Design Thinking: What If We Built Cities As Prototypes?


A lot of talk about design thinking is circulating, particularly on broader uses in organizational and social change.

I got to thinking about how design thinking is used by architects compared with other types of designers. Last year I participated in a panel hosted by the Association of Professional Futurists at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena that included people from industrial and gaming design, plus architect Neil Denari and me. Yet only now am I deconstructing how what we design affects our thinking.

Industrial designers learn from prototypes and mass produce success. In contrast, architects create each building brand new, unique to its situation.

Industrial designers* usually make products for mass production. Experimental by nature, prototypes are expected to fail initially and push boundaries in order to improve the ideas in the long run. Products are far more carefully designed and detailed because of this process. To mass produce, they have to be as finely tuned as possible so pushing hard and finding limits are critical.

The rule of prototype design is: fail fast and often.

Doing it wrong once is ok and frankly, there’s a positive kicker – you’ve found a flaw. Doing it wrong a thousand or a million times is a product recall and wildly expensive. Bad products can hurt people. Through improvements, surprises are essentially designed out, re-tested and fixed. Even final products are considered temporary. That is, eventually they will be replaced by the newer model or used as a vintage edition.

On the other hand, architects typically create one-of-a-kind solutions. The only full scale prototype is the final building; we see it for the first time when it’s built. Consequently, I have always been surprised by something during construction and I bet other architects would say the same thing. Some are incredibly exciting; others are a headache or a missed opportunity. Once people move in, they come up with even more lessons.

Failing is penalized with the fear of enormous penalties.

There’s professional, legal, financial liabilities. People can die or get sick. Cities are diminished. Clients can sue. The entire planet gets damaged.

Instead we try to learn from drawings and models. But representations lack in reality, the experience of material space. It’s a system fraught with danger that ultimately does not allow us to test and improve through fast and frequent failures. We move onto the next project, wiser from that experience but not necessarily sharing our newfound knowledge in any systematic way.

What Can Architects Learn from Industrial Design Prototyping?

Why can’t we build buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire cities with more finesse and refinement? If you look at a car or a computer, the attention to detail is astonishing (although not always in a good way, but that’s not my point.)

We are approaching a time when prefabricated and preengineered buildings will likely become a greater part of the urban fabric. Are we prepared to learn from industrial designers about how to use prototypes to improve our work?

If we can’t always build prototypes – many projects will remain uniquely constructed – then maybe we can learn from each other?

Think of each building as a prototype for others. A supply chain of building knowledge that creates each project as a prototype for others. Call it a learning chain that makes an entire network of lessons learned.

While we haven’t had the tools and metrics in the past, BIM and social media are changing that.

Rather than building a project and moving on, we can readily share data on building systems, costs, and lessons learned. Each building, street, or district become prototype designs with clearly measured efficiencies, narratives of experiences, and definite contributions to the city. Every project builds on the rest.

1) To create more regionally distinct, sustainable cities, track the architectural characteristics, environmental qualities, local materials, and building technologies into a design database.
2) Develop metrics to demonstrate how efficiencies and environmental qualities improve the bottom line for businesses in terms of productivity.
3) Over time, we will develop greater knowledge, using one completed house or building or detail to create a more refined version next time. The database and our collective intelligence will grow.

Eventually, if we interconnect our ideas, knowledge, case studies, lessons learned – our individual experiences – we could have a connected brain of information that would improve our work, our buildings, and our cities in a continuously interactive process. Building users, owners, contractors, and designers can contribute to the virtual database. Over time, a virtual twin will emerge where we can experiment, fail, and try again.

Rather than a rigid, dead city, we make one very large, continually tweaked prototype – granted, a city makes a truly gigantic model.

Excellent references on design thinking: The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley; Change By Design by Tim Brown (both of IDEO).
Architizer is essentially creating a design database that is completely open source; a BIM database would tie together all planning, building design, and construction fields.

*Designers specialize in all types of objects from architecture to products, games, vehicles, clothing, furniture, graphics, web sites, and so on. I use industrial designers as a general type and the one most closely related to architecture.