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Finding Common Ground with Human-Centered Design

By Phil Bors on April 8th, 2016

Last week, I spent an afternoon with a group of new friends reimagining Rockaway Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. We listened as a community health advocate explained how local youth run a weekly market stand on the sidewalk across from a Popeyes Chicken restaurant. And we learned about P.S. 125, a long-abandoned elementary school that has the potential to be transformed into an amazing community asset.

Brownsville struggles with high unemployment and has the nation’s highest concentration of public housing. It has a reputation as a “beleaguered” neighborhood with persistent poverty and high crime rates, but that narrow view sells the community short and does not account for its forward momentum.

For example, the Brownsville Partnership engages residents and partner organizations to address health, safety and economic prosperity. They are organized by Community Solutions, a non-profit service agency committed to strengthening communities and ending homelessness. The Brownsville Partnership is one of nine New York sites that form the Healthy Neighborhoods learning network, funded by the New York State Health Foundation and New York Community Trust and supported by Healthy Places by Design.

The afternoon in Brownsville was part of an experiential learning meeting that project leaders and partners from these nine communities attended. Our guides for the afternoon were community partners, Brownsville residents and members of the Community Solutions team. They led 60 people through a group brainstorming process known as Human-Centered Design (HCD), or “design thinking,” which is a creative approach to problem solving that starts with community residents’ ideas and ends by specifying new solutions. HCD, which was developed by the design and innovation firm Ideo, consists of three phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation.

For inspiration, five groups, comprising participants from outside of Brownsville, fanned out within a seven block priority area identified by the Brownsville Partnership (including Rockaway Avenue, Livonia Avenue, Belmont Corridor, Betsy Head Park and a walking path traversing through the Brownsville Houses complex). At each place, an experienced partner teamed up with a Brownsville resident to describe the Partnership’s projects, interests, opportunities and challenges. Each group then returned to the indoor meeting space to share what participants heard, saw and drew insight from. These discussions were framed by a single “How might we…” question to focus the group on action steps. For example, “How might we create a safer, more active neighborhood with better access to affordable fresh food in a way that enables Brownsville youth to play leadership and action roles?”

The ideation phase prompted each group member to generate possible solutions—from the simple (painting a mural) to the “audacious” (creating new mixed-income housing). The groups identified dozens of potential actions to improve and transform these public spaces. Ultimately, each group collectively narrowed down its ideas to one strategy. Although our time-limited exercise ended at this point, the HCD process normally continues into implementation, which can include prototyping, pilot-testing, iterating a solution, creating a pitch and developing a funding strategy.

Participating in the HCD process reminded me of lessons highlighted in Healthy Places by Design Lessons for Leaders guide (published as Active Living By Design). As communities work to create a culture of health and well-being, successful resident engagement occurs when the insights, assets and leadership that already exist in a community are acknowledged. And to fully capitalize on those strengths, a facilitative process is vital. Lessons for Leaders helps community leaders navigate the process of change with those skills in hand.

We must understand community context to create positive change and, at the same time, know that communities face common challenges. By the end of the exercise that afternoon, I learned that one group ultimately generated many of the same solutions that Brownsville residents had previously identified, which left the group leader feeling validated by the opinions of these guests. By starting with the people they were designing for, even visitors could quickly see solutions in Brownsville, where others might see only problems.

Photo: Yvette Rouget, a Resource Specialist for Community Solutions, leads a group through the Human-Centered Design process.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time