How to encourage urban innovation with a sprint.

We worked with Palmerston North Council, N.Z. to use a sprint to rapidly develop and prototype policy and a service for ‘flex space’ and parklets.

Urban Innovations spread from city to city and are re-mixed to suit local challenges. Pop-up stores align well with the lean startup methods and are a well known retail innovation — pop-ups offer businesses an opportunity to test their ideas without committing to a full lease and property owners benefit from an occupied space which has the potential to become a long-term lease.

What is a Sprint?

One of the methods of innovation is a ‘Sprint’. In a sprint:

  • an interdisciplinary team works through a structured process over a set period.
  • a specific challenge has been defined but the outcome has not been determined.
  • stakeholders, project sponsors, and the users/customers are involved through the process.
  • multiple potential solutions are designed through a mix of design processes.
  • the team selects and prototypes a first option from the potential solutions.
  • the prototype is presented to users/customers on the final day.

A Sprint challenges many of the existing ways of working for a local government. Among these are requiring a team to focus on a single challenge for the duration of the project, and that results are achieved through the Sprint faster than the organisation’s normal pace.

The flex space and parklets sprint

PN Streetscapes Plan Flex space concept. Graphics by Isthmus

Challenge Definition

The challenge definition for the Flex space and Parklets project was highlighted prior to the sprint during development of the PN Streetscape Plan that Urban Kin developed with McIndoe Urban, Isthmus, and CCM Architects. The flex space opportunity responded to new street layouts with simple geometry that allow many uses such as supporting the social life in the city.

Issues had developed with existing parklets such as varied quality and design characteristics, deterioration due to material quality, and basic operational issues such as maintenance and conflicts with car movements. So, the general need for guidelines was established, but the project demanded a re-orientation from a local government view to the customer’s perspective.

Sprint Process


As with all projects a successful set-up is crucial, we used the morning of first day to set up the project with the team with a ‘kick-shop’ which covers the process, roles and responsibilities, intangible and tangible outcomes, scope, purpose, context, and Q&A. The multi-disciplinary team included:

  • the process leader — Urban Kin
  • a landscape architect/urban designer
  • a place facilitator/planner
  • and a traffic engineer.

Key decision makers were also involved who had delegated authority over policy related to the project — the City planning manager, GM of Strategy and Planning, Manager of Roading and Transport, and the Manager of Environmental Health.

The user experience of a single person in a parklet?

After the kick-shop the team moved into research mode — the first task was to develop empathy for the users of parklets — to do this we used empathy maps, and interviews with hosts of existing parklets. The team reconvened and reported back from the empathy mapping and interviews and began searching for insights (good, bad, themes). The team concluded the research stage by constructing a challenge definition statement. The challenge definition statement is the ‘centre of gravity’ for the design process, a resource which the team can return to throughout the project to stay focussed on who they are solving the challenge for, what the challenge is, and the constraints the customer has.

A work-in-progress meeting updated the project sponsors at the end of day 1 — a check-in for them to give direction, and for the team to get early feedback.


The next stage began the search for potential solutions. The team used the value proposition design process to provide structure. Value proposition design focuses on targeting design solutions to customers high-value ‘jobs’, pains, and gains. Multiple directions are explored and the value proposition — the mix of products and services — is framed in terms of pain relievers and gain creators. This process is quite radical compared to most policy projects where exemplars from other places are used and then copied or adapted without initial customer research into what progress is for them, their drivers, and issues.

Story-boarding the customer journey was crucial to test and refine the team’s assumptions and design choices, and to reduce complexity.


At this stage in the Sprint a decision is made to select the most promising direction and the team moves into low-fidelity prototyping for elements of the solution. The team is working to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for the demo day. Time is short, so only the work that needs to be done is completed (the lean startup approach). The team used a Kamban board for project management, prioritising, developing and testing elements where possible. We found that coming together regularly to revisit the priorities on the board, working together on a mini-brief, and reviewing each others work was the most effective way to collaborate. This saved much wasted effort on prototyping low-priority or optional parts of the solution. A second work-in-progress meeting was held at the end of day three to get feedback from the sponsor and stakeholders.

The site of the Sprint needs to support a different way of working. This sprint space was large enough that we could undertake 1:1 scale prototyping and test the assumptions. In the background the workspace shows the walls used to develop and prioritise ideas.

The outputs of the Sprint process are specific to each challenge. In PN’s project a service process was created to minimise the effort of the customer by creating a ‘one stop shop’ and approval process, clear and minimal design guides, other touch points such as parklet signage to invite public use and to identify the parklet host. The benefit of the Sprint is that the outcome was streamlined and tailored to Palmerston North’s circumstances — not San Franscisco’s or some other city that has already developed policy for parklets. When difficult decisions needed to be made about which direction to follow the team returned to the challenge definition statement for clarity.

Testing out different seating configurations for a parklet. Other tests were carried out in the street e.g. to test locations of wheel stops, and flexible bollards.


The focus of the final day was working towards a Demo of the parklet and flex space service, a culmination of the previous five days work. The Demo included the project sponsors and decision-makers, and most importantly a selection of customers who the service is designed for. This was an opportunity to get feedback on the whole service proposition before building out high quality elements and delivering the service.

The Parklet and Flex Space Manual

The outputs from the Sprint were translated into high quality versions by Urban Kin while the Palmerston North city-making team focussed on working with businesses who want to build parklets under the new guidelines.

Among the Palmerston North specific features was a ‘platform’ which would become part of the assets of the city centre, and therefore be included in annual maintenance programmes and relocated as needed. The businesses will build their bespoke elements on the platform.

A simple set of design principles for parklets and flex space in Palmerston North
Design elements for the ‘Parklet plus’ design approach


Following the sprint the PN City-making team moved into a delivery phase. This meant working through design and costing of the prototype ‘parklet plus’ model with the business who’d agreed to part fund and host the parklet.

The user invitation and the host acknowledgement.
Parklet enclosed from traffic and open to footpath.
Variety in seating and shade provided.

What we learned about sprints and local government

The Sprint process was created for rapid innovation in businesses, and not surprisingly when used in a bureaucracy challenges are encountered. Here are some learnings:

  • Make sure the challenge is big enough to justify focussing a team on a project for five days (or whatever the sprint length is).
  • Allow time each day for people to continue their existing roles for example, start the sprint working at 10am each day rather than using the entire working day.
  • Anticipate a learning curve during the sprint — for example, built environment professionals often work as solo experts rather than in an interdisciplinary team.
  • The Sprint process and team working allows people to break free of their day-to-day constraints in how they work and the level of creativity they can apply to routine tasks. Prepare to be surprised and inspired by your colleagues.
  • Ensure that the follow up to the process has agreed milestones to carry on the momentum of the sprint — it’s easy for other priorities to arise and slow implementation down.

The Sprint process has a great structure to rapidly create value for cities, it’s a mix of focus, creativity, and discipline which gets results. The design process benefits a city by targeting customer’s ‘jobs, pains, and gains’ which reduces risk of poor solution fit, and involving the customers, the project sponsor, decision-makers, and stakeholders throughout the sprint increases buy-in.

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