Speculative Design for students

Interactive Technology Design (ITD) is a masters-level course that is offered as part of the DfI (design for interactions) MSc program at Delft University of Technology‘s Department of Industrial Design. The course introduces students to explorative prototyping as a “make first” approach to design, promoting the use of prototyping not just as a way to evaluate final concepts but as a way to come up with and flesh out those concepts.

In 2017 the course was dedicated to critical, speculative futures. Students were assigned one of seven themes (each conveying a societal issue with important future consequences), and were asked to design an interactive experience that communicates critically a possible future based on those themes. Instead of solving a problem, students were asked to communicate the problem. In the course syllabus we write:

Good prototypes will both be recognizable as belonging to these speculative worlds, and be capable of communicating elements of that world in a critical manner – using future developments as a way to problematize the present.

Themes included extended lifespan, immigration and refugees, urban development, hackable emotions, data and surveillance, labour, and information overload. The course’s coaching team was made of Aadjan van der Helm, Tomasz Jaskiewicz, Wouter van der Hoog, and me.

The design process combined futuring techniques with rapid prototyping, providing students with a playful, experimental environment in which they could be both creative and critical. In each class day (~9 hrs) student groups were asked to complete a full prototyping cycle: develop a future scenario, design and materialize an interactive prototype that communicates the scenario, and test the prototype with ‘real’ users.

The overall process included several steps:

  1. Developing familiarity with the theme/brief, including desk research and guest lectures from within and outside the department.
  2. Creating a two-driver scenario (resulting in a 2×2 scenario space) that takes place in the near(ish) future (20-30 years ahead).
  3. Developing a narrative that conveys one of the four scenario possibilities as an everyday situation, and identifying an interactive object within that story.
  4. Designing, building, and testing the interactive object.
  5. Reflecting on the day’s process in a short report.

The courses’s final exhibition featured 20 group projects. Each group was given a dedicated space, where students and visitors role-played the future situation using costumes, props, and additional media such as videos and music. Vice’s Motherboard reported on the exhibition here (in Dutch).

The top-five projects were invited to present demos in DeSForM 2017.

The AI Mayor
What if decisions about urban development were made by Artificial Intelligence?
The interactive experience played out as a faux public consultation: participant were asked to help the ‘mayor’ make a decision, only to find that the ‘mayor’ went ahead and made whatever decision he desired. The “blackbox” of urban design was seen for all of its opacity.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Tomo Kihara, Zoe Vos, Martijn Weber, Ziyi Zhang.

Lonely Astronaut Training
What if astronauts going on long solo missions had to receive special training for the loneliness such missions imply?
The experience included proximity detractors, sound and vibration messaging that went off whenever the astronaut/participant came into close contact with others. Loneliness became a teachable emotion.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Mina Boogaard, Claudia De León Castro, Tanja van der Heide, Anna Koolen, Michael Speek, Freek Trimbach.

The Datactor
What if it became practically impossible to assert the authenticity of consumer products?
Participants wore special gloves that upon contact with a product showed some relevant information about it. When several participants look at the same product the glove shows different, contrasting information. ‘Fake’ product information became a reality.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Renan Jordano de Barros, Irene van Houten, Jen Liu, Tamara Monster, Celeste Volpi.

The Republic of Tirania
What if refugees seeking asylum had to undergo genetic modification as a condition for being granted entrance?
Participants underwent scanning and simulated genetic modification in a small booth, after which they were given a fake passport in which white skin was turned dark and vice versa.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Wikke Alphenaar, Wies van Lieshout, Gijs Louwers, Guillermo Meza Perez, Yong Park.

Data Afterlife
What if our data became a living epitaph after our death?
By using a special device, participants could listen to the data traces of the dead. The device triggered voice playback once it came into proximity with a burial wall. Participants were also asked whether they would be willing to leave, posthumously, their data memories behind.

Photo by Guus Schoonewille

Group members included Thomas van Arkel, Mengyin Dai, Min Huang, Marije Schokkin, Elise Wabeke.

Next year’s iteration will be dedicated to speculative urban futures.

New publication(s)

After almost a year in the pipeline, the article that summarizes the installation’s pilot run was finally published in Ecology & Society. Here’s the abstract:

The imaginary worlds of sustainability: observations from an interactive art installation
By: Roy Bendor, David Maggs, Rachel Peake, John Robinson, Steve Williams

We report on preliminary results from a public engagement project based on a procedural approach to sustainability. The project centered on an interactive art installation that comprised a live actor, an immersive soundscape featuring a handful of different characters, an interactive touch-table, and four interactive rooms within which participants wandered, partially guided by a narrative through-line, yet at the same time left to make sense of any larger meanings on their own. The installation was designed to experiment with two propositions: (1) that there is value in public engagement with sustainability based on the exploration and articulation of deeply held beliefs about the world—the worldviews, values, and presuppositions that mediate perception and action; (2) that there is value in replacing the infocentric tendency of most public engagement on sustainability with an approach premised in aesthetics and experiential resonance. Following the installation’s two-week pilot run, our preliminary results indicated that the majority of participants found the experience both resonant and thought provoking, and were mostly willing to critically engage with their pre- existing notions of sustainability.

The full article is available online here. You can find a list of my publications here.


It took much longer, but the lecture I’ve given at SFU’s Institute for the Humanities (in Nov.2014!) now appears as a chapter in the anthology, Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media, edited by Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers, and published by Peter Lang (there’s an accompanying website too).

The essay presents a Heideggerian perspective on art videogames from which I develop what I call ‘Interactive World Disclosure‘. Here’s a scanned pdf of the chapter.

CFP for ICT4S 2018

After skipping 2017, the next iteration of the ICT4S conference will take place in just under a year in Toronto.

The keynote speakers – Bill Rees, Lisa Nathan and John Robinson – are fantastic, and I have the pleasure of serving on the organizing committee (poster co-chair).

Here’s the call for papers (it never hurts to plan ahead ;-)

Call for Papers, Workshops and Posters

The ICT4S conferences bring together leading researchers in ICT for Sustainability with government and industry representatives, including decision-makers with an interest in using ICT for sustainability, researchers focusing on ICT effects on sustainability and developers of sustainable ICT systems or applications.

Theme and Topics

The theme of the 2018 conference is “Thriving Communities”. The transformational power of ICT is essential to put our society on the path to sustainability. This potential could embrace all levels, from individuals to communities, from public sector to all industry sectors, from business goals to social aspirations and environmental objectives. ICT can bring people together to build thriving, resilient communities. Papers relating to ICT for sustainability in a broad sense and papers developing this year’s theme (and beyond) are welcome. Instructions for all types of submissions can also be found at the conference website.

Conference topics include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Sustainable community building via ICT
  • Grassroots movements facilitated by ICT
  • Resilience by ICT
  • Social sustainability implications, contributions and limitations of ICT
  • Enabling and systemic effects of ICT on society and/or the environment
  • Smart cities, homes and offices
  • Intelligent energy management in buildings
  • Smart grids
  • Sustainability in data centers and high-performance computing
  • Intelligent transportation and logistics
  • Green networking, monitoring and adaptation of software-intensive systems and services
  • ICT-induced behavioral and societal change
  • Design principles for sustainable ICT
  • Energy-efficient and energy-aware software engineering
  • Sustainability of technical infrastructures
  • Software for environmental sustainable ICT
  • Software for sustainable business governance
  • Reduced hardware obsolescence
  • E-waste and closed material cycles
  • Incentives for more sustainable ICT
  • Tools supporting green decision making and development
  • Challenges for an environmentally sustainable ICT industry
  • Education in ICT for sustainability
  • Systematic interdisciplinary efforts in ICT for sustainability

Workshops

We invite workshop proposals of traditional or unconventional formats for half-day or full-day workshops. Workshops will be held on Monday, May 14, and Friday, May 18, 2018.

ICT4S’18 workshops will facilitate the exchange of new ideas in all areas related to sustainability and technology research and practice. A variety of formats can be considered, ranging from traditional research paper presentations to extremely interactive and participatory sessions. We particularly invite proposals that cover controversial viewpoints, emerging technology drivers or transformative ideas aimed at changing basic assumptions.

Details of what should be addressed in the proposal and a more detailed description of the submission process will be posted on the website soon.

Papers

We welcome original papers and posters reporting on research, development, case studies, and experience reports in the field of ICT4S.

All papers must conform, at time of submission, to the IEEE Formatting Guidelines, and limited to at most 6,500 words, and 10 pages including text, appendices, figures and references. The current Word template and LaTeX files will be linked on the website soon.

Submission will be via EasyChair at https://www.easychair.org/conferences/?conf=ict4s2018.

There will be an open access publication for the conference indexed by all major data bases.

Journals First Track

We invite authors of recently published journals papers to present their work at ICT4S. Journals First papers should relate to ICT4S and describe original and previously unpublished results that significantly extend (or were not previously reported in) prior work. Papers that are extensions of previous conference papers, or which are minor enhancements or variants of the results presented in the prior work are not eligible.

For a journal paper to be eligible to participate, the paper must be:

  • In scope of the conference, see above for possible topics;
  • Accepted in one of the journals listed on this page;
  • Accepted for publication after May 15, 2016 and before November 15, 2017.

If you would like us to consider a paper published in another journal of equal reputation to those presented in the list on our website, please contact the Program Chair.

Posters

We invite submissions of high-quality extended abstracts for posters. Posters may present late-breaking research or work in progress. A poster can help attract interest and give a rapid overview of what your research is all about. At the conference, the work described in the extended abstract will be presented as a poster, ideally in interactive discussion with the audience. We especially welcome posters that describe proposed empirical studies. An attachment with a maximum of 2 additional pages must be included in the submission. The attachment must clearly state how the work described in the extended abstract is to be presented at the conference, emphasizing interaction potential and explaining how an engaging participant experience will be achieved. More details will be available on the website soon.

Important Dates

Workshop proposals
Proposal submission deadline: Oct 15 2017
Proposal acceptance notification: Oct 22 2017

Paper & Journals First submissions
Abstracts deadline: Nov 7 2017
Full papers deadline: Nov 15 2017
Paper acceptance notification: Feb 1 2018
Camera-ready deadline: Mar 1 2018

Posters
Submission deadline: Feb 15 2018
Poster acceptance notification: Mar 15 2018

 

Under the Cobblestones, the Maas

For a few weeks during November and December 2016, commuters exiting Rotterdam’s striking central station encountered a series of billboards situated along Kruisplein – the plaza that leads from the station southward toward the river Maas. The billboards depicted 12 alternative visions of a future Rotterdam. They were commissioned by the New Institute (Het Nieuwe Instituut) and were created by local designers.

woonvisie
(The billboards along Kruisplein)

Creating imaginary urban futures for public consumption is not new. New York’s World Fair of 1939-40, for instance, featured not one but two futuristic cities called Democracity and Futurama (I’ve written about the Fair here). More recently, the Museum of Vancouver, in collaboration with Urbanarium, held a similar exhibition from January to May, 2016, titled Your Future Home. While the Vancouver exhibition addressed fairly technical categories of urban design (residential density, public space, transportation and housing affordability), the visions located outside Rotterdam’s central station engaged with a mishmash of technical and aspirational categories such as inclusivity, new technology, sustainable prosperity, innovation, mobility, bottom-up, quality of life, circular city, vacant buildings, densification, energy transition and urban streets. Both exhibitions, however, were created by professional designers and architects, and were meant to stir discussion about urban design.

The exhibition came in response to a specific policy proposal: Woonvisie 2030. The controversial proposal sought to reduce the city’s stock of low-cost housing units by 20,000 and replace them with 16,000 higher-end units. Citizen groups that opposed the proposal forced the city to hold an advisory referendum on November 30, hoping that it would compel the city to re-evaluate the proposal and galvanize a strong opposition to what they saw as yet another act of gentrification in a city that lost close to 30,000 low-cost units since 2000. Alas, their plan failed. While opposition to the policy won a majority in the referendum (72.5%), turnout (16.9%) was lower than the minimum required to validate the referendum (30%). As consequence the policy could be green-lighted without further input from the public.

As the exhibition’s curators state, the 12 visions sought to expand and add nuance to the debate on the proposal.

The exhibition does not seek to provide advice on whether to vote for or against the City of Rotterdam’s urban development vision, but aims to challenge the city’s residents to think about how they want to live in the city fifteen years from now and thereafter. Alongside statistics and policy resolutions, it is important that designers’ visions are also part of the debate about something as important as the city’s future, especially in a city with such a rich tradition of experimental urban design. (source)

Looking at the different visions I was struck by several features. First, five of the twelve were driven by technological innovation. Take for instance this vision by Spark Design & Innovation:

woonvisie_car
(source)

Not only does this vision address the theme of mobility through a single technological driver (the electric car), but it also seems much too close to the present to actually evoke a radically different way to imagine the city. Further, while it adopts a narrative that reflects the Dutch values of autonomy and self-sufficiency (according to which electric cars can be seen as the next step in the evolution of bicycles), it neglects other important Dutch values such as efficiency and collectivity (contra Hofstede’s cultural indicators!). Shouldn’t a future Rotterdam seek to correct the mistakes made by its post-war designers and reject the prominence of cars in urban design?

Innovations in mobility drove several other visions such as De Straten (‘The Streets’) by Maxwan Architects + Urbanists (to which I return below), and Skycar City from MVRDV:

woonvisie_skycar

The coming decades will radically alter the city: a new kind of metropolis will be born, without roads and without traffic lights. We will park in the sky! The city will become truly three-dimensional! The city will liberate itself from the ground. Urban density will be lifted to a higher level. Welcome to Rotterdam, Skycar City!

But what would such ‘liberation from the ground’ mean for pedestrians? Will there even be pedestrians?

A different techno-utopian future was featured in a vision by Atalier van Lieshout. Here, the city will transcend the (perceived) tradeoff between sustainability and material prosperity and become both by building an underground nuclear reactor that will power all of the Netherlands. The generated wealth, oddly, will then be used to collectivize the harbour, making everyone even richer. But will this reversal of neoliberal economics produce rich individuals or a rich collective? It isn’t clear. It also isn’t clear how happy Rotterdammers will be living on top of a nuclear reactor.

woonvisie_energy

A second striking feature of the visions presented in the exhibition was the degree to which they were relatively pragmatic. Only a few of the visions were flashy and provocative, while the rest seemed fairly levelheaded, practical and, well, Dutch.

Take for instance The Stairwell from ZUS, in which Rotterdam’s empty offices can be turned into housing units by the simple addition of external staircases and useable facades to existing commercial buildings.

woonvisie_stairwell

Similarly, there’s nothing flashy about the proposal from West 8 urban design and landscape architecture:

The ultimate Rotterdam street is a lively urban street with a mix of living and working and a diverse range of housing, with pavements, trees and the promise of a river. The street and the buildings are raised above the highest flood line. The Maas whispers.

woonvisie_happy-street

The Happy Street depicted in the vision (and which gives it its name) looks like it could exist anywhere, the only sign of locality is the crane in the background, evidence of the street’s proximity to the port. Nonetheless, this vision integrates an important environmental factor: the street is located above the Maas’s highest flood line (although it’s unclear whether this vision already takes into account the anticipated impact of climate change on the regions waterways). What looks like the standard mixed-use street so popular with current urban designers is set in relation to the river’s natural ebb and flow, albeit, happily floating above the river’s pulse, almost oblivious to the flows that underlie it. “The Maas whispers”, but can the residents of Happy Street hear it?

Much like the previous visions, the one by &RANJ Serious Games assumes that an already existing technology holds the key for a new urban epoch. In this sense, it merely projects the present onto the future.

woonvisie_games

In the digital city of 2030, physical reality and virtual reality will be fused into a fantastic hyperreality. The city makes room for our imagination: it is no longer bound to the laws of time and physics but can take on all manner of forms. The city is tailored to each individual. It is a playground, a game in which the inhabitants can have unique, meaningful experiences and in which they can make, break and repair the rules.

Turning the city into a playground for its citizens’ imagination strikes me as a very appealing proposition, but the vision is eerily similar to the dystopian world imagined in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Wouldn’t such a gamified, customizable, blended reality end up producing a hyper-individuated experience of the city, one that is antithetical to the kind of urban sociality so many citizens crave? Must we be ‘alone together’ in the city of the future?

As Martijn de Waal argues in The City as Interface (2014), with their emphasis on efficient, customizable experiences, such technological visions conjure a libertarian ideal of urban citizenship according to which city dwellers are approached foremostly as individual consumers. They may be free to “organize life according to their own insights”, but as consequence reduce their involvement and solidarity with others.

As these visions make clear, the arrival of new technologies is expected to create new relationships between city dwellers. But it can also redraw the relations between urban forms and the natural environment – the interfaces between the artifactual and the natural. Take for instance the vision offered by Maxwan Architects + Urbanists I briefly mentioned above:

woonvisie_the-streets

In a clever homage to the very space in which the billboards stand (the premise of the city’s old zoo, the traces of which can still be found in proximate street names such as Diergaardesingel (‘zoolane’)), the vision features a green city centre made possible “when in a certain sense the car got its own brain”. Nature, in this vision, is invited back into the heart of the city once the car is no longer king in Rotterdam, albeit, it remains visibly and neatly confined. In a sense, nature becomes a complement of the “silent, elegant, almost invisible” characteristic of future cars; more of a trace of the nonpresence of automobiles than an entity in and of its own.

Nature plays a more central role in what are perhaps the two most provocative visions in the exhibition. In Felixx Landscape Architects & Planners‘s vision, the abundance of free renewable energy enables the transformation of the Kralingen Plas (lake) into a phantasmagoric pleasure dome, complete with both snowy and tropical landscapes. Ski-lifts and flamingos co-exist; Jevons’s Paradox be damned!

woonvisie_abundance

In this vision nature becomes the material out of which human pleasure and decadence are manufactured. It’s an artificial nature, nature sans nature. It signals the completion of the modernist project – the substitution of nature by manmade objects – the logical conclusion of the Dutch experiment in conquering nature.

In the second vision, Resillience by De Urbanisten, the city is visibly in the process of returning to its original, swampy origins. Monkeys, birds and humans share the re-wilded urban landscape as a sign of co-existence.

We live in a delta
In a city of ebb and flow,
Of to and fro,
Of give and take,
Everyone is welcome.

We do our dreaming together,
In a wonderful bath,
Fed by the warmth of the city.

Rotterdam is complete
Nothing is lost.
Whatever remains
Is a wellspring for the new.

woonvisie_resillience

Nature, in this vision, becomes a marker of a new hybrid urban form. A true symbol of a different urban experience – one in which nature is allowed to breech its confinements in neatly drawn canals, fields and parks. Not a remnant to discard nor a remainder to cherish, but an equal urban force whose presence is as significant as that of the built environment in the background. Without it, something is lost. With it “Rotterdam is complete”.

In this sense, this last vision represents not only a new relation between the city and the river that gives it its pulse and livelihood, but echoes the spirit of those anonymous Mai ’68 sloganeers: if we stop trying to repress them, the presence of already existing urban realities can be liberating and transformative. Under the cobblestones, the Maas.

 under-the-street-the-beach_1

* with thanks to Jotte de Koning for help with translation and to Emma Puerari for sharing a chilly winter’s excursion to the exhibition.

A few reflections following ICT4S

schilderij-KIT-680-bij-200-675x200

(The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam was the site of the conference. source)

My first ICT4S was lots of fun. There weren’t as many participants as in previous years (at least that’s what I’ve heard from those who have attended before), but those who came to Amsterdam proved to be both engaging and friendly. I’ve heard lots of very interesting ideas, were impressed by several research projects, and even found myself moderately hopeful about the future.

Having a day to recuperate, here are a few terse reflections:

Converstations

The conference was quite intensive and intentionally convivial. Instead of the standard academic practice of having a few papers presented frontally in a panel, usually followed by (often bland) discussion, here each paper was presented to a very small group (up to 5 people) sitting around a small table. Participants had the chance to select the papers they would like to discuss (based on a first-come-first-serve mechanism using sticky notes), and were then able to really engage with the author. Authors, on the other hand, had to present in 3 rounds, each lasting about 45 min (including discussion). Win-win for everyone, I think.

It was also great to have a moderator (more like a facilitator) throughout the two main conference days. It helped steer and stir things and draw more connections between the keynotes, papers and workshops. Peter Woodward did a fantastic job adjusting the atmosphere, prodding speakers and keeping people engaged.

The big news: decoupling

Perhaps the most impactful research presented were two papers that showed evidence (from Germany and from Sweden) that the growth of data has now decoupled from energy use. This means that the rate of energy reductions in data centres and communication networks has outpaced the increase in the material footprint caused by the massive growth of new data. I hope some version of the Jevons paradox will not render these developments meaningless…

IMG_2297

(‘Hygiene’, wood carving in the council room of KIT)

Thinking about the future can be liberating

One of the important lessons I’ve learned in the Computation Within Limits workshop is that co-creating future scenarios can evoke a truly liberating effect. While many participants started the day mired about the grim reality of our inability to keep within the planet’s ecological limits, after a few hours of co-designing future scenarios many of the discussions turned to values, worldviews and cultural conditions. The limits, to some extent, were left behind, replaced by more hopeful views of the future. And that suits me just fine.

Who doesn’t want to be smart?

If I had a dollar for every time the words ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ were appended to a technology or process I’d be able to buy the world’s largest stockpile of stroopwafels (can you dig it?!) It seems like the cybernetically inspired tendency to conflate ‘adaptive’ with ‘smart’ has found a perfect match with the irresistible temptation to make ‘intelligence’ the objective of every technology. (but at least the word ‘disruption’ only came up a few times).

Innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation 

Listening to the keynotes it occurred to me that the imperative to innovate is often understood as a demand for newness instead of a drive for meaningful, positive change. But in so many cases that newness has only marginal advantages (if any), yet may cost more in terms of material impacts if we are to produce a whole new generation of artifacts. Where would all the regular toasters go when smart toasters take over?

IMG_2298

(‘Volkekunde’ (ethnology), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

From smart homes to wise dwellings

There’s more than just a modicum of irony that the best paper award winner, which coincidently also won the ‘people’s choice’ award, suggested that instead of focusing on the technological affordances of smart homes we should look at the way traditional homes (in this case in the warmer countries of the Middle East) took advantage of natural processes to keep their interiors livable. Innovation by reversion?

Can research mirror values?

It was a bit discouraging to see that many of the research projects presented had little to no longitudinal aspects. It’s tempting, and often encouraged by granting agencies, to look at new phenomena or invent new devices or new methodologies, the upshot of which is that very little is done in terms of revisiting past research. This way we not only lose opportunities to learn about the deeper impacts of design, but also limit our capacity to collectively build a knowledge base of what works and what doesn’t. In this sense it’s a bit ironic (again!) that research on sustainability is itself not very sustainable.

IMG_2299

(‘Handel’ (trade), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

We are the world (not)

The vast majority of the research presented had to do with European countries and contexts. Given that the majority of participants came from those countries it is somewhat understandable, but I would think that what happens in China, India and other ‘emerging’ economies will impact sustainability futures no less (and perhaps even more) than whether Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands are able to reduce the environmental impact of their digital infrastructure. And if the hope is that ‘western’ innovation could then just be exported to other domains then we haven’t really learned much from the checkered history of international development. Which leads me to ask…

Who’s missing from the conversation?

My own, non-quantified impression is that the majority of conference participants came from the engineering world, and were mostly interested in the material impacts of large technological infrastructure (energy utilities, data centres, communication networks, digital devices). I think it would be great to have more social scientists, humanists and artists take part in future conferences. This may inject some discussion about real people (and not prototypical ‘users’) and about the social, cultural and political contexts within which ‘they’ engage with technically-mediated sustainability. It would also be very nice if at least some of those people and contexts would represent the developing South and marginalized communities.