Smart Solutions, Not Just Smart Cities: Proposing Design Thinking for 21st-Century Urban Planning

Designed by Emily Zhong

Cities need a more holistic approach to solving problems: one that includes citizens’ voices and takes into account the smart city solutions as well as the “non-smart” ones.

Smart cities. Whether it is because of their high-tech benefits, hype, or both, more and more of the world’s cities are turning to technology-based urban solutions. The smart city market value is expected to double to over $700 billion by 2023 as cities across the globe invest more money than ever in smart city systems.1 Lauded for their speed and sustainability, these systems mark a new chapter in how cities operate in the 21st century.

The term “smart city” — describing city services and spaces enhanced with technology — first took off near the end of the 2008 recession. Pioneered by large multinational technology companies like IBM and Cisco, the smart city concept gained momentum as the world stepped into a new age connected by data and digits.2 In these early years, most smart city projects involved building data centers and automated grids for infrastructure services such as electricity and water. Since it was rare for these digital solutions to directly interact with everyday city life, not much regard was given to their implications for citizens.3

Today, city governments are starting to replace technology companies in spearheading smart city projects. Cities have shifted focus from optimizing behind-the-scenes city operations to directly enhancing city life through technological innovation. Technology has become increasingly infused into public spaces as cities combat issues ranging from environmental degradation to lack of Internet access in underserved communities. Portland, ME, for example, switched to energy-efficient LED streetlights to save over $1 million annually.4 New York City, NY, with the help of several telecom companies, replaced aging payphones with LinkNYC, a system of smart kiosks that offer free Wi-Fi, web-browsing, and device-charging.5 Yet, despite the good intentions of governments and companies, a third important group is being left out of the urban-planning process: the city-dwellers themselves.

Even the most well-intentioned projects can have unintended consequences. Since Portland’s LED streetlights were installed, the lights have saved the city considerable amounts of money, and the city government is considering upgrading its entire light grid to LED.6 This time, lights will have sound sensors that can help monitor traffic flow and detect crime, but activists are concerned that sound sensors will lead to increased discriminatory policing, particularly in minority communities.7 New York City’s LinkNYC kiosks succeeded in providing free Internet access, but their built-in web-browsing feature attracted loiterers and users who streamed inappropriate content in view of passersby. The city later removed the website-browsing feature, but citizens are now raising concerns about homeless encampments growing around the kiosks’ device-charging ports.8

Perhaps no better example of smart city planning gone awry is the now-defunct Sidewalk Toronto neighborhood led by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. Sidewalk Toronto was supposed to be a smart city utopia brought to life, with features including timber skyscrapers, autonomous vehicles, and self-heating sidewalks. However, Sidewalk’s lack of transparency and the public’s privacy concerns led to the project’s downfall. Though the project boasted “unprecedented public engagement,” most actual planning and paperwork took place privately.9 When Torontonians were invited to join the planning process, they were not given much time to deliberate. Realizing that important decisions were primarily being made by a third-party company with little local input, many citizens protested the project in the resistance movement #BlockSidewalk.10

Another major concern was Sidewalk’s surveillance and control over public spaces.11 An integral part of the project plan was to use data, such as pedestrian traffic and energy usage, to operate neighborhood infrastructures.12 However, citizens were apprehensive to let Sidewalk collect data on their public activities and movements. Additionally, people feared that public spaces would become “marketized.”13 Sidewalk said that city assets—park, curb, retail, office, and living spaces—would be provided according to demand reflected in collected data, but citizens worried that Sidewalk’s priority was to maximize profits. The project was scrapped in May 2020.14

Cities need a more holistic approach to solving problems: one that includes citizens’ voices and takes into account the smart city solutions as well as the “non-smart” ones. In an era where it is easy to suggest patching up problems with technological Band-Aids, it is important to remember that improving cities is about finding the right solution, not the right technology. Rather than focusing on smart city technology, local governments use the design thinking methodology to refocus urban planning on the people impacted.

Design thinking is a problem-solving framework with a “human-centered core.”15 Pioneered by design innovation firm IDEO and already wielded by hundreds of companies and organizations, including IBM, Google, and Airbnb, it encourages teams to “focus on the people they’re creating for.”16 Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the, describes design thinking as a flexible process that can differ from team to team, project to project. The basic framework consists of five stages:17

  1. Empathize. Interview problem stakeholders to challenge existing assumptions about the problem and understand user needs. 
  2. Define. Gather insights from the Empathize stage to pinpoint the exact problem space.
  3. Ideate. Brainstorm solutions.
  4. Prototype. Select fast, small-scale solutions from the Ideate stage to implement as prototypes.
  5. Test. Test prototypes with problem stakeholders to gather feedback. 

I propose that city governments incorporate design thinking into their urban planning processes. The Empathize and Define stages can help city government teams understand the issues that citizens are facing, and the Prototype and Test stages allow citizens to provide feedback on potential projects. By prioritizing the people impacted rather than the technology deployed, design thinking can help cities stay closer to their communities’ needs and discover solutions that citizens are more likely to trust and use. 

Around the world, city governments are already using design thinking in urban planning. This section will present four cases featuring four different cities. The first two, Singapore and Holstebro, Denmark, used design thinking to reach a solution that did not center on smart city technology. The next two, Bristol, England, and Mexico City, Mexico, used design thinking to reach a solution that did. What makes these cases successful is their focus on people. By conducting interviews, studying local culture, and testing potential solutions with citizens, the project teams were able to include local communities in their problem-solving processes. 

Design Thinking for “Non-Smart” City Solutions

1. Singapore: Transforming the Work Pass Application Experience

It is not uncommon for government processes, such as work pass applications, to be confusing and frustrating. In most countries, there is no competition in government services, thus no incentive to improve these services. But as an island country whose economy depends on international workers, Singapore knew that it had to stand out from other countries in competing for top talent. In 2009, the city state’s Ministry of Manpower Work Pass Division partnered with design firm IDEO to transform the Employment Pass Services Centre’s (EPSC) work pass-granting experience.18

In the EPSC renovation process, it was crucial to see the work pass application process as a human experience composed of visitors’ thoughts and feelings, rather than as a series of mechanical steps. In this case, the IDEO team empathized with EPSC visitors by going through the application process themselves. The team recreated a copy of the EPSC using lightweight props and furniture, allowing designers to role-play as visitors.19 

This process helped designers understand a typical EPSC visitor’s mindspace. For starters, moving to Singapore is already stressful. Going to a government office for a work pass only adds to the stress. To address this pain point, IDEO remodeled the EPSC entry hall into an airy, calming space with soft, round furniture and city skyline views. Now, visitors are called by name rather than number, and work pass interviews are conducted in open-air cabanas where there are toys to entertain children. Another cause of stress was the EPSC’s four-hour average wait time.20 To address this, IDEO added an online appointment booking service to the EPSC process. Today, over 95% of visitors are served within 15 minutes.21

Shortly after its redesign, the EPSC received a customer satisfaction score of 5.7/6.22 Tim Brown, IDEO CEO during the project, attributed this success to the team’s empathy for EPSC visitors. Brown said: “By thinking about how we deliver the emotional and functional needs of our customers … we can make a difference to how it feels to be a Singaporean and how it feels to be in Singapore.”23 IDEO could have just added the online appointment system to shorten wait times. However, this technological fix would not have been enough to address the EPSC’s long-term goal of attracting top global talent. By focusing on the entire user journey, IDEO created not only a faster work pass application process, but also a pleasant experience that leaves a lasting impression on foreign professionals considering calling the nation state their new home.

2. Holstebro, Denmark: Rethinking Government Meal Delivery Services

In Denmark, more than 125,000 senior citizens depend on government-provided meal delivery. At same time, poor nutrition among the elderly is a major issue: 60% of Danish seniors in assisted living suffer from poor nutrition, and 20% of them are malnourished. In 2007, Holstebro Municipality and Hospitable Food Service, the municipality’s meal preparation and delivery service, teamed up with local design agency Hatch & Bloom to improve senior meal delivery and help the municipality’s older citizens achieve a healthier life.24

Interviewing and empathizing with Hospitable’s senior customers and kitchen staff uncovered a number of unforseen insights. First, the teams learned about the stigma and drawbacks of government-provided meal delivery. While receiving help for basic chores, like cleaning, is common in Danish culture, it is less acceptable to get help for more personal needs, such as food. Additionally, people prefer asking friends and relatives for cooking help; turning to a government service like Hospitable is a last resort.25 Because of this stigma, customers felt embarrassed to have a meal delivery van outside their homes. Brandishing the words “HOLSTEBRO MUNICIPAL MEAL SERVICE,” these vans exposed their customers’ dependence on the government service and inability to take care of a basic need. The teams also found that senior customers preferred flexibility and customization in their meals, which Hospitable was lacking. To work around this, some clients had been customizing their delivered meals by using their own spices and fresh seasonal produce.26

From these findings, Holstebro and Hatch & Bloom re-defined the problem space and worked toward an end solution through repeated cycles of user workshops and feedback studies. The result was a complete service redesign. The relationship between kitchen staff and customers was transformed from one that was distant and impersonal into one that is now both “professional and personal.”27 Customers know “who is shaping the meatballs and preparing the gravy in the municipal kitchen.”28 They can also write feedback cards to kitchen staff, so seniors can influence how their meals are prepared. Additionally, Hospitable was renamed as The Good Kitchen, accompanied by a rebranding to make staff uniforms and delivery vans look more chef-like. The improved transparency, feedback mechanisms, and rebranding shaped The Good Kitchen into a friendly service that elderly citizens could be proud customers of. Ever since the experience redesign, the meal service saw a 22% increase in clients, a 78% increase in healthy dish sales, as well as many much happier seniors and employees.29

A point worth mentioning is that none of the members on the Holstebro and Hatch & Bloom teams were seniors.30  It was not easy for them to understand the loneliness and loss of independence that came with aging. It would have been easy for Hospitable to add an online meal customization feature; this would address the lack of the flexibility in their original menu. But in this case, better technology was not the best solution. Empathizing with the seniors was crucial to shaping a solution that not only helped clients physically, but also emotionally. Redesigning and rebranding the service as a whole helped address the bigger issues that customers were struggling with: the pains of aging and the stigma of receiving meal help.31

Design Thinking for Smart City Solutions

1. Bristol, England: A Citizen-Driven Approach to Air Quality Sensing

Air pollution is an urban issue that affects many cities across the globe, and Bristol is no exception. In 2017, the city wanted to explore effective ways to collect air quality data, and to encourage citizens to act on this data and improve urban air quality. For this project, Bristol collaborated with local arts center and charity Knowles West Media Centre.32

Most cities address air pollution problems by installing air quality sensors in public areas. Without tools to quantitatively measure air quality, it is difficult to even begin fighting air pollution. However, sensors, like in many smart city initiatives, often raise privacy concerns. To overcome this, Bristol and Knowles West wanted to establish citizen trust and ownership in sensor technology. The partnership used their own methodology called the Bristol Approach, a “people-led and issue-led” problem solving framework similar to design thinking that does not “[push] pre-determined ‘tech solutions’ onto people.”33

All Bristol citizens were invited to take part in the solution-finding process. Groups who ultimately participated included bicyclists, families, taxi drivers, and social housing tenants. In the ideation process, each group developed its own air quality sensor designs at a local manufacturing space. The final design was a palm-sized sensor resembling a ladybird beetle. Light and portable, these smart city sensors could be attached anywhere to collect air quality information.34

Including Bristol citizens in the ideation process had huge impacts on their behaviors. People embraced the new air quality sensors because they were involved in nearly every step of the project. Those who took home sensors were inspired to drive shorter travel routes, change their own travel behavior, and gain a deeper understanding of the air pollution issue. One user was inspired to “get rid” of her car.35 Another user, an architect, was motivated to apply sensor data to architecture projects in creating cleaner, more eco-friendly spaces. In this smart city project, building citizen trust was as important as building the sensor technology.36

2. Mexico City, Mexico: Introducing a Bicycle-Sharing Network

Bicycle-sharing networks have become increasingly popular in cities across the globe. Usually, these smart city transportation systems allow people to borrow bicycles from electronic docks and pay through mobile apps or digital kiosks. However, starting a citywide bicycle-sharing system requires more than just installing docks and stations. If not welcomed by the community, shared bicycles are left unused, and they clutter the streets. 

Mexico City wanted its citizens to benefit from a bicycling lifestyle, and in 2007, the city’s environmental department hired urban research firm Gehl to investigate ways to make the city bicycle-friendly. To start, Mexico City representatives and Gehl urban planners looked toward the expert city: Copenhagen. Bicycling through Copenhagen themselves, the teams experienced firsthand what a bicycle-friendly city looked like. With plenty of lanes and traffic lights designated for bicyclists, Copenhagen’s bicycle system was fully integrated into its own urban infrastructure.37

Drawing from the knowledge of the Mexico City representatives, the groups then investigated the cultural and physical barriers to bicycling in Mexico City. In Mexico, bicycles are considered a “poor man’s” mode of transportation, and they denote low social status.38 This negative perception was reinforced by vehicle drivers’ aggressive behavior toward bicyclists. Mexico City’s physical design was also extremely car-oriented; cars received street and parking priorities, and roads were not suitable for bicycles.39

After this research, the city government team sprang to action. Before introducing a bicycle-sharing system, the government first had to address the socio-cultural barriers to bicycling. Mexico City reinvented the bicycle image by using a citywide branding and advertising scheme. Fast, convenient, and healthy, bicycling was rebranded as the latest mode of transportation for the middle class and educated. Next, the government team launched an advertising campaign to discourage aggressive driver behavior against bicyclists. Ad slogans included “One cyclist is one less car on the road for you to arrive to work faster” and “One cyclist is one more parking spot open to you.”40 The last step was to tackle the physical barriers to bicycling. Mexico City set a goal of adding 300 km of new bicycle tracks in a city that previously had zero.41 

Later in 2010, the city implemented its own bicycle-sharing network EcoBici. EcoBici docks and bicycles are connected by a digital network. Bicycle docks are equipped with card-reader technology; people can check in and check out bicycles with an EcoBici card. On a website, people can also pre-register for bicycles and view current bicycle availability on a live map.42 

Mexico City’s bicycling campaign is a clear success. EcoBici started with 85 docks and 1,000 bicycles, and it has since expanded to over 400 docks, 6,000 bicycles, and about 34,000 daily users. Since introducing EcoBici, 499 tons of CO2 have been reduced, and 82% of users have reported positive changes in quality of life. With thorough research and understanding of citizens’ attitudes toward bicycling, Mexico City was able to transform itself from one of the least bicycle-friendly cities in the world to one that welcomes bicycling. Today, locals and tourists alike can be seen riding around the city on EcoBici bicycles.43

Installing EcoBici itself was only part of Mexico City’s goal to enable its citizens to benefit from a bicycling lifestyle. To truly become a bicycle-friendly city, Mexico City also needed citizens to accept bicycling culture. If the city had implemented EcoBici without the cultural research and public advertising campaigns, this smart city system would not have been so readily embraced.

There are times when smart city solutions best address urban issues and enable urban innovation, as in Bristol and Mexico City.  There are times when “non-smart” city solutions are also effective in solving problems, as in Singapore and Holstebro. What is important to keep in mind, however, is how these solutions were reached. These four cities first gained a deep understanding of their citizens’ needs before deciding to use a technological or non-technological solution.

As our world grows increasingly digital, it has never been more important to remind ourselves that improving cities should be centered around people, not technology. City governments and planners need to rethink the urge to treat urban issues just as a technological conundrum, and they should take a more citizen-centered approach to urban innovation. This starts with asking the crucial question: is a smart city solution the only smart solution out there?

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