If the 19th century was about discovery and the 20th century about obtaining efficiency, then the 21st century will be about living with complexity. Complex adaptive systems are so big and interconnected that any interference with their workings causes unpredictable side effects. In these systems (such as a city) you are almost always dealing with situations that need to be addressed and rarely with problems that can be solved. For this new way of working, where every step forwards needs to be taken with caution, we need a new method, a new language and a new approach. The finding and fine-tuning of this way of working with the world was what for me the UrbanIxD summer school was about.
The challenges for cities are many: what should they expect from technology? How will the networked computer change the way we work? What are the possibilities and limits of urban change in a democratic framework? What about our environment and resources, and how can we include other people, legislations and resources in this challenge?
Challenge the major consensus narrative
In the 18th century the idea that the world is knowable, and therefore all its problems solvable, took root. And ever since it has manifested itself in many different big narratives. In the last decades the idea of a world where all problems can be solved has become a powerful tool in the hands of technology companies and has been rebranded several times from information to knowledge society and from cyberspace to beyond. In the summer school we dealt with its latest incarnation the idea of Big Data and Smart Cities, a narrative once more dreamed up to get all humanity facing the same way. Hidden in the midst of it, is the assumption that obtaining information and achieving efficiency are goals superior to any other. As Ghandi once said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed, and there is certainly more to cities than increasing the efficiency of garbage, traffic or electricity systems (no matter how lofty these goals are). One of the summer school’s goals was therefore also to challenge the, as Bruce Sterling calls it, ‘major consensus narrative’.
Not only does the Smart City as a solution rely on efficiency obtained through technology, the benefits will also –as is usually the case with big narratives– only reveal themselves in the nearby, but never reachable future. Like El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, the future always sparkles and twinkles a little bit over the horizon, luring in travellers from afar, roaming nomads who are willing to bring the greatest sacrifices in anticipation of infinite returns. (For a more thorough analyses of the problematic ideas behind Smart Cities see Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city teaser.)
Although certainly less exciting –and harder to sell– a healthier approach to future-making is to see it as a mundane side effect of making life a little better here and now. Future-making as a ceaseless process of prototyping and story telling, whereby it emerges not as the end product but as the scraps of ideas swept in the corner after cleaning the atelier for another day of workshops. The future should not focus on what technology can do for us, but help us explore and expand what it means to be human (without destroying ourselves and our environment in the process). The school provided some hints of a process to accomplish this.
In a world where more than 50% of all humans live in cities –and even more than 70% in Europe- the city is the predominant scale of civilisation to work with. Big enough to host a broad spectrum of human life, yet still small enough to be travelled through in one day. Where the idea of a nation is mostly the result of careful campaigns and history books, the city is much more alive, an ever changing mix of prototypes and stories. How cities function as stories became very clear to me in Split, no longer surrounded by the familiar of smoky London, some of my previous ideas of what made a city of the future –locals working away on laptops in coffee shops– suddenly felt of another space-time, whilst new ones –locals working in restaurants, as guides or as apartment hosts– became a different way of seeing future cities. In a further continuing globalisation it is important to realise the very strong influence place has on what can be thought and made. In ways not earlier realised by me, the city is as much constructed in the mind of the citizen as the citizen’s mind by the city.
The atelier of the neighbourhood
If we zoom in further we arrive at a place that is local –or more likely these days, a set of places that together form someone’s local environment. These places the size of a street or block are where the workshops of continuous future-making take place. The atelier of the neighbourhood provides the best scale for on-going workshops where prototypes and stories are created, enacted and remade. It allows the most democratic way of future-making, with the greatest amount of options and dialogues.
One great talk on this topic was by architectural collective 9.81 whose practice focuses on people, events and legislations instead of construction. In a few abandoned sites left by the disappearance of both the communist state and heavy industry, they work relentlessly to breath new life into old spaces. As Dinko Peračić stated, “in general in Europe we don’t have to build much more”, and therefore the role of the architect has changed from the creator of buildings to the initiator of use. This, however, comes with a new set of questions: how do you bring life into abandoned places? How do you convince local and higher government to adapt the laws to make new things possible? How do you find new models of finance? And how do you convince the local public that reuse and not demolition is the right way forward? For example, they showed an abandoned factory, where they started out with nightly architecture seminars around a projector and some cardboard chairs, and eventually developed it into a great local hub.
Another case is the building the summer school took place in. Originally conceived as a theatre, it was never finished and for the last 35 years has been waiting for its legal fate. In the meantime, however, it has been taken over (supported although not legalised by the city of Split) and now hosts a variety of uses such as a supermarket in the basement, a climbing wall, a youth club, a nightclub, a health centre, a dance club, a theatre, a gallery and an atelier space big enough to host our summer school of 60 people for 10 days. This building offers an amazing example of how with the help of smart citizens and light technology, old places can become new hubs of global local communities. Places where, while no problems are solved definitively, issues are addressed relentlessly, and where the mundane future is produced iteration after iteration in a slow but ever-evolving process.
These hands-on approaches run very much counter to the idea of the big narrative, big budgets and big construction sites, and are much more in line with an alternative way. This way is made up of a multiplicity of stories and prototypes: a set of building blocks, each one compact enough to stay together, yet flexible enough to be infinitely remixed, recombined and reused. To build the future we need more building blocks and less big ideas.
The continuous workshop
To make the continuous workshop a success we have to mix four key ingredients: the question, the critic, the story, and the prototype.
The continuous workshop of future-making uses questions and critics to create building blocks of prototypes and stories that can be remixed indefinitely
Questions are the driving force of any endeavour. Unlike answers, they get better with age; they gain both breadth and depth and become ever richer and layered as time goes on. A good question is inexhaustible and allows new ideas to be continuously generated without ever coming to a stop. It enables us to explore and expand what it means to be human.
The second ingredient is the critic, a role that everyone should take on. There are many forms that critical thinking can take: we can be facilitators, builders and writers, but always we function in our role of challenging assumptions. In the summer school we found that groups of 3 or 4 people formed the best teams; for smaller groups the time constraints became a challenge, and for larger groups a lot of time was lost in discussion.
So what should all these critics in workshops question? And what form should their critique take? In the school this was done through the production of design fictions and critical design objects, or stories and prototypes. They are the strongest building blocks that we can use to remake and re-imagine the world we live in.
In this world, prototypes become stories made tangible, and stories turn into prototypes made fluid. Everything, no matter how big or small, should be seen as a prototype, to recognise that its current use and configuration is potentially temporary and unfinished. Everything is always on the way to becoming something else, and we have the power to shape what this will be.
Stories capture questions and answers in a way that allows us to imagine and bring to life possible worlds. The school was the place where we could start to fill the world with human-centred stories of hybrid cities, little data and smarter citizens. In our project we investigated a space beyond utopia/dystopia and explored mundane futures where even the latest technology is full of usability problems and people are –just like today- struggling actors in an ever-increasing technological world.
To make it possible for the questions, critics, stories and prototypes to work together, it is good to remember that all our efforts are forever incomplete and that we therefore should actively explore, create and reveal seams, cracks and in-between spaces: the fringes that allow us to forever multiply our questions, our options and our dialogues.
The UrbanIxD summer school was an amazing event, a week where through workshops and critical questions, guided by prototypes, stories and wise old atelier leaders the future slowly came to light. A place where we laughed, cried, and stretched our minds beyond imagination.
Brute force architecture and its discontents - fascinating article on the inner-workings of the continues workshop of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA
Manifesto for the Smart Citizen - great article by Dan Hill about the challenges of smart cities and what we can do about it
Adam Greenfield’s Speedbird – everything Adam has been writing on Smart Cities the last year is worth reading
UrbanIxD Summer School – Projects – section of the summer school site slowly filling up with the productions the participants made
In April I attended UPLondon, an event dedicated to Smart Cities. 3 days, 20 talks and 4 debates later however, I understood less about the topic than I did before. As if the writers of The Wire had decided to turn Calvino’s Invisible Cities into a mini-series, everything connected, everyone had a hidden agenda, and every decision caused more side effects than solutions. It made it clear that cities are complicated systems, where every attempt to define a city creates a new city on the spot.
Although grand goals are easy to distinguish and to agree on, who wouldn’t want a sustainable, safe city with equal opportunities for everyone? The details of, and conflicts between, these goals is where well-lit boulevards quickly turn into dark alleys. The simple idea of a Smart City, turns out to be an endlessly interconnected situation where no one person can understand, measure, determine or plan what to do next.
One thing that contributes to Smart City’s ambiguity are the many ways people relate to data. There were people who converted data into data, turned data into plants, who gave away money for good usage of data, who used data to sync desk lamps, people who worried about the lack of privacy, or too much privacy, about traffic light sensors, about parking lot sensors, about air sensors, about equality and inequality, and the eternal question of who would pay for all this.
Overall, there were many good ideas presented. Here’s my list of 8 of them in order of appearance:
1. System thinking
“We’re more interested in looking at systems instead of sectors” said James Taplin of Forum for the Future. Splitting up problems into ever smaller parts has done wonders for creating the most complex society in history, but it has come with painful downsides that cannot be solved by even more specialisation. Thinking about a city as a collaborative/ social/ technological/ economical/ physical/ political/ cultural/ legal/ political entity might not be the easiest, but surely is the only realistic way forwards. If designers could contribute anywhere, creating insight in this complex system would be a great place to start. Hopefully we can soon see talks appearing on lean urbanism, urban pair design, strategic design, urban prototyping and balanced urban teams.
2. The poetics of digital technology
Marjan Colletti spoke about the poetics of the digital and hiding technology behind a more human face. A world less obsessed with pictures under glass, with data and efficiency and more interested in exploring the poetic side of technology and the eternal ambiguity of being alive sounds a lot more interesting than the visions that Microsoft and Nokia try to feed us.
3. Start small and reuse
Mischa Dohler spoke about using ugly cash to kickstart a smart city revolution. He gave the example of his project of implementing sensors in parking lots. The data can be used to find a parking spot, but the sensors are paid for by people who overstay or forget to pay for their parking spot. Besides using ugly cash, I’m also wondering if we can (re)use the hundreds of daily data streams that are already recorded by companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Addison and Lee, DHL and Royal Mail. Perhaps their data could be used by local government to do better traffic planning and infrastructure management at a cost a lot lower than placing sensors everywhere themselves.
4. Trust proxies
Several people wondered how the Internet of Things could be adopted by more people and companies. One answer to get make IoT more ubiquitous and get things like house automation, automatic heating and intelligent lights widely adopted is through trusted proxies such as the iPhone and iPad. It’s interesting to see the enormous influence that the introduction of these devices has been on the rise of Internet-enabled devices. These days there is hardly a sensor left without an iPhone app.
5. Smart cities are not about technology
That cities are for people came up many times, interestingly, to argue for opposite positions. On the one hand people argued that smart cities could be rolled out in no time if only citizens, bureaucrats and business leaders wouldn’t stand in the way. On the other hand, speakers argued that it’s not about using technology to solve problems, but about enabling people to become smart citizens. In our hastiness to see technology as the answer to unasked questions, we keep on creating problems much bigger than the ones we tried to solve.
Privacy was also often discussed, almost always in the form of a question. Should cities be allowed to demand data from companies and individuals to effectively run their operations more efficiently? Should people be able to trade their data as a commodity? Should those who refuse to share be defended? If you drive the only anonymous car on the road, you’re pretty easy to spot. Should the city’s data be centralised in large databases where one small hack can reveal a whole city or should people own their own data and share it at their own choice? Should people be allowed to opt out, even when this means society as a whole is worse off? Thanks to Google glass we finally have an object that we can start using as an artefact for many of these debates, and I’m curious to see when the first court cases will show up.
7. What is tracking me?
Dr. Ian Brown wonders how we can agree or disagree to be tracked. Should devices send out special signals to notify that they are watching you? Should every wall be covered with lists of sensors listening in? Should our only means of action be to avoid these locations? Can we get data from the sensors in our periphery? Again, more questions than answers.
8. The system had a sick day
Mischa Dohler mentioned the problem with parking sensors: if the sensor spots a car who hasn’t paid, it automatically sends out an inspector. But, what if there is a very reasonable reason to park there? Perhaps the driver felt unwell and parked the car as soon as she could. Could the inspector make a human decision and pretend it was a sensor malfunctioning? Can we build space for ambiguity and exceptions in our system and refer final judgement always to a person?
The UPLondon event is a great addition to the Smart Cities and Internet of Things landscape and brought together an amazing range of speakers and ideas. I hope it will return next year and I can’t wait for the future to arrive.
* Header image by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
For the third year running, The Design of Understanding dedicates itself to escaping the ruins of the Cartesian project. René’s rules of science that helped kick-start the enlightenment project “to divide each of the difficulties [...] encountered into as many parts as possible”  enabled humanity to decipher the earth, the universe and the human body at a speed never seen before. Yet as it now slowly starts to dawn upon us, this idea of dividing does not help much when we have to unwrap the complex system of our current world and even less in suggesting what should be done to create positive change in the future. Mapping the old theory of science on the complexity of the world leads to a situation once humorously explained by Borges through a fictional Cartographers Guild:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it 
If Descartes’ rules don’t bring us any closer to understanding our now and building our future, what should we do? Some try to find the answer in ever more data points, others turn to new-age religions and yet others start to play with the information at hand. In this quest for a post-Cartesian understanding of what the world is, could, and should be, the Design of Understanding provides a helping hand.
Luckily, these ‘as many parts as possible’, be it words, atoms, bits or people, behave, although not perfectly predictable, also not entirely at random. The Lorenz system (see image on top) as shown by Beeker Northam is a great visual representation of this.
Matt Cottam tells the story of Tellart, a 21st century industrial design company, who worked with Google to create an installation to make the internet understandable. Moving from the digital to the physical world came with unexpected constraints. Lawyers pointed out that children needed to keep their privacy; how though can you do this whilst also allow them to connect their museum visit with their computer at home? A colourful personal logo-card turned out to be the solution. Physical scale started to play a role too: you might be able to make a hundred thousand facial drawing print-outs for actual visitors, but what about a hundred million web visitors? Suddenly virtual turns out to be not so virtual at all and take lots of material and maintenance. To make sure the Amazon rainforest had any chance of survival they skipped printing on paper and invented a sand-drawing robot and also the world’s first whiteboard eraser robot.
Joe Parry, builder of the network visualisation tool Keylines, mentioned how hard it is to understand networks. We cannot understand a network unless we see it, and even when we see it we cannot understand anything with more than a 1000 nodes. Because of the size and complexity of networks in a remarkable amount of cases the easiest way to gain understanding is by printing everything out and placing it on the wall. His tool Keylines allows users to go through large datasets with more ease and at higher speed. It allows to answer questions such as: who are the network leaders, who are effective communicators, what are the effects when person x leaves the network? Ultimately understanding the network means understanding the place of each node in the network and being able to explain the network in both in and at a high level.
Phil Gyford tells the story of his decade-long project of blogging Samuel Pepys’s diary at the speed of one entry per day, laughingly quoting Steward Brand “A building is not something you finish, it’s something you start”. He also noted the ability of a web-based diary to map the world in time and space, and wondered where do you stop explaining: there are always more maps, paintings and articles –more context– you can add.
Llyod Shepherd, writer of historical fiction goes through his process of note-taking. With better tools and more information at our disposal note-taking has become easier. Choosing which notes to take though has become a lot harder. And the act of sense-making has become an ongoing tour-de-force. To deal with an abundance of data, note-taking ultimately becomes a personal and aesthetic act.
Justin McGuirk shows various Latin American architecture projects, demonstrating that designing houses is the easy part. For architects the hardest part and the part where they can make the biggest difference is in influencing the system: talking to politicians, to neighbourhood committees, to lawyers and the police to make it possible to not only build new housing but to change the infrastructure and the way the city functions. He shows an example of a project where instead of building the conventional solution of a road to connect the suburbs to the center, the architects managed to build a cable car cutting down the transport time from two hours to nine minutes, all without massive physical changes to the urban environment. He ends with a set of guidelines that are as true for architects as they are for designers: to achieve the impossible you have to focus on redesigning the system by being an extrovert, a catalyst, a connector of the informal with the formal and a performer in a show of policies, laws, developers and inhabitants. What you design is not so much the object as the system in which this object can exist.
Design of Understanding 2013 — Aden Davies
Design of Understanding 2013 — Rodcorp
Design of Understanding 2013 – Mark Barratt
Sketchnotes — Eva-Lotta Lamm
Sketchnotes — Boon Yew Chew
Last year’s review
We’ve become too practical
I’m a big fan of agile, prototyping and lean. I think a hands-on, iterative and getting-things-done process is great. But we’ve lost something. The obsession with making things real limits the scope of the things we can make real. It limits us to what is possible within the constraints of our current understanding. Companies due to their nature, are obsessed with tangible details and their delivery focused operations keep us on the path of incremental innovation. We get what we optimised for, an endless series of extrapolations: faster, lighter, bigger, cheaper. All very useful, but what about a different world? A space far beyond the horizon of the next sprint, the next launch, the next round of funding? A world of dreams, of ideas, a stranger world?
Recently I was approached by Hatch – a startup run by a good friend – asking if I could do some UX for them. Since working with startups has always been a great experience, I was more than happy to help. To find out how I could bring their product closer to their ambitions, I outlined a plan that allowed me to understand the product and the business vision, the current and potential customers and the environment in which they want to place themselves.
Understanding the business and defining the project goals
When I came in, Hatch was already six months in development and wanted to strengthen their focus on agencies and partners and make it a pleasant experience to build applications on top of the platform. This helped me formulate a goal for the two weeks of work: to understand the audience, to address usability issues, to create items for the roadmap and to start with a redesign for the home page.
Find potential customers to test and interview
First, I split up ‘the user’ into several distinctive roles (designer, developer, community manager) and outlined their presumed workflow. Second, I approached some people in agencies to take part in usability testing and contextual interviews. I made some short scenarios and a set of questions to create a framework for exploring and discussing the platform. The tests helped us uncover expectations and a list of enhancements. This allowed Hatch to better prioritise their road map and to immediately update the platform based on the findings.
What we found
Interviewing our participants lead to two interesting findings. First, for their own projects people prefer WordPress, a blogging platform, over specialised CMS platforms such as Drupal and Joomla (something that matches general statistics). The second finding especially useful for the communication is that the platforms agencies worked with, Sharepoint, Lithium, SiteCore, were often not their choice but a platform already chosen and paid for by their clients.
The short schedule created a strong focus, testing and interviewing users early on and during the whole process enabled us to focus on addressing the things that mattered, which were often different from those we had thought were important. The schedule of one testing session every other day allowed to test all the changes directly. The results from the interviews made it possible to outline the features and benefits our participants deemed most essential and therefore should be communicated in the site redesign.
Two weeks might not sound like much, but when you have direct access to developers and customers a lot can be done. The main thing to focus on is not the artifacts but effective communication. Since the developer was sitting next to me, creating sketches for items he was working on and enhancement and bug reports for things he would be working on in the weeks to come was enough of a deliverable to keep things moving forward.
This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Geeky
Thanks to a side project on time mapping I became interested in the design implications of a set of questions that are collectively known as the eternal questions.
1. What are eternal questions?
Eternal questions are concerned with meaning. They arise from people’s experiences with the world, and have no definitive answer. Famous questions are: what is the meaning of life? What is a good life? What makes a good person? What is beauty? What is love?
Although they cannot be answered definitively, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be productively discussed. Through the centuries countless people have come up with answers. Some believed they answered a question once and for all, others were more modest and saw their answer only as one of many possibilities.
Many of us are familiar with Douglas Adams’ answer from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “42″, the answer to life, the universe and everything. But there are many others:
Inspired by the simple and colourful life of Tahiti, Paul Gauguin wondered: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And came up with a surprisingly colourful answer.
In what turned out to be his final work, Dostoevsky created The Brothers Karamazov a story about three brothers and a father with very different ideas about what makes a good life.