Urban Technology at University of Michigan week 86
Civic design with Ariel Kennan and Sarah Brooks
We’ve discussed service design and strategic design in previous issues, but what about civic design? What does it mean to design with civic intent, or to be a designer within a civic organization? To learn more about civic design we caught up with Ariel Kennan and Sarah Brooks, who have been working to foster a community of practice for designers within federal & municipal governments as well as other venues committed to civics.
💬 Hello! This is the newsletter of the Urban Technology program at University of Michigan, in which we explore the ways that technology can be harnessed to nurture and improve urban life. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction to our degree program.
⚡️ ANNOUNCEMENTS ⚡️
🏛 Interview with Ariel Kennan and Sarah Brooks
Ariel Kennan is currently a Senior Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. Previously she was the Director of Civic Innovation at Sidewalk Labs and also worked for the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, where she founded its Service Design Studio.
Sarah Brooks is an intrapreneur working with IBM and has extensive experience as a designer in the federal government, co-founding the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Experience Office and serving as its Chief Design Officer from 2014 to 2017.
In addition to their day jobs, Sarah and Ariel will soon be convening the second Civic Design Conference (more below!). Those interested can also explore the Civic Design Library and join their community on monthly calls and Slack.
CHARLIE KEENAN: How would you define civic design for those who are unfamiliar with the term?
SARAH BROOKS: I think of it as design for the common good of communities. That may be done formally by people working inside of a government agency, but in my mind it also encompasses work that happens at a grassroots level with people who are designing within their community according to their own needs and wants.
ARIEL KENNAN: We're seeing it take on a lot of formal disciplines of design, whether it's actually creating graphics or an interface for user experience. There's also a bigger trend in designers as problem solvers and as untanglers of complexity, and really looking at things that are more service design or strategic design oriented—understanding complex systems as well as documenting and researching them, but also creating solutions and thinking about how you change the outcomes and impact of those systems with people who are involved in them.
CHARLIE: Do you have any favorite examples of civic design?
ARIEL: Some of the examples I am particularly excited about are happening around equitable recovery. There's a very cool project at CityLab in Melbourne, where they're thinking about storefronts and how you take spaces that have been underutilized or closed during the pandemic and revitalize them. There's another project I really enjoyed from Jalisco, Mexico, where they are thinking about how to support the professional design community in Jalisco. It’s run out of the Ministry of Culture. They've created a space for that design community to come together, and it's very multidisciplinary.
SARAH: I find the work of Liz Ogbu really inspiring. She refers to herself as a designer, urbanist, and spatial justice activist. She’s been working on an ambitious site design project in Bayview Hunters Point, California in deep co-creation with the diverse and underserved community there. And the work of the Center for Civic Design on U.S. election design to support election integrity couldn’t be more imperative.
BRYAN: If someone designs a civic space like a park, are they a civic designer?
ARIEL: It's definitely something we grappled with when thinking about the boundaries of the community and the [Civic Design] conference: do urban planning and architecture fit in? There is already some community around urban planning and architecture that's quite strong; there are professional organizations that support that work. There's a bit more of a gap for other work with a civic focus that has blurrier professional boundaries.
CHARLIE: Is there a particularly “American” approach to civic design, or is the discipline fairly similar across the globe?
ARIEL: We're seeing a mix. The U.S. now has a federal practice that has grown significantly in the last eight years—Sarah was involved in the beginnings of that—and alongside that are a growing number of municipal models, so now we're seeing service design studios and other forms of I-teams and design teams forming over the last several years. It's very interesting to see them sit in different parts of city government, sometimes working really closely with an executive like a mayor or a city manager, and other times working out of the IT shop or in the innovation office. I think one of the challenges is that there are examples of people working inside agencies doing direct program delivery who are designers and design teams in-house in those places, but those are rarer than at the executive level. Right now, that's a big gap. How do you get to the deeper influence of the big, systemic program policy change without being on the delivery side?
Sarah, do you want to talk a bit more about what's happening at the federal level?
SARAH: There was the executive order from the White House on transforming federal customer experience and service delivery aimed at rebuilding trust in government, which was really exciting. To me that felt like the culmination of the last seven years or so of work in the federal government happening under this “customer experience” umbrella, with customer experience offices being created in different agencies. There were a few early triggers for that work: the Lab at OPM was one of the first places that started training people who were already within the federal government in human-centered design methods. A lot of the people who came through those cohorts would meet each other across agencies, and then spin up their own efforts, and they started to become a community of practice. I'm seeing a lot of people from that community moving around different agencies, so it really feels like that practice is maturing.
In the for-profit world, customer experience tends to be owned by marketing organizations, but in the federal government, customer experience is seen as this very holistic way to think about the end to end process, everything that residents and citizens are experiencing, and trying to understand what services they're eligible for, finding and applying for them, entering into them and getting delivery.
BRYAN: There's another form of cultural change happening in parallel with this design conversation, regarding technology and government. That side often gets bigger headlines than design, so I'd be curious if you have thoughts on why technology pulls more attention.
ARIEL: There's a continued push around digitizing systems, but I'm actually seeing the conversation shift because there has been so much digitization that doesn't work, and people realize that the technology is creating huge barriers to people accessing services—it solves some problems, but it creates new ones. There is a bigger conversation now happening in those digital transformation conversations where design, research, and usability testing now have to be part of the process. I think there's some really hard lessons still being learned on some of that.
New things that are also coming into play, like identity verification. There are big design issues with it, but there are also really big technology issues with it. Some of it comes down to ethics and what we are prioritizing in the technology that we build. More technologists [are] becoming more activist and also a bit more design-oriented. They care about those things because they see that their solutions actually stop people from getting services for which they're eligible.
CHARLIE: How can civic designers can effectively incorporate issues of equity, access, and inclusion into their work?
SARAH: That’s such an important question and brings to mind how much learning about and interrogation of power and positionality is happening in our profession right now. The depth of self-reflection and reflection on our profession and our practices is heartening. It's hard work, to grow and to see our blind spots. As somebody who for a long time was the ”other” in my technology career just by virtue of being a woman, I'm really happy that this is no longer a singular indicator of difference, and that now we're having much more nuanced conversations about the intersectionality of identities.
A personal highlight on this theme last year was the Humanity-Centered Masterclass I attended with a group of designers on my team. It was taught by Vivianne Costello, Alba Villamil and Sekai Farai for (in their words) “professionals who are disillusioned with the status quo in the UX & Tech Industry and who want to help it live up to its ideals of empathy and inclusion.” Those women are fire. I would recommend it to anyone working with other people.
CHARLIE: What excites you about the future of civic design over the next five to 10 years?
ARIEL: We started to grapple with the future a little bit at last year's conference, and we covered everything from climate and emergency management to race, trauma-informed practices, and technology governance. Those problems are not going away; if anything, some of them are becoming even more urgent.
So how do we take those conversations to the next level? And what does it mean for designers to have a seat at the table as we work through these generational problems? One of the things about this work is we're not going to solve every problem—we might make them slightly less worse, but we can’t snap our fingers and end climate change through some magic design solution. It’s going to take lots of work and lots of people, and a lot of expertise that's beyond design. One of my favorite things about being a designer is working with people from other disciplines to think about holistic solutions to big problems.
SARAH: There was also this overarching idea of moving from human-centered design to more of a living systems lens, decentering the human and re-centering everything on the planet. And how do we work with complexity in the way that complexity actually functions, and not apply problem-solving methods that were developed for mechanistic problems for which there is a clear solution? With these large challenges where there is no single solution, all you can do is make interventions and hope that you're pushing the system in the direction that you want to push it in. It's very different. It's a paradigm shift, both for design and for the organizations with which we work.
CHARLIE: Last question: what is your favorite city, and why?
ARIEL: New York City is my favorite city in the world. It is my chosen home, I have lived here my entire adult life, and I don't want to live anywhere else. But the other place that's stolen just a little bit of my heart is Innsbruck, Austria, which I think is just a beautifully planned city. It's super walkable, it has completely redundant public transportation, it’s next to the mountains, and it's just wonderful.
SARAH: Yeah, New York City is my favorite city too. It's my hometown. The smell of tar as a harbinger of for summertime is embedded in my DNA.
📕 If parsing civic design and other related practices is tough, you’re not alone! Classifying new practices is hard and this letter from the Library of Congress about where to put Norbert Wiener’s book on Cybernetics is an amusing example.
🪧 Speaking of the civic impulse, here’s an update from our friends at Digital Trust for Places and Routines (featured here previously)
🐿 We may have shared the Squirrel Census before, but it cannot be shared too much.
🏚 Beta NYC is tracking micro-fulfillment centers, a new typology of warehouse that’s embedded in dense urban fabric rather than in cheap peripheral real estate. h/t for this and the 🐿’s goes to Anthony Townsend
🌴 Future Tropica is a closed network among select tropical locales. Private internet as cultural exchange mechanism.
These weeks: Meeting folks. Coffee with colleague Sophia Brueckner, including learning about the latest at ESC, commemorative plates, and pawpaws. Chris Patten! Admissions. Stickers. HOLOGRAM STICKERS. 🏃