Design Thinking and Cultural Change in Aarhus Public Library

For nearly 17 years, the public library in Aarhus, Denmark has used human centered design methods to engage their citizens in order to create relevant and vibrant libraries. This long term practice has also resulted in changing the culture of their organization.

In the early 2000s the leaders of the Aarhus Public Libraries, Rolf Hapel and Knud Schulz  began asking questions about how to engage with their citizens. Technology was quickly becoming central to library services, including the installation of a public facing computer system, and there was concern that the library needed to build skills and knowledge to help prepare for this change. The leaders were aware their current systems and services were not designed to incorporate this technology, and they were aware of the need to bring in more knowledge to the organization about these new library services.

Collaborators to kick start design
One way to address this need was to collaborate with local designers and researchers. For example they formed a partnership with Aarhus University’s Computer Science Department that had an Information Technology group working on issues of citizens and digital services. Their partners were a group of professors and students, who were engaged in participatory design practices. Participatory design, which originated in Scandinavia, is a design approach for which all stakeholders are involved in the process so that the results meet their needs, are usable, and solve community problems. It is one of the earliest forms of human centered design.

The Transformation Lab
The professors and students helped the Aarhus Library staff to use iterative models of design wherein they would engage the community to learn about their needs, do ongoing testing of ideas, and make prototypes. The library created a Transformation Lab, a space where they could begin design projects that engage library staff and community. In this space they tested out participatory design methods and a host of other methods to co-create the library with the users. Along the way they teamed up with other partners that brought in new methodologies to explore human centered design.

From the librarian’s space to the citizen’s space
Their initial strategic approach within the organization was to bring as many staff members as possible on design projects. There were about 5-7 staff members on each project team who worked collaboratively to solve a citizen problem in the library. These project participants ranged from librarians and information specialists, to the building maintenance staff. Nearly everyone took part in these projects, and worked in this human centered way. Over the next 12 years the library staff worked on design projects in their main public library and branch libraries. One of the major shifts that occurred during this time was that the library went from being the librarian’s space to the patron’s space. The patrons started to feel ownership in the space and were more and more willing to actively participate and become part of the community. This was a critical shift in their human centered design approach because the citizens began to feel they could also be the ones who design and shape the space.

Design thinking to revitalize the approach
In 2013 a unique opportunity emerged, as Aarhus joined forces with the Chicago Public Library to create a new movement for human centered design in libraries. Together they applied for a collaborative grant from the Gates foundation, and named IDEO as their innovation partner. For Aarhus, this was a new kind of collaboration, and an opportunity to revitalize their design approach.

Because they were already in the middle of a long term engagement with human centered design methods, some of the staff had started to experience innovation burnout. In part, this was the result of working on many projects, and their teams had been operating without a clear methodology. They had developed a pastiche approach, experimenting with many different kinds of methods. The Gates project presented the opportunity to try a new focused approach which allowed them to rethink how to get back to their core interest in human centered methodologies. This project wasn’t about starting anew, but more about renewal. From it they learned a clearer design process and one that librarians could pick up and use on their own projects. It also gave them an opportunity to reflect on community issues and patron needs. Design Thinking methods have given them a more structured and more formalized way of engaging on projects.

Design thinking in use today
As human centered design has become part of the DNA of their library culture. It is their orientation when they need to solve a problem or approach a new project. They are now more biased toward action spending less time talking about problem and focusing on how to think and act at the same time. They are also keenly aware of the importance of partnerships to get things done. They have at least 130 active partnerships from around the world on different projects and initiatives. This radical approach to partnerships is key to their successes and evidence of their experimental culture.

Along the way, they have also faced challenges. They haven’t found buy-in from all their staff, there has been innovation burn out, and some feel frustration with not seeing the expected outcomes from Design Thinking projects. Implementation phases can take a long time, and many grow impatient to see more immediate results. Additionally, in 2015 they moved into their new state of the art library, Dokk1. It was a tremendous amount of work, and an extraordinary accomplishment for their team. Much of their work over the past 12 years has been focused on learning to be ready to move into the new building. Once moved into their new space, the questions they had asked and challenges they faced in their previous space were no longer an issue. As they settle into their new building, they are now inspired to reconnect with Design Thinking in new ways, ask new questions about their purpose, and how they design for their new space and the services and programs that are offered to the public.

Advice from Aarhus Public Libraries
They also have advice to share for those engaging in human centered methodologies in their libraries: You need to start somewhere and don’t be afraid to start small. Do simple things like: define areas where you need some development; choose 2-3 of methods from the design thinking toolkit to begin engage citizens; and clear a space in your library to begin using for projects and experiments. Their overarching message is to just try it and don’t be too critical or over complicate things.

Finally some advice from Rolf Hapel, the leader of Aarhus Public Libraries: If libraries want to stay relevant they always need to ask the questions, To what problems in society are your libraries the answer? Why are we important? And, in line with the mindset change that has happened in Aarhus library, he says you cannot decide what the answer is, you need to learn from your patrons.