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.
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 An age where Truth with capital T has disappeared, where the big narrative has been replaced by 140 character sound bites and where systems of flow have become the preferred model of understanding the world.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.
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.
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?
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