Intelligent design

“Our approach is not top down anymore; citizens are involved in our political propositions, and can propose new ideas for public action.” Christophe Bolot, permanent delegate of Lille to the EU, explains how design-based thinking has revivified the city.

“You observe, brainstorm, test, and show the proof of concept. Every step is focused on the ‘end user,’ the citizen. This is easier when you have a product, but when you have a policy it’s much harder.”

Lille Metropole will be World Design Capital 2020 but, Christophe tells me, when the city applied at first, they never expected to win. “Our public design agency proposed we apply for the World Design Capital. We didn’t expect to win this worldwide competition, but we wanted to push ourselves into a new paradigm as becoming the European Capital of Culture had done in 2004. And it worked!”

A call for experimentation

In an unusual move, the city focused its application not primarily upon what it had achieved, but on the transformation that it was committing to undergo. “The idea was to create the largest experiment in the world using design to transform the city,” says Christophe. “So we launched a ‘Proof of Concept’ call for experimentation. We were completely surprised to have more than 610 ideas submitted by citizens, NGOs, universities, companies, and more than 50 by the municipality too, by our institution. It is completely changing the way we deliver planning and services.”

One such project involved energy poverty, a serious problem in many of Europe’s cities: “We have a lot of grants to help people in energy poverty to insulate, but people just weren’t applying for them! We didn’t know why. So, the idea was to send an ambassador who went to look at the problem not from our perspective, but from the view of citizens. They went and interviewed people for several days, and lots of problems came up, and solutions, that we had never thought of.”

Several ideas that came out of this process are now being experimented with. One is a ‘health record’ to be kept for each house of the work that has been done on it. At the moment, residents often do not know whether their house is energy efficient or not, whether there is insulation in the walls, or what kind of insulation they have. Another idea is to have a ‘concierge de quartier.’ “It’s like the concierge you have in a hotel, but he’s for the whole area, he knows everyone and can act as an interface with the municipality or with the energy companies to give people advice.”

Design vs marketing

For Lille, Christof says, this goes far deeper than being some sort of PR campaign. “It’s not just that we consult the citizens at the beginning, and send them a survey at the end. That is the difference between a design methodology and a marketing methodology. In the marketing methodology you are dealing with a ‘consumer’ but in the design methodology you are dealing with a ‘citizen’, with the whole person. You include them and work with them in every single step.”

Denis Tersen, director of Lille Métropole 2020 World Design Capital, stressed that this process has no time limit. “We are still getting applications, this is a continuous process, and one that will not end at the end of next year, but will continue on for many years to come.” Neither are there any limits on the types of suggestions. “We don’t say make us a proposal about this or about that, we leave it completely open and let people come with ideas.”

Child sharing app

Denis gave the example of a small town within Lille Metropole of less than 2000 inhabitants which teamed up with a local NGO to propose a project for a car-sharing app. “The city agreed, but when they started to work with designers, the idea became bigger and bigger. They included cycling and walking. Then they thought that a lot of commuting is bringing children to and from school. Now, if you’re delayed in picking up your child you can use the app to ask a trusted neighbour to pick them up.” Christophe jokes that it’s “a kind of ‘child-sharing’ app.”

“We also have a lot of proposals related to circular economy,” Denis says, “to upcycling products; also projects for sports, or for how to re-imagine the role of our river, using boats for soft mobility and things like that. But design thinking also goes beyond that.”


Lille Metropole is made up of 90 municipalities of all shapes and sizes. Part of the design mentality involves trialling ideas in one municipality and then scaling them up if they work. At the moment, Denis is excited about a programme designed to stop gender segregation in schoolyards. “It’s to not have the boys in one corner playing football, while the girls are in another corner skipping. We want to disrupt that.” If it works in the trials, it could be rolled out across Lille Metropole, and to other cities. Indeed, Lille also collaborates closely with its neighbours, the Belgian city of Kortrijk and Dutch city of Eindhoven.

One of the crescendo’s of the Design Capital programme is ‘Design Week,’ and Lille is planning a mobile version, which will share the celebration internationally with these neighbouring cities. “We want to widen the focus” Christophe says, “we want to apply design thinking to how cities can do the Sustainable Development Goals, how we can collaborate better with people, businesses and other organisations.”

Christophe has big ideas about how the pioneering work on design thinking in cities could change the whole of the EU for the better. “Europe could not only get inspired from the use of design in cities, but could use the initiatives happening in cities to get closer to citizens. The European Commission has worked mostly with member states, but most of their policies affect cities and their residents. We could bridge the gap between the EU and citizens, and redesign democracy in the process.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer