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.
The digital world has no shortage of big ideas: the social revolution, ubiquitous computing, exponential growth until we hit singularity, to name a few. In his talk Jason Scott warns programmers not to be too light-hearted with their creations. Although the twenty-something creators of Facebook might think that time is of no consequence, and take no particular interest in the history of their site, by being the world’s largest photo archive they have a responsibility to their users to care for this data. It’s not just a cost on the balance sheet that has to be kept under control, it is real memories of real people that we are talking about. And although start-up fans might admire the phenomenal success of a certain gaming start-up, when you build a game that “scoops the brain right out of little children” that doesn’t make it OK. Furthermore, if you create a service that allows users to save things, they give you their trust. Respect this trust and treat them and their data with respect.
James Burke warns about the opposite problem, too much focus on the details. In the centuries since Descartes wrote down his second rule of science “to divide each of the difficulties […] encountered into as many parts as possible” science is now broken up into ever smaller compartments knowing less and less about the world as a whole. This approach brought the Western world a living standard previously unimagined, but, Burke believes, has run its course. We can no longer expect radical innovation by devoting ourselves to even smaller areas, even smaller tasks. We need to go broader, higher and wider, “innovation will come from the no man’s land between the divisions.”
It seems to be a human tendency, that, in our aim to be as exact as possible we either go too abstract or too detailed. Italo Calvino wrote about this quest: “[it] was branching out in two directions: on the one side, the reduction of secondary events to abstract patterns according to which one can carry out operations and demonstrate theorems; and on the other, the effort made by words to present the tangible aspect for things as precisely as possible. […] I continuously switch back and forth between those two paths, and when I feel I have fully explored the possibilities of one, I rush across to the other, and vice versa.”
By connecting the tangible aspect of playing with the abstraction needed for toymaking, Tom Armitage, proposes a solution of understanding through discovery. Each toy is a little pocket universe, a small concept that can be played with, a way that allows you explore abstraction through play. His idea sounds similar to the idea of the hermeneutic circle, a reading concept where the reader admits that: “neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another.” Armitage continues: “Toys are a fertile ground for creators to work in. They offer a playful space to experiment and explore. They are a safe ground to experiment with new techniques, skills, or ideas. […] Toymaking ranges from making realistic simulations of life to producing highly abstract playthings.” Just like design challenges, toys are both defined by that what they highlight and that what they leave out. We cannot understand the world through abstract theories, nor through an endless series of tangible details. The only way is to understand is to take all that is abstract and all that is tangible and mix it in a never-ending process of creation, discovery and reflection. As Armitage ends “through toy making you end up playing yourself” and that might be the biggest opportunity we have.