Design Thinking Meets Civic Tech

As part of our recently announced partnership with Code for America, Rallyers took a leadership role in supporting the annual CodeAcross event here in Boulder, where Rally is headquartered. On a recent snowy Saturday, Code for Boulder—the local all-volunteer Brigade—hosted “Crafting Civic Tech: The Housing Edition.”

Veteran Rally Agilists, company founder Ryan Martens, and Rally coach Ronica Roth led the group of more than 50 community members on a six-hour design thinking journey. The goal: identify ways to improve and increase civic engagement among community members and local government, with a focus on the issue of housing.

Ronica Roth and Ryan Martens explaining the design thinking approach

Digging Into The Topic of Housing

The City of Boulder sums up the area’s housing situation as “Setting + Culture + Opportunities + Quality of Life = High Demand for Housing.” To create a “collaborative community conversation,” the City is teaming with Code for America to increase two-way dialogue with residents and encourage citizens to take a more active role in key local issues.

“The city takes transparency and community collaboration seriously. Communication in the twenty-first century is changing and we want to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of our community—and be part of that change.” Jane Brautigam, City Manager

Because the timing of the annual CodeAcross event aligned well with the first few weeks of the project between the City and Code for America, the local Brigade designed the gathering to broaden and deepen the conversation between community members, then share insights and ideas with local government.

Crafting Problem Statements from Empathy Interviews

The Stanford University Institute of Design created a design thinking workbook to lead people through the process of gaining empathy as a critical first step toward creating solutions that solve real human or business needs. Without addressing problems that people want or need solved, products and services are destined to require “push” from the creator rather than “pull” from the user. Participants started the day by practicing empathy interviews on each other. Afterwards, several pairs shared with the whole group the problem statements they crafted after interviewing each other.

“Listening is a critical skill to develop—it was a great setting to practice listening.” Dina Robin, participant

Next we heard from Becky Boone, the Code For America fellow who is conducting an in-depth exploration into the needs and challenges of improving community engagement in Boulder. Becky has done numerous empathy interviews within government as well as the community. As a result, she crafted problem statements on the topic of housing. Here’s a small sampling, written in the design thinking format: [Name] needs a way to [user’s need]. Unexpectedly, in his/her world, [insight].

  • Hugh needs a way to weigh in on housing issues in Boulder. Unexpectedly, in his world, he does not have a computer or internet access.
  • Jake needs a way to feel like his opinion matters. Unexpectedly, in his world, he hasn’t seen public opinion matter when the City Council makes a decision.
  • Tam needs a way to feel like her presence in Boulder matters. Unexpectedly, in her world, she feels her contributions to the local economy aren’t valued, hence her opinions aren’t valued.
  • Bao needs a way to know who to talk to when he wants to talk about housing. Unexpectedly, in his world, he has no awareness of the current structure in place.
  • Darryl needs a way to feel like his demographic is valued in Boulder. Unexpectedly, in his world, people in power have spoken dismissively of what he has to offer.
  • Maxwell needs a way to allow change in his neighborhood. Unexpectedly, in his world, people are squashing ideas for the city, eliminating possibilities in his neighborhood.

Teams Dig Deeper, Craft Possible Solutions

Teams ranging from four to eight people formed around the “problem statements” that attendees had interest in exploring further. For two hours, they talked through potential solutions, continuing to use the design thinking workbook as a guide.

“The Code for Boulder Civic Tech Forum was excellent because we were encouraged to stay in the place of inquiry, rather than racing superficially to find the solution. We worked in small teams with other community members who care deeply about an issue. I am focused on senior housing issues and am thrilled that two very concrete and needed tech solutions arose from our discussions today.” Neshama Abraham, participant

To wrap up the day, each team shared their ideas for solutions with the whole group.

Then participants were encouraged to rate the ideas and solutions that were generated. Each person was encouraged to place two dots next to the idea(s) they believed were most important. Red dots indicated “hot” ideas and blue dots indicated what may be a “quick win.”

The top vote-earning idea was to create a two-way dialogue with citizens, where they could click an online map of current development projects, learn about those of interest, and leave comments that would become part of the public record related to the location. What came to be known as “idea #1” received 12 votes total: 7 blue and 5 red.

Ideas Into Taking Action

The week following the event, both the City Council and Housing Committee received briefings from Becky Boone, and both groups asked to stay informed of how these ideas progressed within the Code for Boulder Brigade.

Brigade members decided at their subsequent meeting to work toward making idea #1 a reality. Because of the bonds formed during the CodeAcross event, there is now open dialogue between the city and this all-volunteer civic tech group to access data sets that have previously not been available to the public or not in a format usable by the latest technology. City employees are attending the Brigade meetups and listening to the requests of how to improve what they offer to residents.

How did the event live up to its goal to identify ways to improve and increase civic engagement among community members and with local government? We’re proud of our “wins”:

  • Over 50 community members worked together for a day of active listening, ideation, and problem-solving. They experienced the design thinking methodology, starting with empathy listening to craft problem statements, before jumping to possible solutions: an approach that they can use in other contexts.
  • Three city leaders and one City Council member joined us throughout the day. They heard firsthand from residents and participated in a collaborative problem-solving process.
  • Three city employees have gotten involved in the Brigade’s new initiative that came out of CodeAcross. The result is not only increased dialogue, but the opening of additional data sets and ongoing project collaboration between civic tech volunteers and local government.
  • The Brigade now has a solid queue of potential projects from other ideas the came out  the event, all of which were generated by community members.

“The event brought together a diverse group of community members and leveraged excellent problem solving approach. Design Thinking brings out the very best in the group by encouraging them to first think broadly, and then to employ a combination of empathy and creativity to find innovative solutions. I believe the event delivered some excellent ideas that may ultimately benefit the entire Boulder community.” Gerry Valentine, volunteer facilitator

Watch a 90-second overview of the day, produced by the City of Boulder’s Channel 8.

Rally’s partnership with Code for America’s Brigade program will continue to bring opportunities to apply approaches like design thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile team processes to the civic tech movement. Our next event? We’re bringing civic tech to RallyON 2015 in Phoenix, June 15-17. Stay tuned for details in the coming months.

Geri Mitchell-Brown