AUSTIN — Austin Resource Recovery had a problem.

The Austin American-Statesman reports the city department responsible for collecting waste and recycling had set a goal of reaching “zero waste,” which means keeping nearly all materials out of the landfills, by 2040.

But it wasn’t going very well. As of 2015, a city study estimated that Austin was diverting only 42 percent of its waste.

“We knew our diversion rate had plateaued and we weren’t continuing to make progress,” said Emlea Chanslor, a spokeswoman for the department.

So the department turned to a newly created group of city problem-solvers.

These temporary employees, hired by the city’s Innovation Office, are part of the city’s Design, Technology and Innovation Fellowship program, which was created in 2016.

These tech fellows are charged with bringing private-sector problem-solving skills to the entrenched bureaucracy of city government.

The program is focused on “human-centered design,” a popular product development philosophy increasingly being used at tech companies. The traditional approach to product development is to come up with an idea, perhaps based on data or just a hunch, and then try to sell it to customers. But in the design thinking way, the approach is to identify a user’s needs first.

“The design-thinking approach involves more qualitative research of talking to people, talking to users and understanding what they actually need,” said Ben Guhin, the program lead for the city’s fellowship program. “That’s important to make sure you are solving the right problems.”

Design-oriented thinking can be used to solve pure technology problems, such as designing a new website, but it can also be applied to intractable problems, like finding homes for the homeless.

So far the city has hired 25 people to work as innovation fellows.

“The reason these methods are important is our words often times get in the way,” said Kerry O’Connor, chief innovation officer for the city. She said cities often turn to “methods such as surveys, polls and town halls to seek feedback, but this type of engagement doesn’t reveal deeper issues.

“When you can visualize things, it helps with a shared understanding and it creates a new way of understanding problems — these designers have a unique skill set in being able to better frame problems,” she said.

The idea for the city’s tech fellowship program started with O’Connor. She was hired in 2014 as the city’s first “innovation officer.” She had previously worked for the U.S. Department of State at its Research and Design Center.

It was up to O’Connor to define how Austin’s innovation office would work, and she hit on the idea of treating it like an in-house consultancy for the city’s 40 departments. She began holding training meetings to both better understand their challenges and teach them this new approach to problem-solving.

Though tech fellowship programs started to appear in the federal government during the Obama administration, it’s still fairly unusual for a city government to start a program like this. O’Connor said she modeled it after federal fellowship efforts and the nonprofit Code for America. She now gives presentations on what Austin does to other cities.

In the spring of 2016, she hired Guhin to help build a fellowship program to help city departments solve problems. Guhin had worked as a fellow for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for three years previously.

Last summer, the city started soliciting applications for fellows in the new Design, Technology and Innovation program. Fellows are essentially temporary employees. They receive a salary but won’t be eligible for city benefits such as health insurance and a pension. The departments themselves would come up with the money to fund fellows to work on their projects.

O’Connor said it wasn’t difficult to recruit people. The city advertised the fellowships on industry job boards, attended tech meetups, and even created posters they put up around town.

“We got over 400 applicants in the past year and we continue to get more inquiries,” she said. “People are hungry for meaningful work.”

When O’Connor was hiring the first batch of fellows, she knew to look for people that could help Austin Resource Recovery, which had asked for help solving its diversion problem. She eventually hired five people to work on the project. The core team included five fellows and four Austin Resource Recovery employees.

That’s because part of the idea behind the fellowship program is to not just have the fellows parachute in and solve a department’s problems. O’Connor wanted to teach them the design-thinking approach so that they could tackle it themselves.

Katherine Duong was one of those people hired to work with Austin Resource Recovery. She was familiar with the design-centric philosophy from her previous job as a designer and researcher at Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health care system based in California.

“One of my approaches is to always start with the humans,” Duong said. The problem with Austin Resource Recovery’s data up to that point is it was very quantitative, rather than qualitative. That means he department knew how much people were recycling or taking to landfills, and could even pinpoint which parts of town recycled the most or least, “but they didn’t have any data on what (people) were actually doing and what were the behaviors of residents,” Duong said.

The fellows went into 48 homes in the Austin area. Duong said they tried to find a cross-section of people that represented different recycling habits, as well as different living situations. That meant some homes were small apartments, and others were large single-family dwellings.

It was easy to find the “good” recyclers,” Duong said, because Austin Resource Recovery generally knew who those people were, because they attended their events or interacted with them on social media. To find people who didn’t recycle as often, the fellows posted on Craigslist, posted fliers in schools that had low diversion rates and doing events where people were recruited in person.

“We offered $50 gift cards,” Duong said.

They spent 90 minutes in each person’s home, studying the layout and their waste removal behaviors. One thing they learned, Duong said, was that no one reads the printed information on the top of the garbage and recycling bins, even though Austin Resource Recovery had put a lot of thought into the information to put there.

The fellows then asked a series of questions or had the residents participate in an activity. The activities were designed to dig deeper into each person’s mindset.

For example, people were asked to draw how recycling made them feel, or to do a song about recycling. “If you’re just having a conversation, sometimes you don’t get below the surface,” Duong said.

After collecting all that information, Duong and the rest of the team put together a summary of their findings.

They figured out there were three main contributors to recycling behaviors: motivation, ability and mental bandwidth. You had to have at least two out of three to be a good recycler.

The team then came up with five specific suggestions for the department that could improve its diversion rate based on what they had learned, and tested these ideas.

One of the suggestions sounds forehead-smackingly obvious: stackable bins for small apartments, with recycling on top and trash on bottom. The fellows found bins like this on Amazon, bought 20 of them and tested them with residents. Like before, they put out a Craigslist ad and posted on Nextdoor to find people, and offered gift cards.

“We got over 200 responses in over 24 hours,” Duong said. These people were asked to come to a class to learn about recycling and then they were given the bin.

“We found it was worthwhile,” Duong said. “People were recycling more.”

They also developed a sorting guide

and came up with three other ideas: A game to help teach people about recycling; An outreach tool to help Austin Resource Recovery staff as to assess whether someone needed help not just with knowing how to recycle but with the ability and motivation to recycle; and a content strategy that would be used internally by city staff to know how to tailor their messages to different people.

The entire project took about seven months, and Austin Resource Recovery spent $151,000 hiring the fellows.

Chanslor said the department learned a lot from working with the tech fellows. “It really helped our staff start the right conversations when we’re out in these events and in the community,” she said. They learned that simply telling people what to recycle by itself wasn’t enough .

“We are actually using a lot of the processes and tools that came from the fellows project,” she said, including a staff-led project studying how people prefer to donate items.

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