Design-Thinking Your Way to Better Climate Change Coverage

    by A. Adam Glenn
    September 23, 2014
    Paraphenalia to spark creativity at a design-thinking workshop on climate change last February at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

    The work of a unique gathering in New York last winter, aimed at helping media and communities find better ways to face climate risk, was captured in this four-and-a-half-minute video report by program organizer AdaptNY.

    Pipe cleaners, putty and plastic toys are not the usual newsroom paraphenalia. But on this particular day, in one ad-hoc news space, they were scattered across every table top.

    “Design thinking is really a philosophy, not a process. It’s a way of thinking." -Laura Cochran, Condé Nast user experience lead

    The reason? To inspire small teams of journalists and others taking part in an innovative experiment: Could the precepts of human-centered design help tackle one of the most challenging stories of our era?


    Whether communities will be able to manage the growing risks of extreme weather and climate change is increasingly in the sights of news media and policy makers, with governments at all levels around the world trying to tackle the concern.

    This week’s U.N. Climate Summit in New York has climate adaptation on the table. President Obama for the past year has focused one of his main climate initiatives on the resilience front.

    And many cities and communities around the country, like New York, New Orleans and Chicago, are working to put adaptation strategies into place to prepare for climate change impacts that are almost certainly to come.


    So last February, 40-plus participants gathered in the midtown Manhattan newsroom of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism to address the challenges of climate adaptation. (And more are expected at a similar workshop this Thursday, Sept. 25, at the Online News Association’s annual conference in Chicago.)

    But the NY workshop’s attendees looked at the problem through a unique lens, that of of design thinking, an increasingly widespread approach to developing products focused around making the end user central, then brainstorming and prototyping projects constantly tested against that end user’s needs.

    That meant they didn’t just listen to various experts outline the climate risks faced by cities like New York, such as the flooding that paralyzed the metropolis in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012.

    It meant the participants grappled with finding solutions to the problem themselves, confronting their own challenge: How might they and their media outlets inspire their communities to become more climate resilient?

    Design Thinking Yields Creative Climate Solutions

    Design-thinking workshop participant creates a "persona," or profile for a climate change workshop.

    Workshop participant creates a “persona,” or a constituent profile, for a climate change project.

    Journalists and community media, climate specialists, community activists and product design experts organized into teams, their imaginations sparked by those creative playthings and a room full of easel pads, sticky notes, scissors and markers.

    Workshop teams were guided by facilitators, and applied design thinking’s well-known methods, starting with an exploration of the problems of climate risk and resilience.

    They constructed detailed personas, or profiles, of those who would benefit from their solutions. Hundreds of ideas were rapidly brainstormed, then refined by cross-team feedback, before taking shape as working prototypes.

    And their solutions were highly creative ones: Home makover TV shows, public mural projects, K-12 curricula, online calculators and street fairs. (For more on their solutions and on the workshop in general, visit the comprehensive coverage on AdaptNY.org.)

    The workshop and its results later drew the attention of media outlets, such as WNET’s public affairs TV show Metrofocus, which last June devoted a nine-minute segment to the workshop and to one of its organizers, AdaptNY, the climate news experiment I launched in the wake of Sandy.

    And now, the workshop will be replicated for the 1,700 attendees at ONA, where Trevor Knoblich, the association’s digital director, said the climate change-design thinking workshop was one of only about 10% of the hundreds of proposals accepted for the program, and in fact was one of the first two sessions immediately agreed upon by conference organizers and an external community of journalists.

    A Working Template for Your Newsroom and Community?

    Adam Glenn of AdaptNY at a design-thinking climate change workshop at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York in February 2014.Adam Glenn of AdaptNY at a design-thinking climate change workshop at and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York in February 2014.

    The author, Adam Glenn of AdaptNY, at a design-thinking climate change workshop at and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York in February 2014.

    This Thursday afternoon’s Chicago workshop, “Climate Change and Design Thinking: A Targeted Approach to a Complex Issue,” will echo the first workshop’s emphasis. That is, we want to give journalists hands-on experience using human-centered design to better engage their communities, and to brainstorm and prototype potential information products and services around this complicated issue.

    The hope is also that participants will leave with a step-by-step guide and set of best practices for running their own workshops.

    But we’re also going to be testing the limits of the design-thinking/climate resilience challenge — the Chicago workshop clocks in at just three hours long, as opposed to the NY program’s eight full hours.

    To help manage the tight time frame for the ONA program, we’ve developed extensive briefing materials (PDF). That way we can give participants a leg up in delving into the problems of climate risk and resilience, exploring the profiles of individuals who are affected by the problem, then brainstorming creative solutions.

    But the principles are the same. “Design thinking is really a philosophy, not a process. It’s a way of thinking,” noted Condé Nast User Experience Lead Laura Cochran, a facilitator at the NY workshop who is also helping organize the Chicago program. “You can’t script an exact game plan to execution. This is a suggested model and not a ‘do it this way’ plan. This is just introducing the idea of actually thinking about people, and deeply understanding them and what they need.”

    Added fellow workshop facilitator Reggie Murphy, principal consultant of research & strategy at Electronic Ink, “Design thinking is about people. It works because it puts the people first, not assumptions and misperceptions. We’re all impacted by climate change; it’s a shared problem. It enables us to better understand the problems and what people need so we can create more impactful solutions.”

    Ultimately, as we explore the positive results yielded by these workshops, we hope they may serve as templates for communities of all sizes, a step-by-step guide for media and citizens to take a targeted approach to this complex issue, and engage together in grappling with preparations for climate risk. If the storm is coming, we’re going to have to build our metaphorical shelters together, and design thinking about climate resilience may just help us do that.

    Teams of Journalists and community members used toy dinosaurs and putty to encourage out-of-the-box thinking about climate resilience at an AdaptNY workshop last winter.

    Teams of journalists and community members used some unusual props to encourage out-of-the-box thinking about climate resilience at an AdaptNY workshop last winter.

    A. Adam Glenn is editor of AdaptNY, associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime digital journalist and media consultant. Follow his Twitter feeds at @AAdamGlenn or @AdaptNY, or connect with him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

    Tagged: adaptny climate change cuny design thinking journalism ona

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