TED Prize
BETA: We'd love your feedback
Chicago, Il

Public transport, public design process

Crowdsourcing a cutting edge transportation app for a city in motion


Designing Chicago: New Tools for Public Transit is a project that leverages public participation and design to make citywide navigation better.

This innovative initiative, which invites all of us to personalize and expect more out of apps like HopStop, was created by the Greater Good Studio. The firm is co-founded by partners Sara Cantor Aye, frequent professor and mentor to designers in the Chicago area, and George Aye, who was formerly the lead designer for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

When George realized that improving the transit experience within the mammoth bureaucracy of the CTA was next to impossible, he and Sara decided to innovate from the outside—using the help of their fellow citizens.

Designing Chicago is currently gathering a team of transit riders, dubbed Urban Agents, to work with them on the research and design of what they like to call the “mother of all transit apps.”

The ultimate goal is that the app will take transit planning to the next level, incorporating functionality that people can really use in a responsive, holistic way. Need to pick up a cup of coffee on the way to a meeting? Work that into your transit plan. Forgot the bus might be crowded because of the baseball game? The app will remind you of that, too. Need to plan elevator and/or escalator routes because you’re stuck with a big stroller? No problem.

The design process promises to be as innovative as the new functionality. Here's how it will work: self-designated “Urban Agents” will be given a series of assignments, which will teach them how to see the world with new eyes and collect information about the needs of transit users. For example, “Observe your commute,” the first assignment, encourages Urban Agents to take snapshots of moments along the way, inputting captions about why they think this glimpse into the daily Chicagoan's commute might be useful for the designers working on the app.

A smaller team will then participate in on-site workshops where they'll synthesize all of the collected observations and stories into the most useful big picture insights for the actual design of the app. The Greater Good Studio principals will take these insights and incorporate them into their design, then iterate, crowd-source, and repeat. 

Designing Chicago has garnered the support of many, even some of those within the government they intend to inspire from the outside. Chicago’s own Chief Technology Officer, John Tolva, said: “I think you can do it if you bring a lot of people in. It’s not just a man hour thing; it’s a perspective thing.”

The Designing Chicago team is all about multiple perspectives and collective fact-finding, harnessed to create something that is larger than the sum of its parts. As George described it: “We believe the city is our classroom and that together, we can create something better than any of us could imagine alone.”

There have been many attempts to crowd-source citizens’ passion and great ideas for cities, such as Change By Us, but this project focuses in on transportation—helping narrow the field of engagement for busy people. In the spirit of pioneering organizations like Code for America, a veritable “Peace Corps for tech geeks,” which embeds engineers and designers in city governments, Designing Chicago promises to put the power back into the people’s hands with just the right technology and lots of trust in the process.  

Sara explains, “We think every citizen can use the design process to solve social problems. In the City 2.0, citizens join together to create rather than complain. Citizen engagement happens early and often, and it feels more like a treasure hunt than an obligatory town hall meeting.”