8 January 2020

Design Thinking: What Boris Johnson could learn from art school


The Conservatives’ unexpected success in breaking down the Red Wall gave Boris Johnson a surprise Christmas present. But it also presents him with an unexpected challenge – to make a real difference to the parts of the UK that successive Governments tended to forget. It’s a real opportunity to create a legacy where most people least expected it.

If you’ve ever travelled on a Pacer train, you’ll know that infrastructure is definitely part of the solution. But, if it is to make a real difference, the aim must be to create places that don’t just work for transport planners, but instead ones where infrastructure services and opportunities fit around people, rather than expecting people to fit the system.

Call in the hipsters? Not exactly, but the Government could do worse than look for a solution in a version of the “Design Thinking” that’s beloved of American art schools and that’s the subject of reverential Harvard Business Review articles.

At heart, Design Thinking is about ensuring that people and communities get what they really want and need, rather than what the “experts” (them again…) think they want. It started with products – for example, the kitchen utensils with the “oxo grip” originally created by Sam Farber for his wife who suffered from arthritis, but now a common feature of most kitchens. Design thinking can also be used to create “user friendly” services, such as simple online booking sites.

Put like that, it seems very obvious – and indeed quite free market and bottom-up. Of course, the problems Boris needs to solve call for more than clever tools or websites. But Design Thinking principles can be the basis of a solution, which we call “envisioning”, that is:

  • human-centric, a system based around people, rather than expecting people to fit into the system;
  • inclusive and participatory, enabling local people, including those who are usually invisible to planners, to shape their environment by helping them identify what they want and need. You could call it “devolution by design”;
  • integrated, treating the city or town as an holistic ecosystem, rather than a set of distinct “flagship” projects.

How does it work in practice? A simple approach is to frame the design and planning process using what we call the 5 i’s.

For a start, take time to identify what all the “users” of the community actually need. For example, remember part-time workers as well as daily commuters. Include young families and pensioners, students and “transients” as well as permanent residents (aka Council Tax payers). And don’t think only about each group individually, but consider how they interact as they go about their daily lives.

Next, focus on interpreting each group’s wants and needs, individually and collectively. That’s more than simple questionnaires or focus groups. As Henry Ford is supposed to have said: “if I’d have asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. For example, if you have to travel from one end of town to the other to go from school to the shops, you might respond positively to the offer of a new road or a new bus route, while the best solution might actually be to relocate amenities on a single site. To interpret effectively you don’t just need data analysis, but also need behavioural techniques from discourse analysis to gamification to get underneath people’s real wants and needs. We call this approach “qualitative first”: don’t start measuring until you’ve thought about what you should be measuring.

Having done the analysis, planners can innovate workable strategies based on deeper insights.

It doesn’t stop there, otherwise, there’s a risk that, armed with a glossy strategy, the builders will start building new infrastructure and systems and quickly forget about the people who will end up living with them.

That’s why we need to iterate. Design thinking is a fundamentally iterative process: keep checking to see whether the plans remain relevant to communities’ changing needs. Government needs to bear this in mind when drawing up budgets. The overall project need not be any more expensive, but more of the total needs to be held back for contingencies, so that adapting to reflect changed circumstances is seen as a positive, not an admission of failure.

The final – equally crucial – stage is integrate. A complex plan for a town or city will include a wide range of projects, from housing to transport, from science parks to schools. Too often, once a plan is approved, each contractor or project team sets off by itself and delivers according to its specifications without checking on how it will impact on the rest of the plan. Structuring projects so that each one works with the others is a simple and cost-effective way to ensure that the overall impact meets users’ expectations and needs.

Maybe it’s not time to call in the most hipster of the creatives, but it is perhaps time for a fresh approach to innovation and design.

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