In this essay, designer, future-caster and member of The State of Eindhoven's Smart Council, Anab Jain of Superflux examines the conditions required to help Eindhoven develop an alternative, social version of a smart city, including participatory design methods.
Ten years ago, I put a yellow chair outside my house with a sign offering free Wi-Fi to neighbours and passers-by. The boundaries of my home now extended to those of my wireless network. Several people paused to use my “service” and interact with each other over cups of tea. The experience made me realise that somewhere between the electronic and the physical lies a space which is informal, transient and immediate. As cities get “smarter”, with layers of digital technologies and invisible infrastructures, how does our daily lived experience change? What are the implications of living in such a city?
In the last ten years, numerous projects across the world that began at street level, with citizens as their key protagonists, have seeded the aspirations for participatory cities. Blast Theory’s location-based multiplayer games, such as Can You See Me Now? and Uncle Roy All Around, investigated some of the social changes brought about by location-aware technologies. Rebar Studio’s Park(ing) Day events attempt to reclaim metered parking spaces in cities across the world. Troika’s SMS Guerrilla Projector encouraged people to project text-based SMS messages in public spaces.
My own work with my colleagues at Superflux continues to explore symbiotic relationships between people, cities, state and non-state actors. We worked with visually impaired people and their families to collaboratively develop potential cityscapes to inspire them to make journeys into cities. We initiated the concept of Elastic Cities in India, where we use rich ethnography to design a “smarter” soft infrastructure for a rapidly urbanising country. We are building Buggyair, an accurate mobile sensing kit that helps parents to measure and understand their children’s exposure to air pollution. The data generated can be used to affect legislative change. We are currently designing a catalogue of design tools to make policies more legible for citizens, and developing scenarios illustrating the challenges faced by very young children (3- to 4-year-olds) as they move across a city.
Our work, the projects mentioned and many more across the world remain marginal in the context of urban development. The overwhelming narrative of progress for our cities falls under the umbrella of “smart” – a word which has been conscripted into the vocabulary of PowerPoint presentations and marketing messages of governments, corporations and popular media. “Smart” has become associated with increasingly autonomous information technologies that sell dreams of better living through data. There is little published evidence that the solutions smart-city projects offer actually help cities address real-world challenges, but they continue to be bankrolled worldwide. From ludicrous glossy renders to predictive analytics and seductive business models, smart cities are sold as havens of opportunity, efficiency and betterment. Songdo, Masdar, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 100 Smart Cities and other projects make evident that the very smart technologies that enable governments and technology companies to reach across geographic barriers also exclude next-door neighbours who lack the wherewithal to connect to such technologies, which are often invisible and incomprehensible to them. Whilst there are exceptions (Manchester, Bristol, Reykjavik, Detroit), in most cases, smart city visions are overbearingly reductionist and technocratic.
That’s why I’m excited about being involved as one of the experts on the advisory board for the State of Eindhoven, an initiative that will address the smart city rhetoric. This initiative proposes a new type of “participatory smart city” by confronting and provoking policymakers, designers and businesspeople within the research territory of Eindhoven city. While the city’s recent history has been shaped by technology, the local government wants to investigate how Eindhoven can become a “21st-century smart city” through facilitating dialogue, participation and consensus amongst radically different groups of people: citizens, corporations and local government. This twofold ambition to become a smart city within a participatory society is laudable, but it is also a challenge.
I am interested in learning more about the tensions that lie between a technology-led smart-city approach and the aspirational yet inexperienced citizen-led participatory approach to cities. This will require a well-designed and sensitive research process that can help surface the dreams and anxieties of citizens, and understand where they collide with the objectives of government bodies, local institutions and businesses. I believe that it is only through such deliberations and openness that we can create the conditions for an equitable Eindhoven.
"A city must be equitable, not smart." Medha Patkar, activist, India.
Where do we start? What is the process for generating a sensitive, nuanced dialogue to achieve this end? Last October, I visited Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week. It felt to me like walking into a 21st-century Whole Earth Catalogue. Hand-built machines converted old gas cylinders into stools, broke down waste into new building materials, and turned mealworm paste into 3D-printed edible “rapid rabbits”. Cindy van den Bremen’s work with Woonbedrijf at the Circular Factory was a hub of resourceful design and citizen engagement. Tom van Soest and his colleagues at StoneCycling have invented a way to use demolition and industrial waste from 32,000 disused homes to create new products. Project Gewildgroei is a pavement tile system that allows space for spontaneous vegetation in urban public spaces. Retie’s neighbourhood furniture factory project offers productive and potentially lucrative opportunities to communities through providing workshops and guidance. MU and the STRP festival run creative coding workshops and projects with the elderly in an attempt to facilitate accessibility and knowledge exchange. And on the other side of this community of makers are Design Invertuals, whose critical, provocative debate and reflection provide an important counterpoint.
If there’s any place where the seeds of the participatory society have already been sown, it’s Eindhoven. However small and “fringe” these projects might be, they exist, and they are growing. The question is, how can Eindhoven build on the enthusiasm, spirit and camaraderie of these projects? How can it create a new model for a type of 21st-century city that enables its people and the environments they inhabit to flourish in transparent, responsive, resilient ways? How can the values and methods of participatory design and related political movements help to enable this?
Participatory Design and Cities
Participatory design was born as cooperative design in Scandinavia during the 1980s, when the conditions of industrial democracy changed; the changes included a decrease in the bargaining power of unions. According to participatory design pioneers Andrew Clement and Peter van den Besselaar (1993), its key principle is the “empowerment of the workers so they can codetermine the development of the information system and of their workplace.” Today, this philosophy has filtered into several disciplines, bringing a focus on creating environments that are more responsive and appropriate to their inhabitants’ and users’ cultural, emotional, spiritual and practical needs. Within the context of design, the goal is to make users and their needs the key focus in the designed outcomes.
In the context of cities, the application of participatory design principles has led to projects such as the Interpretive Media Laboratory. This innovative partnership between California’s state parks and the University of California, Los Angeles, applies a unique “cultural civic computing” approach to use emerging technologies to engage civic processes that transform neighbourhoods. The Auckland Design Manual is an online best-practice guide that supports people interested in the design of their houses, business premises, streets, parks and neighbourhoods. Go Boston 2030 is an initiative aimed at envisioning a bold transportation future for the city. A vision framework based on 5,000 questions and comments from over more than 600 people led to an action plan in spring 2016. Project for Public Spaces is the central hub of the global Placemaking movement and connects people who “share a passion for creating vital places.” Earlier this year, the innovation charity Nesta published a report with great examples of bottom-up visions of smart cities that acknowledge the power of participatory design.
All these projects are inspiring and provide a much-needed counternarrative to the overbearing smart-cities discourse. But there also exists a critique of what participation entails and what its implications are. Finn Kensing (1983), in a review of ten participatory design projects from the 1970s and the 1980s, laid out three basic requirements for participation: access to relevant information, the possibility of taking an independent position on problems, and participation in decision-making. Clement and Van den Besselaar (1993) added two additional requirements: the availability of appropriate participatory development methods and room for alternative technical and/or organisational arrangements. Three decades later, these requirements seem more relevant than ever. However, as a practitioner working within complex multi-stakeholder environments, often with constrained political will and limited organisational resources, I know how difficult it can be to meet these requirements. Often, designers, researchers and other practitioners work within the fuzzy boundaries of this practice, seeking dialogue and participation with low-fidelity tools and recording methodologies that are useful and spirited but might not meet the requirements of participatory design.
Beyond the desired conditions laid out by Kensing, Clement and Van den Besselaar, I would argue that an important requisite for participatory design is the inception of a system of accountability based on trust and respect, a system that gives participants ownership of the process and its outcomes. If this system is not thoughtfully designed, tested and implemented, participatory design can fall into the same trap as representational democracy: a promise of inclusion but a reality of top-down decision-making independent of participants’ input, opinions and consultations. Another requirement of participatory design would be to decouple the demand for citizen volunteering from what many might view as the state’s responsibility. Often, participatory projects require citizens to become accountable and take responsibility without gaining their trust and or giving them any ownership in the outcomes of the project. In an environment of austerity and increasing demands from work and family life, volunteering time and effort can prove difficult for people. An example is the Big Society movement popularised in the UK by Prime Minister David Cameron, in which “voluntary action is valued in the rhetoric, and deprived of funding in practice” (Rodney Barker).
The State of Eindhoven acknowledges these complexities and is looking to develop frameworks and guidelines that work through these issues. This excites me. I am interested in exploring how Eindhoven’s project for a participatory smart city can develop more perceptive processes and protocols. I would like to bring aspects of our design practice around envisioning futures using speculative and critical methods to the participatory smart city vision in order to probe and effectively construct “test futures” with participants. Such design tools and tactics could encourage people to imagine and share their visions for the future of Eindhoven – whether they are new policies, services or systems – without the constraints of existing sociopolitical, economic and legal conditions. Such processes of visioning can help make visible the conflicts between individual dreams and the collective visions generated by governments, institutions and corporations. This generative space of future dreams and conflicts becomes a grey space where citizens (small groups of people who share neighbourhoods or interests) and those in power (state and non-state actors) can meet on an equal footing.
Further processes of sensemaking, filtering and visualising can equip participants with shared tools and language, and knowledge of what can be done with them. This, in turn, would develop their capacity to think through the implications and possible unintended consequences of what it might mean to live in a “smart city” today and in the near and far future. Where time and resources permit, participants would also have the opportunity to explore alternative systems and proposals and be further involved in the development of the outcomes at any point in the process. The intention of such generative design-led futures processes is to create legible, visible, mutable systems through small experiments that begin as prototypes and are flexible, adaptable and open to change. Such an effort could also pave the way for participatory governance where every proposal, system and policy is seen as a test, published openly and versioned.
I know I am running ahead of myself. The question is, how would this work? How would people actually participate and make their desires heard? How can such a project create a level playing field in which there is redistribution of power, where the citizens, government and tech companies work together? What is the appropriate function of such a participatory smart city project, and who should perform it, under what conditions and with what criteria?
I’m here to find out, and I can’t wait to get my hands dirty.
Anab Jain, 2015