How might design thinking support eco-neighborhood innovations?
When I relocated from London to San Francisco just over two years ago, my new landlady Nancy forwarded me an email invite to a neighborhood ‘Green Alleys’ party. The party was to support a local project that aimed to transform two alleys in the area into water resilient, beautiful, safe and green community gathering spaces. I was intrigued. I’d recently completed my doctoral thesis, which explored how design can support local urban communities in identifying, discussing and sometimes making creative use of their neighborhood ‘awkward spaces’. The area that I’d moved into in San Francisco had a long history of progressive politics and a more recent history of rapid gentrification brought about by the influx of tech workers (myself sort of included). I wondered if the alleys could provide a ‘space in between’ to have grounded conversations about what was happening to the neighborhood and the Bay Area at large. So, I bought a carrot cake and joined the party and the project.
Fast forward two years and I’m now working as a teaching fellow at the Stanford d.school. The role of the teaching fellows is to challenge, learn about and contribute to the development of the d.school’s curriculum and classes. This Spring Quarter, in collaboration with Kevin Hsu, an urban design lecturer and coordinator of the Human Cities Initiative at Stanford, I finally got the chance to create a Green Alleys intervention. This took the form of a two-day pop-up class ‘Green Alleys SF: Eco-neighborhood Innovations’, based both at the d.school and on site on Ames Alley, San Francisco. The class included 15 students from across Stanford University, a small group of local residents, and city experts from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Department of Public Works and the Planning Office. Some of the questions the teaching team asked themselves before embarking on this experience were:
- What is the (more humble?) role of design in facilitating grassroots/ local action? What kinds of skills and experience are required for this?
- How might design thinking support longer-term change, beyond the creative efforts of tactical urbanism?
- How might this design-facilitated, bottom-up approach take the pressure off/ provide a counter-balance to top-down planning and design approaches?
- How might local hubs of community activity, such as the alleys, provide exciting, immersive educational spaces for sustainable civic innovation?
Is design thinking compatible with eco-innovation?
In developing our pop-up class, I was aware of the challenges and limitations of using the design thinking process to tackle an ecological and therefore systemic design problem. Whilst working with my fellow teaching fellows on Design Thinking Studio, the d.school’s seminal introduction to design thinking, we’d had an interesting feedback session with our Design Project 1 (DP1) project partner Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, NXT Space Sustainability Leader at Nike Inc. Along with Noah, we’d set the students a 3-week design challenge about ‘Getting kids moving while considering sustainability’. After assessing the students’ projects, we were disappointed that they didn’t directly tackle sustainability with their prototypes — in each of the projects it appeared to be more an after-thought. Whilst acknowledging that this might have been partly to do with how we phrased the brief, our project partner commented that a human-centered design solution doesn’t necessarily have to be ecologically sustainable. It is not that these things are in conflict but in the relatively short timeframe of a student design thinking project, users might not have the opportunity to think on the longer term benefits afforded by sustainable solutions. In the rapid fire approach to interviewing, brainstorming, prototyping etc…, sustainability can get left out of the equation. We wondered if a living systems-centered design approach would be more fitting for the sustainability agenda? So, in the case of the Green Alleys class, this led me to question, in a short amount of time, how might we empathize beyond the perceived needs of the people living on the alleys to consider other actors in the system and the system at large?
Empathy and observation through participation
The key concept that we wanted to communicate to our Green Alleys students was that their task was not to use design thinking to redesign the alleys (i.e. going out and conducting empathy and observation work on the residents of the alleys, generating insights and prototyping solutions) but to use design thinking to support and motivate the residents in their ongoing endeavors to transform their alleys. We defined the focus of this design thinking learning experience as becoming skilled in empathy and observation through participation. We drew upon research into metadesign and urban sustainability to create tools and methods for working within an existing context with real people. Metadesign is a collaborative design approach whereby the designer’s role is to set up the conditions for and facilitate an open and emergent participatory process, which invites in the creativity of others. In a recent article entitled ‘Design as Participation’ for MIT Journal of Design and Science, Kevin Slavin posed the question
“When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects… What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?” (Kevin Slavin, 2016)
In this article Slavin defines design itself as participating in complex, adaptive systems. We wanted to take a similar approach going out into the alleys, considering them as a mini bioregion of the city. To facilitate empathy and observational studies, we created a holistic set of lenses for exploring interconnected aspects of the alleys. The lenses included biodiversity, storm-water management, culture and politics, heritage and histories, community gathering space and stewardship and maintenance. On the first day of the class, the students selected lenses that they found curious and formed six ‘lens’ teams. Each team selected observational strategies, created by the Human Cities Initiative, that they felt complimented their lens and tested them out on Stanford’s campus. On the second day of the class in the alleys, the student teams were joined by their co-participants, including residents and city experts. Together, they set about identifying points of interest for future alley eco-innovations.
In this process, the residents were their own users, along with other alley inhabitants, including a Cooper’s hawk and a hive of bees. The students had to let go of their urge to act as problem-solvers, going out into the alleys to identify and respond to the residents’ needs. Alternatively, they became co-participants in a collective exploration of the alleys’ multiple needs alongside the residents. Aside from this being a valuable experience in practicing empathy and observation, and meeting and talking to the residents, the students enjoyed spending time in the alleys and working within a physical space. In discussing the importance of immersive ‘out in the wild’ educational experiences, design writer John Thackara describes how
‘Systems thinking… becomes truly transformational when combined with systems feeling — which is something we all crave.” (Thackara, 2015)
Sending the teams out to explore the alleys prompted them to interact with bamboo stalks, holes in the road surface, broken drain pipes, Russian vines, a wood workshop, painted murals, and the beehive, to name a few things. All of this informed a multi-sensory reading of the alleys.
Identifying and articulating points of interest
After surveying the alleys using their empathy and observation strategies, each team highlighted their points of interest along the alleys, using color-coded tags. At the end of the session, the teams post-it-noted their highlights on a shared map. We debriefed the session by discussing areas of the alleys that had gathered multiple tags. In the image below, you can see that one of the murals on Ames Alley was tagged by three different lens teams, who saw it as a way of strengthening the alley’s identity, creating a space for cultural events and marking the threshold into the alleys. These points of interest were later compiled in a document for the Green Alleys project team to inform future planning and fundraising activities.
Reflections on the class — the designer as host
In our pop-up class we focused upon the empathy and observation stage of the design thinking process, exploring how we could expand this to think and feel with our co-participants and the alley environments. After spending the day in the alleys with our students, the city experts and my neighbors, I was reminded of Charles Eames notion of the designer as host. Eames wrote,
“The role of the architect or designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests — those who enter the building and use the objects in it” (Charles Eames)
In this changing, more participatory role for design, it’s perhaps less about anticipating the needs of the users of a building or object, and more like carefully staging a design happening, where all of the participants involved need to feel a valuable part of the process. This involves preparing the scene, holding the space open for great conversation, making connections, and letting go of things to allow for the event (and its possible design outcomes) to take shape for itself. Here, design thinking can play a useful role in supporting eco-neighborhood innovations.
Thanks to Emi Kolawole, Kevin Hsu, Nihir Shah, Noah Murphy-Reinhertz, the Green Alleys Team, City Reps and our students!