Teaching “design thinking” through urban planning

It is popular to teach problem solving skills in schools and at least one group thinks this can be done through urban planning examples:

At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources…

First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.

Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.

Finally, design thinking requires designers to generate ideas—lots of ideas—and prototype them. In order for this part of the process to work, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. For many students, particularly those who want to look smart, this phase can be frustrating. “People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea, and get emotionally invested in that one thing. Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart,” Stevenson said. Design thinking forces students to keep their minds open, to try out lots of ideas early in the process before they let their egos or emotions get too invested in just one.

If one of the purposes of an education is to create better citizens, using urban planning as an example would be a great exercise. My experience with college students suggests that when they arrive at that level of education, they have limited knowledge of how communities came to be or work. Urban planning cannot address all of these issues – I don’t believe, for example, that simply designing a place with New Urbanist techniques guarantees particular outcomes – but it can get students thinking about how environments are shaped by communities as well as shape communities. In other words, communities and physical environments don’t just happen: the interactions between humans and their environment (whether in older or more recent contexts) is a complex and iterative process.

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