A Design Thinking Approach to Urban Infrastructure Planning

By Vishnu Prasad & Ajay Kumar, Intern, IFMR Finance Foundation

The previous posts in this series summarized our efforts to collect granular data on the quality of infrastructure services provision in Ranganatha Nagara. Our objective now was to use this data as a platform to initiate a conversation with the residents of Ranganatha Nagara on building a collective vision for the future of the neighborhood. In this process, we are guided by the framework of design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking refers to the application of a discipline that tries to understand human behaviour in order to develop or improve products or services. As opposed to customary approaches that rely excessively on analyzing and answering questions by working out the last detail, the design thinking paradigm is centered on collaborative experimentation and rapid prototyping. This approach has traditionally been applied to the realm of product development, as the example below tries to illustrate.

IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, pioneered the practice of design thinking through the creation of a new shopping cart concept. First, a team of designers interviewed a wide range of stakeholders including customers, cart movers and shop keepers to understand their shopping experience, usage patterns, and actively probed their problems and invited suggestions. Second, after ‘empathizing’ extensively with the users in this manner, the team members were able to collectively define and ideate on solutions to the most pressing problems- maneuverability of the shopping kart, child safety, theft and maintenance cost. Third, using this shared understanding, the team then designed four initial prototypes. The team then coalesced best elements from each prototype into a single design and took this back to users for a round of testing. Fourth, the users reviewed the prototype and provided the team with feedback. For instance, the design of steerable back wheels that enables the cart to be turned sideways with ease was praised. However, some shopkeepers felt that the prototype lacked adequate features for deterring theft. Finally, this feedback was fed into another round of ideation and prototyping before the design of the cart was finalized. The design thinking process, thus, involves five stages as illustrated in the figure and table below- Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test (EDIPT).



As is evident from the example, there are three key features that characterize design thinking. First, it is a human centric process in that it puts the users or customers, and their needs at the heart of the process. Second, as illustrated in the example above, design thinking is an iterative process that motivates teams to transition between problem defining, ideating, prototyping and testing (feedback from user). This iterative process is at the core of what leads to a better final outcome. Third, by empathizing and rapidly creating and testing prototypes, the process allows end-users to participate in the process right from the initial stages.

How can Design Thinking be applied to urban infrastructure planning?

Traditional planning methodologies rely heavily on top-down approaches- the plans are first made and strategized, and only then are the citizens informed about it. These plans are usually made without involving the citizens in the process, and as a result, often fail to reflect the problems faced by citizens on the ground. Consequently, citizens naturally have a lesser degree of ownership of these top-down plans and responsibility towards maintenance of public infrastructure. While participatory planning approaches seek to address these gaps by working with the citizens in understanding their problems, they rarely ‘close the loop’ by seeking feedback from the citizens after the plan is prepared. Thus, the ownership of the plan by the citizens is not guaranteed. Additionally, this also precludes any further refinement of the existing plan.

Design Thinking provides us a framework to overcome the flaws of the traditional participatory planning approaches in the following ways- first, design thinking enables the creation of an infrastructure plan that places citizens at the heart of the process. A process of deep empathising (through household surveys, interviews, and charettes) will enable the development of a granular understanding of the problems faced by citizens. Second, the design thinking method also facilitates a process of refinement of the plan through continuous prototyping and testing.

We are using the EDIPT process to collaboratively ideate and iteratively develop an urban infrastructure plan for one neighbourhood in Srirangapatna, namely Ranganatha Nagara which is the largest slum in the town.

1. http://zurb.com/word/design-thinking
2. http://dthsg.com/what-is-design-thinking/
3. http://www.ideo.com/work/shopping-cart-concept