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A Peek At The Design Method Snohetta Uses To Get Community Buy-In

The architecture firm’s “Concept Workshops” help stakeholders understand exactly what they want — and give them an important sense of ownership over designs.

In the last decade or so, the architecture firm Snohetta has come up fast, owing to its unique approach to community building. One of the firm’s most famous buildings is the Oslo Opera House, whose roofline slopes into the ground, making the entire building a promenade for people to enjoy views of the surrounding waterfront. The architects’ masterplan for Times Square transformed the iconic space from a forbidding maze of traffic into a pedestrianized urban park, with benches that let people lounge, lean, and even work.

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Those projects belie a massive amount of public buy-in, which Snohetta bakes into their designs. At this week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, Snohetta gave three dozen attendees a peek at the process that the firm uses to kick off every project it does. The so-called Concept Workshop is meant get stakeholders thinking like designers so that they can both contribute to ongoing discussions and feel ownership of the product. Snohetta uses them both with stakeholders—such as City Hall and the New York City Firefighters, in the case of the Times Square project—and its own staff. (The most illustrious participant in one of these design sprints has been President Obama, who did so when Snohetta was competing to design his presidential library.)

[Photo: Snøhetta]
The most important outcome is a sense of what people care about but haven’t yet articulated. “It becomes a source of inspiration and understanding about the client. You talk through what the client cares about, and you foster a conversation among different stakeholders,” explains Kelly Tigera, a staffer at Snohetta. For the FCIF session, Snohetta ran through a workshop that asked participants to rethink parking spaces as usable public space as autonomous vehicles begin to populate our streets.

The Concept Workshop started by bundling participants into groups of about six to eight people. First, they were presented with a stack of photographs and asked to pick three that embodied an “equitable public space,” then three that did not. They were then asked to come up with a few works characterizing each set of photos. For undesirable qualities, one group picked out a picture of a medieval castle, and said “separated”; for desirable ones, another picked out an X-ray of a piece of luggage and said “transparent.”

[Photo: Snøhetta]
The groups then presented their pictures, which got them to articulate exactly what they were feeling when they saw those photos. The point, said one Snohetta architect, was to get people thinking not about the finished product, but rather the abstract qualities they wanted the project to have. Then, they were asked to take those qualities and put them into a quick design model, using simple raw materials including styrofoam, Brillo pads, toothpicks and construction paper.

The attendees presented a slew of novel ideas. One group proposed a bench for resting backed by a living wall of greenery, which would be watered by a sloping roof of stained glass. Another proposed a multi-tiered landscape that would have earthen nooks for sitting and lounging, with each tier planted with greenery that would come into season at different times. If this had been a normal sprint, the process would have been slightly longer, and Snohetta would have taken greater care to synthesize and archive the creations, so that they might serve as an ongoing reference point during the design process.

[Photo: Snøhetta]
These types of design sprints are common at firms such as IDEO and Frog, but cutting-edge architecture firms don’t have a great reputation for reaching out to communities. That’s changing, as architects realize how much their own success depends on buy-in. For example, Bjarke Ingels Group conducted similar workshops to create its masterplan for a transformed New York waterfront. Elaine Molinar, Snohetta’s managing director, explained that their own workshops grew organically. Now, every project begins with one. “They uncover the needs and viewports and vision of the client, because even they don’t know everything they need at the beginning,” she explains.

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But there is another subtle effect that might be at work. Behavioral economists have shown something called the endowment effect, whereby people value things more highly once they’re told they own them. What is a design workshop but a way to leverage the endowment effect, making people feel they own what’s eventually produced—so that they value it more.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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