What can design do to improve our cities?

What can design do to improve our cities?

Our cities are facing unprecedented socio-economic, environmental and public health challenges.


20 October 2020


European Commission

The scale and complexity of these problems require us to think in new ways about finding solutions. The DESIGNSCAPES project (funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme) aims to encourage the use of design thinking in urban environments across the EU to achieve exactly that. It has funded 101 initiatives (feasibility studies, prototype developments and projects seeking to scale their design enabled innovations) via an open call for projects to come up with design enabled innovations. These have include tackling an urban challenge, training funded teams in relevant design and leadership skills and building links with policymakers at local, national and European level to support wider use of this approach in policymaking. 

By rigorously evaluating the DESIGNSCAPES work, using before and after surveys and in-depth case study research of funded initiatives, some of the learning on the value using design to create social impact that has emerged so far is that: 

  • Making design thinking and an iterative way of working an explicit part of funding instruments is currently rare but mobilises professionals with a relevant background and interest in solving complex socio-economic, environmental and other problems to engage and hence can stimulate the creation of entirely new solutions. Moreover, even relatively small amounts of funding can create organisational knowledge and behaviour gains as well as multiplier effects in the form of additional funding likely to benefit funded organisations and others around them.
  • Co-creation between designers and end-user (be this citizens or stakeholder groups) is an integral part of a design-led way of working. The most radical, and perhaps most promising, way of implementing co-creation is to acknowledge citizens and other end-users as holders of expert knowledge on the problem that is being addressed. Therefore, empowering them in the design process to shape the nature of the solution themselves. This way, ownership of results and take-up of the innovation is more secure. However, this appears very challenging to implement in practice, and few of the Designscapes funded initiatives took this approach.
  • Design tools and methods have significant value in this co-creation process. By being non-threatening and ‘fun’ they reduce barriers to participation; the visual and concrete nature of design thinking (e.g. use of prototypes) keeping users engaged and acts as a catalyst for drawing out different perspectives. The iterative nature of a design-led way of working provides a containing structure within which solutions can emerge, and complexity be worked with by creating a deeper understanding of the problem at hand. 

More often than not, designing for social impact means engaging with local social systems (citizens, stakeholders, partner organisations and others) to create the conditions for take-up of the innovation. Working across these boundaries requires attention to citizens needs in the design process and an active ‘working with’ the differences in organisational cultures (e.g. between public and private sector; or large and small organisations) to jeopardise the innovation process. There is unlikely to be a blueprint for how to do this. However, where done successfully small design initiatives not only contribute to addressing some of today’s ‘wicked problems’ directly but by becoming part of large corporations’ innovation ecosystems could also support these organisations in achieving their longer-term strategic (sustainability) goals. 

This summary is of a presentation given as part of the 2nd DESIGNSCAPES international policy forum held on 12 October 2020 as a side event to the European Week of Regions and Cities.  

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