Fidelity Labs wins urban innovation design challenge

By Brittany Hamtil

It was a sweltering summer afternoon when our five-person crew gathered outside 245 Summer Street and hailed an Uber XL. We needed to transport our giant sketchpads, stickies, markers, foam core, Legos, and of course, a canvas bag full of snacks. Our destination: the I-93 overpass, only 10 minutes from the Boston office. It was here we would spend the next three days participating in the Urban Innovation Festival, hosted by our partners at the Design Museum Boston.

Our task was to “activate the space” under the I-93 overpass and improve livability for members of the surrounding communities. In other words, how might we transform this loud, unappealing space from a dividing line to a melding point?

Neighbors know best

We got to work by leaving our workstation to speak with locals about the space. We learned that people found the area unsafe (which we couldn’t directly influence), seemingly distant from all adjacent neighborhoods (which it wasn’t), and undesirable to visit (though they most likely hadn’t even tried).

From there we developed a framework to establish our design criteria, and stayed true to the research when we brainstormed possible solutions.

Come and go

Knowing that the location was very loud, we brainstormed solutions not just to draw people into the space, but also to drive exploration into the surrounding neighborhoods. Plus, we wanted to stay within the stated budget of $10,000.

The concept we selected was an Urban Trailhead, which will act as a meeting place and a starting point for Urban Hikes. The Urban Hikes would be curated by neighborhood ambassadors with deep knowledge of the unique qualities of their communities. The trails will be marked by “trail markers” and installations by local artists throughout the city. Hikes will provide confidence for exploration, a sense of security and purpose, and moments of delight while interacting with the city. This relatively low-tech solution engages members of the community in a way that affords them “ownership” of how they celebrate their neighborhoods and share those experiences with others.

Parting thoughts

Our competition was fierce – other teams proposed gorgeous physical structures and sensory experiences evocative of the area’s rich history which truly stimulated an otherwise stark, uninviting space. But what gave Fidelity Labs the edge was our focus on core human needs and telling stories as a means to define design criteria for our solution.

We were reminded that the creative process requires training, just like playing a sport or learning an instrument. Our team has run lots of Design Thinking bootcamps, which work on a similarly condensed timeline. As a result, we know how to move quickly: clearly defining the problem, articulating user needs, establishing design principles and rapidly ideating and prototyping solutions. Finally, by focusing on the problems confronted by the actual users of the space, we were able to come up with a design that truly resonated with the local community. A community that we hope will soon have an actual Urban Trailhead to explore the many different neighborhoods in their great city.