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Design and co-creation in ‘interesting times’

In three blog posts, we follow the joined research project 'Responsible Cities' of the University of Twente and the University of Utrecht. They explore the role of design to bring interest groups together to think, feel, and take action on the topic of smart city futures. We start off with: Design and co-creation in ‘interesting times’.

‘May you live in interesting times’. Although this might come across as wishing somebody good luck, there is a common myth that says that, in Chinese, this expression is used with irony. A life without surprises might be dull, but it is more serene than interesting times that bring challenges and difficulties. We currently experience in interesting times: climate change, COVID-19, technological disruption. And, it is true, interesting times pose challenges. They feel overwhelming at times, but they also offer ample opportunities for transformation and collaboration. And design can play a role in this process.

Let’s take smart city developments as an example. In theory, smart city technology supports the collection and processing of data to improve urban life. For example, sensors allow making traffic more efficient or optimizing garbage collection. Smart cities are the urban embodiment of our current technological revolution. They represent the complexity and interconnectedness of our society, surfacing issues about human-technology-city interactions. And, in a world where everything is interconnected, collaboration is key. The challenges (and opportunities) we face together are too great to be tackled by a single interest group or discipline. They need the collaboration of governments, companies, citizens, knowledge institutes, NGOs.

Often, the future depicted in smart city visions lacks imagination. It represents a one-sided view of the future(s) of the city. This leaves little room for the incorporation of various values or perspectives of what good city life is. Is it only about efficiency and targeted experiences? Should it also encompass other values like friendship or serendipity? What about other values or wishes? The question is: how can we realize the potential of smart city technologies while shaping inclusive futures that meet various interests?

The responsible development of smart city visions calls for responsible design practices, that aim at acknowledging the diversity of concerns and perspectives in society. At the DesignLab of the University of Twente, we believe that tackling societal challenges through design ‘requires not only a creative problem-solving attitude – but also the integration of many perspectives, values, and wishes’ as mentioned in this article published at the Design Research Society Conference 2020.

These societal challenges call for organizing processes that give agency to various interest groups to shape futures. As mentioned by prof. Mascha van der Voort ‘the main role of designers and design research is to provide the tools that empower all stakeholders to explore and communicate their needs and wishes as well as what they could contribute to their smart city’ (quote included in ‘Futuring the Smart City, stories from the DDW2019’. In this context, design acts as an integrator of various perspectives to support a process of shaping urban futures collectively.

In our research project Responsible Cities, we explore the role of design to bring interest groups together to (1) think, (2) feel, and (3) take action on the topic of smart city futures.

Think: Involving various stakeholders in participatory design processes stimulates a reflective attitude. Key to this process is building empathy that helps us to better understand the perspectives of others (and our own!). Here, design plays a role in bringing controversies to life, surfacing different perspectives and using them constructively. For example, some people consider the deployment of sensors to collect data to inform better policy decisions is the epitome of efficient policymaking. For others, the omnipresence of privately owned sensors raises serious concerns about privatization. By openly discussing these wishes and concerns, design allows discovering alternatives that lead to richer and more inclusive solutions.

Feel: Many of us use Google Maps to navigate in the city. It allows us to plan our journey and reach our destination very easily. Although this is very convenient, how will our cities turn out if we always have a clear destination in mind? Will there be any room for exploration and surprises? In cases like this one, design can help us to make potential futures tangible. Scenario-based design, design fiction, speculative design or experiential futures are great approaches to bring to life the effects of technologies in our lives. What better way to have a constructive debate about the futures than by experiencing them in the now?    

Take action: Providing settings for debate and reflection is essential but, how to make these debates actionable? Design encourages a hands-on mindset, it allows transforming abstract concepts into tangible objects, services or plans. In our project, we organized a workshop session to prototype how technology would change social values, and how these changes would alter the city. For example, how could surveillance cameras influence solidarity? Prototyping the neighbourhood and being engaged in its creation was a seed for collective action. Participants discussed and represented the tradeoffs they were willing to accept (in this case, participants accepted losing part of their privacy to help people in need).

In our project, we believe in the capacity of design to shape responsible smart city futures. If you are interested in our research and would like to know more about it, please visit our website or send us an email.

Next week, we will share our insights into how design can stimulate ethical reflection in co-creation processes in the context of smart cities. See you then!

This blog was written by: Julieta Matos Castaño, Anouk Geenen.

Research team

University of Twente: prof. Mascha van der Voort, prof. Peter Paul Verbeek, dr. Julieta Matos Castaño, Anouk Geenen

Utrecht University: dr. Michiel de Lange, dr. Corelia Baibarac-Duignan

Acknowledgement: This work is part of the research program Designing for Controversies in Responsible Smart Cities with project number CISC.CC.012, which is (partly) financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). We thank our project partners (Aerovision, Design Innovation Group, Future City Foundation, Marxman, Municipality of Amersfoort and Utrecht University) for their valuable contributions to this research project.