As a design professor at California State University, Long Beach, Heather Barker is always looking for partner organizations that can use her students’ help. That’s how she found the Long Beach i-team. Over two semesters, Barker’s students researched and modeled the steps required to start a business in Long Beach. Their work laid the foundation for what became BizPort, a city website that gives entrepreneurs everything they need to know in one place.
Barker enjoyed working with the city so much that she joined the i-team as its lead design consultant. The problems designers get to work on in the public sector, she said, can be more rewarding than industry work. “If you’re working on the interface for the navigation system of an Audi A3, that’s all you’re doing,” she said. “In a city you can say: ‘What if you don’t even need to drive?’ It opens up the challenges a lot more because it’s such a big system to work in.”
Part of the value designers bring to city hall, Barker said, is that “working through a design process is an inductive method rather than a deductive one.” In other words, when the mayor handed the i-team a problem to work on — improving public safety — they didn’t follow a typical government path of trying to narrow it down to one “best” solution. Rather, they allowed their research to open up many avenues to lots of possible solutions — and then implemented seven of them.
For example, after interviewing more than two dozen repeat offenders who had been in and out of jail multiple times, the i-team devised a plan to have a clinician stationed at the jail. Most of the repeat offenders, it turns out, have chronic health conditions or an underlying situation like homelessness. The clinician coordinates with medical, housing, and other services to make sure people are released from jail directly into a support network that can help keep them from coming back.
Another initiative connected people coming out of incarceration to education opportunities. The team’s extensive stakeholder engagement uncovered groups who were already working in this area, such as a local church, who wanted to get involved. Rather than creating and funding a new program, the i-team bolstered the existing ones by connecting them with each other.
“It was important on two levels,” Barker said. “First, because the human-centered design process is so big and inclusive and draws on so many voices, that we found the strongest and most articulate advocates possible for the population that we as a city were looking to support. And second, the initiative is more resilient and sustainable because the ownership of it belongs outside city hall.”
Barker said working in the public sector can be slower and more difficult than in the private sector, owing to the need to build buy-in with departments that may not be familiar with a design-led process. “About one-third of the job is consistently having to advocate for the process itself,” she said. But she already sees signs that this is changing. “Eventually, I hope to be out of work,” Barker said, “because human-centered design will be integrated into everything we do.”