Alison Kotin was out of her element. And that was exactly the point.
The designer was sitting in a police squad car when the call came in: There was a bomb threat in the Financial District.
Sporting thick plastic glasses and an asymmetrical haircut, she trailed the bomb squad as it raced up the stairway of the office tower downtown. A few weeks earlier, she jumped on a truck as it sped to a three-alarm electrical fire that tore through a rooftop in Roslindale.
Kotin wasn’t there to help save lives, but on behalf of her employer, Boston consulting firm Continuum Innovation. Shadowing the first responders, she took notes and asked lots of questions: Why did the officers type in a password each time they logged onto their dashboard computers? Did the firefighters’ infrared cameras have to weigh nearly 10 pounds?
“A lot of the tools had the tremendous potential to be helpful,” she said, “but they were creating significant pain points.”
Since its launch in 1983, Continuum’s domain has centered largely on designing innovative products such as wireless insulin delivery devices and the Reebok Pump sneaker. It grew in prominence as it launched the Swiffer and the graduated “stages” diaper that helped propel Pampers into a $10 billion brand.
Using a technique called human-centered design, it focuses on identifying problems that arise in human interactions and prototyping solutions to fix them.
But recently, Continuum has moved beyond the realm of designing products that make life easier for consumers. It’s now bringing its promise of innovative thinking to the public sector, tackling policy matters with the same gusto it once tackled dust bunnies.
In the last two years alone, the firm has worked to reimagine operations for Boston's first responders, its transit system, and its schools. Last month, Continuum unveiled a radical new vision for the long-suffering Boston Redevelopment Authority, giving it a new name, and a new strategy for working with the public.
Continuum’s senior vice president, Jon Campbell, called the push into policy a “natural progression” for the company, one based in “this realization that human centered-design can be applied to all sorts of different challenges, not just product design,” he said.
It’s a shift that’s been happening to many design firms.
As Continuum and like-minded national firms IDEO, frog, and Smart Design have increasingly moved toward policy design, they have begun to compete with the likes of consulting giants McKinsey & Company, KPMG, and Deloitte for government contracts. And while those other, more staid consultants can offer budget and staffing audits, Continuum and its ilk offer something a bit more sexy, particularly in the minds of beleaguered public sector employees: fresh ideas, a bit of startup fairy dust, or, in the example of the BRA, the equivalent of a new soul.
The work isn’t just challenging, it’s lucrative. “This type of work sort of elevates the entire image of the company away from industrial design and toward something more strategic,” said Jon Kolko, the executive director of product design at GE Aviation and founder and director of the Austin Center for Design. Getting a reputation for fixing troubled government entities can help attract other high-profile clients, he said, ones with deeper pockets.
But measuring the success of public policy can prove far more difficult than assessing the success of a diaper. Add to that the red tape that riddles public sector work, and the question remains whether design firms’ big visions will enable their clients to actually commit to change.
In the last two years, Continuum staff have wandered through Boston Public School classrooms to rethink the educational experience in a project called High School Redesign. They have climbed aboard MBTA trains, buses, and ferries with their notepads, shadowing commuters to understand the ridership experience for MassDOT’s Focus40 program, the results of which were unveiled earlier this month at an event in Dudley Square.
And last month, the firm wrapped up a 14-week, $670,000 contract to rebrand one of the city’s most fraught institutions, the Boston Redevelopment Authority. After twice-weekly meetings that involved creating “visual mood boards and spoken narratives,” the reborn Boston Planning and Development Agency was unveiled to its staffers in Continuum’s sleek Seaport offices, with a new logo and website that prominently features Continuum’s role in its makeover.
“It was organizational transformation from the inside out,” said Heather Campisano, the BPDA’s chief of staff.
The experience of working with Continuum was similarly transformative for the first responders who participated in its Department of Homeland Security-sponsored “future of first response” project last year.
“You think of these West Coast, innovative, sleek and chic, cool, nerdy-type people, who got brains but can also put the brains into practice — I was surrounded by that,” said Boston Fire Captain Ryan McGovern, who took part in a series of breakout sessions with the design firm’s staff. “I fight fires and rescue cats, and these people were eating it up with a spoon.”
After riding along on ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks with the likes of McGovern, Kotin and her teammates peppered the emergency workers with questions: What were the biggest challenges they faced in crises like the Boston Marathon bombing? And they pushed them to think beyond the present: What would they do if drones were programmed to attack downtown Boston or if hacked driverless cars suddenly began intentionally crashing into buildings?
The answers helped the Continuum team build and test prototypes of devices like a smart fire helmet with augmented reality in its viewfinder, and a Band-Aid like sticker that could track biometric data from victims after they went through triage.
D’Arcy Morgan, the program manager with the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate’s first responder group, said watching Continuum’s team work with first responders was fascinating. “For over 30 years now I’ve worked around cops, firefighters, and EMTs, and nothing gets them excited,” he said. “They like fighting fires, they like arresting bad guys, and they like saving people’s lives. But people were legitimately excited.”
But therein lies the rub with a design firm’s involvement in civic affairs. While it’s possible to reimagine a transit system or to prototype a biometric sticker, getting those things into practice will prove harder than it might in the private sector.
“I think certainly the Baker-Polito administration is interested in borrowing best practices from the private sector,” said Scott Hamwey, the manager of long-range planning for MassDOT. But he admitted Continuum’s work on the Focus40 project was “very different” from what he’s experienced working with other consultants.
“It was an adjustment for us,” he said.
Kolko, who authored a cover story on bringing design thinking into the workplace for Harvard Business Review last fall, said that while he’s written a book on the subject and participated in countless workshops touting its promise, he’s still skeptical about how well design thinking can be applied to the public sector.
“One of the challenges that designers have is that you throw something at the wall and you iterate on it. But policy doesn’t really work with iteration,” he said. Administrations change, budgets get sliced, and entrenched employees fall back on bad habits.
Kolko said design firms might also be looking to public sector contracts as potential long-term cash cows. If they not only design solutions, but also get contracts to help with the execution of those plans, “it basically creates a menu of future work,” he said.
Jon Campbell, Continuum’s senior vice president, said he sees why people might raise their eyebrows when they hear that the Swiffer designers are now sculpting public safety practices or public schools. But he said it’s the toughest challenges that make his team work the hardest.
“What really juices a designer is tackling really hard problems, and trying to make it better for people,” he said, no matter if it’s a “medical device, consumer good, or a public service.”
In the end, he believes, good design will win.Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.