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Park Your Assumptions: How to Mediate the Disruptions of Ride-sharing Apps

 A GDL Alumni Workshop in New York Applies Design Thinking to Traffic Challenges

 by Silvia Danielak

At the initiative of GDL Member Ciara Davies, the Bosch Alumni Network (BAN) teamed up with the Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) to co-organise an event this autumn on Design Thinking for Public Policy. GDL member Silvia Danielak came up with a red-hot real-world case to which to apply design-thinking methodology: How should the public sector moderate the disruption that ride-sharing apps are causing in the taxi-cab sector?

 To tackle this topic of global relevance, the GDL and the BAN brought 15 experts on public transport, design thinking, technology and the public sector to New York City. Guided by our professional design-thinking coaches, we discussed technological disruptions in the public transport sector and the social repercussions for cities. The goal of this four-day workshop was twofold: We sought to dive deeper into the challenge that Uber, Lyft and similar ride-sharing services pose to public policy in New York City, while also learning about design thinking as a methodology. This approach emphasises creative strategies to design solutions that are both human-centred and outside traditional approaches. Together, these two components allowed us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges for employing design thinking in the development of public policy.

In our analysis, the small teams uncovered the complexity of a rapidly changing urban transport system. New York City has experienced a major disruption of the taxi-cab industry that is having socio-economic, environmental and infrastructural repercussions and has fundamentally changed public transport. The decades-old taxi medallion system, for example, experienced a sweeping loss of value. Taxi owners, who prior to the introduction of ride-shares traded medallions at the price of a million US dollars each, now sell them for less than one-fifth of the original price. In addition, some studies suggest that ride-hailing has increased overall traffic and is thus adding to congestion and pollution in the city. Uber and Lyft drivers, on the other hand, perceive stress and competition in their daily experience on the street.

Not only in New York, but around the world, municipal actors struggle with the growing competition between traditional taxi-cab drivers and app-based ride share services. In some cities – for example Johannesburg and Nairobi – the competition has turned into violent urban conflict. Other cities, such as Jakarta, Paris or Toronto, have witnessed partly violent protests by taxi drivers, too. In turn, local governments have reacted very differently to the challenge, and have adopted various degrees of regulation – from a mostly laissez-faire approach to outright banning of ride-share services.

The design-thinking approach to this topic allowed for a systemic way of thinking for our groups. In the exploratory phase, the method enabled us to reveal insights into the experience of drivers that we would have otherwise neglected. Who knew that restrooms accessible to drivers were so limited in Manhattan? More generally, with the limited and overall costly parking space available, it is a challenge for drivers to leave their car for a lunch or bathroom break – thus adding to the overall stressful working conditions. Empathising and clarifying the issue (and in this process parking your prior assumptions) allowed the participants to reformulate the problem they wanted to tackle in the second half of the workshop. There was wild brainstorming, prototyping and testing with the help of invited expert critics.

For the workshop participants and public policy experts, the workshop exposed the potential of the design-thinking method but also sparked a rich discussion about its potential limits for use in government and public administration. After only four days, naturally a very ambitious timeframe, the small teams presented ideas for improved urban design, app-based solutions and physical spaces for encounter. One group for example designed a new app that would bring different groups closer together and establish trust among clients and drivers, whereas another team suggested opening community centres across the city for all, app-based and traditional, taxi-cab drivers to have a rest, get together, and benefit from educational and training opportunities.

Design thinking puts a strong emphasis on the target user – or “constituent” in public policy. Drawing empathy maps and engaging on consumer journeys for example brings the remote policymaking process closer to the target user. In addition, formulating "how might we..?" questions allows one to dream and think big, while also being specific and concrete. It encourages creativity that might often be lost in the daily business of traditional bureaucracies.

For public policy, we saw that design thinking might require some twisting and tweaking to guarantee both democratic participation as well as a set of safeguards to think through and avoid potential unwanted repercussions and harm. What are the implications of the new policy or product for gender, race and class? Does it pass a do-no-harm test (already well-established in the medical field and development sector)? Is it conflict-sensitive? Despite these hesitations and core concerns in my research, the workshop's methodology and output underlined that new policy problems require new solutions, and for that we need to be able to use a different lens to look at the problem creatively.

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Silvia Danielak

Silvia Danielak is currently pursuing graduate studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with a special focus on architecture and socio-spatial urban planning in the context of conflicts, structural violence and post-conflict reconstruction. Her research explores spatialised approaches to conflict transformation in Johannesburg.

Previously, Silvia worked for more than three years for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, serving as a conflict prevention advisor to the African Union Border Programme, based in Addis Ababa. Prior to moving to Ethiopia, she was a Mercator Fellow working on multi-track diplomacy and mediation for UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, UNDP Kyrgyzstan, and for the HD Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. Silvia holds an MA in international security from Sciences Po Paris and a BA in European studies from Maastricht University.


Learn more about Silvia in her blog post.

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