NKreat – Social Innovation for a Rust Belt City’s Revitalization

Team: Mutiat Alagbala, Gaurav Asthana, Chen Li, David Lin, Olga Lonel, Yool Park

Client: Penn State New Kensington

Research Methods: Field Studies, Co-Creation, Ethnographic Study, Interviews, Usability Testing, Card Sorting, Secondary Research, Survey

Roles: User Research Lead, Visual Design Lead, Phase Leader

Duration: 4 months

Nkreate is a social innovation project (capstone project) we did for the revitalization of New Kensington, a rust belt city near Pittsburgh. The project team consisted of two designers, two businesspeople, an MBA student, and an engineer.

The project experimented with the Transition Design approach, which helps the team identify the Wicked Problems at New Kensington and search for a holistic solution to solve them.

I was leading the user research phase and designed most visual deliverables.

The Background and the Challenge

Like many of the surrounding communities, New Kensington has not benefited from the economic revitalization being driven by innovation that is happening in Pittsburgh and some other areas.

So, we are presented with the challenge:

To help New Kensington revitalize and surge ahead as a regional leader in Industry 4.0 and the new digital age.

To better understand New Kensington, the project team first looked into the city’s unique location and its history. New Kensington is 20-minute away from Pittsburgh. It was the birthplace of modern aluminum and used to be known as “Little Chicago”. However, the city suffered when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s. Now, it is known as one of the rust belt cities.

the city’s location and its historical milestones

Process Overview

The project team spent around 6 weeks using mixed user research methods to gather stories in the town. The stories help us have a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities for revitalization. The user research results pointed us to run a co-creation workshop with the residents during the ideation phase, which took around 2 weeks. We then spent another 2 weeks prototyping final ideas and ran user testings to iterate. In the last 2 week, we finalized the concept model including service models and operation models and created a road map to illustrate the execution process.

Here is an overview of the process:

User Research and Key Insights

Secondary Research and Stakeholder Map

In the initial research, the team conducted secondary research using the PESTLEs method to explore the topic area from Political, Economical, Societal, Technological, Legal and Environmental perspectives.

We also created different versions of stakeholder maps to analyze the interrelationship among different stakeholders and identified stakeholders for interviews during the field study.

The team validated the map several times based on the field study and the interviews with some of the key stakeholders. The latest stakeholder relation can be found in the key insights session.

Field Study and Interviews

Through the initial research, we found the town has a diverse group of residents and we really wish to interact with them to understand the town from their stories. The team visited New Kensington 9 times to observe, talk to and question different residents’ perspectives on the town.

We first visited community cafe, where customers pay-as-you-want, and an art gallery and workshop ran by a collector who moved from Pittsburgh to New Kensington, and the Corner, a co-working space envisions to attract start-ups to town.

Based on the interactions in the first visit, the team iterated the stakeholder map and visited public libraries, tool and die companies, community gardens, and small shops in the town to talk to other stakeholders and residents. After 2 – 3 visits, we started mapping the stakeholder in a matrix to evaluate their resistance to technology and interests in economic revitalization.

this chart visualizes different stakeholders’ perspectives on the revitalization and the new digital era

We grouped stakeholders into three groups: Early Adopters (who are willing to invest in the revitalization), the Indifference(who are indifferent about the revitalization), and the Skeptics (who have a strong power but are skeptic about the revitalization plans). Through our research, we found these three groups are interrelated with each other. Among them, early adopters, who have strong passions for revitalization and low resistance to new technology, might be the initial driving force for the revitalization. Thus, in the later visits, we spent most time interacting with early adopters.

System Analysis and Wicked Problems Map

During the field study, the team found the town itself a complex system. So, we also zoomed out to analyze the research findings from a system level to understand the complex problems. We wished to use system analysis to identify the the potential leverage points in a system and develop solution that could develop and expand its impact after the we finish the project. Thus, we experimented with the transition design method by identifying the wicked problem, and opportunities in the town.

Based on the field study, the team identified several big problems in town that are associated with each other, which are wicked problems. These problems are interrelated with each other, and they always require a long time to solve them. We also identified several opportunity areas that are related to each other and could be combined to revitalize the town.

Considering our team’s expertise in human-centered design approach, we decided to target on the multi-stakeholder conflict, which is the root cause of many other wicked problems. Since the wicked problems are interrelated with each other, by solving the multi-stakeholder conflict, we could potentially solve other problems as well.

we identified multi-stakeholder conflict as the major problem, and we also found family-based culture at New Kensington a strong leverage point to solve the problem

Key Insights and Solution Drivers

Based on research, mapping, and analysis, we found New Kensington has a strong sense of family, and there are people (Early Adopters) who are really passionate about changing the town. We intends to engage them first and that them impact other families and residents that are connected to them in the town and create a ripple effect to solve the multi-stakeholder conflicts.

So, we summarized the key findings into a family persona, which included majorly the Early Adopters, and the Skeptics.

Let’s meet the Williams:

Mr. Williams, Mrs.Williams, and the little Williams represent Early Adopters, who are willing to take risks, try something new and contribute to the revitalization. The grandparents represent the Skeptics group who wish the town to change, but are skeptical about the current situation. These families are closely related to other stakeholders in the town. Through the lens of the Williams, we show the key stakeholders who have huge impact on the revitalization of New Kensington:

We also summarized some of the quotes from the interviews and field study into a fictional newspaper that represents the major perspectives in the town:

Based on these findings, we identified four key insights/solution drivers to guide the ideation phase:

Co-Creation and Ideation

Having realized the interconnection between people and the different voices exist in the town, we found co-creation a suitable method to bring people with different perspectives together, empower the different stakeholders to collaborate, let them find the common ground to work together, and come up with solutions they could agree to carry on. Thus, in the ideation phase, we ran a co-creation workshop with 12 participants, the majority of which are the Early Adopters. We also brainstormed ideas based on the solution drivers. We combined the ideas from co-creation and internal ideation to create the final solution.


The 2-hour co-create workshop was held on March 29th. Here is a sneak peek of the plan of the workshop, and some highlights from the co-creation session.

12 participants were assigned into 2 groups. Each group spent an hour identifying the top problems to solve and an hour generating and deciding the final solution.

Internal Ideation

Before we run the co-creation workshop, based on the solution drivers, we also generated ideas for potential solutions.

highlights from the internal brainstorming sessions

Co-Create + Internal Ideation

The top ideas coming out from the co-creation were 1) an architecture review board, which invites residents to collaboratively improve the facade of the major historical buildings 2) a digital city map. which communicates the city plan to residents and allow them to make comments. These ideas coincided with the solution drivers that they both emphasized the need to increase the participation of different residents in the revitalization and foster collaboration among them.

To prepare both the current residents and future generation for Industry 4.0 and the technology change, we found STEM education a necessary component of the final concept, which the residents currently do not have access to. In addition, during the co-creation, we found the residents really like the face-to-face interactions in a physical space.

Thus we combined the co-creation findings with our internal ideation to generate the final concept:

A multi-functional community platform that fosters economic development through collaboration and education.

Prototyping and User Testing

The final solution has a physical base with three primary functions: collaboration, education, and supporting service. Among them, collaboration and education are our core offerings. In addition, the physical space needs a digital platform to facilitate the core offerings and communicate the information to the residents and people from outside New Kensington. Due to the limitation of time, we spent two weeks testings the core services of the physical space and the major functions and the potential layout of the digital platform

Service Model Prototyping and Testing

For the collaboration and education services of the physical space, we hand-drew user journeys to illustrate the service models. We then brought the user journeys to run four user testing session to gather feedbacks and make adjustments.

hand-drew user journeys and highlights from the user testings

Digital Platform Prototyping and Testing

The digital platform has two primary functions, 1) connecting people through information exchange (eg. a user could either post a help request or reply to the post to offer help) 2) posting the events happening at the physical space. We hand-drew the platform, and used card sorting and post-it notes to test different layout of the platform and its major functions.

the testing materials and the highlights from the testing sessions

Final Concept

Our final concept is based on a physical space, which also has a digital platform. We illustrated the three major functions through the lens of the Williams, the family persona we had created based on the user research:


The STEM education program has two offerings 1) STEM classes for kids, teens and small and medium size business owners. We identified these three groups as current and next generation early adopters who are willing to learn new skills and lead the revitalization. We also conducted interviews with other educational institutes to create a lists of initial course offerings. 2) workshop open to any residents, which aims to get different residents exposed to new technology and make them mentally prepared for the new changes.

In addition, we propose to initially recruit the educators from local universities to help the space engage with educational institutes, and expand the collaboration network:


The collaboration will be achieved through 1) build-it-forward projects where different residents can come and discuss possible projects to help the town. When project teams formed and they decide to move forward, they are required to layout a plan and attend multiple checkpoints and present the final outcome to the public. 2) information platform that connects the information posters with people who could offer help:

Based on the user testing, we created a mid-fidelity prototype of the digital platform to illustrate its major functions (left). Considering the fact that many residents might not have access to internet, we also propose to have a physical information board (right) to keep them posted:

Supporting Services

Supporting services will support the operation of the entire place. It includes a information desk, an open story booth area for residents to come and co-create an installation, and a cafe and multi-purpose display room to show the progress of the space and the transition of New Kensington:

Summary of the Major Offerings

We finally summarized the primary functions of the physical space and the digital platform into this chart:

Operation Model and Road Map

We also considered the operation model of the space. We proposed to use non-profit structure, and pointed out several fund-raising channels. We also identified multiple revenue streams:

Finally, we laid out a road map to illustrate the steps to execute the final solution:

Feedbacks and Potential Impact

We received encouraging feedbacks from both the potential end users and the clients. The early adopters we had constantly engaged with expressed strong passion to take initiatives to lead build-it-forward projects. Our client is also thinking about purchasing the physical space to experiment with some of our suggested offerings.

We expect family and individuals like the Williams could benefit from the major offerings of the space, and use their connections with other residents to create a collaborative ripple effect in the town. Thinking about the possible future, we forecast the potential result for the Williams and how the Williams and other families in New Kensington could help the town revitalize :

In general, we envision three potential impact of our solution: