Why City Governments Need Design

What if the City of Philadelphia had a Deputy Mayor of Design? I have been intrigued with this idea since Kyung-Won Chung served as deputy mayor and chief design officer in Seoul, South Korea from 2009-2011. It was a short-lived position but quite forward thinking, and even NYC explored the idea at the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. If the City of Philadelphia took the leap to create the role of a Chief Innovation Officer, we can also go a step further and create a similar capacity that incorporates strategic design.

strategyTypically, when we think of design we reference tangible objects: for example, fashion design, product design, and architecture. But the field of design extends to service design, experience design, user experience design, and design strategy. These extensions incorporate design thinking: a human-centered problem-framing and problem-solving process that integrates design principles with elements of cultural anthropology.

City government employees are faced with some of the most “wicked problems” in society- i.e., problems that do not have a linear solutions pathway- and yet they are given the fewest resources, acknowledgment or credit to deal with these challenges in a positive and optimistic manner. This sector is ripe for innovation, and design thinking is one pathway to innovative solutions.

There are three major reasons why Philadelphia’s city government could benefit from having a Deputy Mayor of Design:

Urban challenges are actually design challenges

Typically the problems we face in our cities are discussed only from fiscal and public policy perspectives. A Deputy Mayor of Design would bring an additional point of view, one that values the principles of design thinking. Applying a human-centered design approach would mean that in addition to valuing statistical data and other big data sets, qualitative research would be employed to dig deeper into why certain patterns of behavior occur in our city. For example, we would yield different insights about why there has been a steep decline in people showing up for jury duty, and what to do about this lack of engagement by employing a design thinking process. Typical hires into city government are people who have been educated in law and public policy. What if we mixed that up a bit and also recruited people educated in anthropology, art, psychology, and design strategy?  The more thought-diversity we bring to the table to address our urban center challenges, the more likely we are to come up with robust solutions that factor in costs, revenue and public policy.

Integration is necessary in a field of siloshandshake-200

The citizens’ experience of government is often one where we feel like we are passed from department to department; one where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.  An integrative approach would be helpful from the user’s perspective. A Deputy Mayor of Design might be tasked with being the integrative link between, for example, the streets, transportation, and housing departments. Thinking in systems, as the famous systems designer Donella Meadows advocated, means we have integrative approaches to problem solving.  For example, utilizing journey maps from the citizen’s perspective of how she selects and engages with a city service would be illuminating and point out opportunities for further engagement. Cities are living organisms, where one choice, shift or change in operations has a cascading effect on the entire entity. Employing scenario planning would be another asset that a deputy mayor of design might bring to the table across multiple departments.

Stories are data too

Empathy is not a soft skill- it is a strategic tool, and one that is highly under-rated.  Take these two wicked challenges: 1) ensuring that every child in Philadelphia has access to an excellent public school education; or, 2) enabling gentrification while still maintaining socio-economic diversity.  Let’s flip our perspective and view these two wicked challenges as opportunities that would benefit from empathic leadership, applying observation, contextual inquiry, interviews and the collection and dissemination of people’s stories to build strategy.

Currently, there are offices in Philadelphia’s city government successfully applying human centered design methods to deliver the best services possible. Examples include the Department of Revenue, the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation and the Parks and Recreation Department. GovLabPHL is an initiative led by Mayor Kinney’s Policy Office that is employing both design thinking and behavioral science. This year also marked the first speaker series, BY DESIGN: Transforming public sector services, which highlights human-centered design in municipal and federal government. Outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall, the Veterans Affairs Administration and the Office of Personnel Management in Washington D.C, utilize service design.  The non-profit Public Policy Lab based in New York City, links public policy to human centered design via national projects in our prison systems as well as in our schools.

Thus, we are a city that has begun exploring the application of design thinking. I am seeking to be a provocateur and suggest that we even more boldly proclaim the centrality of design thinking in public service by naming it as a leadership office.

If you would like to learn more about design thinking and its intersection with the public sector, two great places to start would be the Design Management Institute’s 2016 dedicated issue of DMI Review to design and government; as well as Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design.



Natalie W. Nixon, PhDNatalie W. Nixon is a hybrid thinker who’s consulting and research interests are at the intersections of creativity & strategy and business & design. She is an Associate Professor and the Founding Director of The Strategic Design MBA program at Philadelphia University where she holds the G. Allen Mebane IV ’52 Chair for Design Thinkers.

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