Design in the Civic Space: Generating Impact in City Government

Paper by Stephanie Wade and Jon Freach:” When design in the private sector is used as a catalyst for innovation it can produce insight into human experience, awareness of equitable and inequitable conditions, and clarity about needs and wants. But when we think of applying design in a government complex, the complicated nature of the civic arena means that public sector servants need to learn and apply design in ways that are specific to the complex ecosystem of long-standing social challenges they face, and learn new mindsets, methods, and ways of working that challenge established practices in a bureaucratic environment.

Design offers tools to help navigate the ambiguous boundaries of these complex problems and improve the city’s organizational culture so that it delivers better services to residents and the communities they live in. For the new practitioner in government, design can seem exciting, inspiring, hopeful, and fun because, over the past decade, it has quickly become a popular and novel way to approach city policy and service design. In the early part of the learning process, people often report that using design helps visualize their thoughts, spark meaningful dialogue, and find connections between problems, data, and ideas. But for some, when the going gets tough, when the ambiguity of overlapping and long-standing complex civic problems, a large number of stakeholders, causes, and effects begin to surface, design practices can seem ineffective, illogical, slow, confusing, and burdensome.
This paper will explore the highs and lows of using design in local government to help cities innovate. The authors, who have worked together to conceive, create, and deliver innovation training to over 100 global cities through multiple innovation programs, in the United States Federal Government, and in higher education, share examples from their fieldwork supported by the experiences of city staff members who have applied design methods in their jobs. Readers will discover how design works to catalyze innovative thinking in the public sector, reframe complex problems, center opportunities in resident needs, especially among those residents who have historically been excluded from government decision-making, make sensemaking a cultural norm and idea generation a ritual in otherwise traditional bureaucratic cultures, and work through the ambiguity of contemporary civic problems to generate measurable impact for residents. They will also learn why design sometimes fails to deliver its promise of innovation in government and see what happens when its language, mindsets, and tools make it hard for city innovation teams to adopt and apply…(More)”.