Design, Policy and Infrastructure for Great Experiences

I consider myself an accidental policy person.

In other words: I didn’t set out to study and understand how our policy decisions impact the world we live in.  Rather, I came at it from the perspective of design and experience (both real world and virtual) and ended up backing into the policy implications, almost my accident.

This was the case both in my early career when I worked in city planning and in my more recent career in technology.

When I first started studying cities, my core interest was at the design level.  What makes one building “feel” better than another?  Why are some streets nice to walk along and others aren’t?  What makes one neighborhood feel comfortable, intimate and vibrant, and another cold, lifeless and isolating?

My initial idea was: well, they are just designed better.  As if any one person (an architect, say) had the power and vision to create a place that felt a certain way and that fostered certain kinds of activities.  So I studied architecture and urban design.

What I ultimately learned was: good design is an important part of the mix, but it’s hardly enough.  Given any physical place, what it “feels” like is as much a result of the policy, political and historical contexts as it is a result of the design itself.  

And: it takes a whole lot of effort to align the various forces present in any project in such a way that something interesting and wonderful can happen.  Take any great place, and there is no doubt a history of high drama behind how it got hat way.  For instance, the streets of NYC are nicer to walk around these days because lots of people fought hard to make them that way.  It takes big balls and political toughness to make these kinds of things happen.

It’s the same way with technology and the internet.

I was drawn into tech from the design side — I liked to design websites and build applications that looked good, felt good, and created a nice experiences.  But yet again, that was just the entry point for drawing me — unwittingly at first — into conversations about things like web standards, open data, network architecture, copyright, patents, privacy, and spectrum policy.

It’s easy to look at the things we like on the internet: wikipedia, twitter, kickstarter, etc etc etc, and assume that they are the result of good design alone; and clearly they are the product of tremendous design effort. But they are also able to exist because of the infrastructure — both technical and legal — they’re built on.

Clearly I am drawing on my internet centrism here by using cities and the internet as examples, but that’s just what I think about.  I’m sure you could look at other fields and tease out similar connections between design, experience and the underlying policies and infrastructure that make them possible.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s important for us not to take for granted what we have, to try and understand what it really is that makes things great, and to get upset when we feel like we’re going down the wrong path.

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