On Design Thinking

Peter Soriano, Synthetic Contrivance. 2016, spray paint and acrylic on wall. 10'6" × 13'6". Courtesy of the artist and Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

Gainesville is a medium-size city in the middle of northern Florida. It is subtropical and often beautiful: its streets are lined with water oak and sweet gum and Chickasaw plum trees, buildings crawling with Spanish moss. It is also poor. Nearly 34 percent of the city’s 134,000 residents live below the federal poverty line—more than double the national average—and 57 percent struggle to meet basic needs. Gainesville’s academically excellent University of Florida enrolls more than fifty thousand students annually, but graduates tend to skip town after finishing their degrees. They go elsewhere in Florida, or to other states, where opportunity seems greater.
In 2013, Gainesville elected a mayor named Ed Braddy, who promised to change the economic outlook. What Gainesville needed, Braddy said, was to become “a more competitive place for new businesses and talent.” Greater “competitiveness,” he believed, would spur economic activity, keep graduates in town, and build what Richard Florida has called a “creative class.” In pursuit of this vision, Braddy and Gainesville’s City Commission appointed the Blue Ribbon Committee on Economic Competitiveness. The committee took a trip to Silicon Valley, where its members visited the legendary Palo Alto consultancy IDEO. After a conversation with IDEO’s leaders, they hired the firm to design Gainesville’s metamorphosis.
IDEO isn’t a management consultancy like McKinsey or Deloitte. It’s a design consultancy—one that sees “design” as the discipline not just of conceiving physical and digital products, but also of transforming services and institutions. Over eight weeks in late 2015, a team of IDEO designers took over a downtown Gainesville storefront, from which they interviewed hundreds of city residents. They prototyped and tested solutions to municipal problems. Finally, in collaboration with the Blue Ribbon Committee, the IDEO team published a report. It aimed to address the problem—an absence of “competitiveness” for new business and talent—that Mayor Braddy had diagnosed.
IDEO’s Gainesville Blue Ribbon Report is an optimistic document. Its opening pages use desaturated colors: gray-yellow, dull orange, soft brown. But as the report reveals its solution, its palette bursts into vibrancy. “Today the world runs on ideas,” a header announces. “We have one. And we think it’s a very good one.” That idea is for Gainesville to become “the most citizen-centered city in the world.”

How do you make a city “citizen-centered”? IDEO’s report prescribes nine changes for Gainesville. Early in the list is rebranding: adopt a new logo, tagline, and visual style. Another is to create a “Department of Doing,” an office to help people start or grow businesses in Gainesville. Finally, the report says, the city should become more design-minded. It should train city employees in “design thinking”: the use of design methods to solve problems. It should replace City Commission subcommittees with design-thinking workshops and frame policy questions as design questions. (“Instead of assuming,” for instance, “that the right answer to dealing with trees cut as a result of development is a policy to limit the amount of trees that can be cut, why not ask the question, ‘How can we maintain a desirable degree of shade and tree coverage as part of Gainesville’s overall design?’”)
Gainesville’s City Commission embraced the Blue Ribbon Report. So did the press. The Gainesville Sun endorsed the Department of Doing. In 2016, Fast Company published a long feature on “How One Florida City Is Reinventing Itself With UX Design.”

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