Every time I travel anywhere in the world, especially in India, most of our modern cities show up as mad and messy spaces of chaos and confusion, polluted and populated in equal measure, lacking much thought or theme in their development. Whether its a humble pedestrian footbridge or a gigantic airport, an road intersection or a shopping mall, as a Design Thinker I am always hit by the apparent lack of design or thought that went into so many of them.
What can happen if a city, reeling from the recession and trying to rediscover its mojo, decides to innovate and try something totally new to design its spaces?
Dublin did. And how!
Ireland, one of ‘PIIGS’ economies, found the Great Recession hard to handle. During the heydays of the development boom, Clongriffin, on the north fringe of Dublin, was supposed to have a population of 30,000 to 40,000, with all the communal facilities they would need. In July 2003, Dublin City Council had granted planning permission for a mixed-use development to be called “Clongriffin at Grange Road, Donaghmede now forming part of the Northern Fringe Development (from Clongriffin to Belmayne). Management plans were completed in 2004 and the development, comprising houses and apartments, started in 2005 and was planned to have educational, retail and service facilities, including a multi-screen cinema.
But construction ground to a halt when the bubble burst, leaving the area’s residents high and dry. The Dublin City Council considered many traditional — and expensive — revitalization projects, but its leadership saw a need for an injection of novelty.
The Pied Pipers
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. Dunne was inspired by an exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art about how design could address current challenges.
They brought in Vannesa Ahuactzin, a young American architect who did a year’s programme at the Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto, which specialises in design innovation and inter-professional collaboration.
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 that Clongriffin, with property left vacant in the downturn, was a perfect candidate for a pilot experiment.
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.
With the support of Dublin city manager John Tierney and former Accenture chairman Terry Neill, who’s now on the board of CRH plc, the project developed legs. More than 100 people applied to take part, and 17 – divided equally between the public and private sectors – were selected following the personal ordeal of a day-long interview.
The chosen theme of the project was to “find the hidden potential of place”, and the challenge was to apply this to Clongriffin, a place that barely existed. Apart from all the new apartments, its main “boulevard” has just five businesses operating – a Chinese takeaway, an off-licence, a chemist, a hairdressing salon and (what else?) a Centra.
All of the remaining retail units were vacant, giving the boulevard a desolate air. “We realised there was a lot of wastage in this country during the Celtic Tiger years,” says Vannesa. “So in working on Clongriffin, we wanted to see what is there to tap into, to engage residents in taking ownership of area, make it more interesting.”
The 17-strong project team, ranging in age from 21 to 53, set about trying to understand the place by talking to the people who live there. Not surprisingly in a new area, many of them felt isolated – but many were also keen to get involved in building a community spirit, especially as they are now pretty well locked into living in Clongriffin.
Working with kids (no less than 13 nationalities are represented there) in the two prefab schools, the team gave them a series of images of things in the area, asked them to draw a picture of their favourite place, and ended up with a series of paintings that were put on exhibition in a vacant shop which was turned into a café for a day.
“We only had Thermos flasks and paper mugs, but it was very, very successful,” Jean recalls. “Parents came along, of course, and even curious teenagers walked in and started participating. In no time we had all these conversations going about what they’d like to see happening in Clongriffin.”
One thing the locals are very proud of is Father Collins Park, which Dublin City Council opened in May 2009, with five wind turbines to generate electricity.
At 52 acres, roughly twice the area of St Stephen’s Green, it was designed by Argentinian architects Abelleyro + Romero, who won an open competition for the €20 million project in 2003. The park has since won a number of awards such as The Sustainability Award 2010, Best Public Space 2010, and Best Public Park & Best Environmentally Friendly Initiative for 2010. It was short listed by the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2011. Five 50 kilowatt wind turbines provide power for the projection of water from its central lake, public lighting, maintenance depots, and sports club changing rooms. The 54 acre (26 hectare) park includes some natural woodland. There is a peripheral running/cycling track, six playing pitches and six fitness stations. There are also a promenade, concert amphitheatre, and picnic areas with outdoor chess or draughts boards, two playgrounds and a skate park.
“The park is a huge asset, people are really inspired by it so that’s very good at building optimism,” says Vannesa. But the Designing Dublin team found that the children also wanted access to “wild nature” – like the pond with swans in it half-way along an unfinished pathway to the coast. For them, this is a magical place.
One of the five projects selected for detailed study by a sub-group is to complete the missing link of 300 metres, so that Clongriffin residents can make use of the trail.
The aim is to get them directly involved in the project, even designing it themselves, so that the community will have a sense of ownership of this potentially important amenity.
Another project is called Hothouse – essentially, a community centre where people can meet. Prototype designs for this much-needed facility, on a site just south of Father Collins Park, are being worked up by local residents with the aid of four architectural technicians from the DIT School of Architecture. The final scheme might even be built.
Other projects include Grow Local, which aims to help budding entrepreneurs by providing space for them to develop their ideas, using one or other of the many vacant retail units as a base.
Another sub-group is looking at Local Expression, which is essentially about enlivening the area and perhaps even transforming some of the areas of wasteland left over after the boom came to a sudden end. This might include painting hoardings around the sites and turning them into art objects, like the gable murals in Belfast.
Finally, residents felt there was a need for a “communications exchange” to let people know what’s going on. They already have a website (www.clongriffinresidents.com) and big billboards packed with local information, but the more innovative ideas include messages in the sky, given that it’s visible on the approach to Dublin Airport.
End-of-project activities this Saturday from 11am to 9pm include a “60-minute makeover”, transforming an empty shop beside Centra on Clongriffin’s main street into a prototype community “hothouse”, an exhibition of models made by local children showing how they see the future, and to cap it all, an an “imagination celebration”.
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. Beyond the projects, Dublin had trained a team of volunteers to put their design-thinking skills to work in all the areas they touched.
Now, imagine Design Thinking for our cities! We would love to. Any ideas?