Exploring Civic Futures

Searching for the missing link between design for humans and systems

At Dash Marshall, half of our strategic design work in the past four years has been with clients who believe that technology will change the world and society will follow. The other half is 180 degrees in the opposite direction, believing that new configurations of society, organizations, and government drive progress and that technology will follow. They’re both right, of course, and we’ve been exploring ways to balance these two theories of change in a line of work that we’ve started calling “Civic Futures.”

Recent #civicfutures projects. Left: Librariness. Middle: A Possible Philadelphia. Right: with Bits and Atoms we’re currently working on a project speculating about civic uses of autonomous vehicles. The early preparatory research from that project is available here.

Civic Futures is a mash-up of Bleecker-ian Design Fiction and strategic design, with a little bit of Adam Curtis-style connection-hungry narrative stylings mixed in. We’re generally working on a timeline of 5–15 years from now, and always at multiple scales because without finding possibilities that are mutually beneficial to individuals and the larger publics they participate in, there’s no “civic” to speak of.

It goes like this: a set of desired outcomes are the starting point that help us identify incentives and important actors, which allows us to believe in the possibility of new behaviors, which pushes us to ask what kind of institutions can enable and sustain those behaviors at the scale of a city.


We’re speculative and critical, but avoid utopian and dystopian scenarios in our Civic Futures — no Star Trek, no Black Mirror. I figure that if we’re going to make proposals about the future, why dwell on dreadful possibilities when the news is quite good at that? And besides, all design is fiction until it’s not. So on the off chance that a Civic Future becomes reality, I want it to be a desirable one.

The Missing Link

Kenzo Tange standing in front of his 1960 plan for Tokyo Bay, designed to prevent sprawl. Love it or hate it, but it’s hard to ignore the scale of ambition here, both physically and in terms of the diversity of urban systems that are implicated here.

In the 1960s, designers and architects, high on the fumes of modernism (and probably other things), were happy to imagine possibilities at the largest scale, from Buckminster Fuller’s Inventory of World Resources to the Japanese Metabolists and their proposals for designing new structures, towns, and holistic models for society.

Sixty years ago, many of the same concerns about macro factors such as resource use and socio-economic integration were front of mind. Designers and architects were proactively working on those topics and many of the ideas, if you dig them out today, still feel fresh. And yet, we do not live in the 1968 version of the future. There are no mainstream electronic tomatoes, walking cities, or inflatable houses. The ambitions of that era disappeared as the world got more complicated, and the focus of designers narrowed as well.

After the systems-level focus of 1960s-era design faded, the next significant development was a turn towards humans that went mainstream thirty years later. In 1990 the kitchen tools company OXO released a line of 15 tools under the brand OXO Good Grips. They were designed for elderly and people who have a hard time grabbing tools, but the breakthrough was that these tools were easier for everyone to use. OXO Good Grips became one of the best known examples of human centered design, which has now become the de facto global standard (in the design disciplines, if not architecture). There’s a well-established process for getting from insights with users to products like Good Grips, and even the greenest of the students in a recent Civic Futures studio I led in Japan already knew this process by heart.

Prototypes showing the evolution of OXO’s original and wildly successful Good Grips handle

As a discipline, one could say that design is now good at putting the human at the center of decision making. But this technique, which is so effective for creating things that improve life for individuals, doesn’t necessarily scale when we think of challenges at the societal or urban level. As a practice, it was not designed to grapple with the intricate mesh of mutually exclusive choices that get made everyday in cities.

The systems-level thinking of the 1960s delivered grand visions but scarcely provided details to make that vision compelling for individuals. You can see it in the drawings: people are scarce in the Metabolists’ hand-drawn renderings. In contrast, today’s practice of human centered design is excellent at meeting individual needs, but we have relatively few examples of human centered design successfully being used at systems level. Is a post-it fiesta really the best tool for rethinking a national energy grid?

Somehow, we need to be human-centered, but able to think and act at scale. We need to be systems-oriented, but remember that systems are made up of humans and their myriad individual behaviors and choices. This is the missing link that will connect two legendary eras of design and two sides of the design world that have not always seen themselves as part of the same whole: design and architecture.

This link is what we’ve been exploring with our Civic Futures work, and it’s no accident that the primary medium has been film. Moving imagery allows us to conceptually (and sometimes literally) zoom in and out to show the way that individual choices can add up to new civic possibilities, and how civic institutions create envelopes of possibility for individuals.

Last year I co-edited LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Impact, a hefty tome featuring interviews with 80+ designers who are working to make the world a better place. One of the things that the spread of perspectives in the book showed me is that there’s a growing awareness of this “missing link” among designers. Many of the people interviewed in the book expressed, in their own ways, a need to practice design from new vantages, such as inside government, and with new approaches in hopes of producing better outcomes. The daily news cycle makes it tempting to descend into pessimism. Civic Futures is our way of doing the opposite.

Interested in exploring Civic Futures?

At Dash Marshall we undertake a small number of Civic Futures studios (example here) and client projects (examples) per year. If you like to learn more please get in touch by emailing info (at) dashmarshall.com