I keep a sailboat in Sausalito, a picturesque town that has more charm than commerce. In May, I was enjoying a glass of wine on the boat of a friend who was all worked up about the new ferry landing that the Golden Gate Bridge District wanted to install in Sausalito.

“It’s horrible. It’s huge, ugly, and way too big for Sausalito. Plus, it is going to destroy the view of the City from the Yacht Club.” The ‘City’ she was referring to is San Francisco.

Since 2009, the Bridge district had been pushing the ferry landing redesign. Sausalito gathered tens of thousands of signatures and comments from residents who opposed the design, saying it did not fit with the ambience and beauty of the town. In response, the Bridge district conducted surveys and town hall meetings to no avail. The result was a stand-still where neither city of Sausalito or the Bridge district were willing to budge.

I responded to my friend saying, “What you need is a design thinking workshop to build empathy between the two groups. Bring in a representative group of people from both sides and have them work together to understand and find a way to resolve the issues.” One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had volunteered to facilitate a design thinking workshop to help the two groups build empathy and find a resolution on the issues. Sheesh! What was I thinking?


During the next weekend I created a plan for a one-day workshop. My friend shared the plan with the Mayor of Sausalito and a Marin County Supervisor. On a fine Saturday morning I found myself in the home of the Mayor being interviewed by the two public officials. After successfully navigating the first meeting, the workshop date was set for a Saturday four weeks away.

The goals of the workshop included:
• Finding a common understanding of the needs and motivations of the primary stakeholders
• Creating empathy between stakeholders
• Identifying the factors that influence the ferry landing design
• Developing an action plan for moving forward

The first half of the day focused on what we already knew, developing empathy for the primary stakeholders—residents of Sausalito and the Bridge district—and converging to a common understanding of the problem to be solved. The second half of the day focused on the design concept of the ferry landing, brainstorming ideas, converging into what we can agree on and identifying open issues.

Challenge #1: How can I ‘bring the community into the room?’
Community data collected over the past few years served as the foundation for the workshop. Reviewing hundreds of documents, I identified many points of view and was able to create the following personas representing those views:
• Stephen, city of Sausalito
• Claire, the commuter
• Barb, the business owner
• Robin, the resident
• George, Golden Gate Bridge District Official

I filled one wall of the workshop room with community data—personas, petitions, letters, surveys, pages and pages of comments from residents—and data prepared by the Bridge district. The other wall was reserved for residents and business owners who wanted to observe the workshop. This was a public event and we wanted to allow non-participants to observe on the proceedings.


A survey conducted in April 2015 regarding the proposed design surfaced numerous operational, congestion, and design issues. Some of the issues could be addressed by a new ferry landing, but others need to be addressed by the town of Sausalito—parking, tourist flow through town, tour bus loading area, etc.

One of these issues is the increasing number of bicycles in the town—the elephant in the room. Renting bicycles has become extremely popular among tourists in San Francisco, who begin their bike adventure along San Francisco’s fisherman wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and end with lunch and ice cream in Sausalito. They then take the ferry, with their bikes, back to San Francisco.

Although the current ferry landing is run down and not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the issues mentioned above are much larger than replacing an old structure with a new one. Sausalito needs to plan for land-side and water-side improvements to handle its’ growing popularity. While work on the land-side issues has started, the Bridge district is running out of time to utilize funds available for the ferry landing redesign.

Challenge #2: How can I keep the focus of the workshop on the proposed ferry landing design?
As a group, the participants agreed that land-side, tourist, and bicycle issues would be tabled for the day. Our focus was on the proposed design of the ferry landing. A parking lot was established using large poster paper where we would write ideas and concerns about the bikes and land-side issues as they arose throughout the day.

After introductions and a quick warm-up, the group was divided into four teams. I gave the teams an activity to become comfortable working together. Their first task was to identify the key stakeholders. There was a consensus across the board that the primary stakeholders are the town of Sausalito and the Bridge district. To help refresh everyone’s memory about the data collected in the past, I asked them to spend time ‘walking the wall’.

Back in their groups, teams created an empathy map for both stakeholders. The empathy maps included what the the stakeholders say, think, feel, and do, as well as their needs and other insights they learned from walking the community wall. The teams shared their empathy maps, generating some lively conversation.

The next activity was to use the empathy map to develop a problem statement for each stakeholder – what is the problem they were trying to solve? The problem statements were hung on the wall and participants were asked to vote for what they felt were the most important problems from each stakeholders’ perspective.


Challenge #3: How can I keep the growing collaborative spirit going during the design discussion?
Building empathy was the key to a productive, focused discussion about the ferry landing design. Residents were able to express what they want in a new ferry landing and provide design ideas. The Bridge district was able to provide insight into why a new ferry landing was required, as well as articulate design limitations and requirements based on legal regulations.

From this discussion many action items were generated for the residents of Sausalito and the Bridge district. At the end of the day, I asked the workshop participants if we bridged the gap between the stakeholders’ concerns and the answer was a unanimous yes!


The Bridge district spent the rest of the summer updating the ferry landing design and drafting responses to the many questions the residents voiced in June. In October, the group met again for a half-day workshop during which the Bridge district methodically addressed each question and action item from the June workshop. It was evident that a great deal of effort had been put in to address the concerns of the residents and improve the design.

However, the Sausalito residents were divided. While most people were impressed by the Bridge districts’ response to their questions and saw many of their design ideas incorporated into the revised design, several people were still not satisfied and their voices overwhelmed the rest. The day ended with no resolution, only a request to the Bridge district to share more pictures of the design from different vantage points in the town and from an eye-level perspective. Before meeting for a final time, the residents requested access to the design several days before the meeting in order spend more time with the images.

Challenge #4: How can I renew the workgroup’s collaborative spirit that was generated in June and ensure that all voices are heard?
The final meeting was scheduled for November, three weeks after the October workshop. I wondered how to rejuvenate the collaborative spirit within the workgroup and decided to start the day with an activity to get people engaged and friendly again. After sharing my experience with my colleagues at the Design & Co-innovation Center, I decided to begin with the “Planning a Restaurant” activity. Each team was asked to identify ten essential things they require to start a new restaurant. After prioritizing the list, I told them that the top three things had been taken away. Now they had to create a restaurant plan with the remaining things on their list. Each team presented their plan and the room was ablaze with fun, comradery, and energy!

Once the tone for the meetings was set, we proceeded with the presentation by the Bridge district. I gave the participants three post-it notes each and asked them to write one thing they liked (‘I like…’), one thing they wished for (‘I wish…’), and a question they had (‘My question is…’) from the presentation.

After the presentation, we stood in a circle and each person shared what they liked, then their wish, and finally a question they had. This worked very well to get everyone’s voice heard. Voting with hands raised showed that most of the residents wanted to move forward with the new ferry landing project. Here is a note I received from one of the participants after the workshop:

“Thank you! I thought this last meeting went well. I liked the activity with the post-it notes because it gave everyone an opportunity to speak, and it was recorded (on paper) for future reference. I think the most important thing you did – and it may have been spontaneous – was to take a vote with a show of hands. Sometimes it can be the most angry voices that dominate in these types of situations, and it was helpful to see that the large majority of the group wanted to move forward with the process. That is a very useful metric. All the best.”

Sausalito is going to move forward with a new ferry landing project. The project is in the hands of the town’s elected officials and my volunteer project is completed. Now back to my work with SAP’s Design & Co-Innovation Center!

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  • Gloria Costa   5 years ago

    Hi Carol, thanks for sharing this great story! Congrats on the amazing volunteer work and great impact it had on the new ferry landing project! Sounds really great!

  • Esther Blankenship   5 years ago

    As the saying goes, “good intentions never go unpunished,” but in this case it seems you made a very positive impact! Love the story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anonym  5 years ago

    A wonderful story – thank you, Carol, for exemplifying the positive impact of design thinking for such an important local decision.