Rosenfeld Media
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Rosenfeld Media

Rosenfeld Media Civic Design 2021 and Looking Ahead

By Ariel Kennan and Sarah Brooks, with Contributions from Charlotte Lee, Gordon Ross, Emily Lessard, and Joanne Dong

Screenshot of Zoom panel session featuring six speakers
Shifting Toward Community-Led Innovation in Local Government panel at Civic Design 2021

Setting the Stage

For the inaugural Rosenfeld Civic Design conference held in December 2021, we set out to define and explore contemporary civic design and where it’s going in the next 100 years. As practitioners in the space, our curation team had some initial ideas, but we started out as good designers do, with research. Lou Rosenfeld had already been on a listening tour with over 40 civic designers, and in the spring of 2021 we ran a community survey which yielded around 200 responses. Together, these data helped us see trends in what civic designers want to learn and explore, and write a first draft of the themes to inspire submissions for the call for presentations (CFP).

Digital white board with gray and purple sticky notes sorted under “Craft + Execution” with x-axis for challenges, hope to gain, and offer to others, and y-axis of government, shared, and industry.
Excerpt from community survey synthesis.

We started with a blind review of the 150+ submissions to the CFP — meaning no names, organizational affiliations, or geographies were visible to the curators, Ariel Kennan, Sarah Brooks, and Charlotte Lee. We read every submission and asked ourselves if it would resonate with our audience, had replicable takeaways, and expressed a unique point of view. With the finalists in hand, we then set to work on crafting a narrative across the three days of the conference — a challenge with the wealth of content! We settled on a flow for the three days of the conference:

  • Day 1: Civic Design Today
  • Day 2: Civic Design Tools and Mindsets
  • Day 3: Civic Design Futures
Digital white board with yellow, pink, and blue sticky notes under Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.
Excerpt from weaving the conference program narrative.

To represent the global field of civic design, it was important to have a diverse field of speakers. Selected speakers presented from eight countries. 86% of speakers identify as underrepresented minorities, including over 77% as women, 11% as LGTBQ+, and 5% as having a disability. We hope to continue to build on this representation in 2022.

Two pie charts showing speaker demographics. Speaker Ethnicity: Black 14%, Latinx 11%, Asian 22%, Indigenous 0%, White 53%. Speaker Sector: Public Sector 54%, Nonprofit 17%, Private Sector 29%, Academic 0%.
47% of speakers identify as non-white. Over 50% of speakers work in the public sector. Many of the nonprofit and private sector speakers are formerly public sector employees.

The conference was fully remote with over 300 participants from 18 countries. CEOs, chief innovation officers, design directors and managers, designers, program and product managers, students, and more mingled in the digital spaces, providing a robust dialogue in speaker Q&A and in the Slack channel.

The days were masterfully emceed by Bria Alexander who kept the energy high, the jokes flowing and created a sense of interconnection between each of the speakers and the facets of civic design they explored.

Here are highlights and reflections from each of the three days. The talks are available to everyone who attended the conference, and will soon be more widely available.

Civic Design Today: Day 1

The purpose of Day 1 was to define and learn to embed civic design from the perspectives of people working in and alongside different levels of government across the globe.

Day 1 Sketchnotes by MJ Broadbent

To open the conference, Christian Bason set out four directions of the future of civic design, with topics that wove through the rest of the days:

  1. More systemic design that is mission-oriented, cross-sector, cross-level, and cross-disciplinary
  2. Ethics and inclusion to engage marginalized voices and place humans before tech, asking hard questions before we create interventions
  3. From human-centered to life-centered, pivoting to regenerative design and creating with all living things in mind
  4. Designing the next organization to unleash the full potential of human creativity and energy every day

National Design in the U.S. and Belgium

Aaron Steinstra and Lashanda Hodge shared their work at the intersection of design, strategy, and policy in the U.S. to develop a feasible action plan to put the vision of diversity, equity and inclusion within the context of the federal government. They explored their collaboration responding to President Biden’s Executive Order 13985 On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government — his first in office, signed on January 20th, 2021.

Yalenka Mariën and Marie Merveille from Belgium spoke about their progress on digital inclusion after foundational research they conducted showed that only 48% of Belgian citizens used online or digital public services. They dug into an understanding of the most at-risk citizens to shape a profound understanding of the struggles and needs of these individuals, and how government services can be more inclusive of them.

State and Provincial Design in Canada and Mexico

Gordon Ross wove a rich story about his involvement with the British Columbia (BC) Government DDN (digital delivery network), working on the COVID-19 response over the first 12 months of the pandemic. He delved into how the government mobilized talent, how decision-making and situational awareness was achieved, and whether the innovations prompted by COVID-19 led to lasting change or costly chaos.

Sofía Delsordo and Kassim Vera from Jalisco, Mexico shared their story of supporting the design industry from a government perspective at the Ministry of Culture. Through the Plataforma Activa de Diseño, designers have a physical space and can receive funds and mentorship from other parts of the government in order to improve their projects and introduce design in other public sectors.

Local Government Design in New York City, Philadelphia and Montgomery County

Ashley Cortez and Mari Nakano from NYC, Devika Menon and Danita J. Reese from Philadelphia, Nidhi Singh Rathore from Montgomery County, Maryland spoke together as a panel, bringing a diversity of approaches and backgrounds to shared missions: to establish design labs in their local governments that center the needs of residents.

Sustaining Design in Government

Stephanie Wade closed the day with a powerful talk on building capacity and shared tips on how to grow, backed by global examples, including: 1) integrating design with other key innovation skills, 2) measuring impact of ideas, 3) telling your story, 4) teaching others how to apply design, and 5) planning ahead.

“This is how we should design. We’re good designers, of course we’re going to be great at describing what’s desirable, right? Yet deep structural change in government is hard. How do we change the conditions for this work amidst the layers and layers and years and years of bureaucratic accretion of rules, tech, policy, law, practice, culture? How do we make this feasible and viable?

Left with this big question: in tight budgets, limited teams, and problems that go for miles, how do we navigate the trade offs of things done well and slowly and carefully and with a small group of people vs. the state’s role to provide as much service as possible to as many as possible in need at scale, as quickly and as efficiently as possible?”

- Gordon Ross, Day 1 Speaker

Civic Design Tools and Mindsets: Day 2

Day 2 was a deep dive into the tools and mindsets for creating lasting change, designing accessible and equitable services, and buying and hiring for the needed skills.

Day 2 Sketchnotes by MJ Broadbent

Work We Need to Be Doing On Ourselves

In order to shift to design by, or let alone design with, we have work to do on ourselves. Jennifer Strickland took us on a personal and teaching journey of processes and resources for us to reflect on the power we have as designers to shift power to community.

Work We Need to be Doing to Bring Others Into the Journey

We heard not only about working with community, but also how we work with our colleagues and clients, and also how we bring new resources into the work through hiring and buying.

Marisa Bernstein illuminated best practices for inclusive usability testing including building trust, recruiting, and compensation through how Gathering Residents to Improve Technology (GRIT) Toronto has recruited a diverse group of community members to be product testers.

Maish Nichani shared a series of experiments from his work with the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore as well as the factors for success: 1) finding the narrative, 2) orchestrating experiences, 3) democratising design, and 4) playing the infinite game. These tactics can help us find the stories, share the work, and keep on playing the requisite infinite game — the ongoing, generational work that is civic design.

A multidisciplinary group from the United States Digital Service (Melissa Eggleston, Maya Israni, Florence Kasule, Owen Seely, and Andrea Schneider) shared with us how they build trust with colleagues across agencies through deep understanding of the problem spaces and building personal relationships which have helped when there is hard feedback to share on a project or process.

Emily Lessard turned her procurement pain in responding to bad requests for proposals (RFPs) into actionable best practices with operational benefits and equitable outcomes that every government agency can put in place as they buy design services. She recommends partnering closely with the procurement office, designing the RFP to have clear information up front and set page limits, marketing to where vendors will see it, and setting equity-based rules for selecting vendors.

Shahzma Esmail, Edward Alton, Charlotte Vorbeck, and Sarah McArthur joined us for a global panel of civic designers working with different levels of government, in different roles, with a diversity of backgrounds. They shared their wisdom on their career journeys, what it’s like to design in the public sector, and how a more inclusive pipeline to the field can be encouraged through more equitable processes in job descriptions and hiring for lived experience.

Work We Need to Do to Scale Civic Design

Shanti Mathew, Natalia Radywyl and Natalie Sims from Public Policy Lab shared their “layer cake” approach to considering the structures and policies that sit behind all public services. Their systemic view is helping them untangle the web behind a service, and gain awareness about power, as well as identify more points of intervention.

“I am thankful for the abundance of awareness shared by so many of the speakers. It’s meaningful to come together and share what we’ve discovered as we build and rebuild more equitable, diverse, meaningful worlds in each of our worlds. But for me, I saw it starts with awareness — awareness of power, of structures, of the spaces in between.
— Emily Lessard, Day 2 Speaker

Civic Design Futures: Day 3

Day 3 grappled with our role as civic designers in shaping the processes and solutions as we face the challenges ahead for society and our planet.

Day 3 Sketchnotes by MJ Broadbent

From Human-Centered to Life Centered

Meghan Hellstern and Joanne Dong prompted us to zoom out and consider how we might shift from human-centered to living systems-centered, taking into account all the other beings who co-inhabit this pale blue dot with us. They shared insights into how to understand your own role within a given system, context or environment. Their session was peppered with thoughtful questions to reflect on this moment of civic design in transition, such as “how does my practice need to evolve?,” “what emerging practices are calling me and why?,” and “what roles am I called to play?”.

Trauma-Centered Design

Rachael Dietkus explored trauma-responsive design, noting that none of us can really know the trauma another is carrying just from what we see on the surface, particularly at this moment in time where we are all swimming in this sea of overwhelm. She shared how she uses her values and social work background to bring trauma-informed awareness to her work in design as a “positive deviant and curious detangler,” to foreground how vulnerable research participants may be re-traumatized or further traumatized in interviews.

Decolonizing Participatory Design

Victor Udoewa began with a provocation for the Griot tradition as the ancient roots of design: if design is taking in information, coming up with at least one idea, and trying it out, and making meaning in community. He deconstructed one of his own experiences leading a participatory design process, exploring the questions and considerations needed to de-colonize the process such as how we cede power, properly acknowledge labor, and acknowledge that “it’s in the in-between spaces that we wield so much power” as facilitators. He suggested that we evaluate our success by asking “have a majority of the research and design team members experienced a sustained and sustainable shift in power?” Victor concluded that “our job as civic designers is to bring government needs and community needs into alignment.”

“My most favorite moment came on Day 3: I love Rachel’s point on “positive deviant and curious detangler.” And Victor’s talk added fire to positive deviants. Positive deviance is essentially a radical community-based approach to development. Positive deviants are trailblazers who employ uncommon and counter-intuitive approaches to confront challenges without more resources and often less resources than their peers. So designers become community members and become trailblazing positive deviants.”
— Joanne Dong, Day 3 Speaker

Disasters and the 21st Century

Alicia D. Johnson showed us that inequities are encoded in land and policy, breaking down the ways in which historical inequities have marginalized the most vulnerable, making their land and homes at high-risk of climate impacts, and determining how we recover and rebuild when natural disasters strike. She identified the opportunity for designers in the emergency management field serving to counterbalance the encoding of human whims into policy that serves all beings.

Ethical Technology Governance

Ilana Lipsett made the case for future-facing regulatory structures to avoid “post-traumatic innovation,”or having to fix things after we’ve discovered harm, noting it’s better to create structures that can future-proof us for technology that doesn’t yet exist. She asked us to practice using our imaginations to think about long-term futures, despite it being tricky, and to anticipate the long-term social impacts of the tech today to protect our most essential public goods.

It was a fond farewell with full hearts and minds at the end of the third day.

Speakers, curators and staff waving goodbye at the end of Day 3. Gif by Melanie Kahl.

Looking Ahead

We’re excited to build on the momentum generated at the inaugural conference, and we’re getting to work planning for Civic Design 2022. Signals, forces and drivers that will guide us:

  • Building on underrepresented perspectives in the 2021 event and including more people from Asian countries, African countries, and Indigenous cultures;
  • Political polarization and how this affects citizen and resident services delivered by government;
  • Equitable pandemic recovery and continued COVID-19 whiplash;
  • Climate crisis and life-centered design;
  • Emerging technologies and the ethics surrounding them;
  • Deepening our craft with more rigorous ways to interrogate and mitigate harmful bias; and,
  • The great resignation or re-think about how we work and take care of ourselves.

We look forward to co-designing the Civic Design 2022 experience with you. Here are ways you can participate today:

  • Join the community to access monthly calls, participate in the Slack community, and receive the Civic Design Insider Newsletter.
  • Submit and read case studies (and soon resources) to the Civic Design Library.
  • Attend the conference November 14–16, 2022. Save the date!

Thank You

Thanks again to every speaker who poured so much time, energy, care and consideration into the talks and to everyone in the community who showed up and participated during the conference. We’re excited to continue building this community with you.

Thanks to speaker coach Nathan Gold, scribe David Nicholson, librarian Lauren Cantor, and sketchnoter MJ Broadbent.

Thank you to volunteers Anna Haraseyko, Asher Kolieboi, Changying (Z) Zheng, Dave Hoffer, Christian Crumlish, Emma Werowinski, Evie LaCroiz, Fernando Sanchez, Georgiy Chernyavsky, ​​Karissa Minnich, Kristen Ramirez, Michelle Chu, Melissa Burnett, Nathan Heintz, Nepunnee Birondo, Sean Isamu Johnson, Sébastien Malo, and Tasmin Swanson.

Thank you to workshop leaders Chelsea Mauldin, Kevin Hoffman, Natalia Radywyl, and Whitney Quesenbery.

Thank you to the Rosenfeld Media team Adeline Crites-Moore, Ed Rosenfeld, Elle Kyle, Jason Shuler, Karen Corbett, Lou Rosenfeld, Michelle Kaplan and Phyllis Imbriale.

Thank you to Civic Design 2021 sponsors United States Digital Service, UserTesting, Fable, Granicus, and Balsamiq.




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Ariel Kennan

Ariel Kennan

Design and product leader passionate about people-centered public services. Currently a Fellow at the Beeck Center at Georgetown University.

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