IDEO Smart Space – A transformation of what?

Peter JonesTransformation Design

IDEO’s Urban Pre-Planning

Can its “Smart Space” practice shake up the lumbering world of infrastructure, zoning, and public process?
IDEO gets so much press on their approach to architectural projects – perhaps because its a relatively new space for design, and few other firms are taking it on in the way they can. They have the size, the rep, and a diverse mix of design disciplines. They have balls, you have to give them credit – their developing practice in urban planning, land use, and housing planning is taking on a complex, hyper-sensitive, “sprawling” territory where results will be hard to measure, because cities and new initiatives in urban spaces take time and community commitment to happen. IDEO does not have to care if they design it, and nobody comes. So they can reach far with ideas and aim for excitement and inspiration.

But it is not innovation of urban planning, it seems to be a innovation of urban packaging. This has implications for design strategy, because IDEO gets to set the top bar for the profession. If conceptual design planning is the product and deliverable, how does this actually lead to better urban spaces? And who is the ultimate customer – the city planners and developers? Or the people living in the community?

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

This is a case where process has implications for everybody involved. As a zoning board member in an Ohio township, I know the regulatory and planning processes are not sexy, and its hard to get real citizens engaged in designing their own future. It should be easier going getting people involved in a gritty, hip location in a large city. But who IS the user here, if this user-centered? This is the problem of transformation design – if a design process is not democratic or even participatory, who then has the rights to design, package, and market on behalf of the citizens? The “client” – the planners, or in many cases – the developers of Potemkin village greens that are becoming popular at the edges of failed urban centers such as my Ohio town?
My last post engaged Liz Sanders’ Design Research article, with her model differentiating between designer (expert)-led and participant (user) led generative design. It may be very cool to have IDEO design your urban area’s brand package based on “user” research, that may have included real people like you that live in the locale. But they seem to fall short of actual planning, and drop off before working with the political grind and zoning/use negotiations that establish the affordances for building, infrastructure, service delivery. At the end of the day, the trade-offs between officials, developers, and the public lead to livability and community. This is an interesting front-end approach, but it could lead to high expectations that do not become realized in transformation of community space.
So to what extent can people be empowered to direct the planning and design of their own communities? To what extent can they – community dwellers – mobilize the tools of design – with design facilitation by IDEO-like firms? And should innovation firms take on the slog through architecture, zoning, and planning to engage themselves as committed players in such projects? If they don’t “have a dog in the fight” now, how would the level of trust and possibility of real community-centered design be actualized if they did have such a commitment to results?
One of the most inspiring practices I’ve encountered in the world of conceptual arts is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s total commitment to a project, often involving years of negotiation with planners, public official, and public hearings. To a great extent, this is where the art happens – its a multi-year, mixed-temporality performance, leading up to an event and land sculpture. Ands the real takehome lesson for me is that their process is participatory, in the very real sense that when they take on a wrapping or public space project, they engage fully in the public hearings and discussions as a type of community-sensitive collaboration. Its behind-the-scenes participatory art.  As designers considering public or transformative work, should we at least be working with local planners and educating people in public hearings, if not reflecting on the full range of stakeholders in our design processes? Who do we collaborate with to make this happen? What design research methods do we use?