Design thinking and resilience: things are not always what they seem

Thank you for rejoining me in our series on Design Thinking. In the first article, we explored with Seth Godin the overarching themes of design thinking and the foundation of the methodology – empathy. Today, we are joined by Carly Foster to explore the application of design thinking in the world of resilience. Foster’s expertise and work lend to the direct application of DT in this multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder space that is so important to community longevity and sustainability. Let’s dive in.

If I asked you, What does your community need to be more resilient, what would come up? Take a few minutes to consider. If you were visioning impactful changes to your community without constraints, what would you see?

If we asked a resilience expert, what do you think their answer would be?

Carly Foster is principal resilience lead at Arcadis. She describes her responsibilities as understanding the needs of clients around resilience and ensuring that she and her team are prepared to meet those needs with expertise, research and creativity.

Foster’s ideals for resilience start in her own community. “I want my community to be walkable,” she says; “to have open space, to know my neighbors, have good schools, diversity, and have a variety of culture, with art and music.”

She adds: “Resilience is the extent to which we can maintain those things during and after shocks and stresses.”

Resilience is the capacity of businesses, individuals, communities and systems to sidestep or operate, survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they may face…

She says asking the right questions is an important early step in applying design thinking to resilience. Having your problem statement correctly framed then helps you evaluate vulnerabilities and risks on the journey toward achieving your resilience vision. “A key component of effective problem framing is listening openly without preconception,” Foster notes.

graphic outlining the design thinking steps
Figure 1: The steps of the design thinking methodology.

Problem-Framing: The Second Step in Design Thinking

Problem-framing is our focus today.

Where are we and where do we want to go? We could think of that as the beginning of any design challenge.

In the world of resilience, it is critical to have a full, holistic understanding of the community’s needs well before design and implementation. When talking about resilience, community can encompass city government and utilities, but also citizens, businesses, factories and all the components that keep the economy humming. Resilience for communities requires designing policies, laws, plans, structures, landscapes, transportation, business, critical infrastructure (like hospitals), etc., in such a way that they can survive and adapt to stresses and shocks, such as hurricanes or pandemics.

This goes to the heart of Foster’s passion and mission – “Identifying where we want to be, compared to where we are, and visioning how to get there,” she says. “Then, multiplying people’s courage and empowering them to achieve that vision.”

Let’s take a look at how Foster and her team deployed design thinking in a specific resilience project.

Design Thinking Applied: Coastal Resilience

Foster and her team were brought in by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) to perform a 24-parish flood capacity and capability assessment, covering about one-third of the state, along its Gulf Coast.

The stated objective of the program was to understand coastal and near-coastal parishes’ capacity and capability to implement non-structural projects and related resilience policies in order to guide investment and program development.

Put another way, the team was tasked to find out what resources were needed and where, in order to help the parishes most effectively manage flood risk and also implement a nonstructural flood risk reduction program. Non-structural projects, as identified in the 2017 Coastal Master Plan, are strategies to reduce storm-surge-based flood risk and include flood-proofing commercial structures, elevation of residential structures, or voluntary acquisition of residential structures (depending on projections of future flood risk). Flood and severe weather events are not constrained by artificial jurisdictional boundaries. To be effective and efficient, cross-coordination is critical.

map of coastal parishes
Figure 2: Map of Coastal or Near-Coastal Parishes (Source: Parish Flood Risk and Resilience Capability and Capacity Assessment; Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana, Sept. 14, 2018)

Foster’s team worked with CPRA staff to develop and execute a multistage approach to learn about the parishes’ needs and develop recommendations for state resource allocation. The stakeholders were identified as any local leaders who could have direct interest in floodplain management. This could include permitting or zoning leaders, floodplain managers, coastal zone managers, hazard mitigation specialists, hazard mitigation or other grant managers, and more. The tools Foster and her team used with stakeholders included:

An online, written assessment.

Phone interviews.

Regional, in-person workshops.

Three workshops were hosted and were geographically based (parishes in proximity to one another). In advance of the workshops, the project team compiled all data from the assessments, interviews and desktop research. This allowed the project team to clarify their understanding of key challenges identified by the parishes, and potential solutions to capacity and capability limitations. Then, in the workshops, the teams worked to confirm their understanding of challenges and potential solutions, and make updates to these hypotheses based on the discussions within. The in-person interaction created space for various parish leaders to get to know one another and to share problems and perspectives. The workshop collaboration, therefore, helped build capacity within agencies and across jurisdictional lines by:

Clarifying shared challenges, lessons learned.

Analyzing root causes.

Revisiting and prioritizing potential solutions.

The longer people are engaged, the more invested they become.

                                                   – Harriet Tregoning

Foster says that’s when the real picture began to unfold. “What we found was that [recommendations] guided investment and program development. Initially, it was the state level saying, ‘How can we help parishes change?’” she said. “What we uncovered was that in order to help the parishes accomplish change, the state itself had to make some major shifts and changes.”

From the view of the parishes, the state had previously served more as an intermediary, disconnected from the needs at the local level (see Figure 3). What the parishes wanted the state to be, instead, was a hub. So, while flood risk reduction construction projects were at the forefront of everyone’s mind initially, Foster and her team uncovered that the foundational needs were more program-, governance- and policy-related.

Original Problem Frame:  What resources do parishes need to better manage flood risk?

New Problem Frame:  How might the state more effectively support parishes in managing flood risk?

A consistent message came through from participants – in order for parishes to cooperate and work together effectively to address and respond to flood risk, they needed the state to shift its role from that of an intermediary (passing on resources and information) to that of a connecting hub for information, communication, and resources.

This is a subtle, yet seismic shift. One role, and hence relationship, is defined by its one-to-one transactions. The other is defined by its ability to collaborate and multiply impact. Parishes also communicated that state agencies needed to align missions, funding and approaches to facilitate flood risk management at the local level.

graphic of the state as an intermediary
Figure 3: The State as an Intermediary – existing parish perception (Source: Parish Flood Risk and Resilience Capability and Capacity Assessment; Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana, Sept. 14, 2018)
graphic of state as a hub
Figure 4: The State as a Hub – capacity and capability assessment recommendation (Source: Parish Flood Risk and Resilience Capability and Capacity Assessment; Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana, Sept. 14, 2018)

As an example of a state shift toward being a hub, a specific idea the parishes came up with was an “everything flood-related” website to serve as a flood risk information clearinghouse. Additionally, Foster’s team identified prerequisite actions that needed to be completed before the scope’s initial question could be addressed. With these insights, the team’s specific recommendations ended up falling into four buckets for the state’s transition from intermediary to hub:

Assist – provide funding, technical assistance.

Guide – provide standards and incentives, policy for parishes to lean against.

Bridge – share knowledge and information, build relationships and cross-connections.

Discover – invest in science, tech, thought leadership, problem solving.

Reaching the roots of the needs here was critical for a successful outcome. In this case, the people who could make the change happen were not initially aware of the need.


Resilience requires input and collaboration from a variety of different disciplines – urban and regional planners, resilience planners, modelers, engineers and others related to those specialties. In order for your solution to have technical integrity, you have to ask and answer the following questions:

Who could affect the project development?

Who could be affected by the project?

Who could affect the outcome?

Who could be affected by the outcome?

And then engage those people.

“You can’t come in with a prescribed solution,” Foster says. “We had a hypothesis for what people would say, but we worked really hard to ask questions that would have meaningful responses. When things went in a direction that we didn’t expect, we really listened. We didn’t tell people they didn’t know what they were talking about. We left preconceptions behind and allowed the engagement process to change our minds. We allowed the engagement process to change the project.”

Foster says understanding this is essential for engineers. “When you engage a stakeholder or talk to someone about your project, you have to honor the wisdom they bring to the table,” she said. “You must expect the engagement process will change both you and them. That’s successful design thinking – when engagement influences the project outcome and accomplishes change in all participants.”

The more you honor the intelligence of the people around you, Foster says, the more trust you build. The more you truly listen, the better the outcomes. Honor the genius of others, and test your hypotheses to fail fast.

Let’s take a look at a guided problem-framing exercise you can practice with your team.

Mad-Libbing Your Way to Problem Insights

Tools Needed: Paper/Post-its and pens/markers

Overview: As a team, work toward succinct statement of user needs and form actionable insights.

NOTE: A well-defined problem-statement does the following: identifies an existing pain/gap, identifies when and where it happens, defines the impact (think about lost opportunity, money, time, etc.), and articulates importance.


Mad-Libs are phrase-based word games. Sentences containing blanks must be filled in by the players with words or phrases. Instead of silly stories, though, this exercise is intended to create clarity.

1. Ensure everyone on the team has several sheets of paper or a Post-it pad and pen/marker to write on/with.

2. (Read aloud) Think about the design challenge you are trying to solve from the point of view of your user. Now, every user write down the following phrase [write on white board if available]:

________________ needs to _________________ because _______________.

Noun (person/organization)        Verb (action or need)                    Insight (friction, not a fact)

The first blank will contain the User, the second will contain the User’s Need, and the last will contain the Insight.

NOTE: An insight demonstrates a dilemma, friction or contradiction. It could be the reason a challenge persists or it could be a barrier to adopting what seems (on the surface) to be a reasonable solution to address the challenge. Consider:

Almost 1 billion people around the world don’t have safe access to critical resources like health care, education or employment due to an impassable river.* This is a fact, but it’s not an insight or problem statement.

A footbridge can provide rural community-members safe access to economic opportunity, healthcare and schools.* ß This is also a fact and indicates a potential existing solution; however, it does not touch on why the problem persists.

*Source: Bridges to Prosperity

3. Now allow everyone a couple of minutes to complete their own version of the statement. Have the participants do this quietly and hold off on sharing at this point.

4. Have each team member set their initial statement aside and redo the Mad-Lib at least twice more.

5. After everyone has re-completed the Mad-Lib *at least* three times, come together for a group discussion:

Have every person share their completed mad-libs and explain the evolution of their thoughts as they repeated completing the sentence.

Once sharing is finished, discuss what various people were able to distinguish when listening to others as: Facts, Frictions, Insights.

What did the group discern about the user’s point of view?

6. Create one final statement using the same format as above incorporating each component that the group had the best consensus on.


Fundamental design value originates from articulating the right problem, not in quickly jumping to problem-solving mode.

In the next DT article in this series, we will move on to ideation, which is a step where all possibilities are on the table, even those that seem untenable.

photo of Mel ButcherMelissa (Mel) Butcher is the Private Sector Group Midwest Region Lead at Carollo. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering from South Florida University. Mel currently focuses on industrial water treatment, water risk and sustainability. In her free time, she facilitates a career support group for women in male-dominated fields called CollabSuite, and she produces and hosts The Empowering Women Podcast.

Learn more or get in touch at

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