Design Thinking: New Approach to Solving Planning Challenges

Design thinking can help planners shift paradigm and imagine new futures.

How can design thinking be applied to planning? Why is it a great tool for the pandemic planner's toolkit? APA talked with Thomas Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center and the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Later this month, Fisher will be teaching APA's Design Thinking four-course series and helping planners implement this problem-solving methodology to envision the future.

Design Thinking in Urban Planning

APA: Design thinking is a term that has been around for a few years now, but many people don't know what it means. How would you describe design thinking?

THOMAS FISHER: Design thinking is a method that helps us envision possible futures. We do this by reframing problems, generating a lot of ideas, and rigorously criticizing and iterating on those ideas to see if they work. These are fairly common steps that any creative person uses to come up with something new, so design thinking is often associated with making things, like cars or computers — and of course, the design does that — but design thinking is also really useful in creating systems, policies, infrastructures and strategies.

APA: Did design thinking come from the world of design? What are its origins?

FISHER: Design thinking is as old as humanity itself. We're successful as a species because we are good at adapting to new situations and creating new kinds of environments to meet our needs. It builds on the work of science and social science — which help us understand what is going on currently — and it builds on what history tells us has happened in the past. It enables us to develop alternative future scenarios based on that knowledge. It requires an empathetic understanding of the situation, which you gain by listening carefully to the needs of people, paying attention to what they don't say as much as what they do say, and paying attention to how they behave.

APA: That empathetic perspective seems to resonate with the mission of planning. What are some planning challenges that design thinking is best suited to help solve?

FISHER: Design thinking isn't applicable in every situation. It's one of many tools that planners can use. In situations where the community is thriving and is on a path that seems to be very effective, I think traditional planning methods are perfectly fine. Design thinking is useful when there's something fundamentally dysfunctional, or there is some kind of crisis that a community is facing. Maybe the community is losing population or employment, or there is a black-swan event like the COVID-19 pandemic that comes along and overturns a lot of our assumptions about how people are working, shopping, and moving around. Design thinking is really useful when we need to make some paradigm shifts or develop new assumptions about reality.

APA: Can you share a real-world example of that kind of paradigm shift?

FISHER: At the Minnesota Design Center, we use design thinking all the time in a planning context. We've been working with many small, rural communities in Minnesota to help them envision new futures. These are frequently agriculture-based communities that are struggling economically. They've lost population, and they are very focused on what they've lost, rather than their assets and how they can create new futures for themselves. We pay a lot of attention to the things that they're not talking about, but which they're doing. For example, one community had an image of itself as this Nordic community from the past when in fact, when we went there, we noticed that there were a lot of migrant farm workers in this community and that this community was incredibly diverse. We helped that community recognize that that diverse population was key to its future, rather than holding on to the past and focusing on what was lost.

APA: You've talked about how design thinking, despite the connotations behind it, isn't a method exclusively used by designers as we may imagine them in aesthetic professions. But do you have any words of encouragement for planners who may not consider themselves "creative" or "design-inclined"?

FISHER: We're all creative. Creativity is not something that exists just among a few geniuses. Everybody can imagine possibilities and alternative futures. Creativity is about being open to new possibilities, and everybody's capable of doing that. Nobody is an impostor.

APA: It seems like design thinking is a collaborative process. What advice do you have for planners who want to introduce design thinking to their colleagues or to the communities they work with?

FISHER: The best way to learn design thinking is to do it. And the best way to do it is to understand the basic assumptions behind it, which is to be open to the unexpected, to be extremely empathetic, to try to understand situations from the point of view of others, and then to ask really simple questions that help us reframe problems. And what we've found is that when you bring communities through this process, they get very energized because they're frequently never asked to dream about a different kind of future than the one they have.

APA: What is the biggest opportunity for design thinking in planning that participants will be able to take away from the series?

FISHER: One of the challenges for those who are deeply grounded in the social sciences is that we're very focused on data, and while data can help us understand the world as it was and as it is, it's hard to collect data about the future. For us to envision a very different kind of future, we have to not be quite so data-driven and be more open to creative possibilities. We need a skill set to think about what could be — particularly when the future seems to be very different from our current conditions. We've all come through, and are still amid, one of the great events in human history: a global pandemic. Pandemics come every 80 to 100 years and have tremendous effects on cities, the physical environment, and on communities. And this one is no exception. Design thinking can help us imagine what a post-pandemic world is going to be like. In this series, we'll help APA's members move through this process to envision future cities based on the pandemic and the impact that the pandemic has had.


January 11, 2022