Design research city with a pencil for sketching ideas

Experience Design, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Education, Technology

Dream Bigger: Imagine a Billion-Dollar Design Project

Designers aim too low. To better understand large and important scientific phenomena, scientists have large and important scientific research tools that can cost tens of billions of dollars. Design researchers are trying to understand large and important behavioral and cultural phenomena, and we, too, need large and important design research tools.

So, where is design’s billion-dollar research tool? What is the Petri dish for design, the space to propose ideas, explore new provocations, and see the impact of designs on culture?

The Large Hadron Collider is a massive machine that helps physicists explore theories about particle physics. It’s physically enormous, took years to build, required collaboration between many countries, and is a shared tool. Estimates of its initial building costs hover around ten billion dollars, and estimates for operations are approximately 1 billion a year. On paper or in casual conversation, it seems an impossibility. The construction and costs aside, to build such a machine requires collaboration between opinionated scientists across political borders, and the logistics of coordinating such a project seem insurmountable. Yet, there it is, buried in Switzerland.

Design doesn’t have tools like this. We don’t have the kind of spaces, or collaborative environments suitable for exploring the impact and value of design.

But why not?

We don’t have a tool of this scale and scope in design because we haven’t imagined it. It’s difficult for non-designers (and often, even for designers!) to see the value of design research in shaping new products, services, policies, and strategies. For as much progress as we’ve made in connecting research to innovation and experience, many companies still view it as ancillary — just a small part of the overall creative process. It’s hard enough for practitioners or researchers to secure a small budget — the response to a million-dollar research budget, much less a billion dollar budget, is met with incredulous skepticism. We have a poverty of imagination around what such a tool could be and how it would function.

Modernist COO and partner Jon Kolko met Professor Zimmerman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, at a conference for design educators and they arrived at a seemingly tongue-in-cheek proposal. What if design’s version of the Large Hadron Collider was an entire city?

What if we had a whole city, hundreds of thousands of people living their lives, businesses, transportation, parks — all available as a backdrop for large-scale design research projects?

The idea might give you pause, and it seems easy to brush aside as ridiculous. How would it work? Who would want to live there? How much would it cost? Is it even ethical?

It’s unprecedented, to be sure. And like most big, strange ideas, it’s easy to immediately point out why it will never work. But give it some runway.

Design research attempts to observe and understand existing behavior, to identify what people want, need, and desire, and to get to the core of culture. Design itself then introduces new behaviors, new wants and needs, and new cultural phenomenon. We have a hard time developing and running long, in-depth research programs, exploring new and untested research methodologies, or testing cultural paradigm changes at scale.

It’s one thing to see how a self-driving car behaves on the road with other drivers. It’s a completely different activity to see how a self-driving city behaves.

A research city could act as a playground to watch people interact with one-another and with new technologies, identifying insights into why they do the things they do, and trying things at a broad, but still contained scale. It extends the possible scope of our tests and creates more and more realism for exploring person to person, culture to culture interactions. A research city doesn’t necessarily mean an idealized city — it could very well have all of the problems, opportunities, and challenges of a normal city. Just as the collider is a platform for scientists to explore, our city would be a platform for designers to explore, prioritize, schedule, and share results from large-scale research activities.

Imagine—as a design researcher at UPS, you want to explore the impact of an entirely drone delivery system. The city would be a platform for researching and building the interactions, testing it over years with real customers, and understanding the implications.

Imagine—as a design researcher at Pearson, you want to explore the impact of completely peer-driven learning at a university level—no professors, just students teaching students. The city would be a platform for researching and building new curriculum, testing the process over years with real students, and charting the educational implications.

An expansive city-scape would provide an opportunity for systems research. Instead of looking at a local behavior, it would provide a way to examine both localized and systemic impacts of change. Understanding how drone delivery to one house impacts shipping is insightful. Understanding how the presence of drones on a daily basis changes broad human behavior is truly fascinating.

These examples show private companies leveraging the city for their own purposes, but the real benefit of a research backdrop like this would be the ability to see the impact of large-scale technology and policy changes driven by government.

What would happen, over time, if there were no zoning laws?
What would happen, over time, if there were no roads?
What would happen, over time, if the city laws and rules were driven not by a representational democracy, but by direct vote?

What would happen after a completely autonomous vehicle city gets over the hump of novelty, car ownership dwindles, and cars on demand start to be a real phenomenon? How does this change the nature of public transportation? What happens with insurance? What about parking? What about gas demand? And, what are the policies that cities would need to implement in order to manage these changes?

Presently, these questions are largely unanswerable, and we constantly find ourselves reactively legislating technologies, lagging by years or even decades. With a city-based research lab, we could build understanding for cultural change at a broad scale, and then consider these changes for global implementation once they were proven at a local level. The role of government could be evaluated with forward-looking behavioral data, rather than current-state evaluative surveys, argument, and rhetoric. The implications of policy decisions could be studied with a long enough timeline and at a large enough scale to make concrete conclusions and proposals.

Aerial view of a crosswalk to show how service design works for users

Building and operating this type of research project has no precedent, and just as the policies governing the Collider evolved over time, so too would the policies around accessing the city lab. It took over twenty years for the Collider to go from concept to implementation, and it required collaboration between governments and between scientists. One could imagine the same being true for a design research city. Usage of the city would need an oversight board, and to be truly beneficial, the results would need to be publicly accessible. Imagine if even the “experiments” were driven by the public’s curiosity—influenced by a public, open process.

The idea seems very far-fetched, but so too did the idea of building a massive endeavor like the Large Hadron Collider.

Like any giant dream, it would take dedication, focus, and—most importantly—funding.

But given the challenges we’re observing with existing political structures and policies, a moonshot like this might be the critical tool we need to explore how we can best manage the cultural changes that come with the inevitability of rapid, constant technological advancement.