Design Thinking in Infrastructure
Design thinking refers to the application of a discipline that tries to understand human behaviour in order to develop or improve products or services. As opposed to customary approaches that rely excessively on analyzing and answering questions by working out the last detail, the design thinking paradigm is centered on collaborative experimentation and rapid prototyping.
Traditional planning methodologies rely heavily on top-down approaches the plans are first made and strategized, and only then are the citizens informed about it. These plans are usually made without involving the citizens in the process, and as a result, often fail to reflect the problems faced by citizens on the ground. Consequently, citizens naturally have a lesser degree of ownership of these top-down plans and responsibility towards maintenance of public infrastructure. While participatory planning approaches seek to address these gaps by working with the citizens in understanding their problems, they rarely ‘close the loop’ by seeking feedback from the citizens after the plan is prepared. Thus, the ownership of the plan by the citizens is not guaranteed. Additionally, this also precludes any further refinement of the existing plan.
Design Thinking provides us a framework to overcome the flaws of the traditional participatory planning approaches in the following ways- first, design thinking enables the creation of an infrastructure plan that places citizens at the heart of the process. A process of deep empathising (through household surveys, interviews, and charettes) will enable the development of a granular understanding of the problems faced by citizens. Second, the design thinking method also facilitates a process of refinement of the plan through continuous prototyping and testing.
It is hard to get excited about infrastructure, but it is crying out for a more holistic, multi-disciplinary, innovative and longer-term perspective, one that can evolve and meet our needs rather than the current band-aid approach that has resulted in a crippled infrastructure not much evolved from the last great build period between the 1940s and 1960s. What is missing is strategic innovation: consider, for example, the impact of intermodal freight transport and how that revolutionized the movement of goods; or the development of the electric power grid, and how it revolutionized energy provision and use. What new systems are required today? What new systems will be required for tomorrow? Infrastructure also needs to be looked at in the context of some important related issues such as sustainability, climate change (concrete production produces significant greenhouse gases), migration (new centers of population, urban blight, etc.) and local natural resource availability.