This post is part of a series about our work with the 2nd cohort of the City Accelerator, an initiative from Living Cities and the Citi Foundation focused on municipal government and public engagement. In the second cohort led by the Engagement Lab, 5 cities rethink and reinvent public engagement, especially as it pertains to lower-income residents. In this series we’ll be sharing progress of the city’s projects as well as best practices and lessons for public engagement.

Design-Thinking and Community Engagement: A Conversation with Albuquerque and New Orleans City Accelerator Teams

Rebecca Michelson
Engagement Lab @ Emerson College
8 min readApr 4, 2016

As cities in the City Accelerator’s 2nd cohort progress in their 18-month projects to engage lower-income residents, the cohort takes moments to reflect on the emergent themes, challenges, and lessons of implementation. Parallel to the mission of Living Cities, each city is supported in taking innovative approaches to designing their interventions. A foundational aspect of civic innovation is design thinking, which is a problem-solving based orientation, with clear goals and useful constraints. It is typically an iterative, hands-on, and reflective approach toward brainstorming and prototyping solutions. Read the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design by IDEO to learn more.

During a recent group call, Frank Mirabel, Director of Collective Impact, City of Albuquerque, and Susan Todd, Executive Director of 504HealthNet, the New Orleans, shared their reflections on design thinking and community engagement. Both representatives from their City Accelerator teams discussed their experiences testing assumptions about design-thinking and methodologies. Eric Gordon, the 2nd cohort leader, guided the conversation toward understanding the values, surprises, and challenges that the city leaders experienced. The conversation centered around one main question, is design-thinking a preferred approach for public engagement? Read the abridged description below to learn how these teams approached this question.

TL;DR Some Takeaways from the Call

  • Design-thinking can help put ideas into action to supplement traditional engagement approaches which tend to be more conversation focused
  • Design prompts can help direct conversations towards more actionable outcomes
  • An atypical audience may be more drawn to design-based activities
  • Manage expectations when facilitating design exercises: communicate your plan for analyzing the generated ideas and explain your decision-making process for which ideas could garner further support. Follow-up accordingly.
  • Provide context for the problem space you are designing for. This could be through sharing conducted research, bringing in speakers, showing films, etc.
  • Design exercises with different stakeholders dispersed among groups can foster new collaborations
Frank Mirabel (Director of Collective Impact, City of Albuquerque) and Susan Todd (Executive Director, 504HealthNet) shared their reflections on design thinking and community engagement.

Engagement Lab: Why did you decide to use a design-thinking approach and what value did you gain?

Frank Mirabel (Director of Collective Impact, City of Albuquerque): The Albuquerque team had a couple of strategies they wanted to test after encountering a lot of “meeting fatigue”. We reached a point where people were restless with all of the conversations and wanted to take action. With the specific goal of designing technology that supports immigrant entrepreneurship, the planning team wanted to foster an approach where people could use their hearts and minds actively. So they planned a Design Day full of tactile materials like paper, markers, and legos to make sharable prototypes. Ultimately it was a way to put ideas into form.

Susan Todd (Executive Director, 504HealthNet): The New Orleans team also hosted a Design Day after completing a research phase of their project. The initial research phase focused on data collection and focus groups to understand why people have not been utilizing primary healthcare services despite their availability. While the city team had assumptions about why people were not using the services, they needed to test them. The focus group participants were invited to participate in the Design Day, which reintroduced the topic in a new and reflective way.

The Design Day brought together about 50 people in 4 groups to brainstorm interventions to encourage the use of primary healthcare services. Each group focused on a different theme such as cost barriers and access to information. The planning team found that asking people to provide solutions was much more engaging than simply pushing information out in the typical one-sided model of communication. The design process drove engagement.

Engagement Lab: Did people stay on task during Design Day because of the goals that were provided?

Susan Todd: Providing design goals was helpful. If something is too broad, it’s hard for people to come up with tangible solutions.

Frank Mirabel: The Design Day goals helped foster a sense of urgency for solutions to test.

Engagement Lab: Why was it more useful to have a tangible design-approach?

Frank Mirabel: Multimodal learning approaches engage more participants. For example, the tactile aspect of lego blocks can help people imagine solutions in creative ways.

Susan Todd: It was easier to have people vote on the top ideas that surfaced from the Design Day. In our event, most people used post-its and not objects.

Engagement Lab: Have you ever thought about your community engagement work as a process of teaching and learning? How does the Design Day approach fit in? Is there an appropriate place in the process?

Frank Mirabel: The Design Day approach is viewed as another tool in the toolkit that is becoming increasingly more popular with civic innovators. The Bloomberg i-teams are starting to adopt design-thinking methods in their engagement interventions. Despite its growing popularity, the design-thinking approach feels too nascent. Down the road we will be able to learn more about its effectiveness.

Susan Todd: Yes, this approach helped ensure the people have a strong voice in the engagement processes.

Engagement Lab: When do you choose which engagement method to use?

Frank Mirabel: Once you’ve generated general ideas from dialogues, then you can start to tinker with ideas in tactile, creative ways.

Design-thinking might be a good second or third step in this process of data collection, brainstorming, and implementing changes. First, you need a foundation of trust and relationships before jumping into problem-solving.

Engagement Lab: Did you use incentives to promote participation in Design Day?

Susan Todd: We provided childcare, transportation benefits, and food.

Frank Mirabel: We provided food at the Design Day event. However, the participants were also invested in this event because we had done a full year of “deep dives” with small businesses where we gleaned useful information from providers who had been interfacing with immigrant-entrepreneurs.

Engagement Lab: Who attended the Design Days?

Susan Todd: In attendance we had: policy makers, physicians, nurses, and the focus group participants. It was great to be able to tap into different knowledge bases for more effective conversations.

Frank Mirabel: Our audience included policy makers and folks from the service sector who discussed how to coordinate efforts within the ecosystem of stakeholders that serve immigrant-entrepreneurs.

Engagement Lab: A core value of design-thinking includes leveling the playing field among different roles. Did everyone “play well” together?

Susan Todd: We purposefully mixed up the working groups by assigning participants to groups to ensure a blend of community members and policy makers.

Frank Mirabel: The participants were a mix of people working in the service sector and city government. It helped that the Design Day planning team deeply analyzed the data from the series of deep dives leading up to this event first and posed appropriately framed challenges for participants to come up with solutions. The participants organically broke up into two groups that focused on capital solutions and centralizing information streams.

Engagement Lab: Did the stakeholder and decision-maker roles work well together?

Frank Mirabel: While there are historical pains from working across partnerships, there was little conflict in Design Day and instead more collaboration.

Engagement Lab: How did you manage expectations about what would be achievable after Design Day?

Susan Todd: We set clear expectations that the whole topic could not be covered in depth during the span of the one Design Day. The planning team made sure to communicate that they would announce what types of ideas would be implemented afterwards and that there could be resources for additional funding opportunities. It was difficult because there were a significant number of ideas that were great but not realistic to implement, and the team did the best they could to communicate that.

Frank Mirabel: Referring to the solid baseline of the research desires of the targeted population helped keep the event focused and relevant. Communicating about expectations is crucial because if there is no follow-through then you lose trust.

Engagement Lab: Have you had to grapple with unrealistic expectations?

Frank Mirabel: The community wanted to know what was accomplished within a year between the deep-dives and the Design Day and it was helpful to mirror the input back to people as well as show what kind of scope of work is possible from the city.

Engagement Lab: How did you provide feedback after Design Day and how was it received?

Susan Todd: We sent both emails and hard copy letters with follow-up communications. Though we’re not sure quite how they were received, we hope to continue engaging people as Phase II gets implemented. After Design Day, one of the primary interventions is a text message campaign to encourage primary health care visits.

Engagement Lab: What is a challenge and/or surprise you have encountered in the Design Day approach?

Frank Mirabel: One of the challenges was around representation. We grapple with the question, “How can you ensure that all the right voices are invited into the space and that the event is participatory?” A key piece of feedback we received was from other people that wanted to be involved. Another challenge was that some participants did not want to take the more tactile approach or draw out ideas.

Susan Todd: A challenge is to not over-promise implementation from the ideas that emerge.

Engagement Lab: How did you approach these challenges?

Frank Mirabel: Since design-thinking is just one tool in the toolkit, then you should be ready to reach into your toolkit to adapt. Perhaps the people not interested in engaging creatively just need group conversations and you should be prepared for that approach.

Engagement Lab: Are design-thinking approaches better at attracting young people?

Frank Mirabel: The target audience of our Design Day were adults. However, the Design Day approach would engage the problem-solving mentality of millennials.

Susan Todd: We would have liked to see more young people attending and contributing.

Engagement Lab: Was Design Day presented differently than your standard meeting? How was the marketing different?

Susan Todd: Yes. The messaging had much more of a tone of inviting people’s designs versus merely informing people and sharing cohesive plans.

Frank Mirabel: Yes, we also used atypical language to communicate more of a message of, “let’s create something together”. There’s a lot of work to be done around framing, though this is a different conversation, and it would be interesting to discuss the differences between inviting people into problem-solving vs. listening for input.

Engagement Lab: Would you do it again?

Susan Todd: Absolutely, design-thinking exercises with constituents is an effective strategy.

Frank Mirabel: Yes, definitely.



Rebecca Michelson
Engagement Lab @ Emerson College

Design-research at the intersections of family well-being, technology, & equity. Ph.D. candidate: Human-Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington