The futures of the city

Why do we talk about the future in the singular, when at any moment in time there are many futures to consider?

At the London IxDA April meet-up I shared some of the things I learned at the Urban IxD summer school, a workshop event where we worked on various scenarios for the futures of cities.

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LSE Urban Data conference – a review

Adam Greenfield’s LSE symposium ‘Urban data: From fetish object to social object’ set out, as Greenfield stated, to “problematise the area of urban data”. An aim it easily achieved: by the end of the day I collected way more questions than answers. It turns out that once you stop fetishising data and start using it as a social object what you get are keen insights into the functioning of local politics.

Listening to all the stories told I felt most of them went through a four step process:

1. Collection of data
Starting with an existing dataset might sound easier than collecting it yourself, but it comes with the challenge that all data is inherently political. Someone, somewhere has to chose what to measure and what to ignore. Therefore, to inherit a dataset means to inherit the constraints and politics under which it was produced. When you start from scratch at least you have some control of what you gather and with what purpose.



2. Turning data into a social object
Although there is more and more data available and strategies can be found to collect it when it’s absent, the creation of maps that function as a social object for political change still remains in the domain of experts. Nevertheless there were some hopeful stories of community workshops where experts shared their knowledge with local community members.



3. Data being used as social object
This is the step that is often skipped with popular online infographics and data visualisations. How to use a map as a tool for change. In almost all the stories people stated: “And then we printed large versions of the maps, took them back to the communities, placed them on tables and used them to facilitate discussion about what to do next.”



4. Continuation of the availability of data
One of the biggest challenges is how a one-off data collection can be turned into an ongoing measurement. Councils can see up-to-date data as an easy way be held accountable for the failure to deliver on promises. Research grants often don’t last longer than a few years, and the enthusiasm of volunteers often grows tired after a while. Can there be, as one of the attendees mentioned, a body that provides neutral data that both government and activists can use to support their cases?




Although all speakers shared great stories two of them stood out for me:

Paula Z. Segal – 596 Acres
Paula told the story of 596 acres of unused city owned land in New York. This land acquired by the city over a period of decades was only available as a spreadsheet but a group of volunteers created a custom build map (code available on GitHub) and made it accessible to a wider audience. When they were done it clearly showed that “these areas were not evenly spread over NY but clustered in certain areas, observed as spreadsheet this was almost impossible to see.” With their aim to connect people to use the land together, their website grew into a digital bulletin board. Having digital data and being online is, however, not enough.
A note on a plot
A striking example of the physicality of the project was their work to place signs on many individual lots with the government’s system name and the phone number to reach the person responsible at the borough. Once you can connect the local person in the borough with the right person at the borough’s office you can start making things happen.

*Header photo is also from the project

Yaşar Adnan Adanalı – Networks of dispossession
Yaşar told the story of how the occupation of Tahrir square inspired him and his fellow creators of Mülksüzleştirme to start mapping the power structures surrounding Turkey’s real-estate market. He stated: “urban transformation creates winners and losers and is not a zero-sum game. And always the losers are those that were already worse off.” When they looked at the transformation of Istanbul’s inner city it felt like an invisible hand kept pushing projects to take place no matter how much protest there was.

“We started with Google docs and mapped the companies, government, budget and the legal framework that allows this to happen – we linked them to existing sources, so that people couldn’t claim we were making it up.”

Well-known projects and media companies allowed people a way in to start exploring the data visualisations on their website and enabled them to uncover the invisible hands that had been pushing the projects. The visualisation of this abstract data gave them a new power and allowed them to present a new discourse. And coincidence or not, but not long after the website went online Turkey was shocked by a major corruption scandal surrounding large building projects.

Thanks to Adam Greenfield, LSE , the speakers and attendees for creating such an interesting day.

Other posts I wrote on urban Interaction design that might be of interest :
8 Ideas for Smart Cities
UrbanIxD: The continuous workshop of future making

Design of Understanding 2014 – a reflection

The Design of Understanding asks the question: what does it mean to understand in a postmodern world? An age where Truth with capital T has disappeared, where the big narrative has been replaced by 140 character sound bites and where systems of flow have become the preferred model of understanding the world. And where, on top of all this, digital technology provides us with a maelstrom of data but where tools to play and make sense of these facts are still few and far apart.

To think in systems means to focus on the relations between nodes. We can see the world, for example, as a flow of people (or smaller groups like consumers, managers and service providers), of money, of information, of goods, of regulations and even of ideas. To choose which relations to map depends on our question and our expected outcome.

Even when we use adaptive systems as a model of understanding the world, we still haven’t escaped our age-old problem: no matter how hard we try, no matter how much data we collect, we must choose what to put in and what to leave out. By picking one flow over another, we remain haunted by the feeling that there could be another, a better way of understanding the world just beyond our reach.

To design for understanding is then to create tools and methods that can be used to work one’s way through the world, to enable people to find that brief moment of clarity they need to take the next step.

Tony Quinlan – Chief storyteller at Narrate
Tony shared a brief history of storytelling in organisations. It all started somewhere in the middle ages; during an apprenticeship you listened to the stories of your master and these stories allowed you to build up a pattern library against which you could match new situations and decide what to do. Later in the 1990’s, there was an attempt of managing by storying around. There was the quest for the perfect story, a beautiful heroic tail. Unfortunately it didn’t work. Because, as Tony stated, “when we lose the failures in stories, people don’t trust them anymore and the effect is unilluminating.”

Our current phase started around 2005, where underpinned by science we discovered that we are matching patterns not against the best, but against the first pattern we can think of. We build this library of patterns from stories our friends share, from newspapers and TV and from snippets of conversations we overhear in the corridor. What makes things complicated for companies is that it turns out we learn more from stories of failure than those of success.

In conclusion, to tell a good story we should aim to understand the world from someone else’s perspective. It is not the grand stories but the “stories at the coffee machine that matter.” We need to evolve stories not by engineering them ever more cleverly but by nurturing those that are already out there. In his experience in working with gangs in Mexico, he discovered that from the hundreds of depressing stories you hear, you should find those true tales that do have a hopeful message, stories that by themselves already encourage retelling and “amplify these moments of light.”

Tony’s slides can be found here, for a deep insight in the theory have a look at this.

David Sheldon-Hicks – Design Leader of Territory studio
What surprised me in David’s work as SciFi UI designer was hearing about the amount of physical work that is involved in building sets for science fiction films. I’d expected that by now all SciFi films were completely created in 3D software but it turned out that in a film like Prometheus most of the interiors were actually build in the studio. The benefits, as David stated, are numerous: “the director of photography can exactly see what they will get, actors can now see what they can touch” and as a designer “instead of figuring things out in post production, you can build up some rationale” of how your interface should work.

A second gem was that even for fictional interfaces they use as much real world inspiration as they can find. For the dashboard of Prometheus they mixed the shapes of coral reefs, with weather maps and data from NASA.

*Image of Prometheus via Territory Studios

Andy Kirk – Visualising consultant at Visualising Data

Provided a great list of works he found interesting from the last years.

The challenge that Andy highlighted was that the possibilities of building tools for visualising complex data are constrained not by what can be imagined or created, but by what can be made understandable.

Video via

Things become interesting when you can convey an emotion and tell a story. The once sleep-inducing TV broadcasts of Great Britain’s sail team in the Olympics were revolutionised by infographics on TV. It’s a great example of how successful information design can change a whole game.

Another interesting development are experiments with data visualisation tools that go beyond the visual. One example is the work of Brendan Dawes, where he used a 3D printer to spatialise and compare his Twitter usage of 2010 and 2013.

Jo Roach – COO Makielab
Jo showed the benefit of a good story. Her product, a posable doll, became the example for newspapers to explain what 3D printers could be used for. After Wired magazine wrote an article about them, the first 100 sold very quick. After that came the hard work of finding ‘real’ people, not only nerds to sell the product too.

She also shared the story that to understand the inner workings of a system you need perseverance to keep on working on figuring things out. She said: “being first is hard, building something with moving parts is even harder.” Their customers started to complain about the joints that wore out after extensive use. It turned out that to fix this problem they had to talk to an an awful lot of people and only after 5 months, almost by pure chance, they stumbled upon someone who knew the solution to having moving parts that don’t wear out with excessive wear.

Durrell Bishop – New Product Development Lead, Berg Cloud
Started off strong by stating: “we have a poor set of tools and language to understand new systems” the lack of tools and language make it very hard for designers to design for understanding.

The approach that he perfected was to understand things by making them tangible. He shared a wonderful concept of an answering machine video and some sketches of students who used kitchen utensils to explain the inner workings of a video recorder. Based on these tangible models you can redesign the interface to provide the details that allow people to come up with a mental model of how to understand the system.

Durrell Bishop Marble Answer Machine from Luckybite on Vimeo.

What I felt after this talk is that in the 21st century we’ve lost touch with our tools. Now that software is eating the world, the stories we once used to make sense of the world are no longer sufficient. The great work that designers did in the 20th century —typography, grids, colour theory and composition— now seem entirely unequipped to provide people with a sense of understanding of the tools created in this century. And we need to work hard on methods of explanation like animations and interactive application to provide people with an understanding that they’ve since then lost.

Matt Sheret – Writer and editor at GDS
Matt stated that: in a responsive age of mobile, laptop and tablet, combined with Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, comics have to adapt. Where once the page was fundamental element, now it has become the panel.

There are four strategies that comic makers can use: one is to pretend nothing is happening and to hide in comic book stores and wait until the digital wave is over. Another is to tread the web as a page, like the XKCD comic, when you reduce your comic to the size of one frame it will work in almost any circumstance. The next is a labour intensive way: create a different solution for every format, have a Tumblr, a Twitter and a Facebook comic. And the last one is to see the internet as a new playground, have stories move from one size to another, from Twitter to Facebook to printed pages. Sadly it turns out that internet is not as permanent as once believed. The reality is one of dead URLs, lost pages and broken stories. His advice then was to act like the old days and encourage every user to start building their own digital attic of the internet.

Matt Sheret’s notes of his talk

Simon Esterson – Creative Director of Eye Magazine
Those who stated that newspapers and magazines are doomed group too much together. If we see a newspaper as a fast-moving system to put images and text together, it’s clear that the internet can do this much better. Magazines, however are a much more sophisticated way to combine the two. Pushed by lower printing cost and easier ways of designing and collaborating, we are witnessing the rise of small magazines such as Apartamento, The Ride, Reportagen, Root+bone, Alpine review, Offscreen and even The Long Good Read a collaboration between The Guardian and The Newspaper club. They are not trying to compete with the internet but focus on their strength of monthly and quarterly publications.

Nic Newman – Journalist and technologist
The news system has become dysfunctional; through a combination of mobile, social networks and an increasing time pressure, it has become an “ephemeral media.” Whereas old news sites would get their visitors first from portals and later from search engines, a site like Buzzfeed gets 75% of its visitors from social media.

However, there is hope. When sharing, people do not mind lenght so much, both short and long stories are happily shared, the only thing they actively avoid is sharing a story without a concrete pay-off.

Annalee Newitz – Viral Journalism and the Valley of Ambiguity

Both shorter and longer stories do well, it’s the length of 500-800 words where you don’t want to be.

As a result of this social media sharing boom news has become both a lot shorter like Circa, Buzzfeed, UsVSth3m and 15 seconds and much longer, like Snowfall, Matter, Long Reads, Narratively, the slow news movement and the success of crowd-funded news site De Correspondent. Not only have many new parties joined the news landscape also the articles themselves have become more a mix of writings, visual, and data journalism.

Russell Davies – Creative Director at GDS
Russell shared his counterintuitive discoveries in working for large organisations. When presenting to an influential audience it’s not always about the facts; some like stories, some like data, others just like pictures. He recalls witnessing Rem Koolhaas winning a pitch for a $300 million building by pointing at the model and stating “Look how beautiful this is.”

In the end people in large organisations, even those in charge of finance, are still people. You shouldn’t be distracted by bureaucracy, by numbers or by what branding specialist tell you, but instead focus on the ancient art of making great products.

The Design of Understanding has become one of my favourite conferences and a great way to get through the cold January month. I’m already looking forward to the 2015 edition.

Other reviews:
Aden Davies – Design of Understanding 2014
Clare Lisbeth – Understanding the Design of Understanding

and you can still read my 2012 and 2013 review.

Top image via Emoto 2012 made by Nand

Designing with time in mind

This is the write-up of my talk at EuroIA 2013 containing my thoughts for the presentation and a set of additional resources that I found useful whilst writing my talk.

When you observe the recent rise of mobile companies such as Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat you can spot similarities in the way they approach time. They show you what happened in the last day, hour or second and they are brilliant at it. At conferences, restaurants, buses, at work or even in bed, everywhere you find people endlessly refreshing their feed, forever sucked into the eternal now.

We’re great at building tools for the now; we can design products that hypnotise people in forever refreshing. But surely we shouldn’t stop there. Digital technology can be so much more than just entertainment. What about the future? Can we build tools for the long now?

he question I want to explore is: what are the ingredients that allow us to successfully design for the organisation of time? Not just in second and nanoseconds but also years and decades. I will discuss this in three parts: first, time artefacts, such as clocks and calendars, we’ve developed to make sense of time. Second, the way our mind works with time, and finally, how we can apply this knowledge in the digital world.

The continuous workshop of future-making: reflections on the UrbanIxD summer school

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?

8 ideas for Smart Cities

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.

6. Privacy
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