When we think of urban design, it's often the physical that comes to mind—the parks, infrastructure, neighborhoods, and buildings that compose a city. But look a little closer, and you'll see that an intangible force is responsible for shaping all of those element—the hulking, opaque political machine. And it's ready to be redesigned.
Anthony Lyons, city manager of Gainesville, Florida, is on a mission to remake civic experience using a few tricks from Silicon Valley. His goal? Make Gainesville the best place to live and work, courtesy of human-centered design. It's an approach that's been applied everywhere from architecture to industrial design, but less so in public policy.
"We were given the charge by the elected officials to make the city more competitive," Lyons says. "We came to the conclusion that like great companies, great cities need to think about user experience. That’s the biggest [innovation] differentiator. For cities, user experience is not at the forefront. We were a one-way kind of city, meaning we engage and deliver. So when you think of citizens and users not as customers, but as co-designers of those services, in the end you get a much better experience because it’s one based on what they need rather than what the government needs. Policy making is done as one track and implementation is done in a separate track. How might the two really influence each other?"
While the process of rethinking an entire city's government structure is a slow and complex endeavor, change is already happening.
Gainesville's reinvention process began in 2015 when then-mayor Ed Braddy assembled an economic development committee and posed a question to it: "How can the City of Gainesville, Florida, become more competitive?"
Braddy was attempting to be proactive in what he viewed as the "dizzying, dramatic and unpredictable rate of change that is upsetting and disrupting economic, social and political norms everywhere," according to a city-issued report about its plan to integrate human-centered-design thinking into its policies and practices. Creating job opportunities, and making Gainesville more attractive to residents and companies, became the goal.
As part of its research, the committee analyzed over 20 different cities across the country to learn about new strategies of governance and how they were building their own competitive edges. Many of them repeated similar strategies of cutting regulations and conducting analysis. Lyons thought: if Gainesville does the same thing as everyone else, it's not going to be competitive. So instead of looking at what the public sector was doing, he looked at the private sector and what made certain companies stand out. It all boiled down to a focus on user experience. On a research trip to Silicon Valley—the user-experience hub—Lyons visited the San Francisco office of Ideo. After hearing about the firm's design-thinking approach—a problem-solving method that puts users at the center of the challenge—the committee had its "aha" moment: Make Gainesville the most citizen-centered city in the United States.
Proverbial red tape shrouds local government. It is an archaic, clunky, and confusing system that takes career politicians and legal experts to navigate. Improving that system isn't just about making sure the trash gets collected and the bus runs on time; it also involves making city services—for example, obtaining permits—more accessible for everyday people, not just career bureaucrats. Lyons sees human-centered design thinking as a move toward more open access to civic operations.
"It’s delivering service in a more equitable way," Lyons says. "Government is designed for experts—you have to hire people to get through it. A big part [of our work] is designing for the first timer, the newcomer . . . we want to say, 'What would it look like to make it a level playing field?'"
Gainesville hired Ideo in mid 2015 to consult on the project, and one of its first steps involved turning the residents into designers: Ideo took over a storefront in downtown Gainesville where people could pop in, express their concerns, and share ideas on how to improve the city. This made the process public, interactive, and inclusive. Instead of holding workshops and meetings in a government building, removed from the day-to-day activities of the general public, the city was taking a big first step by going to them.
After speaking with hundreds of Gainseville residents, Ideo and the city decided to focus on the intersection of citizens and business. Gainesville has a population of about 127,500 people and is known for being a university town. It saw an opportunity to encourage University of Florida students—who often leave the city after graduation, resulting in a "brain drain"—to stay in Gainesville long term and keep the knowledge base in the city. If the city lowered the barriers to starting new businesses, the thinking went, young entrepreneurs might be more likely to stay in the city. The same train of thought holds true for other communities in the city and the philosophy: utilize the brains that are currently in Gainesville regardless of where they're coming from.
"It made sense to create opportunities for Gainesville residents to invest in their own local future—to be able to envision and implement their own dreams of how they want to be part of the city and have a role in building it as business owners, whether this is as restaurant owners or technology companies," says Kate Lydon, Public Sector Portfolio Director at Ideo in San Francisco.
The city's initial solution involved grouping all the departments under one roof in a new development services center—a project that would've required millions in construction costs to execute. But upon talking to more Gainesville citizens, the group learned that what they really wanted was a guide—someone to lead them through the often-confusing process.
The Department of Doing grew out of that idea. It will be a physical office, a one-stop shop for obtaining all the permits needed to open a business or develop real estate, as well as a web platform (both of which are still under development). The office will be staffed with a new kind of employee, Sherpa-like "action officers" which the city is now in the process of hiring. In September, Gainesville appointed the Department of Doing's first director, Wendy Thomas, a former Gainesville resident and urban planner by training who was previously director of community development in Bozeman, Montana.
Instead of running around to the Department of Planning, the Department of Buildings, and the Department of Public Works, a citizen will only need to visit the Department of Doing to get the information they need and have the right points of contact within the city.
Gainesville mapped out the journey of opening a business in 13 distinct steps so citizens could understand where they need to go and where they are in the process. Prior to this, the city would only be involved in a handful of steps, which leaves the rest of the business-opening process vague to citizens. This way, the city is more of a partner every step of the way.
The Department of Doing is an extension of what Lyons calls a "modular" government structure, meaning that the city reorients its processes around specific user outcomes, whether that's opening a business or finding where a public pool is located. He likens the modular government experience to checking out at a hotel. "When you go pay your hotel bill, you don’t go to finance department—you go to the front desk," he says. "Trying to get all the right permits to open a business, you have to go from place to place and that’s aggravating. The goal is not to get a permit; it’s to open a business."
The city is also developing digital technology to help further refine the process, for example having a tracking system that works like a health chart so that it's easy for Department of Doing employees to know exactly where someone is in a process at a glance. Gainesville also studied the emergency response platform Ideo designed for San Francisco and is adapting some of the code for its web platform.
In addition to adopting Silicon Valley's human-centered design approach, Gainesville is also borrowing its "fail fast" approach to building better services and products. Lyons wants to make mistakes—and learn from them.
One of the recent initiatives to use this approach is the city's "Mobile City Hall" program, which aims to go out into different neighborhoods to get face-to-face contact with constituents—for example, opening a permitting office within a home-improvement store or going into public parks with information about employment opportunities.
"The culture of government isn’t one that allows for failure," Lyons says. "We tested one Mobile City Hall to go out into the community and interact with people in a different way and the program manager said it didn’t go well; I congratulated her. We learned a lot so we can test and do better next time. Fail early, often, and small."
Lydon agrees. "Starting with user needs, and embracing a mindset of prototyping and iterating means that city services can meet real citizen needs—and learn from iterative rounds of citizen feedback, rather than assuming that solutions that haven't been tested will work," she says. "It can help ensure that cities are responding to the concerns that matter most to residents and that the actual, specific needs of end users inform city priorities."
Another small recent prototyping project involved pedestrian safety. At a handful of intersections, the city replaced the typical crosswalk buttons with foam fists, testing the idea that people would then fist bump the signal, an incentive to wait until the light changes to cross.
"We wanted to see if we could get people to press the button more so we gave them some funny gesture to see if they would go for it," Lyons says. "It’s maybe getting people to cross the street differently without the expense of new streetlights. It’s a very silly small thing, but it gives you sense of the ways you can solve problem in a different kind of way."
One of the cultural shifts brought about by the Ideo project is thinking about governance from the angle of outcomes versus compliance.
"I think one of the biggest hurdles is the mindset of compliance that is part of the backbone of many government processes," Lydon says. "Moving from a compliance-based process and mindset towards investing in the successful outcomes of those city services are for—the people who live and work there, is a big change for government organizations of all scales to make. The new Department of Doing Director, Wendy Thomas, wants the city to be known 'not for its regulation but for its customer service.'"
Outcomes-based governance is seeping through the city as officials become empowered to think of themselves as designers of all the "moments of truth" in the civic realm—all of those little interactions a citizen has with a city.
Recently, Lyons had a conversation with Gainesville's fire chief about how the department fits within a citizen-structured government. "He started quipping, 'We are the Fire Department, but could we also be called the Department of Saving?," Lyons says. His anecdote reveals how the city is beginning to think about the future of departments and reevaluating what the long term needs are versus simply maintaining the status quo.
"In fire departments across the country, fires are leveling but emergency calls are increasing; and how do think about a citizen-centered approached to this challenge?," he says. "We're starting to talk about it, and departments are starting to have design sessions around projects for now and for the future. There’s a way this [outcome-based approach] can be used in a every single thing we are doing, from budgeting to strategic planning and what systems are needed."
Gainesville is not alone in its quest to become more nimble and responsive to its citizens. San Francisco recently reinvented its small business portal to become more user friendly. BART, a regional train system in the Bay Area, is experimenting with gamification strategies to improve service. And urbanists have been proselytizing user-centered cities for decades. But by going all-in with human-centered design as the foundation of its operations, Gainesville is making a big statement.
Lyons understands the wheels of government churn notoriously slowly (for example, while Ideo made its recommendation for a Department of Doing in October 2015, it took almost a full year to hire a director) and that remaking a system is an evolving process, not a static end point. Still, he's confident the changes afoot will make Gainesville one of the best American cities in which to live and work.
"I don’t know of any government that's comprehensively thinking about what a complete user-centered design would look like," he says. "We’re in that process and it’s a never ending one. We’re going fairly fast but we’re still in midst of it, and it’s a pretty amazing time for Gainesville—and a fun time to be in government."