Nice answer. But that question…

I was intrigued by a piece I read on Co.Design, “Can An App Save London From Its Parking Nightmare?” It’s a write up of a new app called GoPark, created by ustwo on behalf of Ford.

This isn’t a critique of the way ustwo have solved the problem. They know their stuff, as has been proven over loads of projects. This is a broader discussion around the nature of design engagements. My thoughts are based on how I’ve interpreted the FastCo article, because the app is still in closed beta.

Reading the piece, I began to think about the role of constraint within the creative process. Constraints are necessary, and can be positive drivers to the success of a project. Do it with this budget, this much time, using 30% less raw material, etc.

But bad constraints are a different matter. You need to watch out for them when you’re delivering a project, product, or service, because they can make questions go wrong.

GoPark is an app intended to solve people’s car parking problems. It’s being trialled in Islington, London. I’ve lived in Islington for over 15 years. I own a car and I’m very familiar with the council’s approach to traffic and parking enforcement. Ford is in the car and truck business. No, really. It’s vital for them that privately-owned motor vehicles cars are seen as relevant and desirable consumer objects.

The article paints Islington’s parking zones and permits as some sort of Kafkaesque nightmare, beyond the wit of man or woman to solve.

You Will Park Wrong. You Will Be Fined. YOU WILL NEVER KNOW WHY.

GoPark solves this problem by identifying where you can park, given your (presumably real-time) parking permissions, based on your location. From what I’ve seen, it looks elegant. It also makes some claims about the app helping to addressing pollution, safety and congestion issues caused by cars. I do have a slight concern about an app that could encourage less responsible motorists to use their phones while driving. Using a hand-held phone when you drive is bad m’kay? As in illegal. So don’t.

Unfortunately, the solution feels like a classic case of the man who only has a hammer thinking everything looks like a nail. That’s not the agency’s fault. Ford make cars, there’s a problem with using them. Solve it.

Bad Constraint One. Your solution must be based on making it easy for people to park their privately owned Ford Motor Vehicle when they make an urban journey.

In the UK, car ownership and use is a bit of a political hot potato, to put it mildly. It’s seen by many, and certainly pushed by some interest groups, as a right. I don’t want to get further into that or we’ll be here forever.

However, many UK urban centres, London in particular, are coming to realise that cars are a massive headache. I mentioned the FastCo article describes a complex web of parking permissions in Islington. To me, it gives the impression that this is your typical government bureaucratic blundering. It’s not. It’s very, very, deliberate.

Bad Constraint Two. The private vehicle parking arrangements in Islington are designed to stop you from using your car as the default urban travel mode.

That’s clear if you read Islington’s official transport strategy. On the micro scale, I could also give you a detailed breakdown of how the permit system is designed to limit short urban journeys . Or how it’s now very hard or expensive for out of borough commuters to travel by car to the area before switching to other modes of transport.

The point is Islington are engineering the situation to reduce private car use, because cars cause issues. It’s meant to be difficult for you to just turn up somewhere and park. It’s a good constraint for them, but a bad constraint for someone designing a parking app.

The crux of the problem is that even if the app performs well, it’s optimising a bad scenario, due to bad constraints.

It’s like being asked by the hospitality manager of the The Titanic if you could see if there was a nicer way to arrange the deck chairs; you are far from guaranteed to achieve a satisfactory broader outcome.

So the agency find themselves in a bind. They have limited room for manoeuvre due to constraint from the client, and from a hostile design intent from the local council.

That’s not unusual, and it’s a shame. I’ve seen briefs from clients where the dominant thought has been “Is that really the problem you want to us solve?”

We all talk about ‘challenging the brief’ but sometimes you have to respond regardless “Because Reasons.” It can be hugely frustrating because it shackles the creative ability of lots of smart people. They end up producing something that answers the question but isn’t a powerful solution. It’s also a missed opportunity for the client to get the best work out of their agency.

The irony in this case is that the brief came out of Ford’s Smart Mobility division, who “explore revenue streams outside of just pushing more cars on the road.”

There is a much more interesting problem that I’m sure ustwo (or any other creative agency worth their salt) would love to tackle. How does Ford stay relevant to the future of Urban Mobility?

Get the constraints right on that and the outcome could be amazing.