Same-same but different: Can Asia’s rapidly growing cities use ‘design thinking’ for better planning and services?

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PANORAMA OF THE BANGLADESHI CAPITAL, DHAKA. PHOTO: AL-EMRUN GARJON

What happens when you bring together members of municipal governments, urban experts, civil society and staff from various countries to brainstorm on addressing urban challenges? Sounds like a typical meeting, but wait...  

While city planners interacted and learnt from each other in tackling similar problems, what was far from obvious at the time was how they could transfer a successful practice, product or service from one context (say Beijing, China) to another (say Dhaka, Bangladesh)? And by different context, I mean how language, culture, history and society come together in an appreciably different way to render simple ‘replication’ of a service inapplicable, or, at the very least, a significant challenge. After all, we wouldn’t have to look far, or dig deep, to see the failed attempts of replicating a ‘good practice’ in a context other than its home.

Taking our cue from design-thinking

Design thinking allows us to unpack, reimagine and reconstruct a practice to see in what shape or form it might work in a different context. In our concrete case, Bangladesh counterparts are keen to adopt China’s successful one-stop-shop social service centres. The problem: urban residents in Bangladesh from low-income backgrounds find it hard to avail the social and public services they may be entitled to, and find it a challenge to get the right information on how to access such services and benefits.

In China, a typical social service centre provides a diverse set of essential services including security and management. It is also a place where one can pay bills, renew and apply for identity documents, avail of social security benefits, get up-to-date public health advice, etc. Participants from different countries including Bangladesh had a chance to observe first-hand how such a centre might function and the essential social and community services it provides to urban residents. Inspired by this model, the question was distilled to: how to make such a centre work in a different context?

By employing the idea of ‘reverse engineering’ and borrowing other elements of design thinking including ‘inversion’, ‘addition’, ‘subtraction’, and ‘grafting’, UNDP along with a team of design thinkers is looking to offer a workable toolkit for south-south/ north-south knowledge exchange and transfer of such practices. As a first step, we will bring relevant municipal officials, experts, and planners from both countries (China and Bangladesh) together in Beijing to ‘unpack’ the one-stop social service centre in a ‘lab’ setting, and follow it up with a lab in Bangladesh where we will ‘repackage’ the centre to suit the local context. We realize that what we may end up with in Bangladesh may have little or no resemblance to China’s service centre – that’s the beauty of it.

Prototyping and Testing

The process of design thinking allows us to critically think through the steps involved in reconstructing something worthwhile that is fit-for-context, and fit-for-purpose. What we hope to accomplish at the end of this process and exercise are workable and feasible prototypes of the one-stop service centre and testing them with potential users until we get it right!

Come join us on this exciting journey.

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This blog is part of an Asia-Pacific innovation series on how we’re harnessing new technology and new thinking to confront some of the biggest development challenges facing the region. Tell us what you think, and join the conversation on Twitter @UNDPAsiaPac.

Author Bio
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Taimur Khilji is a Policy Specialist—MDGs and Inequality in the Inclusive Growth Regional Team in Bangkok. He works closely with UNDP Country Offices on MDG achievement. As the Coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Urban Development Solutions Team, he works across practices and countries to foster South-South collaboration and seeks innovative solutions to transfer knowledge and learning. His specific areas of expertise include inclusive growth, employment and livelihoods and social and economic inequality.

Previously, he has worked at the Regional Centre in Colombo, The Partnership Bureau (now BERA), New York, and the Regional Bureau for Asia and Pacific, New York. Prior to joining UNDP, he opened a primary school in Islamabad, Pakistan that continues to provide education and basic health services to children. Taimur completed his BA from Williams College (MA, USA) and Exeter College, Oxford University in Mathematics and Philosophy and his MA from the New School University (New York, USA) in Economics.