Especially now that uncertainty and volatility are defining factors of our future, developers face incredibly high risks when investing in urban development projects. The deployment of natural and financial resources that such developments imply is immense: developers and the planet cannot afford to waste it. It’s therefore imperative to make such investment worthwhile and ensure the future readiness of these urban projects.
But how can we anticipate what will be city dwellers’ spatial, relational and use needs for 100-120 years from now , today? How can today’s investments be still worth 100 years down the line? While one can never be completely certain about the future, a service design approach provides reliable tools to mitigate risks and proof concepts. First and foremost it enables the active involvement throughout the process of diverse expertises and citizens in a programmatic way, helping to anticipate future needs, values, constraints and desired behaviors influenced by environmental, economic, and socio-cultural transformations in place. This approach ignites the creation of a vision and innovative, sustainable solutions for an improved urban living experience based on the relevance of tomorrow’s urban needs.
Another benefit of this collaborative approach, in our experience, is that when developed in co-creation and well-illustrated, a vision proves to be a solid tool to anchor and harmonize stakeholders and reinforce coherence throughout the project effort. In 2021 we had the opportunity to work on an urban development project for an area of more than 20 hectares in Bangkok, a mixed-use development, including hospitality services, business and commercial area, cultural and semi-public spaces, a railway station and more. A multitude of stakeholders were involved, but the lack of a strong shared vision made it difficult to make decisions, coordinate efforts and create focus amongst the different players. Through on the ground, contextual research we were able to provide key ingredients for the formation of a vision for the experience of residents and visitors, as a sort of north star to simplify the decision making process.
Furthermore, core to a design thinking approach is its iterative and experimental nature, which can greatly benefit large and high-risk projects such as urban developments. Through a vast range of methods and tools, critical components of a project can be tested in a low-cost, low-effort way. From conceptualisation to implementation of solutions in the actual urban and social context, iteratively prototyping with the audience drastically minimizes risks of failures, increases chances of adoption and creates realistic expectations of results.
 The average time a building is programmed to last.
While having to face challenges similar to developers, some of the toughest challenges local governments face in urban developments are of a wider, more systemic scale. Affordable housing, rising inequalities in accessing services, the search for adaptation strategies to counter climate change  are only a few of the intersectional issues that governments have to deal with in urban contexts. Balancing economic, social and environmental wellbeing is a complex task: addressing these multifaceted and complex challenges demands collaboration between governmental bodies, stakeholders, and communities to ensure inclusive, innovative and resilient urban solutions.
While no discipline can do it alone, service design offers a valuable framework for dealing with the wicked nature of these challenges. Being a practice rooted in design research and co-creativity, service design is equipped with tools that enable meaningful exchanges across different “languages”, means of communication across different fields of expertise, creating fertile ground for the generation of new living models across sectors, responsive to the particularity of local needs. The same approach also enables the generation of new links to connect existing resources and assets in support of these new models, making use of local assets and capabilities to create renewed dynamics. This can be useful for example in decreasing the pressure on central services supporting community welfare and an economy of care on a local scale. By understanding the needs and resources available within a specific community, local governments can sustain the emergence of essential services and amenities, enable proximity in the city, reducing reliance on centralized systems.
In the same manner, through community engagement and a programmatic involvement of citizens, local grass-root initiatives can be fostered. Facilitating placemaking, a service design approach can channel local creative potential to align with governmental challenges. By creating a shared space that uplifts citizens, local governments can ensure the effective deployment of funding in promising initiatives and build a more resilient urban fabric. Moreover, through rapid experimentation with low-cost, low-effort prototyping techniques, proposed solutions can be effectively tested, decreasing social, cultural risks . In summary, design thinking offers local governments a powerful approach to address the complex challenges of urban development. By employing this methodology, they can identify new living concepts, rejuvenate areas, decrease pressure on central services, utilize existing resources, tap into local creativity, and enhance community resilience, ultimately creating more sustainable and inclusive cities and communities.
Architects and urbanists are invested with the honorable yet difficult task to shape the future of our cities, proposing solutions to the multifaceted, complex problems they’re offered by their clients, be them private developers or public entities. While thoroughly trained in coming up with creative solutions to answer project challenges, we believe they too can benefit from including an outside-in, bottom-up approach in defining strategies and models within and beyond the physical design of urban developments. In our experience, insights derived from in-depth user research can result in the useful shaping of the overall conceptual direction and vision of a development, to establish design requirements and the definition of a strong program. Sharing the design process with local actors and experts can vehicle the emergence of innovative urban strategies, enabling the integration of cross-sector non-tangible solutions to the very tangible design of buildings and infrastructures. In fact, through the consideration in early stages of the service-systems (energy, mobility, finance, governance) that inevitably the design of new places embodies, and that citizens face in their day-to-day challenges, innovative and more systemic urban solutions can be found.
Architecture and urbanism firms too have to deal with managing large, high-risk investments and, as already mentioned, service design is equipped to break down these risks in small iterative experiments. Through prototyping, visual storytelling and a systematic involvement of stakeholders (citizens, experts, clients, public bodies etc.), from the early phases of conceptualisation until implementation the social, economical and practical validity of the solutions proposed can be tested.
In summary, by embracing a facilitated outside-in, bottom-up approach, integrating citizen research and stakeholder involvement, architects and urbanists can too benefit from a service design approach for the creation of more innovative, sustainable, and effective urban solutions.
By embracing co-creative practices between stakeholders, promoting active participation from the bottom up, and applying rapid prototyping, we are convinced that developers, urbanists, and local governments can meet their goals and de-risking high investment projects while implementing innovative solutions. Service design is a great asset in the complex and wicked challenges that the future of cities present because it entails a holistic and transdisciplinary approach and integrates tangible and intangible solutions, catering to the creation of vibrant and responsive urban realities that truly resonate with the needs and desires of urban dwellers.