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Year: 2022-2023

Client: Municipality of Amsterdam

Red Lights in a Different Light Copy

Applying human-centered system design to co-create alternative futures for Amsterdam’s De Wallen neighborhood

This project was initiated in early November 2022 as part of the transformation plan for the inner city of Amsterdam, an initiative of Gemeente Amsterdam seeking to restore the balance between livability and hospitality in the neighborhood. The initial question was: what more can we do about the growing visitor congestion in the Red Light District?


Together with Amsterdam Gemeente's Design & UX and Urban Innovation Departments, both part of the Digitalization & Innovation Directorate, we proposed a human-centered systemic design approach to turn the complexity of the issue into practical and inspiring next steps that keep the wellbeing of the diverse groups of Amsterdam citizens central.


The visitor congestion in the Red Light District is what's known as a "wicked" problem. Coined bydesign theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973, a wicked problem is ever-changing, multi-layered, and not easily solved.When you intervene in one aspect, it often affects other areas, sometimes unintentionally, which means that the simple "problem-solving" (linear) approach we're accustomed to doesn't work with these types of issues. That's why we took a systemic approach: this involves collectively zooming out and trying to understand what's happening around the theme, mapping the relations between the different factors at play and striving to delve deeper into unseen layers, such as mental models that influence visitor congestion.


Together with the department of Design & UX at Gemeente Amsterdam, we defined  a set of shared principles for the project:

  • a human-being is more than its observable behavior,

  • avoid symptom treatment and search instead for the root cause,

  • narratives move us, and their positive reframing often works better,

  • fine-grained, nuanced interventions are needed.


By spending the needed time to come to these principles we laid the groundwork for a very positive collaboration that lasted seven months and led to successful follow-up phases, allowing the team to work on both content and process at once.


The project started with extensive qualitative and desk research, including over 50 interviews with visitors, both in the neighborhood and at Schiphol Airport. Their experiences of the neighborhood were captured in 3 themes that were then used to anchor a spatial analysis. This research combined different data layers provided by the municipality and produced system maps to better understand how different system loops play out in reality.


The project concluded that the busyness in the neighborhood can’t be seen and solved in splendid isolation – it is part of a bigger transition, which demands a more integral approach. In the final report we suggested some building blocks to work on this transition, including the importance of working on a shared vision on the neighborhood involving a broader range of stakeholders. Based on a system map we proposed four possible futures for De Wallen and identified six strategic opportunities that may not entirely lead to a transition, but will put in motion a process of positive change. These opportunities included the research of different ways of value exchange between visitors and the city, and the reframing of “sextraction” to intimacy.

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