Turning the City Into an Enlightened Advocate of Service Design: An Interview with Ariel Kennan


By Laetitia Wolff

Ariel Kennan led the Design and Product teams at the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity for four years. She is now the Director of Civic Innovation at the urban think tank Sidewalk Labs, taking her pioneering work to an international level and joining a team of creatives well versed in design methodologies with a creative placemaking twist.

Her irresistibly positive can-do attitude, boundless energy, and genuine desire to innovate for public service has seen her navigate public and private settings, fluidly. I met her a few years ago at ESI where I was heading desigNYC, right before she left for Code for America. There, during a limited, yet life-changing, engagement as a Fellow, she was schooled in digital innovation for cities. Embodying the ultimate human-centered design leader, Kennan is on a mission to change complex systems. She’s learned to work within them, government systems that is, where she successfully brought design, design thinking, design leadership, always with a smile.

Bittersweet to leave the city earlier than she had planned (no worry, her team is in good hands, and the work will continue, she says) Kennan is excited to join a team of powerful city growth makers. We caught her as she was about to embark on her new chapter.


Laetitia Wolff: How did the launch of the Mayor’s Office Service Design Studio happen–which is basically a municipal design studio dedicated to improving services for low-income residents?

Ariel Kennan: In 2014, the first year of the de Blasio administration, Matt Klein, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, invited me to join the City, asking me to bring capacity around human-centered design and digital product development. Our first designers started a year later, and recruiting them was a challenge as we didn’t yet have work to show.

Our service design projects got kicked off with street homelessness work in the winter of 2016, following one of the Mayor’s key mandates on a more equitable city. As the most comprehensive street homeless outreach program in the nation HOME-STAT aimed to connect the dots between existing homeless response and prevention programs and innovations in service delivery.

Separately, Citi Community Development started to support other projects around financial empowerment, in collaboration with the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Parsons DESIS Lab. From there, we started a conversation with Citi about how to build capacity and encourage the permanent use of service design methods, which led to the creation of Civic Service Design Tools + Tactics and informed the overall strategy for the Studio. Citi has been a strategic partner in shaping how this work moves forward and has provided support to help further grow the initiative, allowing the Studio to hire additional staff.

LW: Can you give us an example of how you started infusing service design within city agencies?

AK: I’m going back to HOME-STAT as a good illustration: this comprehensive service transformation aimed to change policy from within, and really enhance treatment of the homeless on the ground. We were called to “operationalize” a series of programmatic initiatives. As we began talking to stakeholders, we realized that they were experts at their part of the service, but unaware of the sometimes staggering number of steps a homeless resident and case worker may have been through to receive a prior or later service. As we spoke to government workers and service providers, our design team helped uncover that journey, and mapped it. Our research report, now available publicly, showed a shared understanding, breaking silos across agencies and moments of interactions. This collaborative project helped crystallize the understanding of design impact and innovation in our city government. Our recommendations are still shaping the way the City engages with homeless people today.

LW How did you decide to create a design toolkit for city servants?
AK: We wanted to make our methods and principles more pervasive across agencies, empower public servants, build capacity, and not keep the knowledge in the hands of just designers. In fact, to make sure this idea was fitting, we ran a design-led process to explore how to build a toolkit, to avoid making assumptions about what people needed. As designers, we spoke with people who had exposure to designers; to some who never interacted with the creative process, and some who were still struggling with bringing the process within their agency. To inform the strategy of our in-house studio, we conducted interviews with private sector firms that often interact with governments, and we also spoke to people who run innovation teams in other governments.

LW: Tell me more about the toolkit, its intent, dissemination plan and expected impact?

AK: We are very conscious that there are lot of toolkits out there, in the design world and beyond. Ours was intentionally conceived to gain buy-in from agencies interacting with the NYC Mayor’s Office. We purposely wrote the toolkit in plain language so that non-designers could understand our service design process. It’s just the beginning, but overall, people seemed to like the toolkit and are having success in implementing the tactics, with the Studio being an ongoing support We are planning an independent evaluation of the studio, keeping metrics on everything we are doing, and being able to share evidence on what’s replicable and scalable here in NYC and elsewhere.

LW: What’s the Designing for Opportunity initiative?

AK: Earlier this year we ran in-house competition to target our fellow city agencies and office. We invited them to submit proposals on how they would like to work with the Service Design Studio for 6-12 months. We got 15 incredibly thoughtful proposals on topics as diverse as physical centers, digital products, and procurement of service delivery. We looked at these submissions as data point to better understand the design needs of city agencies and how our studio could respond to it. I was blown away by how advanced their thinking was on how to use design. We conducted half-day workshops with the four semi-finalists, crafting problem statements, mapping stakeholders and creating an initial journey map.  Some brought in their deputy commissioners or executive directors to the workshop, showing a strong buy-in from top leadership. It was a great learning experience for us too as we saw team dynamics at play, and were able to recommended best practices.

The Studio recently announced that NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Division of Prevention Services as the winner of its “Designing for Opportunity” initiative. ACS will consult with the Service Design Studio on Pathways to Prevention, a project that aims to increase the number of families who voluntarily seek services and prevent children from entering foster care.

LW: At the Civic Design studio, you also started open office hours, was it an experiment?

AK: We started by setting aside 4 hours a week and an open door policy, assigning a rotating staff and a design apprentice to cover each appointment. Office hours are very popular, we spend all our time on them! [laugh] In addition to NYC-based agencies and offices, we gained a lot of interest from other city governments too, including San Francisco, Austin, Boston. We don’t let companies or individuals attend office hours, only people who work in the public sector. Office Hours are proving to be a trust-based service, which is valuable in helping agencies understand and test out our tools and methods in a supportive environment. Designers-advisors can guide them to use the templates we made. Trust is deep, they know we understand them. And the team has now relationships with all kinds of agencies. Being naturally iterative, we always try to think of how we influence our different practices within the studio, and how we can build other services.

My dream for the future: designers working in every single agency! There are not enough designers for the amount of work. We need empowered public servants who know how to use design tools and tactics to build accessible and effective services with New Yorkers.

LW: Finally, what’s your dream for the future of design in the city ?

AK: My dream for the future: designers working in every single agency! There are not enough designers for the amount of work. We need empowered public servants who know how to use design tools and tactics to build accessible and effective services with New Yorkers.