A Portal to New Opportunities

How one professor is using her knowledge of design to help economic development in cities around the world.
Portrait of Heather Barker
Assistant professor Heather Barker’s expertise in design thinking is helping local entrepreneurs.

Starting a business can be a daunting task. There’s funding to secure, buildings to lease or buy and the maddening job of navigating city hall rules and regulations. The process can be overwhelming and enough to make promising entrepreneurs quit before they start.

Heather Barker, assistant professor of design in the College of the Arts, along with her students and a team of innovators and researchers, have made the pathway to business ownership a bit easier with an interactive guide for entrepreneurs that enables them to manage the logistics of starting a business. The BizPort, adopted by the city of Long Beach, offers tips and step-by-step tutorials that not only guide potential business owners through the regulatory process, but offer sustainable plans and operations.

“We wanted to help the city understand what was relevant and what the people needed,” Barker said, “and let the people know they have to deal with the city experience and that’s valuable.”

Barker was recruited a year ago to help on the portal by former student, Harrison Huynh, a member of the city’s Innovation Team, and she didn’t waste time creating a partnership between the team and the school’s design department. Her students used their knowledge of design thinking, breaking down the whys and hows of starting a business, then applying them to the start-up process.

“The process of starting a business in Long Beach now is expedited and hopefully made more efficient,” Barker said. “My students helped with the design and for the second part we worked with Code for America for the app and webpage.”

Barker recently was honored by Mayor Robert Garcia with the City Innovative Award for her collaboration with the city on developing the business portal and her design thinking.

Her design thinking added a new framework for how policy impacts the experience of local business owners.

Barker’s revolutionary way of approaching a sound business plan has earned her not only civic honors, but worldwide recognition. She was invited to speak at a conference in Shanghai in December and has been contacted by officials in South Africa, Australia and various U.S. cities about her design.

Plus, innovation teams across Los Angeles County have started to employ designers to assist in the creation of tools similar to Barker’s plan.

“Cities all over are realizing that government needs to be innovative,” Barker said. “They are not working, they are stagnant, they don’t function.”

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