Chapter 2:
Prototyping: A Creative Way to Solve City Problems

Prototyping is a way for cities to reduce risk and improve services by testing new ideas before implementing them.

Prototyping new products by testing early versions with customers is common practice in the private sector. But it's a largely unknown concept in government. Rather than testing ideas and designing potential solutions with resident input, government often seeks public comment only after most of the details have been decided.

However, as a growing number of cities have demonstrated, the practice of public prototyping is on the rise. As part of this year's 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, the 35 Champion Cities worked with coaches to prototype solutions in partnership with residents.

What is Prototyping?

Prototyping is the process of developing an early-stage mock-up of an idea, product, or service. It usually starts with a quick sketch or model that is used to get early feedback from users (residents, customers, stakeholders). These users can weigh in on whether the idea will meet their needs, and if they would be happy to use it. The process is about quickly making something tangible and putting out into the world, so that the target audience for the product or service can suggest improvements.

It can take different forms.

From paper wireframes of apps, to storyboards, floor layouts, 3D models of buildings, physical objects, and in-person role-play – there are few limits to the format of a prototype. What matters is that the prototype makes an abstract idea concrete. Many of the Champion Cities got creative in order to find the best format in which to represent their idea.

Prototyping is different from piloting.

A pilot might set an idea running for a period of months and measure its impact at the end. Prototyping involves conducting short tests of elements of an idea, in order to learn more and improve the idea design before it's rolled out. The process emphasizes continual adjustments in response to feedback.

It can be used at multiple stages of the innovation process.

At early stages, prototyping can be generative. Creating a first mock-up of the idea can engage people in a conversation about an issue, providing a deeper understanding of the problem and more or different ideas for solutions. In these cases, the idea should be held loosely and can be expected to change. The process can even unearth an entirely new and unknown problem

At later stages, prototyping can be evaluative.

High fidelity mock-ups can be used to test elements of a formed idea. They can improve specifics of the design, fine-tune implementation plans, or even gather initial evidence of impact.

"Be ruthlessly committed to "why" you are building your idea, but be very flexible with "what" your idea actually is. If you are running tests with the intention of learning – not just with the intention of validating – your idea will likely change many times. That can be incredibly disorienting. In order to maintain a North Star through all that turmoil, you need to have a strong understanding of your "why."

Ryan Baum
Principal, Jump Associates, and Champion City Coach

Deep Dive in Charleston, SC: Using prototypes to save money and avoid mistakes

For the Charleston team, prototyping their idea at a very early stage – while it was still taking shape – proved valuable. They set out to tackle a growing problem in their coastal city: street flooding. Thanks to sea-level rise, Charleston expects to see flooding go from the current 50 days a year to 180 days a year by 2040. Their initial strategy was to build an app, called FloodCon, that would provide real-time alerts so residents could steer clear of flooded roads.

The Charleston team started with some assumptions. One was that drivers wanted this information in the first place. By running a very basic prototyping exercise known as a card sort – residents sorted potential app features according to what was important to them, maybe important, and not important – they confirmed that residents did, indeed, want live and localized flooding information. So they knew they were on the right track.

But prototyping debunked another of their assumptions. The team had figured that FloodCon users would want to see live video footage of flooding on key streets. When they tested that idea using another very basic prototype – a paper rendering of what the app would look like – they found little interest in the video feature. Instead, residents wanted answers to practical questions, such as: "Can I drive my car through this water?" It turns out sensors, not cameras, are a better fit – and cost a lot less.

Thanks to these early-stage tests, the Charleston team could confidently proceed with FloodCon. Not only were they responding to real resident needs, but also saving money on the solution. "At times, you think you know what the people want," said Mark Wilbert, Charleston's Chief Resilience Officer. "But the value is really interacting with the community, listening to them, responding to them, and showing them how their input changed your approach."

Deep Dive in Philadelphia, PA: Using prototypes to improve an idea

In Philadelphia, the value of prototyping came later in the idea development process. The team there worked on a very different problem, related to the juvenile justice system. When children are arrested in Philadelphia, even for low-level offenses like shoplifting or skipping school, they are typically taken to the nearest police station and put into a concrete cell for hours while they await booking.

Philadelphia wants to make this intake process less traumatic and more humane for the 4,000 city youths arrested each year. The idea is to create a new place for children to go called the "Hub." Instead of a cell, youths would wait on a couch in a bright waiting room. And instead of seeing police, they would meet with a social worker who can assess their situation and plug many of them into social services rather than the juvenile justice system.

To test how it would work, the Philadelphia team went to the City's convention center to build a physical mock-up of the Hub, with temporary furniture and curtain walls. Social workers, teenagers and parents then role-played key moments that would take place at the Hub: the child's intake experience, the meeting with a social worker, and the handoff back to a parent.

The prototyping session yielded immediate, concrete feedback, from critiques of the furniture to questions about whether conversations between youth and social workers would be kept private. Insights were incorporated into subsequent rounds of play acting, allowing organizers to fine-tune the Hub's processes and procedures even as they were developing them.

By this time in Philadelphia's process, the Hub was a fairly well-baked idea. But it was still early enough to evaluate key aspects of the idea in something close to a real-world setting. Prototyping helped Philadelphia iron wrinkles out of its plans before investing a lot of money and energy into it.

Prototyping in the Context of Local Government

Prototyping in the public sector is similar to what happens in the private sector, but there are some benefits and challenges that are unique to local government.

1. Unlocks resident insights about a problem

Prototyping can be a research method: Putting tangible ideas into the world can create new and different conversations with residents that unearth aspects of a problem that might otherwise be invisible.

South Bend, IN, will help low-income and part-time workers with unreliable transport options commute to their jobs by partnering with ride-share companies and employers, who will help offset the cost. They tested their solution through interviews and focus groups, and engaged over 300 residents in a co-creation event. Through this process they learned something new and important about the problem: The City originally assumed that their target group uniformly faced chronic transportation challenges that would routinely impact their commutes to work. Instead, they found that most workers in their target group faced sporadic needs (e.g. when the car breaks down or the bus is late). This finding helped shift their view of ridesharing primarily as a backup mode of transportation.

"Make sure you have a clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. Before testing the underlying assumptions behind your proposed solution, first test the underlying assumptions you are making about the problem."

James Canfield
Founder and principal at MAG7 and Champion City Coach

2. Low-cost way to reduce risk

Low-cost methods can surface potential issues before an idea is scaled or further funded. This saves money, avoids waste, and can help prevent financial and political missteps.

Elk Grove, CA, initially wanted to create a universal rental application system that benefited both landlords and tenants. In one test, they explored ways could encourage landlords to take on low income or credit-challenged tenants, who are traditionally seen as higher risk. Financial incentives didn't work – they raised red flags in a "if you've got to offer money, there must be something wrong" way. What did make a difference was how prospective tenants acted when they came to see a prospective property – if they were dressed respectably, if they wiped their feet, etc. With this insight, the Elk Grove team shifted focus – away from financial incentives and a universal rental system and toward educating renters. By removing incentives from the plan, they've increased the financial sustainability of the program.

3. Provides a safe space to test bold ideas

Because it uses low-cost, low-fidelity methods, prototyping gives City Halls a safe space to throw some caution to the wind. Ideas are, after all, just ideas. Prototyping gives stakeholders a chance to explore how a new initiative might work, ask any questions that they might have, and get used to this new idea in their world.

Cheyenne, WY, focused on pairing entrepreneurs with the owners of empty downtown buildings. Initially they imagined the matchmaking would take place on a digital platform, but prototyping uncovered that both sides wanted human contact. This led Cheyenne to try out the role of a business liaison to guide them through complicated permitting, licensing, and financing processes.

4. Rallies stakeholders around an idea

Public prototyping can provide a creative way to introduce a new idea to the community at the early stages of a project. This can quickly elevate the profile of a project and generate buzz and excitement that translates into concrete support.

Fort Collins, CO, wants to make rental housing more energy efficient – and reduce health and economic disparities – by aligning public and private incentives, policy, and capital to catalyze renovation. By testing the idea publically through dozens of interviews and focus groups, they got the word out early to key stakeholders who were eager to weigh in. Through the testing process, the City attracted $12 million in outside funding from the Colorado Energy Office and First National Bank, which will help fund the loan program and even scale to other Colorado cities without depending on taxpayer dollars.

"Ask yourselves upfront what you are hoping to have created a year from now. Then ask, who will own this? Build this? Maintain this? Get those partnerships and capabilities in place early."

Erik Olesund
Co-founder at Collective Capital and Champion City Coach

"It is incredibly refreshing to see folks unafraid to share their ideas with as many people as possible. Many times in the corporate world, people can be very secretive about their ideas, fearing that if they share them, someone else might act on their idea before they can. This is often counterproductive and causes ideas to die. However, the cities I worked with were far less concerned with owning an idea, and far more focused on impact and objectives. If someone else knew about their idea, it wasn't seen as a risk it was seen as an asset. They shared their ideas broadly and got a lot of engagement, excitement, and support. In that way I think cities, and the public sector in general, are far ahead of the private sector."

Ruben Ocampo
Founder at Conic Group and Champion City Coach

A conversation with
Vijay Kumar
Professor and Charles Owen Endowed Chair in Design at the IIT Institute of Design, Chicago

Professor Vijay Kumar also is an author, consultant, and advisor to Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, social organizations, and governments. For more than 12 years he was the chief methodologist at Doblin Inc. (now a member of Deloitte), a leading global innovation firm. He was also a member of the selection committee for the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge.

What is the difference between innovation for the commercial market and innovating in a city with residents?

I want to throw a curveball into conventional thinking – that the public sector is always a step or two behind the private sector when it comes to sparking new ideas for solving tough problems. In fact, it's increasingly the public sector that holds the advantage.

This is especially the case when it comes to "open innovation" – an idea that moves away from the notion that Research and Development departments have all the answers and toward an understanding that some of the best ideas come from customers, employees, and other non-innovation experts. Henry Chesbrough of the University of California Berkeley wrote the book on this in 2003, and, ever since then, companies have tried – and often struggled – to take this approach. They tend to trip over concerns about intellectual property: When you share an idea openly in the business world, you risk someone else stealing it.

But this isn't a concern in the public sector – and particularly not in cities. In fact, it's just the opposite. Most mayors love sharing ideas with each other, and are flattered, not bothered, when other cities steal their solutions. And when it comes to generating new ideas – the heart of open innovation – mayors are increasingly taking a bottom-up approach and finding new ways to listen to their citizens. They understand that the more open and inclusive they are in engaging the public when developing new policies and programs, the better the results will be.

Where does prototyping sit within the wider innovation process?

By definition, a prototype is the embodiment of an idea to test it as a new experience. Innovation processes by nature starts with rough ideas (less defined and less clear in the beginning) and these ideas get more refined as the process progresses. Early in the process we make low-resolution prototypes of our rough ideas, for example, sketches or diagrams representing flashes of early ideas. Later, as we have a clearer picture of that idea, we make higher resolution models with details, sometimes as look-like prototypes. Embodiments of even more refined ideas can follow, as work-like prototypes. This model helps us understand different types of prototypes - from a rough idea to a more refined idea, and from a low resolution to a high-resolution embodiment.

No new idea is guaranteed to work, and without risk-taking, there's no innovation – but can prototypes help to manage that risk?

The intent of making a prototype is to ensure that the idea is reasonably viable and that it can be reliably realized. Testing prototypes in reality, or at least in a simulated reality, helps us learn about whether the idea will work or is likely to fail. The more we can learn about our ideas through testing, the more confident we can be about its possible success and hence the less will be the risk when the idea is ultimately implemented in the real world. One of the best ways to mitigate risk is to test out our ideas early on in the process before it is too late to adjust or make changes. Failure is acceptable because learning from failures can only strengthen the next prototype iteration; this is an integral part of innovation. I am reminded of Albert Einstein's classic observation that "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

I'm encouraged by the work out of the Champion Cities and also mindful of the fact that more cities need to follow their lead and exploit their inherent advantages. Governments may not have Research and Development labs, but they are prone to an "expert culture" that develops policies and programs for citizens rather than with them. That attitude is often cemented in place by procurement rules, public hearing protocols, and other habits and assumptions that can be hard to change.

And that's what I love about the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge. It gives cities an incentive to overcome those constraints and embrace their greatest asset when it comes to innovation: their residents.

Tips on Prototyping from the Champion Cities

1. Don't start with a fixed solution, start by understanding the needs of residents

In getting to the Champion City phase, some cities had already conducted research with residents to help explore the problem, needs, barriers, and possible solutions. Other came with a more fixed solution in mind (such as a piece of technology), and prototyping with residents then unearthed additional causes or needs that called for entirely new ideas.

The Pittsburgh, PA, team initially wanted to use a business model similar to Groupon, providing residents with discounts to encourage them to purchase energy-saving systems for their homes. However, after running a workshop with residents, NGOs, installers, tradesmen, and building suppliers, they learned that access to quality contractors is a bigger barrier than cost. The City now plans to focus future tests on tools that educate residents about how to take action and incentivize energy efficient behavior changes, rather than simply providing discounts.

2. Try multiple approaches – you are more likely to land on the right solution

Because their efforts were inexpensive, many cities were able to try more than one idea at a time. This made it easier for teams to pivot to the most promising solutions when the others weren't working.

More than 90 percent of commuters to downtown Durham, NC, travel by car and by themselves, straining the City's parking infrastructure. The City wanted to reduce residents' dependencies on single-occupancy vehicles and set out to test four behavior-change interventions: personalized route plans, a free bus pass lottery, incentives for not parking, and a plan that made parking passes more expensive each time they were used.

They conducted real-life field experiments on each idea, immediately ran into logistical problems with two, and were able to move forward with the other two. The concept around personalized route planning performed particularly well and has already shown significant impact on behavior, reducing single-occupancy vehicles.

3. Don't worry about making it perfect

It can feel uncomfortable for cities to publicly present plans for new initiatives before they are polished. However, the Champion Cities demonstrated that imperfect, early designs are welcomed by residents invited to help shape the projects.

Miami, FL, and Miami Beach, FL, wanted to develop a data-driven system and shared data platform to predict and plan for rising sea levels and inform residents' short and long-term decisions. They knew the tools they developed would only be effective if they reflected what residents really wanted and needed, so they mocked-up images of the different functional elements and invited residents to give early feedback on the design.

Don't try to be perfect. Become comfortable with agility and quick testing of ideas with residents  –  the more we test, the more we learn. It's about keeping the forward momentum, and remaining open and vigilant for those precious gems, the unknown unknowns that can help us meet real needs in ways that will really work.

Amanda Noonan
Strategy Director at Frog Design and Champion City Coach

4. Collect data and stories that make the case for spreading, scaling, and sustaining the idea

Throughout the prototyping process, many of the Champion Cities found creative ways to document their journey. From blogs, to photos, tweets, statistics, and film footage, the materials cities capture during the prototyping process have multiple benefits. This storytelling content can give increased visibility of a project beyond the immediate team and be used to make the case for scale.

Georgetown, TX, plans to become the first energy independent community in the country by partnering with residents to install solar panels and battery storage at their homes. During the testing phase, Mayor Dale Ross narrated a promotional video covering the basics of the idea and laying out the challenge, along with the goals of the project. The video, which you can watch here, helped to legitimize the project and galvanize support.