Can Chicagoans Design The Perfect Transit App?

A new Kickstarter-funded project invites thousands of citizens to step into the role of designer.

On July 9th, over 300 excited Chicagoans crammed into the Logan Square office of George and Sara Aye, the founders of a design agency focused on social change called Greater Good Studio. Crowds of developers, politicians, designers, and neighborhood friends mingled, wearing special stickers: “Hi, My Name Is _____. And I ♥ the CTA because _____.”


The mob was there to celebrate the launch of Designing Chicago, an unusual Kickstarter campaign that (if successful) will leverage the power of the city’s fiercely proud citizenship to design the next generation of transit app.

“Chicago is a hotbed of civic tech,” explains George, who spent seven years at Ideo before taking a job as lead designer at the Chicago Transit Authority. “We’ve got an amazing system, real-time data, and an active tech community. All we needed to do was put it all together.” The Ayes want to change the way citizens and designers engage in civic government. Designing Chicago will be a testing ground for their ideas. If funded, the duo will spend the next year leading a team of thousands as they gather data, propose ideas, and develop the groundwork for a transit app that will unite the city’s various systems of public transportation. “Since Rahm’s arrival, there’s been this hunger for everyone involved in local government,” he adds. “It’s like a switch has been flicked.”

George and Sara plan to organize their supporters into two teams. Around 1,000 “Scouts” will gather ideas, commentary, and general information about their travels, and send that data back to the core team. Scouts are the bread and butter of Designing Chicago–anyone is welcome to join. Meanwhile, around 50 “Icons” will analyze the data generated by Scouts and work closely with the designers to develop the app itself. An advisory board of Chicago politicians, CTA officials, and designers–among them, the legendary MTA map designer Massimo Vignelli–will play a supporting role. It’s an unusual proposal, but the Ayes explain that rather than being an epic design-by-committee nightmare, they’re inventing new frameworks for citizens to contribute. “We’re trying to develop a more nuanced way to engage the public, in scripted, tailored, teacherly ways.”

You’ll notice that Designing Chicago’s pitch is fairly short on details about the actual app. That’s intentional. The Scouts and Icons will decide on the features as they work, and the app’s operating system will remain up in the air until next year. “Designing the teaching is as important as designing the app,” explain the Ayes. “We want to focus on designing a great app experience, then worry about how to get it onto people’s phones later.” More importantly, the project hopes to demonstrate the power of the average citizen. “The idea is to show citizens that social problems aren’t just things to be griped about, things that will never change.”

If funded, the project will launch in mid-August. “We can’t wait to meet our backers,” says Sara, who was research director at IA Collaborative before founding Greater Good. “It’s a funny way of thinking: Usually, you never meet your investors. In this case, our investors are our team.” The pair see the project as a model that could be repeated. “I’d love to see some other towns do the same thing,” George comments. “And there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen in other places. All it takes is engaged citizenry, infrastructural pieces, and active politicians.”


Go check out their full pitch on Kickstarter.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.