Alternative Imaginaries for the Smart City

(photo by Judith Leijdekkers; art by Richard Vijgen).

After more than a year of planning and delays due to the coronavirus epidemic, the project, a collaboration with Richard Vijgen and V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, and funded by the City of Rotterdam, is now live! The project builds on a previous project, How to Trip Over Data, and represents a continuation of my thinking about the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary.

Short description: The rise of the smart city as a dominant urban development paradigm has raised concerns about the public’s capacity to make sense of the technologies and policies involved. Accordingly, most efforts to engage the public with the smart city tend to focus on “demystifying” urban technologies – opening up the technological “black box” for public scrutiny.

While raising the public’s awareness of the technical apparatus of the smart city is an important task, we believe that it leaves untouched the more fundamental ideas and contexts within which urban technology is designed to begin with. Such ideas, sometimes referred to as social or urban imaginaries, have so far relied on technology vendors’ view of the city as a complex machine: a set of interconnected systems that need to be controlled and made more efficient.

But what if instead of accepting the urban tech industry’s push for optimization at all costs we asked the public how they see, feel and imagine the city, and developed urban technologies from their viewpoint? Would the public’s lived experience and perception of the city lead to different understandings of what urban technologies should be doing instead of what they can do?

(photo by Judith Leijdekkers).

Fieldwork: Social designer Judith Lijdekkers spent several weeks speaking to residents in two Rotterdam neighbourhoods, Reyeoord and Bospolder en Tussendijken (BoTu). Her detailed field notes were used to generate 6 design briefs that respond to what we’ve identified as important themes – revealed by asking residents what is important in their neighbourhood but remains invisible.

Workshop: We used the design briefs as a starting point for a workshop hosted at V2_, to which we invited 15 technologists, artists, designers, and urban researchers to consider how urban sensing technologies may be designed from the ground-up, reflecting local, neighbourhood-specific characteristics.

workshop facilitation in the age of corona…

Next steps: We’re planning to return to the neighbourhood to engage with residents on the ideas developed in the workshop. We also have plans for an interactive installation, and a series of speculative designs.

Dutch Design Week, 2020

I’m thrilled and honoured to take part in this year’s Dutch Design Week! Although events have moved online I’ll be on-site in Eindhoven to take part in a livestream/talkshow – part of Design United’s Up Close and Personal programme (update: recording available here). I’ll be speaking on one of the programme’s five themes, Silent Power, and have also written a short column on the topic for the occasion.

Trust me, I’m a Designer

Imagine you have just left the bar on your way home after a lovely evening on the town. You may have had a bit too much to drink, but that doesn’t explain the scent you’re smelling, and it certainly doesn’t explain why you are feeling so calm. On your way home you feel a bit tired, so when you spot a bench you quickly sit down to rest. After a few minutes the bench starts to emit loud sounds while vibrating wildly under your body! What does it want? Increasingly tired, with ears ringing, you call a cab. The car arrives quickly, but as it moves through downtown you notice that it is taking an unfamiliar, somewhat roundabout road. Why isn’t the driver taking the shortest route? You finally arrive home and use the app to open your door. The door, however, refuses to open. Puzzled by its refusal to cooperate, you sit down on the steps in front of your house and wonder, is someone playing a cruel prank on you?

When it comes to smart urban technologies the future is already here. Kind of. Networked sensors can be found in more and more places, feeding city algorithms with the data they need to make decisions about the flow of people, vehicles, energy, waste, and more. But as urban technologies become more complex, omnipresent yet unobtrusive, people seem to have less capacity to make sense of them. Simply stated, we don’t trip over data the same way we may trip over a crack in the pavement, and so raising the alarm almost always happens after the technology has already been deployed. Obviously, one doesn’t have to understand how a technology works in order to use it. I can’t begin to tell you how my computer, the internet or the browser you are using to read this column work – certainly not in detail – but it doesn’t seem to affect my ability to write, and yours to read. But if we, the public, want to be able to influence the way technology is designed and how it is being used by governments and corporations, we need to recognise that the design of technology involves more than just finding the most efficient or cost-effective way to do things. 

Design is a human activity that reflects our values, beliefs, imaginaries and motivations. Unmasking how this meshwork of interests impacts the design and use of technology, and with what possible consequences, is the primary task of critical design. Without it, we risk losing our ability to stay ahead of technology, leaving the future to be shaped by others. How do I know this? Trust me, I’m a designer.

Value Replacement Therapy at the UFS summer school

For the second year I had the pleasure of facilitating a design workshop as part of the Urban Futures Studio’s summer school, Futuring for Sustainability. This year the super-condensed-half-a-day-online workshop offered participants a taste of how designers speculate about the future from the designed artefact outwards.

My co-conspirator Lenneke Kuijer and I talking to a screen. (photo by Hilde Segond von Banchet)

In the first part of the workshop I helped participants perform what I call ‘value replacement therapy’: they selected an urban technology, and based on Schwartz’s overview of basic human values, tried to figure out what was the most dominant value associated with the technology. Participants then chose an alternative value (again, relying on Schwartz’s work) and redesigned the urban technology to reflect that alternative value. The last step in this part of the exercise was to imagine and animate the kind of future world within which the newly designed technology would be popular or could scale up.

Behind me is the Nureva Span interactive board on which participants created collages representing their design space. (photo by Hilde Segond von Banchet)

In the second part of the workshop my co-conspirator, Lenneke Kuijer, guided participants in considering how the newly designed technology would be used in everyday life. Participants reported on the new technology as anthropologists, and wrote short newspaper articles from the future (a technique I have used successfully before).

The results were quite outstanding, given the very short time participants had to dive into the brief and come up with concrete designs. Groups redesigned a bicycle to function as an environmental sensing agent; created a public bench that recharges the energy of those rich enough to use it; reimagined urban vehicles as safe spaces in an ecologically declining city; suggested gardening as a form of electoral renewal; and redesigned garbage bins to reflect neighbourhood spirits and inspire better waste disposal practices. No less important, participants seemed to enjoy the creative freedom of the exercise despite the tight timeframe and the challenges of collaborating across continents and timezones.

On Value Dynamics and Embracing Future Uncertainty

I’ve had the honour and pleasure of participating in the symposium that marked TU Delft’s 178th birthday. This year’s symposium was organized by the Delft Design for Values Institute, and included keynotes from Batya Friedman and Marco Steinberg (both received an honourary doctorate).

(photo by Roy Borghouts)

My short talk, one of three ‘pitches’ on the topic of value dynamics, argued that future-proofing (the idea that designers can fully hedge against future uncertainty) was both hubristic and uninspiring.

what if instead of framing design as anticipatory problem-solving, we considered it a form of imaginative wayfinding? What if instead of trying to tame the future, designers embraced its uncertainty?

The entire symposium can be viewed here. My talk starts at 1:22:20.

In conversation with Ibo van de Poel (left) and Batya Friedman (right).
(photo by Roy Borghouts)