Deploying the Design Thinking Approach to Community Mobility

Photo by Daniel Lombardi

For the better part of the past decade, the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) has used an IDEO video focusing on a design thinking approach to shopping carts at the outset of the agency’s Mobility Institutes. The video was — and still is — shown to multi-disciplinary local teams that have coalesced around improving transportation alternatives and is designed to both stir the creative process and inspire fresh approaches. At first the participants typically smile and maybe even nod their heads slightly. Later, they often laugh, and talk animatedly with people seated nearby. By the end of the video, the Mobility Institute participants are inspired to tackle the particular local mobility challenge they’d selected with a new spirit.

Over the course of a dozen Mobility Institutes, the video also inspired CTAA leaders charged with planning and implementing the three-day mobility sessions.

“The video always struck a chord with me,” says CTAA’s Carolyn Jeskey. “I wondered, what if we organized an entire Institute around the Design Thinking approach.”

Beginning last fall, CTAA did just that. Seven teams were selected in September from a pool of applicants to look at improving access to jobs in their local communities. From such disparate locales as Newark, N.J., Texas’s Coastal Bend region, rural northeastern Iowa and California’s dispersed Marin County, the teams are exclusively deploying Design Thinking approaches to craft their unique mobility solutions. And while the Design Thinking is an iterative process, involving action, learning and more action, it does seem to be working.

Said one Institute team member: “This Institute was an exceptional experience. We enjoyed the creative process and ideas and concepts that were born out of Design Thinking approaches.”

To assist the Association in deploying Design Thinking approaches for the Institute, Jeskey and her team partnered with Peer Insight. Last fall, a cadre of CTAA staff leaders undertook an immersive set of Design Thinking training sessions designed to build the requisite understanding and skills sets for these staff members to then lead their Institute teams. From reframing the most basic mobility questions to structured brainstorming activities to adopting a more customer-centered mindset, the staff leaders were trained and then shortly thereafter became trainers.

“Design thinking is a good match for what these dynamic teams are seeking to accomplish,” says Jeskey. “With its focus on customers, useful research, testing and de-risking, the teams are currently in the midst of some innovative solutions to challenging situations.”

As the staff education was underway, each of the seven teams began using Design Thinking approaches and tools like design briefs, customer journey mapping, and customer-oriented research to better understand the nature of the mobility challenge each sought to improve. The goal was a deeper understanding — What is? — of the mobility issue, often through the prism of the customers — both passengers and local organizations that benefit from cost-effective, efficient transportation systems.

Armed with this research and more comprehensive understanding, the teams arrived in Washington, D.C., for an all-team summit at the end of November for three days of transitioning their research into potential solutions to be further tested and improved upon once they arrived back home.

“Each team is tackling a unique challenge and developing solutions through Design Thinking that make sense in their communities,” says Jeskey. “We really believe that the combination of team-based approaches and the Design Thinking is the way to go.”

The Institute’s busy three days were structured around answering the What if? question and with the help of the CTAA staff’s Design Thinking training, the ideas soon flowed.

“The pace was quick, our team enjoyed diverse backgrounds and I was impressed at how we brainstormed and honed ideas before solutions emerged,” said one team member.

By the summit’s end, each of the seven teams left Washington with several potential solutions having been forged over the course of three days. The onset of 2013 sees the teams now in the process of assumption testing and prototyping as each attempts to uncover What wows? Going back to their primary and secondary research sources, the teams will, later this spring, present their prototype solutions and move into the final phase: What works?

“The Design Thinking approach is often seen as one that can be used — as the IDEO video features — to develop a better product, like the shopping cart,” says Jeskey. “Good mobility is not as easily a defined product as that, but the research, brain-storming, prototyping and testing methodologies are fabulous tools that we’re confident are going to result in better transportation options for these seven communities and the people who live there.”

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