Design Thinking & Spatial Adaptation Impact project

The Design Thinking project conducted in the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg has explored how residents can be encouraged to embrace climate adaptation. Its main conclusion: tie in with the social environment of residents, and focus on what motivates them. This produces the best chance of finding solutions to far-reaching social issues. The results of the study have been published in a book.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking & Spatial Adaptation is the first of the 4th round of Impact Projects to be completed. Several municipalities and district water boards have participated in the study, as have the Association of Dutch Regional Water Authorities and the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg. Between 2017 and 2019, they have worked in concert with the designers involved in the project. Before long, the participating parties learned that they needed to modify their language. As a title, “Preparation for extreme weather” held more appeal than “Climate adaptation”.

Co-creative approach

Design Thinking features a people-oriented, co-creative approach that invites action. Rather than a wild brainstorming session, it involves an approach comprising several well-structured steps. The main lesson that the study has generated for government bodies is: focus on what motivates people when looking for solutions to far-reaching social issues. The final publication contains new perspectives, elaborations into inspiring concepts, and the lessons learned, which can help government bodies to give impetus to the adaptation to extreme weather, in collaboration with residents. “It reflects the spirit of the Environment Act: by society rather than for society,” according to Delta Programme Commissioner Peter Glas, who is an Ambassador to the project.

Reason for the study

Currently, involving residents in spatial adaptation mainly involves a process in which specialists explain to residents why it is important to prepare for extreme weather, and what the best solutions are. Governments attempt to motivate residents through awareness campaigns and grants. At the same time, this approach has been found to insufficiently tie in with the social environment of large groups of people, thus failing to produce sufficient result. Problems are perceived collectively, yet some solutions lie with individuals who will not always immediately get something in return. Ergo, this calls for different perspectives, providing access to different solution strategies.

Through Design Thinking, the parties participating in this project have added this alignment with the social environment and perception of individual residents to the current policy-making repertoire. Therefore, the question is not: how can residents be convinced, or what is a better way to explain the issues? Rather, the question is: what does climate adaptation mean to people in their current situation, and how can we tie in with this meaning?

Description of the approach and the results of the dialogue

The approach comprised three steps:

1. Empathic research to understand motives

This phase involved talking to a great many people in order to understand what moves and occupies them. The interviews focused on opinions rather than experiences. Every man and woman is an expert regarding their own situation. Interviews were held with a wide range of individuals, such as Scouts, nuns, expats, and firefighters, who explained what extreme weather means to them. Furthermore, in this phase, the researchers presented the project during the Dutch Design Week, where they interviewed more than 300 people about extreme weather.

2. Developing new perspectives

This is the most abstract step in Design Thinking. It involved the clustering, ordering, and rearranging of the threads identified through empathic research. This generated clusters of interconnected topics. The participating parties drew inspiration from their own experience in order to develop different perspectives. How did they identify with this topic in their own lives, and where is it being addressed successfully? In this phase, the participants in the study were no longer addressed in their professional capacity, but rather as human beings. They were asked to answer questions such as: where in our own lives have we had to deal with issues such as helplessness, autonomy, manipulability, and laziness? At this stage, everyone was asked to break free from the extreme weather issue, which turned out to be quite awkward, especially for solution-oriented people.

Eventually, this clustering resulted in new perspectives:

  • Make things easy
  • Because it is fun / important
  • Resilient and Vulnerable Club
  • Capitalise on local knowledge

3. Prototyping and testing

In this phase, the partners elaborated concrete ideas, in collaboration with residents and designers, within the four new perspectives. Small tests were conducted to reduce the uncertainties and to give the participants a feeling for what held potential.

Five local extreme weather issues were tackled from a new perspective, after which unique solutions – prototypes – were developed and field-tested. Crash tests constituted an important step in this phase. Such crash tests involve meetings with government officials who are of important relevance to field-testing the concept. They can fine-tune the concept, but also indicate the bounds of the experiment.

The results in a book

The book Design Thinking & Extreem weer outlines the outcomes in an accurate, clear, and evocative manner, in order to encourage more government bodies to adopt the method. The book contains many quotes from participants, such as, e.g., Nicolette Peters of the municipality of Boxmeer:

‘Two years ago, I was asked to participate in this project, design thinking for spatial adaptation. I had never heard of design thinking, but right after the first meeting I was really enthusiastic. I can still hear myself saying to my manager: ‘I have no idea what effect it will have or what will come out of it, but I am sure that it will bear fruit and that I am going to learn a great deal from this!’ And it certainly has. Collaboration with social designers generates fine and refreshing new insights and experiences, and it is just really fun! My greatest gain from participating in this project is the realisation of how vitally important it is to enter into the environment of residents, entrepreneurs, and project developers. Greater insight in their world opens up so many new doors!’

The prominent Ambassador to this project was Delta Programme Commissioner Peter Glas. He comments on the project as follows, and calls for action: ‘The project has already generated brilliant new concepts. Concepts that bear application on a wide scale, and that encourage a more frequent use of Design Thinking with respect to issues involving far-reaching social taskings. The inspiring and human approach – other than the traditional, knowledge-oriented and politico-administrative approach – is particularly valuable here. After all, broad-based local commitment is essential in the pursuit of climate-proof and water-resilient spatial planning. And… it reflects the spirit of the Environment Act: by society, rather than for society. I therefore challenge everyone to devise a multitude of solutions in the years ahead, solutions that actually substantiate spatial adaptation. So that we – together – will be prepared for the extremes of our future.’

Lessons to be learned from the dialogue

The collaborating parties discovered that they tend to assume that people, once they are aware of a problem, they will want to tackle it. But, they concluded, they tend to forget that people must first feel vulnerable in order to actually want to take action. In many cases of extreme drought or rainfall, the government sends out a signal that everything is under control. It would be helpful if governments themselves would show more vulnerability, by indicating - especially in extreme situations - that it cannot always manage everything on its own.

The book Design Thinking & Extreem weer paints an extensive picture of the lessons learned in this process. A brief selection:

  • Communicate in plain language.
  • Steer clear of formulating solutions for as long as possible. This will create room for new insights and enable you to really set to work together with residents.
  • Have faith in the process, have an open mind, and explore what you run into. Move along with what crosses your path.
  • In many cases, the solutions are not new to the world, yet they are new to the issue.
  • Crash tests define the bounds of the experiments without taking the edge off.
  • Organise room for experimentation.
  • Do not outsource the dialogue but take it up yourself, with the help of curious and gutsy officials.
  • Tying in with social environments calls for crossovers with other policy fields (ergo, other people) within your organisation.
  • Arrange for short lines of communication with those bearing final responsibility, in order to be able to operate flexibly and dynamically.

Prepare for success!

Impact Project
Gemeente Halderberge, Gemeente Breda, Gemeente Eindhoven, Gemeente Boxmeer, Gemeente Peel en Maas, Waterschap Brabantse Delta, Waterschap De Dommel, Waterschap Aa en Maas, Waterschap Limburg, Unie van Waterschappen, Provincie Brabant & Provincie Limburg
District / neighborhood, Municipality, Province, Region
Drought, Waterlogging