A Billion Dollar Design Project

A billion dollar design project?

We aim too low. Physicists have the Large Hadron Collider, a research tool that cost close to ten billion dollars to build. It’s a shared resource for scientists to learn about the world. Where’s design’s billion dollar research tool?

I was recently at a conference for design educators, and John Zimmerman – a Professor at Carnegie Mellon – proposed this idea. To better understand large and important scientific phenomena, scientists have large and important scientific research tools. Design researchers are trying to understand large and important behavioral and cultural phenomena, and we need large and important design research tools.

The Large Hadron Collider is a massive machine that helps physicists explore theories about particle physics. It’s physically enormous, took years to build, required collaboration between many countries, and is a shared tool. Estimates of its initial building costs hover around ten billion dollars, and estimates for operations are approximately 1 billion a year. On paper or in casual conversation, it seems an impossibility. The construction and costs aside, to build such a machine requires collaboration between opinionated scientists across political borders, and the logistics of coordinating such a project seem insurmountable. Yet, there it is, buried in Switzerland.

Design doesn’t have tools like this. We don’t have large tools, spaces, or environments suitable for exploring the impact and value of design.

Why not?

We don’t have a tool of this scale and scope in design because we haven’t imagined it. It’s difficult for non-designers (and often, even for designers!) to see the value of design research in shaping new products, services, policies, and strategies. For as much progress we’ve made in connecting research to innovation and experience, many companies still view it as ancillary or as just a small part of the overall creative process. And, it’s often hard enough for practitioners or researchers to secure a small research budget; the response to a million dollar research budget, much less a billion dollar budget, is often met with incredulous skepticism. Most importantly, we have a poverty of imagination around what such a tool might do and how it would function. What is the Petri dish for design, the space to propose ideas, explore new provocations, and see the impact of designs on culture?

My conversation with Professor Zimmerman at the conference arrived at a seemingly tongue-in-cheek proposal. What if our version of the Large Hadron Collider was an entire city?


What if we had a whole city, hundreds of thousands people living their lives, businesses, transportation, parks, and on and on – all available as a backdrop for large-scale design research projects?

It sort of gives you pause, and then it’s easy to brush aside as ridiculous. How would it work? Who would want to live there? How much would it cost? Is it even ethical?

It’s unprecedented, and it’s a pretty strange consideration. Like most big, strange ideas, it’s easy to immediately point out why it will never work. But give it some runway.

Design research attempts to observe and understand existing behavior, to identify what people want, need, and desire, and to get to the core of culture. Design itself then changes that landscape, introducing new behaviors, new wants and needs, and new cultural phenomenon. We have a hard time developing and running long and in-depth research programs, and exploring new and untested research methodologies. And similarly, we have a hard time testing cultural paradigm changes at scale. It’s one thing to see how a self-driving car behaves on the road with other drivers. It’s a completely different activity to see how an entirely self-driving city behaves.

A research city acts as a playground for watching people interact with one-another and with new technologies, identifying insights into why they do the things they do, and for trying things at a broad, but still contained, scale. It extends the possible scope of our tests, and creates more and more realism for exploring person to person, culture to culture interactions. A research city isn’t necessarily an idealized city; it could very well be a city with all of the problems, opportunities, and challenges of a normal city. As the collider is a platform for scientists to explore, our city would be a platform for designers to explore, and there would be a way to prioritize, schedule, and share results from large-scale research activities.


Imagine that, as a design researcher at UPS, you want to explore the actual impact of an entirely drone delivery system. The city would be a platform for doing that: for researching and building the interactions, testing it over years with real customers, and exploring the implications.

Imagine that, as a design researcher at Pearson, you want to explore the actual impact of completely peer-driven learning, at a university level – no professors, just students teaching students. The city would be a platform for doing that: for researching and building new curriculum, testing the process over years with real students, and exploring the educational implications.

An expansive city-scape would provide an opportunity for systems research. Instead of looking at a local behavior, it would provide a way to examine both localized and systemic impacts of change. Understanding how drone delivery to one house impacts shipping is insightful. Understanding how drones flying around all over the place changes broad human behavior is truly fascinating.

The examples above proposed private companies leveraging the city for their own purposes. But the real benefit of a research backdrop like this is to explore the impact of large-scale technology and policy changes driven by government.

What would happen, over time, if there were no zoning laws?

What would happen, over time, if there were no roads?

What would happen, over time, if the city laws and rules were driven not by a representational democracy, but by direct vote?

What would happen after a completely autonomous vehicle city gets over the hump of novelty, car ownership dwindles, and cars on demand start to be a real phenomenon? How does this change the nature of public transportation? What happens with insurance? What about parking? What about gas demand? And, what are the policies that cities can explore in order to manage these changes?

Presently, these questions are largely unanswerable, and we constantly find ourselves reactively legislating technologies, lagging by years or even decades a real understanding of how best to humanize technology. Yet with a city-based research lab, we can start to build understanding for cultural change at a broad scale, and then consider these changes at a more global implementation. The actual role of government could be evaluated with forward-looking behavioral data, rather than current-state evaluative surveys and argument and rhetoric. The implications of policy decisions can be studied with a long-enough timeline and a large-enough scale as to make concrete conclusions and proposals.

Building and operating this type of research project has no precedent, and just as the policies governing the Collider evolved over time, so too would the policies around accessing the city lab. It took over twenty years for the Collider to go from concept to implementation, and it required collaboration between governments and a collaboration between scientists. One could imagine the same being true for a design research city. Usage of the city would need an oversight board, and to be truly beneficial, the results would need to be publicly accessible. One can imagine that even the “experiments” would be driven by the public’s curiosity – influenced through some sort of public, open process.

The idea seems so far-fetched, but so too did the idea of building such a massive endeavor as the Large Hadron Collider. Like any giant dream, it would take dedication, focus, and – most importantly – funding. But given the challenges we’re observing with existing political structures and policies, a moonshot like this might be a critical tool for exploring how we can best manage the cultural changes that come with the inevitability of rapid, constant technological advancement.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you dream big.

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