How design thinking engaged Dubliners in community revitalization


A pedestrian walks past graffiti covered buildings in Dublin, Ireland. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)
March 21

The big idea: Design thinking helped tap into the creative capacity of Dublin’s residents and city leaders. In 2009, a coalition of city officials and citizen volunteers used design-thinking methodology to help an innovation-averse bureaucracy marshal residents’ energy and ideas and equip citizens with the tools to create their own future.

The scenario: The Great Recession rattled Ireland’s capital. The buoyancy of the Celtic Tiger years had waned. The Dublin City Council considered many traditional — and expensive — revitalization projects, but its leadership saw a need for an injection of novelty. Enter Jean Byrne and Jim Dunne, two dedicated citizens who sensed an opportunity. Byrne and Dunne founded the nonprofit Design Twentyfirst Century (D21C), and teamed with the council to use design thinking as a tool for revitalizing the city. Their vision was to get Dubliners directly involved in the revitalization.

The resolution: Five design-thinking steps — discovery, understanding, ideation, prototyping and implementation — served as the backbone of the endeavor. Without any preconceptions of what would be best, D21C asked a team of business school students to interview people in the street about wishes they had for their city. This research collected 1,200 ideas revolving around three broad themes: waste, water and community. Next, D21C organized community gatherings to build a deeper understanding of these themes. Curiously, the theme of waste mutated from trash to ‘wasted potential.’ This revelation sparked an idea — the suburb of Clongriffin, with property left vacant in the downturn, was a perfect candidate for a pilot experiment.

D21C formed a 17-person team of self-selected city employees and citizen volunteers from around the city. Their primary connection to one another was an eagerness to learn how design thinking could solve the challenges facing the fledgling suburb. Over 12 weeks, the team engaged local residents in the five-step process.

The team developed five prototype projects. Residents were invited to give feedback. The prototypes generated enough enthusiasm that Clongriffin residents championed three scalable projects — building a path to the coast, running a community center and supporting a new business incubator. These projects improved community spirit and were completed with minimal risk.

Beyond the projects, Dublin had trained a team of volunteers to put their design-thinking skills to work in all the areas they touched.

The lesson: D21C and the Dublin City Council used the design-thinking method to engage citizens and find innovative solutions. Design thinking provided a powerful problem-solving method that gave structure to the process of understanding stakeholders’ perspectives and then translating them into scalable, innovative solutions.

Andrew King and Jeanne Liedtka

King is senior research associate and Liedtka a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. This was based on an original case by King, Liedtka and Kevin Bennett.

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