My name is Peter Smart and I recently travelled 2,517 miles to try and solve 50 Problems in 50 Days using design. This journey would take me from the bustling streets of London to the cobbled lanes of Turin to test design’s ability to solve social problems—big and small.
On my own shoestring budget, I set out into the complete unknown. Each day I had 24 hours to find, solve and communicate the solution to a problem I had observed that day.
Each day was an immense exercise in design thinking. Some days my solutions were okay, some days I failed, some days the solutions were great. However, the objective was not to succeed everyday, but to get up and try again, even when I had failed the day before.
The adventure taught me an unbelievable amount about design’s power to solve problems and my own capacities as a designer. Importantly, it honed my ability to think through and tackle problems rapidly.
I developed a raft of tools to help me do so. However, one skill that underpinned a vital part of my process was the ability to observe: to go beyond simply “looking” in order to truly see.
This was certainly the case on day 28.
Day 28 - Collisions
It was day 28 of my adventure and I’d just been run over by a bicycle.
It was 9 a.m. and I’d left my hostel to try and find a problem to tackle that day. Walking into the main square, I looking around me, observing my surroundings to try and isolate a problem to solve. As it turns out, today’s problem would hit me in the leg.
I suddenly heard the sound of brakes. I darted my head to the right to see the oncoming cyclists. Before I had time to move, I felt a slam against my thigh. The pain was immediate but short-lived. I looked up to see a cyclist remounting his bike, holding up his hands while apologizing, before cycling on.
It had happened so fast. The event itself was nothing serious, but it had got me thinking. I spent the rest of the morning digging deeper, watching pedestrians and cyclists interact outside Amsterdam’s central train station.
As I looked, I couldn’t help but laugh.
All morning, trains were arriving at the station. With them, came flocks of pedestrians, disembarking, leaving the station and starting to make their way to their destinations. As I watched, I noticed something interesting.
Pedestrians would leave the station…
Step in to the street…
And almost immediately find themselves colliding with bikes.
The train station is in front of one of Amsterdam’s busiest plazas. Here, cycling is the number one mode of transport with cyclists moving as large herds through the streets—weaving and dodging through pedestrians.
As I watched several collisions between unsuspecting pedestrians and bicycles, I decided to make this my problem for the day. My question became:
How can design provide an intervention?
I got to work: analysing the way cyclists and pedestrians shared space and interacted. I conducted research, talking to locals, tourists and cyclists—trying to ascertain the true nature of the problem and, crucially, how people are solving this problem already.
The initial solution: not quite
So where did this investigation lead me? Initially, to a pretty poor solution. Seeing how cyclists already tried to solve this problem inspired my first solution. I watched as cyclists sped through the plaza, constantly ringing their bells to give pedestrians an idea of where they were. My initial proposed solution drew from this observation, designing a spoke-fitted bell to give pedestrians an audible clue to the position of cyclists.
However, reflecting on the idea, I knew this wasn’t good enough.
So I stopped designing.
Put down my pencil.
And looked again.
The Solution: Repurposed road markings
I knew my first solution hadn’t been good enough. In order to provide an effective solution, I needed to look deeper. I went back, trying to understand with fresh perspective.
I sat down on a bench outside Amsterdam’s central station and stopped trying to be clever. I stopped attempting to analyze and solve, and just looked.
10 minutes passed…
Then, as I watched a fresh batch of pedestrians leave the station, I suddenly understood something I hadn’t grasped before.
Pedestrians were still leaving the station and colliding with cyclists. However, what I noticed was that it was a certain type of pedestrian finding this a particular problem.
Pedestrian crossings mark the streets of Amsterdam, indicating where it is safe to cross roads, tramlines and cycle paths. It was clear that cyclists do not often stop for people using the crossings, instead choosing to weave their way through those using them.
What I noticed was a clear division between the pedestrians leaving the station. To locals, sharing the streets with cyclists was clearly normal. However, for tourists, this was obviously unexpected.
This insight was the catalyst to my final solution. The solution I proposed repurposed Amsterdam’s road markings. Rather than solid lines, indicating only the presence of a crossing, I introduced subtle directional signifiers. This unobtrusive change goes beyond the delineation of a crossing to communicate a sense of direction, indicating that something might be crossing a pedestrian’s path and, importantly, which way to look.
Since publishing the adventure, 50 Problems in 50 Days has received some super press and some unexpected awards. Although this is not one of my favorite solutions (check out days 42, 29, 26 as good places to start), for me it demonstrates something important.
Throughout my adventure, I realized my ability to solve was directly linked to my ability to understand the underlying problems. By learning to look, and then look again harder, I was often able to unearth deeper insights than those that presented themselves at surface level.
This is the power of adventures. Stepping out of my comfort zone stretched me to my limits as a designer. With no one else looking over my shoulder or giving me advice, I was forced to think harder, look deeper and understand more clearly in order to create more effective problem-solving solutions.
The power of observation is just one of the hundreds of things I learned by taking a step into the unknown. If you want to seriously enhance your ability to think, make and do—go on adventures and find out just what you’re made of.
I bet you’ll surprise yourself.
Images courtesy of Peter Smart.
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