Community Board


Public and Collaborative NYC is a program of activities, developed by Parsons DESIS Lab to explore how public services in New York City can be improved by incorporating greater citizen collaboration in service design and implementation.

Public & Collaborative NYC is grounded on the assumption that citizens, especially as they become ever more connected, can collaborate with each other and with government to improve their lives. The program addresses four related questions:

  1. How can the future development of New York City, as defined by high-level policymakers, be configured to incorporate further substantive citizen participation?
  2. How can the conception, design, and delivery of specific public-service programs be better shaped by the desires and preferences of all service stakeholders?
  3. How can agencies create models for citizens to design and implement services for themselves, with government acting as a service facilitator, rather than a service provider?
  4. Does end-user collaboration generate measurable benefits for public agencies?

To maximize the real-world value of Public & Collaborative NYC, the organizers will collaborate with New York City agencies, to explore the potential for citizen-centered and citizen-led service initiatives in the context of existing policy and budgetary environments.

Panel Discussion

Research Notes

Public & Collaborative NYC builds on a number of societal and policy trends. These include growing public interest in collaboration and social engagement, and increasing public-sector interest in harnessing digital and design technologies to better deliver public services.

People, ever more connected, can collaborate to improve their lives

The diffusion of digital technologies has encouraged a higher level of connectivity between people, opening new opportunities for meaningful social activism and effective peer-to-peer collaboration. While most evident in the political arena, this increase in social connection also has implications for economic and domestic life – as increased expectations for connectivity, sparked by online trends, is now beginning to inform even non-digital environments.

Members of the public increasingly expect that their lives, and their services, will and should be both networked and personalized. This shift is driving a wave of social innovations, resulting in a new generation of services: collaborative services where end users become service co-producers.

Collaborative service production may have benefits for the public sector

Meanwhile, current economic challenges are creating pressure for the public sector to increase effectiveness while also reducing costs. Greater public collaboration offers two promising paths for service improvements:

The first could be called a citizen-centered approach – more intensively involving citizen end-users in research, prototyping, testing, and implementation of services to be administered by public agencies. The second strategy is for citizen-led services – by engaging agencies and citizens in a co-production process, where citizens design and implement their own service programs, enabled and supported by public agencies. In both cases, the goal is for citizens to enjoy services that are more effective and satisfying, while reducing public resource requirements.

Design methods are effective tools for developing citizen-centered services

Implementing more collaborative public services can be challenging, but there is a growing awareness that methodologies pioneered in the design professions (design thinking, human-centered design, participatory design, user-interface design, etc.) can be used to support collaboration in the public sector and at the policy level.

Government-chartered design-innovation offices have been established in Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, and elsewhere; in the U.S., a number of private-sector design firms are working with federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The goal of these partnerships is to use design techniques to better elicit citizen needs and develop satisfying responses.

Specifically, these strategies usually include some combination of ethnographic research, directed brainstorming, iterative design and quick prototyping, hands-on user testing, and pilot implementation with ongoing measurement, assessment, and documentation. These strategies engage the disparate stakeholders in public services (citizen users, front-line service providers, agency leadership, etc.), help in clarifying their needs and motivations, and promote their alignment towards a shared goal. A citizen-centered design process can also support the consolidation of emerging ideas, improve the effectiveness and accessibility of agreed-upon solutions, and increase agencies’ ability to replicate successful services.

Agencies also benefit from developing services to encourage citizen-led services

The design strategies described above are also being used to take collaborative service production a step further – to help agencies develop programs that facilitate citizen-led service efforts. The potential value of this service model is that public-sector investment is reduced while citizens are empowered to address their own needs – perhaps even more effectively than they would have been by a program without end-user leadership.

In order to flourish, however, co-produced citizen services still need a level of public support. Even when they succeed, these social innovations are often fragile and highly localized. To endure and spread to broader populations, citizen-led initiatives need a new generation of reconfigured public services: capable of facilitating citizen coproduction, making services function more effectively through technical assistance, and promoting the diffusion of successful programs in other contexts.

As a benefit, when public services can be designed to trigger, orient, support, and scale promising cases of bottom-up social innovation, those promising innovations can then become powerful and positive drivers of public innovation.


Global Network

Public & Collaborative NYC is part of a global research effort of the DESIS Network, an international network of design schools and organizations focused on design for sustainability and social innovation, in which research labs based in cities around the word are developing parallel projects at the intersection of public services, social networks, and design.

Watch three videos of Professor Ezio Manzini explaining our global research effort:

Public and Collaborative

The 2012 Program

DESIS Thematic Clusters