Inviting Bay Area Residents to Co-Create the Region’s Future
The Bay Area is a place where powerful levers of change are constantly converging—from the shifting of tectonic plates to the lightning-speed iterations of Silicon Valley. As two regional planning agencies thought about what the future could look like, they wanted to hear from the people who would experience the next few decades firsthand. In short, they wanted to turn Bay Area residents into planners.
But how could they convince people to look—and think—beyond their neighborhoods? How could they make regional planning a compelling part of everyday life? MTC/ABAG asked Exygy to help them figure out how to empower residents to chart the course for the Bay Area’s future. Together, we designed a new approach to public engagement that fits seamlessly within the flow of everyday life—in less than a week!
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments (MTC/ABAG) are two key agencies that handle long-range planning, financing, and coordination for transportation in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. The Horizon initiative is the agencies’ first step toward tackling the uncertainty of the region’s future, approaching long-range planning with an eye for issues like housing, economic development, and environmental resilience—all elements that will decisively shape residents’ experience between now and 2050.
What, for instance, would happen in the event of a once-in-a-lifetime earthquake? Could sea level rise make Bayside neighborhoods uninhabitable? What if autonomous vehicles were widely adopted, changing the entire transportation system forever? MTC/ABAG knew that there were plenty of variables outside of the region’s control. They asked: how can we encourage the residents of the Bay Area to weigh in on their preferred strategies for facing an uncertain future?
As they dreamed up new ideas for the Bay Area, the MTC/ABAG team wanted to know how different strategies would land with residents. Would people cheer or roll their eyes if taxes increased to support affordable housing? Would they be excited about new policies for better renter protections? Would residents from different zip codes have wildly different opinions?
In any case, MTC/ABAG knew that the more voices they heard, the better their planning would be—so they envisioned a region-wide collective brainstorm that would help people solve the problem together.
“A lot of regional policy conversations are focused on what outcomes people want to see. But what we’re trying to do is to figure out how to tackle these big challenges. We want to have deep conversations to encourage critical thinking about policy. We want to spark some dialogue.” – Dave Vautin, Assistant Director, Regional Planning and Policy
But, in a world that’s more mobile and full of distraction by the day, MTC/ABAG had a slim chance of grabbing anyone’s attention with something like a traditional online survey. Who has the time—or the attention span? They wanted to create something that could fit into everyday human life. Something innovative and gamified. Something that actually felt fun. That’s how the idea of the Digital Engagement Tool emerged. But they still didn’t know how to bring it to life.
After our work together on the agency’s Vital Signs platform, MTC/ABAG knew that Exygy understood their challenges; they also knew that we could help them approach their current project in a fresh, human-centered way. And that’s just what we did—with a three-day engagement we call a Design Sprint.
A Design Sprint is a great approach for a company or organization who has a big, exciting goal, but needs some support when coming up with the ideas that will make it real. Over the course of three days together, we led MTC/ABAG’s team through an engaging process of clarifying their goals, ideating to come up with a creative set of possibilities, and testing out the best prototypes to gather and assess data in real time.
At Exygy, we customize each Design Sprint for our client’s specific needs. In MTC/ABAG’s case, we kicked things off with extensive market research about successful game-based approaches to public engagement, identifying what the best examples have in common. (One example we loved: Spent, which leads players through life as a low-income person in order to raise awareness about homelessness and create empathy within communities.)
From there, we led MTC/ABAG’s team through a process that turned their high-level vision into tangible prototypes—in a week. Here’s how we did it.
Day 1 (Monday): “Understand.”
We focused on learning during the first day, building a “collective brain” between the planners who participated.
Our key activity: As we thought about how to reflect the diverse perspectives within the Bay Area, we asked: what user types are we designing for? In other words, how do we segment “the public”? We created personas for different Bay Area residents—like a busy working mother or a senior citizen who is nostalgic for the old days in San Francisco—and mapped out their demographic information, challenges, motivations, and goals.
Other Monday highlights:
- We shared our market research and our ideas about how it could relate to the Digital Engagement Tool, using our findings to create a set of design principles to guide our thinking—like prioritizing an intuitive experience and creating a narrative. We put these up on the wall for the rest of the week, keeping them top-of-mind for the entire team.
- We reviewed important concepts behind behavior design, getting everyone in the room on the same page in terms of processes and practices.
On Tuesday, the MTC/ABAG team got to rest while Exygy’s project leads synthesized the first day’s insights and prepped for a big day of ideas.
Day 2 (Wednesday): “Sketch.”
On the second day, we focused on brainstorming, sketching out ideas, and identifying solutions.
Our key activity: We knew that the Digital Engagement Tool would have to work for a very diverse range of users: the entire population of the Bay Area! To find solutions that could work for all of them, we came up with questions to guide our thinking. How might we tell a compelling story about the Bay Area’s future that connects to a variety of motivations? How might we create a tool with a low barrier to entry, making it accessible to everyone? How could both our grandmother and our neighbor’s 12-year-old engage with it?
Other Wednesday highlights:
- In response to our questions, we created an art gallery of sketched-out solutions from small groups within the MTC/ABAG team. It’s amazing what can happen when you get a bunch of smart, passionate people in the same room; we loved their ideas! Solutions ranged from an engaging auditory experience to an online chat simulation that could kickstart conversations between family members with differing views.
- From those first sketches, we refined the collective ideas. We voted on specific points within an overall sketch; then, we drew a new round of solutions that combined the best ideas.
On Thursday, the Exygy team quickly turned the sketches from the day before into clickable prototypes. Our designers spent their day moving ideas from paper to digital; at the end of the day, we’d created low-fidelity screens and user flows that we could test the next morning.
“The prototypes were incredible – and they came to life in 24 hours!” – Raleigh McCoy, Assistant Planner
Day 3 (Friday): “Test.”
Armed with our shiny new prototypes, we engaged groups of MTC/ABAG users to test out each one on our last day together. The goal: to capture what people found delightful.
Our key activity: Each test group got to walk through the user experience of each prototype, providing us with feedback in realtime. Afterward, we invited the design sprint team to come back for a share-out session. We talked through the testing results and discussed highlights from the week.
Immediately following the Design Sprint, the Exygy team put all of our findings—the prototypes, overall takeaways from the week, and user testing results—into a final report for MTC/ABAG. They presented the report to their executive leadership, giving them options for a path forward. For each option, we included:
- Potential risks
- Technical feasibility
- What kind of team would be needed for implementation
- Budget implications
“When you’re doing something new that you haven’t done before, it’s hard to explain and sell what it is you’re working on. The visual mockup helped walk us executives through our digital tool, what the experience will be like.” – Dave Vautin, Assistant Director, Regional Planning and Policy
From there, we moved on to the best part: taking MTC/ABAG’s ideas from prototype to real-world product.
Feedback from our test day led to the next iteration of the Digital Engagement Tool prototype. The Exygy team began designing and building an online game called The Mayor of Bayville, which MTC/ABAG is expecting to launch at the end of September. The game will gather Bay Area residents’ feedback in an interactive, engaging way, helping MTC/ABAG understand which strategies have the public’s support—and which ones aren’t quite there yet.
MTC/ABAG’s team was proud that their big ideas had transformed into something they could share with the world—something that could be experienced by entire communities. MTC/ABAG was excited to have the Design Sprint framework in their toolkit for future projects; they told us that the collaborative spirit of the exercise had energized and inspired their staff. Together, we turned the abstract into the tangible—inviting new voices to join the conversation about the planning strategies that would shape their lives.
The Mayor of Bayville represents a fresh approach to an age-old problem in government: how do you meet citizens where they are and get them involved in policymaking? We know that people really do care about what happens in their communities, but simply holding a town hall meeting and hoping someone shows up is no longer enough. The challenge is to adapt to how technology has shaped our lives, making the path to civic engagement aspirational, inspiring, and easy. Exygy is thrilled to be working with MTC/ABAG on the front lines of public engagement, helping civil servants and everyday residents co-create the future.
“The people in the design sprint were doing work that they don’t do on a day-to-day basis, but Exygy made us feel empowered that we could be creative in a different way.” – Raleigh McCoy, Assistant Planner