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Designing Policy

Laura Forlano

How might citizens participate in collaborative processes around complex socio-technical issues in cities? In recent years, cities have embraced the idea that they are platforms for the exchange of big data, laboratories for urban experiments, and spaces of civic hacking. These activities raise questions about the nature of civic engagement as well as the embedded values that inhabit civic media infrastructures in cities. While many of these activities have been focused on designing solutions to urban problems, others aim to raise new questions by mobilizing the lived experiences of citizens around specific matters of concern and alternative possible futures. 

This case discusses the processes and tools created through a yearlong research project called “Designing Policy,” which included a series of workshops and a visual toolkit  (can be downloaded here). The project wajs conducted in 2012-2013, in collaboration with Anijo Mathew at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, and with funding from the Urban Communication Foundation. The workshops focused on a particular subset of civic media; namely, urban technologies, which are composed of the digital and material communication, and information infrastructures of cities (Foth et al. 2011). Urban environments are populated by an increasing number of technological residents such as LED screens that animate building facades, so-called ‘smart’ parking meters, and adaptive traffic signals as well as the millions of networked devices that people carry around on their bodies and bicycles as well as in their cars. 

These new urban citizens with which we share our spaces and delegate our decisions are not well understood (Latour 1992). This is because the technologies (as well as the data that they collect) are often proprietary ‘black boxes,’ and the political decisions that result in their widespread appropriation and deployment take place within obscure government departments. The goal of the Designing Policy project was to open up the black box of urban technology as a site for the discussion of values (Nissenbaum 2001) and ethics, as well as to illustrate the ways in which urban technology systems might be designed around alternative framings and questions. 

The purpose of the design workshops and the visual toolkit was to interest participants from a broad range of backgrounds and expertise in thinking about urban technology as a site of intervention in public policy decisions and as a site where cities (and their politics) are made. 

Specifically, given widespread interest in the use of big data and the ‘internet of things’ for the purpose of tracking and monitoring people as well as delivering city services, the workshops sought to increase awareness of the ways in which urban technologies mediate the relationships between citizens and policymakers around important issues; issues that are often defined in a top-down manner by policymakers such as privacy, security, efficiency, and innovation. At the same time, the workshops were intended to open up urban technologies as sites of experimentation and generative engagements that map onto the everyday lives of citizens—which include a deeper, messier, more nuanced and bottom-up understanding of issues, definitions and frameworks.

The engagement took the form of a half-day multi-stakeholder codesign (Sanders and Stappers 2008) workshop in Chicago, New York, and Boston that was attended by thirty designers, policymakers, business leaders, scholars, technologists, activists, and students in each city. The workshop was intended to introduce policymakers to human-centered design methods and more participatory ways of thinking through complex socio-technical issues. At the workshop, following icebreakers and a brief presentation, participants in groups of 5-6 people were encouraged to reflect on specific neighborhoods in the city that they had intimate knowledge of and select a context for their discussion of urban technology. Next, they were given a set of prompts about a specific values concept. For example, one team in the Chicago workshop was asked to contemplate the term “borderless.” The term is particularly relevant given the city’s physical and environmental boundaries (e.g. the river that separates the downtown business district known as “The Loop” from other parts of the city, as well as the urban transportation infrastructure that has segregated neighborhoods from one another). Once the team engaged in a discussion around the values concept, and reframed it from their own perspective, they were invited to begin prototyping ways of incorporating their own notions of the values concept into a specific design for the neighborhood that they had selected. The teams prototyped their ideas using design methods such as creating scenarios, layering maps, and building Lego models. Rather than prototyping solutions to specific problems, the exercise was more speculatively oriented towards designing alternative possibilities (Dunne and Raby 2013) for the future cities that they would like to inhabit in 30 years. Finally, the teams presented their ideas to one another in a design critique format, which emphasizes offering comments that improve existing ideas and generate new directions for the prototypes.

Rather than focusing on solutions to urban problems, the Designing Policy workshops emphasized the introduction of more participatory and open processes such as codesign to the navigation of complex socio-technical public policy issues. In addition, by prototyping future scenarios, geographies and artifacts and raising questions about alternative possibilities for society, the project built on a critical design approach. In this way, the project combined a critical perspective from the social sciences with a more generative, hands-on approach from the field of design.  

However, despite the emphasis on participation, it is necessary to acknowledge that there are many social, economic and political barriers to engaging citizens. For example, many people do not have jobs that would allow them to participate in such a workshop during working hours, others may not be able to afford the transportation costs associated with attending and still others may not have the necessary educational background to feel that they could participate. As design researchers, our own social networks are necessarily limited and, thus, despite widespread outreach to potential participants, it is difficult to ensure a truly diverse group of participants, taking race, gender, economics, sexuality and other factors into consideration. In some cases, payment of an incentive may be necessary in order to attract participants that would not otherwise attend while, in other cases, partnering with an advocacy organization and focusing on a specific topic of high importance to a particular group might be helpful.  

Finally, even when a diverse group of participants can be engaged, it is important to note that collaboration and consensus is not necessary all of the time. In fact, it may be more important to find ways to surface the tensions, dissensus and disagreements, and formats that can allow these differing positions to contribute positively to reframing issues and opening up about the issues being discussed (Mouffe 2003). Again, the focus is not on solving problems but rather on learning processes that allow diverse groups to engage in raising questions. In this way, it is possible to imagine that new constituencies might form around complex socio-technical issues.

The Designing Policy project engaged approximately 100 participants in three cities in rethinking the role of urban technology in cities around citizen-defined values. 

Over 500 copies of the visual toolkit were printed and, to date, about half have been distributed. Notably, the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics alone requested 20 copies. In addition, the visual toolkit has been viewed online over 750 times. One of the theoretical implications of the project is in the value of physical and visual artifacts in communicating complex ideas more quickly to a broader range of people than are typically reached by academic journal articles, which are not widely read, cited or circulated (Galey and Ruecker 2010, 414). This was illustrated through the hands-on prototyping activities that took place at the workshop as well as in the production of the visual toolkit.

Codesign methods requires a different relationship between design researchers and their participants. Specifically, it requires that participants be treated and viewed not as research subjects, which implies hierarchy, but rather as peers, which necessitates a different set of concerns and approaches. As such, we deliberately decided not to survey or interview our participants as part of this project. While doing so might have resulted in a different understanding of the project’s impact, we, instead, have reflected on our own uncomfortable position in the research process. One of the methodological implications of the Designing Policy project is the acknowledgement of a need to create viable alternatives to university institutional review board (IRB) processes in order to accommodate participatory methodologies such as the replacement of a traditional consent-form with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that could be written by both parties.     

In sum, the Designing Policy project integrated approaches from codesign and critical design in order to probe discussion of values and ethics regarding urban technologies, which can be understood as a particular kind of civic media. These workshops, which can be understood as a kind of prototype or experiment, were the first step in developing a more focused approach to more participatory, collaborative and engaged modes of inquiry about alternative future possibilities for civic media in cities. There are two specific implications of the project at this stage. First, the Designing Policy project illustrated the ways in which physical and visual artifacts can be useful for communicating complex ideas about the nature of socio-technical systems. Second, the project highlighted the need to rethink traditional IRB processes in light of participatory design methodologies. 


Foth, Marcus, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell, and Martin Gibbs, eds. 2011. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1992. "Where Are the Missing Masses? A Sociology of Few Mundane Objects." In Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, edited by W.E. Bijker and J.  Law, 225-258. Cambridge: MIT Press.

H. Nissenbaum. 2001. "How Computer Systems Embody Values." Computer 34(3): 120. 

Sanders, Elizabeth, and Pieter Jan Stappers. 2008. "Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design." CoDesign 4(1): 5-18. doi: 10.1080/15710880701875068

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2003. "Pluralism, Dissensus and Democratic Citizenship." II Seminário internacional educação intercultural, gênero e movimentos sociais. Identidade, diferença, mediações.
Galey, Alan, and Stan Ruecker. 2010. "How a Prototype Argues." Literary and Linguistic Computing 25(4): 405-24.

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