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Futuring the smart city

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. In this third blog, we'll discuss: Futuring the smart city.

During DDW19, our research team from the University of Twente participated in the Design United exhibit with the ‘Journalist of the Future City’-cardgame, In this game, players each draw four cards from a card deck and are invited to create a provocative short story about the future city, based on the contents of these cards. This way, visitors became co-creators of the exhibit, each day adding more stories and imaginaries about their perceived future city. This exhibit was part of our research project on Responsible Smart Cities.

We collected more than 120 stories (!) and created an illustrated booklet of our experience at DDW19.

How does it work?

Our game aims at generating imaginative stories about the future smart city and trigger thought-provoking ideas on how urban life might change as a result of the introduction of a new technology in the city.

The game is based on ‘The thing from the future’ by Stuart Candy and Jeff Watson, and consists of 4 different types of cards:

  • Arc cards – these outline a societal trend towards the future.
  • Technology cards – include different types of technology that could potentially be implemented in the smart city.
  • City cards – describe places where urban life happens.
  • Value cards – correspond to societal values that are central to city life.

Players are invited to randomly pick 4 cards – one of each type –, and take these cards as ingredients for their imaginative story: no matter how plausible, silly or unexpected the combination of cards.

Why this cardgame?

Questions on the future of the city often find abstract answers linked to urban planning goals: we aim for efficient city processes and optimal infrastructure. Words like ‘imagination’ and ‘improvisation’ might sound strange in this context, yet are important abilities to move beyond technocratic solutions. To move from urban planning to urban imagination, we see the potential in stories, metaphors and fiction.

Imagination can challenge the status quo and opens up the realm of possibilities. We aim at opening up a plurality of possible futures for urban life and daring participants to think creatively about their future city.

Designerly methods such as storytelling games are becoming a more common tool within research and policy making. They offer non-expert participants the freedom to develop their own line of thought creatively and playfully, while at the same time offering an instrument for conceptual thinking. As PhD-candidate and former IDE-student Sefora Tunç puts it: ‘Using storytelling cards results in unexpected combinations, which can be used as a reference to explore an unknown field. It comforts the participant as he understands that it is a fictional setting, meaning there is no right or wrong.’

Results: stories created by participants

The stories we received fell into three categories: fictional (discussing a far-away future, and creating a specific atmosphere or vibe), anticipatory (discussing a nearby future, taking into account current trends, developments and challenges) or problem-solving (discussing solutions to challenges posed by urban technology). Below, you may find an example of each category:

Don’t talk to strangers - Fiction

Harvey looks at the clock again, he has been sitting at the police station for almost an hour now. He is there to lodge a police report on his missing (or rather stolen) moped. Luckily, he has his phone on full charge this morning. He often forgets to charge it before leaving home. He turns on the app which he just installed last week. It is called AnnaBot. The app is a chatbot that uses AI technology to learn to be your chatting friend. Since he split up with his girlfriend 2 months ago, he does not have any outlet to rant about shitty things that happen in his life like his mopped being stolen. It is been entertaining so far, definitely great for passing time. Little does Harvey know, the app is being used by a group of individuals to gather personal information, data on emotional state and habits. If this information is being used unethically, Harvey could lose a lot more than his moped.

Flying avatar – anticipation

After 10 years, we are no longer used to leaving our house. That’s why our avatars, linked to a specific app, will roam the city. To go to a store or to visit friends, the avatar will carry a camera so that she can see everything. The avatar will move with a drone so that she will be extra quick. If the avatar is not allowed in somewhere, this place should be blocked so that the drones are not able to enter. The benefit of this innovation is that you won’t have to go anywhere yourself so that you won’t waste any energy. 

Reminder of humorful stories of loved ones – solution development

Graveyards are usually perceived as a sad place that reminds us of death. Being one of the most frequently visited places in one’s life, visiting deceased loved one, you run into other visitors a lot. All share the same emotion of sadness. Talking about one's death is a powerful remedy and a way to remember that person. Talking to others going through the same is a great way to deal with your feelings. Special wearables, promoting humorful stories about the deceased person with other graveyard visitors might help tackle the sad and maybe negative feelings.

Conclusion

During DDW19, we received many positive comments from visitors. Participants enjoyed being engaged in the conversation about the future city; they felt welcomed to share their experience and vision. They expressed that the card game acted as a tool to think about the future in a new, creative and unexpected way. Although we see plenty of tech-dystopias in the media, the trend in the participants’ stories was positive and showed a bright, technological future. This shows citizens’ capacity to think in possibilities and imagine their preferred future city.

The results of DDW19 have been bundled in this illustrated booklet, and the card game will be further used and developed in the Responsible Cities research project.

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

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.