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City Lights: Sabrina Dorsainvil, Director of Civic Design, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston

SmartCitiesWorld finds out more about the role of a civic designer and Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

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In our City Lights series, we speak to people with interesting and varied job roles within cities to show new trends, approaches and priorities.

 

Nowadays – thankfully – there is much more mention of people in conversations about smart cities than there once was. There is a wider acknowledgement that citizens have to be at the centre of civic innovation, and that technology should be deployed with people and for people.

 

We talk to Sabrina Dorsainvil, Director of Civic Design in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston, about her intriguing job title and how she is putting this people-centred ethos into action.

 

SCW: What is the Office of New Urban Mechanics? It’s not a department we have seen in any other cities.

 

SD: It is an R&D (research and development/design) lab within the Mayor’s office.

 

Our main goal is to prototype ways of making life in Boston better. That means we partner with different departments internally, but also externally with residents, entrepreneurs, community groups, technologists, etc. – we have an open door for people who are trying to make the city more delightful and think differently about city government.

 

We collect people who are curious about cities and who are interested in asking a different set of questions.

 

We started with a team of two and now we have nine people. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including law, computer science, the arts and education.

 

We collect people who are curious about cities and who are interested in asking a different set of questions.

 

SCW: What types of projects do you work on?

 

SD: Most of our work is grounded in mayoral priorities. The Mayor has a plan for Boston 2030 which charts the path for what the future of Boston can look like, and this frames our work.

 

We work with different departments as they start to implement this, and we help them start to truly understand the residents that they’re serving. Additionally, because we work at the intersection of departments, we can see gaps that exist.

 

We take a lot of cold calls too – from interested citizens who have ideas.

 

SCW: What is the role of a civic designer?

 

SD: My focus is on finding novel ways of designing citizen services around citizens. Our role is to think about the values we have across the city and the different people who should be at the table, including those who will be impacted the most.

 

It’s thinking about both visual design and graphic communication as well as the built environment. All of this then feeds into how we then prototype in city government.

 

For example, for the last 18 months, we’ve spent a lot of time working with our Health Commission and the Office of Recovery Services. helping them think about how to make the service more welcoming to better connect people – such as those who are housing insecure or dealing with substance use disorders – to the resources they need.

 

This meant physically thinking about the design of that particular space and also bringing in qualitative research based on what we’re hearing from the people that use it.

 

SCW: What was your route to this position?

 

SD: As an undergraduate, I studied industrial design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I went on to do a Master of Science, Design and Urban Ecology at Parsons in New York.

 

That programme was in its first year so I was a bit of a guinea pig but it made me realise that no matter what your background, we all have a role in thinking about our cities and how we can make them better. I was sitting in a classroom with architects, educators, philosophers and more.

 

However, when I left that programme, I never really thought I’d work in city government. I worked alongside community organisations and the design community. I did some work for a design and innovation consultancy, and someone saw the job at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and thought it sounded like me.

 

I knew I cared about cities and I was already curious about the role design can play in the fight for social justice.

 

I knew I cared about cities and I was already curious about the role design can play in the fight for social justice. I also have a personal practice as an illustrator and an artist so it was exciting when looking at this job description to see that the requirement wasn’t to be an expert on cities; it was to be someone who is curious and shared Boston’s values to make Boston a better place for all.

 

SCW: What does being a smart city mean to you?

 

SD: Some of the early work that the Office of New Urban Mechanics did had a focus on apps and

technology focus but one of the things we’ve realised is it’s not all about data and numbers – it’s really about people. Technology has to build trust and compassion.

 

To me, a smart city is one that is reflective and responsive to the needs of people who are often left out of decision-making. A smart city addresses issues around power and injustice and uses technology to put people at the core.

 

SCW: What is your number-one priority right now and what are your biggest challenges?

 

SD: There’s a never-ending amount of things that we should be doing and things we could be prioritising but I’m excited to see us put resilience and racial equity at the forefront.

 

However, one of the challenges is that it’s sometimes hard to see how all these dots are connected. Sometimes we can look at a challenge in a really siloed manner. The goal of our particular office is to try and actively connect those dots.

 

There is also a lot of ‘inherited trauma’ among residents – historical baggage that an old city like Boston has to acknowledge and navigate.

 

There is also a lot of ‘inherited trauma’ among residents – historical baggage that an old city like Boston has to acknowledge and navigate. Those things aren’t easy and as excited as I am to try and engage with really hard, long-standing systemic issues, there’s a road ahead of us and it would be naive for us to think that we can solve it tomorrow.

SCW: In your role so far, what would you say is your most significant achievement?

 

SD: I have been honoured to see how, over time, small experiments and thoughtful conversations have evolved into different ways of thinking.

 

The recovery space that I mentioned earlier is perhaps one of the most visible ways that all the things that I’ve talked about have come into fruition. I’ve been excited to see small changes like how painting a space or adding real plants changed an entire narrative.

 

That’s something that we will hold onto as we work to create more human smart cities on a bigger scale.

 

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