneficiaries was always in the forefront. Peter Thomson, the president of the UN General Assembly in New York stated during his opening speech that “we need a people centric approach” (Peter Thomson, UN GC26 / 2017) in order to maximize impact and achieve sustainability.

The idea of human-centricity was present during all four days of the conference and therewith the question on how to adapt a human-centered design mindset in the work of the UN-Habitat in the future.

What can the adaptation of a HCD mindset and methodology contribute to implement the new urban agenda successfully?

Human Centricity

Human centered Design (HCD) and Design Thinking (DT) are well proven sets of principles and methods that help us deal with increasingly complex problems in challenging environments. As Peter Thomson said, putting the people in the center of all design and development considerations will be an important part of the new urban agenda implementation.

By putting the human being at the center of the challenge, the aim is always to create solutions and experiences that focus first and foremost on improving people’s lives and addressing their specific problems, regardless of age, income, gender or geography. In contrast with the status quo, in which solutions are often developed without interacting with the people for whom solutions are designed, HCD involves humans from the very beginning of the project.

Needfinding instead of solution finding

The process of needfinding, which means to identify and understand the beneficiaries’ needs, puts the human being into the center of all activities. By starting at understanding the needs, daily lives, and routines as well as aspirations of the beneficiaries, the projects to implement the new urban agenda of the UN-Habitat can benefit massively. The HCD process ensures that empathy is developed for the creation of ideas and solutions as well as the testing. By involving the beneficiaries at every step of the process ownership is created and sustainability improved.

Applying needfinding techniques in the context of urban planning and development means self-immersion, interviewing and observing. The aim of these three techniques is to understand the behaviour, attitudes and aspirations of people living in urban environments.

This is not to be mistaken for asking people what they want. Asking for a wanted solutions is very hard to answer for anybody. One of the reasons is that the average human cannot imagine the technological possibilities of the present and future and is therefore unable to anticipate the existing or future knowledge into their answers for solutions.

Therefore, needfinding techniques can provide an effective tool to gain empathy and understand people’s requirements. Together with the beneficiaries, a team of experts can think about and test possible solutions to address the identified behaviors, attitudes and aspirations.

From concept to action

In the daily working life, a lot of time is spent in meetings and at conferences talking about what problems there are and what amazing things can be done in order to solve the problems. That is a great and necessary first step. However, getting the concept out of the conference room into the real life is very hard due to several barriers. HCD is a great tool to make the transition easier and to bring and test concepts in reality and develop a great solution “on the go”.

Instead of sitting in conference rooms and discussing and elaborating on the perfect solution for the identified problem, HCD goes out into the field to first of all identify the real need through needfinding (which might be different from the identified problem). Based on the identified needs different ideas are brainstormed. These ideas are prototyped rapidly and tested. After testing them, the process starts anew and repeats until a viable product/solution is developed which can then be implemented and scaled.

How could HCD and DT become a part of urban planning?

As showed above, HCD and DT can contribute hugely to the implementation of the new urban agenda by taking action, creating ownership and enhancing sustainability and impact. But how can the HCD approach become a part of the projects conducted by UN-Habitat?

Pilot the HCD approach in projects

To truly understand the benefits of implementing the HCD methodology into the implementation of the new urban agenda, pilot projects should be initiated using the HCD approach. Based on the existing project landscape of the UN-Habitat pilot projects — for example in One Stop Youth Centers — could be identified and started.

Train the influencers

A change of habits and mindset has to be learned. Training the people responsible for the implementation of the new urban agenda on the HCD approach can lead to a change in how they think about projects and implementation. The trained influencers can then approach the problems the new urban agenda wants to solve differently and train other people on how to effectively solve these very complex problems.

Collaborate with existing Design Thinkers to create best practice

Within UN-Habitat there are many projects already using parts of the HCD approach, such as the Urban Thinkers Campus. In order to embed the HCD mindset into the project work of UN-Habitat, Design Thinkers from within UN-Habitat together with leading experts should develop best practices.

About the authors

I am Falk Uebernickel and I work as a professor at the University of St.Gallen (Switzerland) for Business Administration and Design Thinking. Looking backwards I worked on over 100 Design Thinking projects over the last decade in almost every industry and region of the world. I am passionate about education and training of people in Design Thinking. Curiosity and openness are two of my core strength.

I am Karina Fassbender and I have been working at the intersection of innovation, entrepreneurship and development for the past two years based in Nairobi, Kenya. I’m passionate about applying Design Thinking as a tool to solve the world’s most complex problems at the source together with the people most affected by the problems. I’m fascinated by the potential of applying Design Thinking to the African context.