Preparing for Urban Flooding

At the Design for America (DFA) National Leadership Studio in Chicago, we partnered with FEMA to help people prepare for, respond to, and recover from urban flooding.


We began with research to better understand what urban flooding means. We welcomed experts from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and did secondary research on Twitter to figure out what urban flooding really is.

Many of us were shocked at how commonplace urban flooding is – it isn’t about large-scale natural disasters or cars floating down the streets. Urban flooding is for the millions of families who get anxious every time it rains because they know their basement will be filled with inches of murky water. It’s about the young couple who cannot take a vacation because it might rain, and about the family who needs to put their washing machine on stilts to keep the basement usable.


DFA students interview Glen about his personal urban flooding experiences

To better understand the personal side of urban flooding, we took a field trip from Evanston to Blue Island, Illinois. We met with Glen, a social media reporter, who actively posts photos and videos about his own basement flooding under the hashtag #grossgathering.

Glen and others like him helped us step outside our own preconceptions of urban flooding. They personalized an issue that is regularly introduced as statistics, and shared opportunities where design could make an impact.


We toured Glen’s basement to better understand the situation


Armed with new knowledge from Glen and others in Blue Island, Illinois, we worked in project teams to decide which stage of urban flooding we would like to focus on (prepare, respond, recover) and create a How Might We question. We focused on giving individuals who regularly experience basement flooding piece of mind. We asked:

How can we notify individuals who regularly experience urban flooding that basement flooding is imminent?


Armed with a new “HMW” statement, we worked on a team to brainstorm a wide variety of ideas – ranging from the practical to the radical. From a bevy of concepts, we picked two to quickly prototype: (1) a suspended furniture system and (2) a “smoke alarm” for water.

Learning from our prototypes and working from the Design For America “Daring, Feasible, Applicable” framework, we recognized our first idea – the suspended furniture system – was a bit too big a project to really understand. We quickly concentrated our efforts on the second concept – the “smoke detector” for water.


Learning about DFA frameworks | Photo courtesy of DFA National

Receiving feedback from community experts  |  photo courtesy of DFA National

Receiving feedback from community experts | photo courtesy of DFA National

By the end of a short prototyping period, our team had developed a smart basement drain cover. This cover would easily replace a family’s existing basement drain cover and sync with a phone number to send alerts through voice, SMS, or app-based messages. The product would provide peace of mind to individuals away from home during a storm, and help those at a distance know when to call on family and friends for help.


A smart drain cover that acts as a “smoke detector” for water


To get feedback on our rough concepts, we were given the opportunity to pitch our ideas to a room full of experts. The audience included individuals from CNT and FEMA as well as innovation experts from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University and IDEO Chicago.


Students pitch 3-day concepts to community partners and experts

* featured image (home page) courtesy of DFA National