Design Research in Practice: Civic Engagement in Practice

As part of our Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship program, students immerse themselves in a wicked problem for a 24-week capstone project. This year, students partnered with the City of Austin Innovation Office to tackle civic engagement. For eight weeks, our students conducted design research by attending city council meetings, community events, and shadowing residents, city stakeholders and service providers. On December 16, students hosted a Design Research presentation to present these initial research findings to the community.

Watch the full presentation (or find the slides here):

Growing Pains

Austin is a hub of creativity — it is a place where people come for opportunity to make businesses, art, music, and create friendships. Austin’s nurturing culture and specialness has attracted huge growth. Over the last five years, Austin has grown five times the national average. With this expansion comes growing pains that threaten what makes Austin so special.  

What is Civic Engagement?

Civic engagement goes far beyond politics and voting. Civic engagement is promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes.

One of the biggest problems in Austin is social equity. How can leadership come from all citizens? How can a diversity of voices be heard no matter how much education, power, or money they have? How can we improve equitable civic engagement in Austin?

Focus on East Austin

For this project, students narrowed their focus to civic engagement among East Austin residents. East Austin is culturally rich but full of low-income, disenfranchised communities that are greatly affected as Austin continues to grow. Students interviewed 52 individuals — 40 residents and 12 subject matter experts in government, urban planning, and public policy.

Within the East Austin community, students identified three groups to follow: low-income individuals, young populations that are not enrolled in traditional universities, and long-time homeowners. Through these interviews, they identified gaps and opportunities for making Austin a more equitable city. 


From this design research, students developed insights — provocative statements that will drive designs moving forward.

Insight #1:

The structure and enablers of growth in austin threaten long-term residents who are core to its culture.

 How might we encourage growth in a way that doesn’t threaten these long-term residents?

Insight #2:

The perception that wealth determines influence discourages community and political action, and reinforces inequities.

 How might we leverage the power of perception to increase meaningful civic participation?

Insight #3:

People become discouraged from participation when they don’t see the outcome of their efforts.

How might we make participation easier and create a feedback loop so that people feel understood?

Insight #4:

For young working adults, the old ways of connecting with city government are remote but nothing has arisen to replace them.  

How might we create opportunities for young adults to contribute to civic life that are in tune with their evolving culture?

 Next Steps

For the next two quarters, students will take these research insights and opportunity areas and move forward to develop products and services that address some of these problems. Stay tuned for Q4 presentations in April as students present their final designs.

Interested in getting involved with AC4D? Applications for our 1 year program in Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship are due January 15, 2018.