5 September 2012 – Charles Kettering, the American inventor, once said that “if you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee to work on it”. I’ve worked in government policy-making before, and he’s a little bit right.

But he also missed the point somewhat, and not just because he later invented that wonderful boon to humanity, the aerial missile.

In the world of public planning good ideas are sometimes accidentally talked to death by committees. Sometimes they’re murdered by funding cuts and political enemies. But often, good ideas float around like angry little clouds trapped inside the heads of the public, ignored until they commit suicide out of frustration.

But with clever-cloggs new think tanks like Denmark’s Mindlab (I love those guys) on the rise and crowd-sourced design thinking increasingly fashionable, is that going to change? Or is it all just an excuse to invent new words and play with crayons? Either is fine by me, so no bias here.

I made it to Object Gallery for the final night of the GROUNDBREAKER series of talks run by the University of Technology’s u.lab, for some neatly packaged answers printed in Helvetica on recycled brown paper tied with old string.

Running from the 27 June to 17 August the talks covered a spectrum of design-thinking-for-public-good topics ranging from subcultures to creative communities and innovation. Guests included David Gravina – Digital Eskimo, Rangan Srikhanta – One Laptop Per Child, Ian Muir – Westpac and Rod Simpson – City of Sydney.

It was the unusual structure of these talks that really made me wish I’d gone a little earlier. These 21 guest “provocateurs” made five-minute idea pitches at seven public forums, before being placed on chairs in the centre of the room to be questioned, interrogation style, by the predatory, circling audience. Brilliant.

Unfortunately for me, the final night did not involve any guest interrogation or predatory circling. It consisted basically of drinks, informal “thanks” and “great job” summary talks by GROUNDBREAKER’s “high priestess and high priest”, Joanne Jakovich, senior lecturer in the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, and Jochen Schweitzer, senior lecturer in strategy in the UTS Business School.

The key organising group got up on stage and took a shy bow. The audience wrote their thoughts on pieces of paper and stuck them all over the wall. And then a few regular participants got up and reflected on the series.

Marie announced, “I love this city. I want to see more culture, and it’s great to see people coming together, trying a creative approach”. Gareth, similarly invigorated, told us “I hope this is the start of something bigger…I was afraid that Sydney was getting apathetic. Let’s continue the conversation”.

“Too right!” I thought, nodding to myself. I had a few wines and got into it. Everyone’s enthusiasm was catching. Marie and Gareth seemed to voice my sentiments exactly. Even though they’d been to all the talks, and I’d missed all of them, I felt a sense of camaraderie.

I scribbled on a piece of paper and put it on the wall, and finished my night staring proudly at my collaborative achievement. I may have missed all the substance, but I was happy with my yellow paper.

I tracked down Dr Schweitzer after the talk. He explained to me that the series of talks was sort of a laboratory using real humans, set up to test their thesis on collaboration and innovation out in the real world.

Their hope was to get the businesses and public who attended to see the value in crowd-sharing. “GROUNDBREAKER was an experiment in crowd-sharing solutions”, he told me, “in the past, innovation was behind closed doors…crowd-sharing is the future”.

So how can design thinking be applied to urban planning, to help us get all those little clouds out of people’s heads and into planning?

“With it’s focus on deeply understanding human needs and behaviour, design thinking can be applied in many ways…community consultation, idea testing, idea generation and so on….and in fact is already in many architecture practices and urban planning contexts,” Schweitzer shared with me later, via email.

It seems they’re putting it into practice too. u.lab is currently working in collaboration with Aspect, Terroir and R Godwin to help develop an identity for the Parramatta ring road proposal.

But, exactly how many scribbly bits of coloured paper does it take to build a ring road? I think I need to go to the full talk series next time.