Still Processing, By Design
Rebecca Brand (she/her) is a 2021 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working with the Inspectional Services and Environment Departments to improve the experience of new permit-seekers and identify “change moments” to align the process with community resiliency and energy efficiency goals.
Raise your virtual hand if you love, or even moderately like, paperwork. Unless you’re a proud Virgo/Capricorn, and you emulate Michael Scott, Leslie Knope, or another Pollyannaish sitcom character, you likely didn’t even lift a finger. Yet we can understand that regulations govern our cities, workplaces, homes, and lives in different ways. And though they sometimes fall short, these laws intend to protect community interests against harm. The act of recording information becomes a powerful tool — not only of social compliance, but also of potential change.
I doubt I’m selling anyone on this topic, but what if we worked to reframe the narrative around paperwork? There are so many instances in which the process can be exciting, even life-changing. Citizenship applications, marriage licenses, business plans, and rental contracts illustrate major personal commitments. When I began this fellowship, the first e-mail I received with onboarding materials sparked immense joy. It represented a novel opportunity to learn from peers and mentors whose skills ranged from community organizing, political activism, urban planning, integrated design and technology. Each of us were converging with a shared desire to reimagine government and civic life.
In fact, my summer project seeks to demystify the permit process for Boston residents pursuing residential and commercial builds and renovations. While the paperwork itself is fixed, stakeholders across City Hall have recognized that improved user experience design might alleviate uncertainty and complexity while improving permit-seeker’s trust and confidence in their applications. In turn, given the city’s long-term climate resilience and racial equity goals in the built environment, there’s tangential motivation to identify discrete stages of the permitting process that could advance these initiatives.
At first, I was intimidated by the project’s scope. I felt like the human-equivalent of the spinning beachball of death (pictured above). Overloaded with information, I presented visual cues that I was actively processing it all, though it seemed like I was going in circles and might never reach an “aha!” moment. Outside the brief, was there another angle that might evoke further inspiration?
Ed Glaeser’s recent City Journal op-ed presents an immediately relevant and critical perspective. Reflecting on the pandemic’s economic toll, he suggests that cities remove obvious barriers to getting permits. “The thickets of local business regulations that entangle American localities shouldn’t be allowed to stymie our economic recovery,” Glaeser writes. “Cities can make it easier for small businesses, post-COVID, by reducing the number of regulations and by making it simpler to comply with existing ones.”
Even with cities reopening nationally, it’s hard to imagine how our previously dense and vibrant urban centers will operate in 2021. Naturally, people cheer about life “going back to normal” when in reality nationwide shutdowns have deepened fissures in our collective notion of normalcy. Glaeser’s lens towards economic empowerment, and small business entrepreneurship in particular, contextualized a lot of my own thoughts and emotions within the present moment. It also resurfaced questions concerning the ways in which COVID-19 has exacerbated issues of digital equity, accessibility, and privacy.
So while we strive to get permits into the hands of individuals, what other power dynamics are at play? How might we employ design justice to defy the status quo? Although I’m still parsing through all the permit steps, talking with key players and flagging challenges that constituents face, I remain excited to bring a refreshed, humble perspective to a complex yet influential system.
Last week, a colleague made an excellent point about how to promote innovation in local government: though it may seem like rules and regulations are uncompromising on paper, it’s in the empathic interpretation of those frameworks that progress can be achieved. By centering delight alongside typical benchmarks of change, MONUM’s approach has inspired me to rethink the metrics and feedback loops I assign to meaningful impact.
Cheers to my cohort of fellows on completing our second week, and for tackling equally nuanced problems across City Hall with hope, empathy, and creativity!
Rebecca is a curious designer, aspiring urbanist, and master’s student in Design Engineering at Harvard University. Her current work explores how digital innovations in the built environment can empower more equitable, resilient futures. Previously, Rebecca held strategic roles in architecture and museum settings, where she grew passions for creative placemaking and urban design. Born and raised in New England, she enjoys biking and eating throughout the Boston area, always chasing the perfect banh mi or lobster roll.
About the Fellowship:
The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.