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Experimenting with Design Thinking: A Research Methodology for an Over-Studied Urban Community

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Experimenting with Design Thinking: A Research Methodology for an Over-Studied Urban Community

Oct 13, 2018
by Non Arkaraprasertkul and Boonanan Natakun “What do you guys want from us, this time?” This rhetorical and dismissive question can easily be heard by new researchers trying to interview residents at the Nang Loeng neighborhood in the heart of the Old City of Bangkok. For decades, Nang Loeng has been at the center of a lot of public discourse and debate and numerous studies for its uniqueness as a spiritual, multi-ethnic and urban community. As the city of Bangkok grow, Nang Loeng, a low-rise neighborhood consisting of “shop-house” styled buildings constructed more than a century ago, has become outdated in the mind of those who seek to develop the area. Yet, the appearance of these low-rise structures is, too many, a unique charm of the city that is on the verge of losing its battle to the urban renewal programs spearheaded hand-in-hand by the public authorities and the private hands.
Aerial view

Image courtesy of the 220 Years of Bangkok photobook

In the middle of these are hundreds of Nang Loeng residents who are trying to make a living amidst the uncertainties and, more than anything else, a sense of it all. For this very reason, researchers have flocked to study Nang Loeng. From a group of undergraduate students from a local university doing a questionnaire survey for their class on “local ethnic culture” to professional researchers trying to put together a case study for their dissertations, residents of Nang Loeng have been interviewed by those who simply hop in and out of the Neighborhood wanting to tick the boxes of their own tasks and then leave. “We have answered these questions many times, such as what do we do for a living and what do we think about the development?” said a resident. “And then what? They got what they wanted and they never returned to share with us what they had done with the data we gave them.” While there is also a bigger question regarding research ethics here, the issue at hand is the basic rights of the Nang Loeng residents who did not choose for their community to be at the center of the attention. Therefore, they did not want to be disturbed by these aforementioned type of researchers (although some residents may welcome the opportunity to speak their minds). On the other hand, these researchers, most of whom are students, would have a very limited role to play in the urban development program. The authority does not pay much attention to their research and findings. Some of these researchers, especially those who are conducting research only to fulfill their school’s requirements, are not properly trained in ethnographic research and many could not care less about the results. Hence, the perception of researchers in Nang Loeng has never been more tense. For us, we know that there is a research program to be further developed but the cooperation from the residents are at the historic low for the said reason. When we embarked on this project a year ago, we also faced a similar issue. We knew from beginning that we would be seen as “one of those researchers” who came and left. So, we had to be prepared. Fortunately, one of us (Dr Boonanan Natakun, known as Pan) had previously worked with one of the local community leaders. It was through a studio-based community design course for which he used Nang Loeng as a case study. The result of Pan’s course was a series of the schematic design of various parts of Nang Loeng providing powerful creative insights to the design-based possibilities of this very neighborhood. For that reason, the question such as “What do you guys want from us” does not come up as frequently, since, in some way, we have proven that data collected through conversations with the residents do result in some kinds of concrete outcomes — in this case, a series of inspirational designs. Pan’s studio marked the beginning of our unique process with regards to how we might approach the new study of Nang Leong. Thanks to the plethora of research on Nang Loeng, we identified a few key areas where we need to fill in with qualitative research, such as cultural forms, community’s unity, and the political economy of hope and despair. But to move forward, we needed a leap ahead. The question is threefold: How do we engage the resident?, How do we not make them feel as we are simply taking advantage of their generosity? and How do we actually make a difference through engaged research? “Design thinking” is what we come up with as a systematic approach to answer the question above. Although the term has been used widely, many do not have a clear idea what it is. From the term, design thinking seems to be about using ideas of design as a key principle in the thinking process. But what exactly, then, is the “idea of design?” Even more confusing, what does it mean to use the design process as a key idea guiding the thinking process? What does it mean to “think by design”? There are also clichés or misuses of the concept of design thinking especially in global consulting companies and entrepreneurs to simply make a profit based on a systematic and fraudulent process of “putting an old wine into a new bottle.” To avoid making these kinds of mistakes, our primary axiom is that design is, first and foremost, “human-centered,” and must aim at the betterment of the collective. To understand human-centeredness, designers engage in the data collection process in the shoes of those for whom they are designing. To achieve the betterment of the collective, creative ideas, too, are results of co-ideation with the users. Some designers call design thinking “the marriage of creative design and rigorous social science.” Serendipitously, both researchers (Dr Non Arkaraprasertkul and Pan) are trained in architectural and interior design respective as well as social sciences (for both of our doctorates), our view on using design thinking was, almost by default, aligned from the beginning. In Pan’s studio, he and his students were poised to use a deeply empathetic mode of observation derived from anthropology and their practical desire to reconnect themselves with the social nature of their users to develop for them a series of inspirational designs. Pan and his students collected data with a goal-oriented mindset to solve both the immediate and long-term problems. They prototyped incessantly through making architectural models just to be criticized and ripped apart by the residents who did not think they were appropriate, so that they could go back to the drawing boards (literally) with a stronger idea of what might work. This process got repeated over and over until they were able to ideate a set of socially conscious and refined aesthetic proposal for the site of Nang Loeng. So, design thinking is both the method used to find out what is needed and the process by which we could derive a potential solution to the question. Having said that, design thinking for community research requires a profoundly experimental mindset since no community is the same. We approach Nang Loeng with some ideas about what to do based on what we know and some practical research heuristics, but we also keep our methods completely open to change, adjustment, and recalibration. In other words, we use design thinking to see the change in the residents’ reaction from “What do you guys want from us?” to “How do we engage with your fun research today?” SEANNET fieldtrip During the last year, we were able to engage with the community almost the way we anticipated. Design thinking provides the residents with a unique way of having a glimpse of alternative future, despite the uncertainties surrounding the rumors about displacement among other things. We constantly brainstormed with the residents, seeking to understand not only the status quo but, more importantly, perceived challenges with which the residents believed they would be left to face after the landlord, in this case the Crown Property Bureau, dropped the ball such as in the case of possible eviction. What seems to be the case is the obvious sense of “empowerment” among the residents with whom we interacted through experimental design thinking workshops of various kinds. After a year of our design thinking field research in Nang Loeng, we find that architects, planners, and researchers can use design thinking to create a positive impact at a societal scale. In the spirit of design thinking, the first matter of business is to make a distinction between what is “truth” and what is “attitude.” The former cannot be changed, while the latter can. We see both the idea that academic research shall remain on the shelves as well as the idea that residents do not want to engage with researchers as “just an attitude.” Again, the design thinking research we are doing for the Southeast Asian Neighborhood Network (SEANNET) is far from perfect — because of its experimental nature. There are many lessons to be learned and the results that can be further improved using different methods. So, stay tuned!