Hyper local vs. system thinking


Exploring better use of public space
Over the past year STBY has conducted several design research projects for the city of Amsterdam, supporting them with innovation projects around the use of public space. In some of these projects, we focused on the opportunities for improving bike parking in specific areas. In others we focused on opportunities for creating more space for pedestrians.

Working on a series of projects with a similar research question allowed us to develop and improve a customised research method we call ‘Streetlabs’. A Streetlab is a setting in which different users share their ways of using the same environment. We sit around a table with a wide mix of people, such as residents, shop owners, visitors, people who work in the streets, and people who work for the city district. Using visual tools such as a Streetview map, a vector map and pictographic cards, the participants have the opportunity to express their experiences and preferences in relation to the specific focus area. To create a constructive dialogue, we encourage people to speak from their own personal and actual experiences, and to try and avoid general statements. During the co-creative and collaborative session, the participants jointly identify problem areas and opportunities for improving their use of public space. Finally, they also share their visions for the future of the specific street or neighbourhood we were investigating.

Strong relationship between space for bikes and pedestrians
For several years now, similar to most cities, Amsterdam has been mainly focusing on cars, public transportation and bicycle traffic, while bike parking and space for pedestrians have received less attention. However, innovation around these topics is highly important, especially in a city that wishes to remain a city with a human scale and strong character.

In existing policies, pedestrians and bike parking tend to be separate issues, so the local councils initially asked STBY to address these topics separately. Interestingly, one of our key research findings is that the topics of bicycle parking and pedestrian experience are highly connected – they influence and shape each other so closely, that they are in fact inseparable. When cyclists arrive at their destinations and dismount, they become pedestrians. When bike parking is problematic in s specific area, the pedestrians immediately feel the consequences and experience difficulties in using the public space. These topics should be integrated in both policy and design, within the broader framework of improving the user experience of the public space.

Hyper-local research for a city-broad perspective
In the Streetlabs we usually concentrate on a pre-defined location, identifying insights that are specific to that location. These can be as specific as pointing out spots that people find highly suitable for bike parking facilities, or a specific traffic light that is dangerous for short-sighted people, or specific parts of the street where parents with a stroller cannot walk due to different objects that become obstacles. Many of these examples yield ‘low-hanging fruits’: improvements that local councils can act on in the short term as a hyper-local follow up.

There are usually also other more ‘high hanging fruits’: for instance challenges that are common for the different local areas that are indicating recurring patterns in the findings of the various Streetlabs. These are challenges that are more complex, require more time to tackle, and most importantly, require a collaboration between the different local councils. The issue here is to create an overarching system that offers better parking solutions for Amsterdam’s cyclists and pedestrians at each a more strategic level. We are currently working with the City of Amsterdam to do a pilot project that explores such a new system.

Zooming in – zooming out
For projects exploring peoples experiences and preferences in relation to public space, switching between a ‘zoomed in’ and ‘zoomed out’ view has proven to be very effective. Both during the research and the analysis stage while discussing and investigating, we often zoomed – delving into hyper-local realities to check out the essence and impact of things that come up- while at other moments we zoomed out – searching for recurring patterns that might be common across locations and people. The same approach is also useful for the next steps of the innovation process, zooming out when designing the overarching system behind new services, and zooming in to designdetailed specs for new solutions, tailoring them to the specific needs of a street or a neighbourhood.