New Orleans

3 Design-Thinking Principles That Transformed a Community

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans embarked on an innovative journey of recovery. The city harnessed the power of design thinking as a central strategy. This approach not only revitalized communities but also set a precedent. Innovation, intertwined with strategic planning and design-thinking principles, can transform the face of urban redevelopment and resilience.

How New Orleans Leveraged Design Thinking for a Remarkable Recovery

After Hurricane Katrina, Gerry Barousse worried his hometown might never recover. Half of the city’s residents (more than 250,000 people) had fled, many without thoughts of returning. Entire neighborhoods were left barren. Even his own family, long-time New Orleanian residents, had relocated.

But thanks to an innovative social experiment and to committed natives like Gerry, some neighborhoods have revived stronger and safer. The city shows far greater potential than before.

The Innovative Transformation of the St. Bernard Housing Community

Consider the St. Bernard Housing Community, recognized locally and nationally for its deterioration. Even prior to Katrina: 52 acres of decrepit public housing, twisted mazes of dead-end streets that even police feared entering. Poor upkeep left only 900 of the 1,300 housing units inhabitable. Over the five years preceding Katrina, residents endured 684 felonies and 42 homicides.

Today, wide tree-lined streets cross through the same site. Residents – an equal mix of those qualifying for free, reduced, and market-rate housing – socialize in common rooms, at the gym, and at the pool. Crime has almost disappeared with only two reported attempted felonies since February 2010.

The transformation speaks to the power of good design thinking to do far more than give us innovative products. Design thinking can alter the direction of entire communities. It can change lives. Indeed, while most believe design thinking was born out of products or technology, its roots actually originate with city planning (see Herbert A. Simon’s 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial).

How Design Thinking Fueled New Orleans’ Recovery

The story of the St. Bernard Housing Community illustrates why rethinking common misconceptions about what design thinking is and how it can be applied can open up exciting possibilities for anyone wishing to change some aspect of our world.

The role of existing solutions in innovation

Both design and science can deliver innovation. But they achieve it through opposite means. Science seeks to break down the problem, dissect the laws, and discover new knowledge. Design, by contrast, seeks to synthesize knowledge, combine what we already know in new ways. What made the iPod revolutionary was not breakthrough technology but rather that Apple had combined existing technologies (digital music, small hard drives, and materials) in a novel package.

Good design thinking begins with an exploration of what already works. Gerry’s search for a way to help New Orleans recover led him to Atlanta, to tour Purpose Built Communities, a public-private effort adopting a “holistic approach to community development.” Founded by Warren Buffett, Tiger Fund Founder Julian Robertson, Jr., and East Lake Foundation Founder Tom Cousins, Purpose Built had proven that by stitching together the right cocktail of public and private interests, early childhood education, housing design, and golf (a golf course proved to be an integral piece of the puzzle), they could turn one of worst public schools in Atlanta into number one and convert a community that trapped people in poverty into “launching pads” for productive lives.

Gerry returned home believing that the Purpose Built model could be adapted to work in New Orleans. Indeed, because Katrina had completely emptied the St. Bernard Housing Community of residents, he and his fellow citizens could potentially produce similar results even more quickly.

Understanding stakeholder needs: The foundation of strategic design

Because good design produces attractive tangible things, we often forget that it fundamentally begins with “who”: understanding stakeholders and their needs. Only then can the designer create a solution (the “what”) that will motivate stakeholders to take action. As Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, wrote, design thinking is “matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy.”

For example, the success of Apple’s iPod depended to a great extent on the fact that a key stakeholder group (music labels) was warming up to the idea of distributing music digitally. The success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX originated not from its technology but from a realization that NASA would need to privatize its vehicle design and launch activities. Or, as Musk once shared with me, because “a future in which anyone can shoot stuff into space is more exciting than one in which only the government can.”

A breakthrough design begins not with breakthrough technology but more often from a realization that stakeholder interests are aligning to make something possible that was not possible before.


The Role of Partnerships and Coalitions in Innovation

Gerry partnered with fellow New Orleanian businessmen Gary Solomon and Mike Rodrigue. They formed the Bayou District Foundation and undertook a long, patient process to understand the interests of the city, state and federal governments, and public housing authority. Their solution could then align these interests.

Central to the Purpose Built Communities model is the belief in the salutary effects of mixing residents of varying economic strata. So one-third of the housing units are allotted to residents qualifying for free housing, one-third to low-income, and one-third to people who pay full market rents. This not only increases the chances that low-income families will break their cycle of poverty, it also offers benefits that will motivate support from a broader mix of stakeholders (from the housing authority after low-income housing to local businesses who want convenient quality housing for employees).

The Purpose Built Communities model also recognizes the need to align for-profit stakeholders as well because a community that depends too heavily on public support is unsustainable over the long run. In Atlanta, and soon in New Orleans, the community foundation is part-owner of a high-end golf course. This provides a revenue stream to help fund the community while it brings in outsiders who “start coming in and seeing what we are doing,” explained Carol Naughton, senior vice president of Purpose Built. “The word gets out.”


Addressing the cause AND the result

While scientific approaches focus on addressing the cause, design appreciates the need to address the cause and result. We all know exercising more and eating healthier diets will pay off in the long run, but addressing the cause of our future health is insufficient motivation for most people. A better solution is a diet that both makes you healthier today and makes you feel and look better today.

The Purpose Built Communities model recognizes that attractive housing, good amenities (access to a grocery store, gym, well-lit streets) are the result of a healthy community, but that good early childhood education is the root cause. If you give a 3-year-old the proper educational foundation, they will do better in elementary school, which gives them confidence that builds through middle school, high school and college.

So while the Bayou District Foundation invested in high-quality amenities (a YMCA, pool, community center), they simultaneously partnered with Educare, a non-profit founded by The Buffett Early Childhood Fund, to establish what today is arguably the best preschool in New Orleans, available only to low-income and free-housing-qualifying residents.


Conclusion: The Wider Implications of New Orleans’ Recovery

By applying design principles – looking for what works rather than what is new, starting with “who” rather that “what,” and simultaneously attacking the cause and result – the lives of hundreds of families have been transformed. Imagine what these principles could do for your business, community, and life.

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