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Intentional design and the next visitor economy

We must be clear, considered and intentional about the design of the next visitor economy. But what does intentional design mean in the context of tourism? In this post, we explore intentional design. Our challenge is to re-frame the challenge, to re-imagine the next tourism and visitor economy, and to map out an intentional eco-centric design approach to tourism.

Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water House (Pennsylvania) demonstrates the integration of form, function and nature. Our capacity to listen, design and work with nature has been demonstrated in diverse fields like architecture, landscape ecology, planning, and agriculture.

Good design

There is something special about good design. Good design is when form and function fit together so perfectly that a kaleidoscope of positive feelings is spontaneously released. Good design is more than just an object or a service, it is an experience that reaches into our emotional core, bringing joy, a sense of wellbeing, and other deeply personal and transformative feelings. If you have ever experienced good design, you'll know that it's hard to explain. It just works. It's complex. From the very superficial 'look and feel' to a very deep emotional level, it's hard to explain but very satisfying and deeply personal.

Over the last decade, the nexus between good design and personal fulfilment (or even transcendence that takes a person to a higher level of awareness and sense of being) has rapidly become the holy grail for businesses seeking to strengthen their emotional bond with customers. After all, the emotional bond with customers will turn them into repeat customers and lifelong advocates. Just think of Apple's strategy, from the customer's first contact, their journey to the check-out, the packaging, the look and feel, and the reputational badge of honour associated with being an Apple user! But this application of design is a capitalist version of design thinking directed towards narrow business and consumer driven-ends.

If you are drinking this Coolaid, then you are probably thinking that good design in tourism is the curation of a great customer journey leading to increased sales and visitor satisfaction. Ka-ching. But there is so much more to good design, and we are only just starting to imagine what good design in tourism can mean for people, places, and the planet.

What do we mean by intentional design?

An intentional design approach balances the form and function of visitor economies with a deeply personal ethic of care for all others, and enduring respect for the capacity of nature to regenerate.

It adopts design thinking methodologies, a values-centred approach and a holistic systems worldview. The pandemic has opened up the opportunity for slower and more deliberate thinking and questioning of the status quo. The opportunity right now is to consider the intentional design of the next visitor economy that meets the needs of all stakeholders, including nature and other groups who have traditionally been silenced or their participation is taken for granted. It's never been more important to understand what the intentional design of tourism means, and how we might rise to this important challenge. Observing lessons from nature makes a good place to start...

Nature's design

Source: Biomimicry in action. Janine Benyus (2009) has a message for inventors: When solving a design problem, look to nature first. There you'll find inspired designs...

To understand the power of design, we don't have to look further than nature. Just look at the way the seasons have been designed. The flow from one season to another is a cascading glory of colour, fragrance, temperature, and activity flows. All life has a connection to the seasons; it gives meaning and helps to organise life. Change and reoccurrence make us aware of life (Just bask in the ideas of What time is this place? by Kevin Lynch). From the blades of grass below to the bustling activity taking place deep without our forests, from the warmth of first spring, to the last rays before winter sets in, nature's design is a mega-production of complexity, dynamism, energy and connectivity. It works to inspire and give life regardless of where you are in the world or at what scale you set your gaze.

Imagine if we could design tourism in harmony with nature. Our destinations would be places that are carefully nurtured, and visitors would be welcomed. Connections would be genuine and caring, and that natural and social processes would create conditions for the flourishing of all living and non-living elements. A sense of belonging and stewardship over natural, cultural and social resources would prevail, and a strong sense of personal responsibility to be inclusive and to do no harm would ensure the needs of future generations are met. By adopting an intentional design approach, we are more likely to build momentum for the change that is needed.

So what does an intentional design approach look like for tourism? This is a much longer and deeper journey that will be the subject of continued posts. But for the moment we share six characteristics of an intentional design approach to the future of tourism.

Six characteristics of an intentional design approach

1. Grounded in the story of place

If one thing that is exceptionally clear, it is that an intentional design approach starts with the story of place. Place identity and the community's attachment to the special qualities and characteristics of place are threaded through history, culture, and events. Indigenous songlines demonstrate the power of immersing ourselves in stories of place, in belonging, and caring for country. An intentional approach to the design of tourism must start with the story of place through which:

  • The values and special characteristics of place, community and belonging emerge.

  • An understanding of what change is acceptable and what is not acceptable will reveal itself.

  • A deeper and more holistic connection with all others including nature will develop.

  • We transcend different knowledge systems and ways of knowing.

  • We develop the capacity to learn, co-design and create a shared future.

2. Starts with the challenge or problem

The design process starts with a challenge or problem. For example, the kinds of problem statements we regularly hear are:

  • How might we encourage visitors to care about our special place?

  • How might we learn from nature in designing the next tourism?

  • How might tourism address the social and environmental challenges of our place, our country?

  • How might tourism improve the well-being and flourishing of nature?

  • How might we facilitate the required shift in mindsets of government, business and industry?

  • How might we design a different approaches to tourism that incorporate regenerative practices?

  • How might we transcend knowledge divides to embrace indigenous wisdom and non-traditional knowledge?

  • How might we create the conditions for truly transcendental connections with nature that leave visitors' attitudes to nature and our planetary crisis transformed?

Problem-solving is an innately human activity so a problem statement is a useful place to start. But it is important to acknowledge that the initial problem is not necessarily the real challenge to be addressed. Problems are linked and interdependent. The power of design thinking is to activate both individual and group ideation, helping us identify, explore, deepen and reframe individual challenges into shared challenges. In the process, we can identify 'problem-complexes' or a series of interconnected clusters of problems. It might sound complex, but it can be a profound journey into deep listening, building empathy, and understanding the challenges of others.

3. Driven by a shared set of values

Intentional design is driven by identifying and adopting shared values. Deep stories identify the values of place and what we care about - past, present and future. The process of identifying values places less emphasis on the external consultant and top-down knowledge and enhances the value of local, ground-up and place-based knowledge. This approach helps to democratise the design process enhancing ownership over the journey into designing the next tourism. Seeking and negotiating buy-in, as is the current practice, becomes a thing of the past when shared values are identified and embedded as part of the journey.

4. Incorporates nature

The intentional design of the next visitor economy incorporates nature as a key voice and consideration. Our traditional ego-centric approaches have silenced nature and treated nature as a voiceless resource to exploit, and a cheap or free input into the tourism-industrial complex. But the global environmental crisis makes it clear that tourism does not have an unrestrained licence to extract, exploit or negatively impact the environment. Incorporating nature have taken place in a number of ways, including:

(1) Taking a Rights to Nature approach shifts away from a human-centred approach towards an eco-centric approach. The challenge in an intentional approach to designing tourism is to ask "What would nature say?" and ensure that appropriate stakeholders are present to respond to the question.

(2) Adopting nature's design may take various approaches, including (1) design that looks like nature; (2) design that functions like nature: and (3) design that uses nature's solutions. But don't be fooled. We cannot assume that these approaches are, by default, functionally regenerative or sustainable. A deep dive and an intentional mindset to pursue regenerative futures is necessary Using nature's lessons can assist in shifting mindsets, opening creative problem solving, and finding valid solutions.

Source: South Brisbane parklands. A cautionary example of design that looks like nature but is not sustainable or regenerative.

(3) Limits to nature/limits to acceptable change acknowledges the limits and capacity of natural, cultural and social systems to absorb change while also maintaining regenerative capacity. Such approaches to incorporating and considering nature will often use a range of scientific techniques including education, behavioural design, and setting capacity limits while education, communing with nature and 'soft devices' that help actors tune into, connect with nature and shift mindsets.

5. Inclusive and co-designed

Much has been written about co-creation and tourism recent years with the dominant voices coming from the perspective of service design and visitor experience design. As Phi and Dredge (2021) have noted, these perspectives have focused narrowly on the business of tourism and co-creation is often narrowly equated with the creation of economic value (e.g. sales, visitor satisfaction, engagement etc). However, the co-creation of the next visitor economy with nature will consider the different kinds of value that can be produced (e.g. ecological, biological, climate positive, psychological, social, cultural, etc) when nature is a core partner. This approach requires a new way of thinking and to examine the design, creation and distribution of different kinds of value.

6. It's a commitment to a learning journey

The intentional design of tourism requires a commitment to a learning journey, to stretch the boundaries of thinking, to step outside the blinkers and blindspots that stymie our thinking, and to summon the courage for changing the way we approach tourism. The learning journey has the opportunity to address skills for the future of work, including:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation

  2. Active learning and learning strategies

  3. Complex problem-solving

  4. Critical thinking and analysis

  5. Creativity, originality and initiative

  6. Leadership and social influence

  7. Technology use, monitoring and control

  8. Technology design and programming

  9. Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility

  10. Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation

  11. Emotional intelligence

  12. Troubleshooting and user experience

  13. Service orientation

  14. Systems analysis and evaluation

  15. Persuasion and negotiation

Source: Top 15 skills for 2025. Future of Jobs Survey 2020, World Economic Forum.

If you are interested in learning more, The Tourism CoLab runs a number of short and deep dive courses to help you start your learning journey.


Short course in design thinking for tourism

The Tourism Colab is launching a short 5-week course in design thinking that provides an introduction to the intentional design of tourism. The course starts 10th August, is delivered in 5 modules, with a time commitment of approximately 15 hours. For more information, check out our The Tourism Colab website.

1 Comment

jenny cave
jenny cave
Jul 18, 2021

Brilliant post Dianne! I have a practicum to add from -ake Te Koo Utu, nearby

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