Design thinking meets urban planning

By David du Plessis

The psychologist Rom Harré wrote that ‘the primary human reality is persons in conversation’. It’s a validating idea for design thinkers and user-centred designers because we do a lot of talking, and listening, to find the emotional touchpoints between people and products.

With Harré’s quote in the back of my mind I joined a World Design Capital 2014 co-design workshop, teaming up with members of the community, city officials, and fellow designers to talk about regenerating the Gatesville Central Business District and the Lansdowne Civic Precinct.

The co-design workshop was structured as an end-to-end design thinking process, and for many participants it was their first encounter with design thinking. But the premise of the day was that everyone is a design thinker, and we were encouraged to participate in conversations structured by the primary design thinking stages of:

  1. empathy, context and ideas,
  2. creating a vision,
  3. prototyping and iteration.

Empathy, context and ideas

First up, members of the community told their stories, setting the scene and context for the workshop. Next, they brainstormed the challenges faced by the two sites in their community, followed by a card sort and voting session to identify and prioritise the key issues.

*Voting in progress to whittle down prioritised issues.*

Voting in progress to whittle down prioritised issues.

Creating a vision

The brainstorming and prioritisation sessions were extended in a visioning exercise where community members were given free reign to visualise, and verbalise, the regeneration they’d like to see.

*Poster sessions to share visions of the future.*

Poster sessions to share visions of the future.

Prototyping and iteration

The day concluded with a rapid prototyping session where groups made their ideas tangible by building low resolution models. At this point the designers made themselves useful by acting as coaches in the making process. Once groups were satisfied with their models they were ordered to remove 45% of their designs – saving only the most essential features – a reminder that iteration is at the heart of design thinking and that ideas are tools for inquiry, they should not constrain the emergence of new ideas.

*Building models on aerial photographs.*

Building models on aerial photographs.

Next steps

The models (as visions of the future) and the prioritised issues are set to inform the next stage of the design process by representing the voice of the community. And provided that the community voice is present throughout subsequent design rounds the co-design workshops will have succeeded.

What it meant to me

Since the workshop I’ve been thinking about the ideas of Humberto Maturana who wrote that communication is not just about conveying information; it is action rooted in the inseparable dynamic between language and emotion. The co-design workshops successfully used design thinking as a tool to structure conversations with the aim of surfacing words and emotions in context – using them as building blocks for new models that in turn become the basis of further action.

Everything designed is rooted in emotion. And in the context of urban South Africa, structured in its present built form by apartheid and the group areas act, the purposeful emotional neglect imposed on communities should not be repeated when designing, and upgrading, our cities.

Design thinking is a powerful process, but its value is not only as a tool, experiencing the co-design workshop with a diverse group of people changed my emotional relationship with Cape Town and its people. And changing people on an empathic level is the spark that will bring about desirable change in the spaces, structures, and interactions we design. This is the power of design thinking.