During the latter part of my case study  – technically between the planning workshops and the Suvela Bazaar – I ran into a concept called empathic design. I soon realized it was exactly what I had been looking for in my research about participatory city planning methods. Empathic design was the concept, which made the different pieces in my case study puzzle to turn to a holistic picture.

Ilpo Koskinen defines empathic design in the Preface of ‘Empathic Design’ (2003) as following:

“When we talk about ’empathic design’, we mean empirical research techniques that provide designers access to how users experience their material surroundings and the people in it, including themselves as key characters of their everyday lives. In empathic design, the designer has to go through some degree of role immersion, and an attempt to seriously keep her data-inspired imagination in check with empirical data. Research inevitably inspires her, but her research creates more than inspiration: it also creates an empathic understanding that helps her to choose between hunches and concepts. In Zygmunt Bauman’s imagery, she understands herself as an interpreter.” (pp. 7-8)

Ilpo Koskinen points out that empathic design always includes user-centered design methods, which according to him are

  • ”Visual and tactile, providing designers with inspiration, not just data.
  • Deliberately cheap and “low tech” and, as such, easy to adopt in the real world where money is scarce.
  • Interpretive: to be able to design effectively designers need to understand how people understand themselves.
  • Playful and fun. When exploring new ideas, users are almost invariably asked to imagine and dream in a future world created by designers. To be rewarding such exercises must be fun.
  • Tested in reality. We report cases from real product and concept development because we believe that this is the best way to make sure the methods we propose work where they should: at the front line of imagination in the corporate reality.
  • Targeted at the fuzzy front end, as Jonathan Cagan and Craig Vogel from Carnegie Mellon University have recently (2001) called the early phases of product development.” (pp. 7-8)

It did not matter that my ’design’ is city planning, that my ’users’ are immigrants and that my ’product’ is the entire built environment. It is the word ’empathic’ which is the key word here.

’Empathic’ means understanding the user’s behaviour, thoughts and feelings. If they can be straddled with different kinds of user-centered methods in design, why not also in city planning? Empathic city planning is just the kind of city planning what for example Leonie Sandercock has been calling for from the city planners in order to be able to navigate in our ever more multicultural turning cities. Empathy is really needed when dealing with differences that immigrants and their cultures represent for a city planner.

Discovering ’empathic city planning’ was hence an illuminating idea for me in many ways. User-centeredness means that the designer is in more or less direct interaction with the users.

role immersion empirical