Since Uscreates joined the FutureGov family, we’ve spent time reflecting on our values and started thinking about how these are shared across our combined team. An organisation’s values help shape its attitude and mindsets. Unsurprisingly, many of our values are related to the attitudes and mindsets needed for design; including getting our hands dirty, staying curious and embracing ambiguity. Practicing these values in the work we do helps facilitate collaboration, encourage personal leadership and stretch our creative ambition on projects.

For the past eight months, we’ve been working with Bloomberg Philanthropies as design partners on their Mayors Challenge programme. We’ve been telling the story of 35 cities across the USA as they use the power of design and prototyping to tackle some of their most complex challenges. The project brought to life some of these shared values and ensured that creativity remains at the heart of our work.

Get your hands dirty and try new things

We encourage the organisations we work with to step out of their comfort zone, roll up their sleeves and work in new ways. This can be as simple as sketching a half-baked idea and putting it in front of other teams to get feedback. It’s a vulnerable feeling to work through a new challenge for the first time, but starting small, testing and learning can make it feel a lot easier.

This is what our team did when designing an exhibition for CityLab, the global annual summit where we would showcase our work with Bloomberg in front of mayors, city innovators, urban experts, artists, and activists, working to address the most important urban issues happening today. In the months leading up to the summit, our studio became our workshop, where we printed and assembled exhibition mockups to quickly work out sizing and layouts.

Prototyping the exhibit experience in our studio

As part of our role in telling the story of the Mayors Challenge, the exhibition showcased inspiring ways in which prototyping, design and resident engagement are transforming cities. The 50-foot exhibit, which included powerful images, videos, quotes and immersive artefacts, was the result of months of ‘getting our hands dirty’ and trying new things. We found that whilst exhibition design was a new area for most of us, the skills needed for success already existed within our team. We drew on our backgrounds in research, graphic design, product design, interior design and engineering to work through new challenges.

Version 16 of the Mayors Challenge exhibit visual render

Stay curious and hunt stories

We’re curious people who like to get under the skin of how things work. The projects we work on tend to focus our curiosity on a given challenge by understanding the interactions of people, places and systems. However, our work on the Mayors Challenge was subtly different. Instead of understanding one specific problem, we were capturing, understanding and sharing the experiences of city staff and citizens as they moved through a prototyping process.

Instead of answering targeted research questions, we worked to highlight the diverse stories and experiences of 35 cities. These stories ranged from residents who were starting to see government in a different light, to energised city staff pushing back against traditional ways of working. This required a commitment to open-ended curiosity and an almost journalistic approach to hunting out powerful anecdotes.

Take, Huntington, WV, where the city team shared the story of the police departments’ Drug Commander attending a yoga class they organised and the following day during a drug raid, outran his colleagues and caught the perpetrator. Or a team member from Lafayette, LA who was inspired to join city hall’s flood team after the 2016 Louisiana flood destroyed her home. These kinds of stories bring to life the drive and creativity of government staff and citizens. Instead of carefully crafted research questions, the work required a genuine curiosity and openness to hear new things and be led by the people sharing stories.

Prototyping for creative leadership

As designers, we champion the use of prototyping. From digital products, board games, drone-powered blood donation services; you name it, we’ll have it mocked up! Throughout this project, we’ve witnessed amazing stories of how a mock-up can move ideas forward quickly. But what happens when we use prototyping as a leadership tool? When we use it to physically mock up a vision or ambition for a project or piece of work?

Mayors Challenge exhibit under construction in Detroit, US

That’s exactly what we tried to do on this project, asking ourselves how can we use prototyping to imagine and create the vision and strategy for the work? Through cardboard mock-ups of awards, fake articles in leading design magazines and fictional quotes, we developed a series of messy artefacts to agree what ambition and success looked like. Simple methods like this helped set the tone for the project and practice the values we were trying to champion in the work.

This post was co-written, alongside Robbie Bates and Tom Wastling. Read part two.

Bloomberg Philanthropies will be launching a report in January that collates our reflections from the Mayor's Challenge and civic innovation.

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