by Bastien Kerspern
Since its beginnings, our design studio, Design Friction1Design Friction is a design studio exploring current and emerging issues related to social, cultural and technological changes experienced by our societies: http://www.design-friction.com., has always been interested in the blind spots and the unsaid of connected urban environments, the so-called smart cities. We consider them the perfect playground to observe and discuss socio-technological controversies, as these pieces of urban fabric merge issues related to the digital and physical spaces. These are issues we try to mitigate: we define ourselves as designers producing critical and speculative scenarios for upcoming presents. Through our practice, we have been working on offering counterpoints to the shape shifting techno-solutionist propaganda, especially the one promoting the “Internet of Urban Things.”
For over a decade now, the architects of the city have switched from urbanists to data scientists. Their propaganda also shifted from serving concrete-based architecture to information architecture. Despite a persistent fragrance of top-down urban planification remains.
However, these cities don’t exactly appear to be as the ‘smartifying’ propaganda likes to picture them. They are not only about hardware and software. They are a network of political, social and cultural interdependencies, making them the perfect archetype of what could be defined as a “wicked” problem. If we cannot solve urban problems neither with more technology nor with the umpteenth innovation sprint, we can at least imagine strategies mitigating the externalities implied by the rhetoric of the tech-driven city smartness.
So, what do we try to mitigate regarding smart cities issues? For the most part, the asymmetric power in city making. What does it entitle? Many aspects of the aforementioned propaganda: the self-realizing prophecies and innovation myths internalized by engineers’ culture, the techno-solutionist promises crafted by cities and companies’ marketing departments, the persistent exclusion of publics in urban decision-making.
In this essay, we would like to share three mitigation tactics we have been experimenting with as well as feedback on how these experimentations have been questioning our views on smart cities. We will be talking about playfulness, participativeness and weirdness. What these tactics have in common is they trigger debates on emerging controversies and on inherited issues of decades of urban development. We genuinely believe that fostering debates between all the stakeholders is an efficient way of anticipating possible problems and mitigate the blind acceptance of the urban tech propaganda.
To design these mitigation tactics, we have been experimenting in merging persuasive game design principles and a design fiction-based approach. The first is about designing game mechanics to support public information and citizens’ participation. The second is about using fictional products and services as thought-provoking experiences. Both share the desire to inspire new imaginaries about the urban futures, not in a predictive way (“city will be like this”), and not in a prescribing way (“city should be like this”). Instead, they are an attempt to open perspectives and debates, to question the directions we are taking today.
Make it playful: Flaws of the Smart City
Flaws of the Smart City is a card game exploring the dark face of the so-called smart city2The kit Flaws of the Smart City can be downloaded at the following URL: http://www.flawsofthesmartcity.com/.. As any hardware or software piece, the connected cities embed flaws, and this kit aims to fix these weak spots or to exploit them to create chaos. With a focus on grey areas of existing and planned smart cities, Flaws of the Smart City aims to reveal their paradoxes. The card game uses those frictions as opportunities to discuss what could be our expectations for urban progress.
From insights to actionable cards
Flaws of the Smart City cards cross urban defects, places and types of intervention. Combining these three components is the first step to speculate on scenarios envisioning both the positive and negative externalities that could appear in smart cities.
We built the content of the cards on the thoughts and works of Dan Hill3Hill, D. (n.d.). City of Sound. Retrieved from: http://www.cityofsound.com/, Adam Greenfield4Greenfield, A. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York City: Do projects,., and Anthony Townsend5Townsend, A. (2014). Smart Cities, Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company.]. The kit has been designed as a translation of their opinions into actionable thinking. It investigates technological flaws – such as coded obsolescence, system vulnerability, and proprietary ecosystems -, political controversies – such as authoritarian setup, unempowered citizens, and greenwashing – and cultural pitfalls – such as generic and decontextualized technologies or digital neocolonialism.
One of our main concerns was to keep this critical exploration open enough, so anyone could, in some way, tweak our toolkit in order to explore specific flaws of the smart city. We kept several cards open so players could adjust the content and then improve on or criticize the selected issues.
The result is a workshop-tailored kit devised to foster conversations during participatory sessions. During these sessions, we encourage the users of Flaws of the Smart City to reflect upon the interdependencies, direct or not, between these conceptual flaws and the social, technical, and ethical dilemmas faced by our urban societies.
Adopting a playful approach
We included a playful dimension in the kit, using simple game mechanics as a mediation strategy for suspension of disbelief and enabling different tones of discussion. Participants might either want to decide to go for one of the two game modes of thinking we propose: Guardian Angel, with participants fixing the issues of the Smart City; Evil Genius, with participants exploiting the flaws of the Smart City to bring chaos in the streets.
Flaws of the Smart City was also the first self-attempt to share our own methods and tools. We went for a DIY version, to be printed and assembled, for easy distribution. We still use this critical kit as a resource for our urban-related projects on hidden agendas in smart cities and as an example of the collaborative design of speculative scenarios.
One of the most striking workshops we led with Flaws of the Smart City happened, in 2016, in Santiago (Chile). One of the groups of participants designed a selection of supposedly smart urban furniture, relying on self-defence to operate sustainably. Every piece of furniture was able to drive attackers away if people started to assault bins or bus stops during protests or celebrations. Participants built the scenario by observing local urban subcultures and events. As they were tweaking the kit to fit in the Chilean context, the ambiguity of their scenario was resonating oddly with the blended legacy of Pinochet’s surveillance state and the aborted CyberSyn6Project Cybersyn was a Chilean project from 1971–1973, during the presidency of Salvador Allende aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy. The project consisted of four modules: an economic simulator, custom software to check factory performance, an operations room, and a national network of telex machines that were linked to one mainframe computer. Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 12). Project Cybersyn. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn. envisaged by President Allende.
Flaws of the Smart City is an example of a pervasive mitigation strategy: the game acts as a Trojan horse for critical thinking. Some stakeholders in charge, such as the authorities, might dismiss this kind of tool: “it’s just a game, it’s not reality.” Doing so, they are mitigating its impact. However, let’s remind ourselves we have all learned and grown up with games when we were children. Games make abstract notions and complex topics relatable, they allow us to experiment or rehearse situations we might encounter at some point. As a collective adventure, they enable rich and collaborative experiences. We argue there is nothing more serious than a game.
Make it Participatory: A City Made of Data
A City Made of Data is a series of one-day workshops run in various European cities to explore smart city-related issues. These sessions consist of a combination of different formats – narrative “walkshop, ” design fiction workshop, participatory exhibition, and contributory website – to collaboratively design future scenarios and critical visions about data-driven cities.
The first edition was commissioned by the Arts&Techs Lab of Stereolux and took place in Nantes (France) as part of the Scopitone Festival. The second edition settled at the Haute Ecole de Gestion (HEG) in Geneva (Switzerland).
A “Walkshop” to get immersed in complexity
After a short introduction to the notions of data and connected cities, participants follow narrators around the streets of the city, exploring iconic districts as well as unknown places. This critical wander projected participants forward 2036, to a City Made of Data, where every urban piece or person is connected and produces data. Punctuated with startling anecdotes and questions related to the smart city, the walk was designed to immerse the participant in this theme. With one foot in the present and an eye on the future, the fictional journey was offering to rediscover the familiar environment in a new light, where transports would have become autonomous and culture would be algorithmic.
Each participant was listening, observing, questioning, and then working in groups during short in-situ exercises. These exercises were based on different role-playing:
“What if you were the evil genius in town?” What would be your villainous goal and how would you be using urban data to create your hideous plan? “What if you were a sensor, here, in this street?” Which kind of data would you be collecting, with and without authorization? The whole purpose of this “walkshop” was to warm participants up before they started to draft their own scenarios about the futures of a city made of data.
A workshop to imagine critical urban futures
After the “walkshop,” participants were invited to take part in a design fiction workshop. For this second phase of the day, the smart city operated a complete reboot of its system. It was the starting point for the participants’ speculative scenarios: Six different ideologies were then proposed to rule the new urban algorithms: Secure and Securitarian, Welfare & Health, Autarchic Communities, All-Mercantile, Agile Personalization, and Nostalgia. Each of them embodied a particular vision and led to the emergence of new fictional urban products and services, which participants were invited to imagine and prototype.
As the symbol artifact from Autarchic Communities logic, Filterbook are smart glasses working as augmented blinkers. They help you to filter your visual environment by “masking” elements that are not part of your community of the moment.
The various scenarios and artifacts raised multiple concerns and issues for the future of “smart” cities, which were later identified and debated during the exhibition, These included: the regression of civil liberties, work painfulness and the imperative of efficiency, health profiling, and public shaming in the era of mass connection or “filter bubble” systems applied to the urban experience.
A participatory exhibition to extend the debates
The different scenarios and objects designed by the participants triggered discussions among them during the workshop. A participatory exhibition opened the debates to a broader audience. Over three days, we exhibited the design scenarios and invited visitors to react on the design fictions by writing on discussion walls, sharing their thoughts in fictional diaries or with informal interviews. Certain questions wee raised: Who will be watching the watchmen? To what extent are we willing to give up on our individual freedom to guarantee the safety of all? How does a system that is promoting well-being for everyone actually generate exclusion and discrimination?
These questions are just a sample of what emerged from the 600 visitors who participated to enrich the exhibition with their visions. We kept the discussion open by publishing scenarios and reactions on a participatory website7Cité des Données (French): http://www.citedesdonnees.fr/..
During A City Made of Data, we have been questioning our role as designers and facilitators in a collaborative critical exercise. How do we make sure that the scenarios imagined by participants are the reflections of their thoughts and questions, not ours? It led us to consider the tactics behind co-designing critical urban futures in two ways, depending on the goals we wanted to reach and the context in which we were engaging in:
Inspiring – the community impulses, the designer designs.
Empowering – the designer impulses, the community designs.
As simplistic as this framework might look, it still helps us in dosing out our interventionist posture and the openness of the design and debate.
Make it Weird: Animals of the smart city
The smart city is the catalyst of many new urban fantasies strongly influenced by old but persistent myths of safety and efficiency, now reincarnated by crossing digital technologies with the urban fabric. Among the many frictions and uncertainties smart cities are built on there is the place of the animal. The current smart city initiatives are not envisaging the presence of wildlife or even pets in their programs. Animals seem not to be considered a part of the urban life, neither would they be able to seize some parts of the connected urban environment. The resulting gap is an unexpected opportunity to speculate on and to reflect upon our current relations with animals in the urban environment.
Then, questions quickly arise: What could be the stakes related to the presence of animals in a smart city? How would it shape the urban infrastructure on one hand and change the behavior of animals on the other hand? And, what about an “animalized” smart city?
A big in the urban system
Our ongoing project Animals of the Smart City builds one the famous anecdote of the etymology of the computer bug as told by Grace Hopper8Grace Hopper’s famous coining of “computer bug.” Pearson, G. (2013, September 12). Google Honors Grace Hopper…and a “bug”. wired.com. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2013/12/googles-doodle-honors-grace-hopper-and-entomology/.. Back in 1947, a moth got trapped in a relay creating an error in the calculations of a Harvard Mark II, one of the first computers. So what would be the impact of the bug trapped in a smart city?
Starting with this question, Animals of the Smart City is an exploration fuelled by an ambiguous fascination for wildness in this controlled space. We aim to investigate a duality emerging from the relations between the city and the animals: on one side an ongoing anthropomorphism of domesticated species and on the other side the barbarianization of wildlife9Barbarianisation: considering someone or something as a barbarian, an entity not abiding by the laws of the city.. Another layer of interactions, inherited directly from an endless race for urban comfort, is leading us to reconsider the treatment of animals by the smart city through the scope of desired and undesired species. Speculating on the animal as an unavoidable stakeholder of the city and not only an intruder or sub-user, we are shifting our approach of speculative urban design by finally acknowledging this unrecognized city dweller.
We have started to design a series of speculative products, also known as design fictions, to tell stories about how various smart city archetypes could interact with animals. The following speculative scenarios, Falcon Punch and Sons of Kyôn are part of these design fictions.
While developing drone delivery, major e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, were forced to add a clause in their insurance policies for bird collisions. Indeed, some flying specimens were disrupting package delivery by colliding with courier drones.
Knowing that merchandise was up in the air raised the greed of thieves. A group of high-flying heisters started to make use of falconry to intercept courier drones transporting documents or parcels above the city. Birds prey or were trained to bring down the flying robots, or to steal their packets, on the fly. This method proved to be way more efficient than other classical heist strategies as the packages were less damaged and heisters less exposed in the process.
Some of the falcons were caught by the authorities who then discovered the birds were equipped with a prosthesis designed to attack or hijack drones. This tactic could have been inspired by several cases of wild birds prey of attacking amateur drones.
Sons of Kyôn
In a near-future Athens the city has faced, without taking care of, a substantial amount of political and environmental migrants, far from being considered refugees. For most of them, still waiting for their administrative regularization or simply resigned to be clandestines moving in the streets is like a giant hide-and-seek game with sensors and automated taxation. Unwelcome migrants, regrouped in the so-called Kyôn group, take advantage of the smart city’s most pernicious flaw: animals. When everything is thought and conceived for humans, becoming inhuman is becoming invisible.
Teaming up with thousands of stray dogs living in the streets of Athens, Kyôn members develop techniques of datamouflage – camouflage by sending fake data – to confuse sensors, resell hacked data stolen by data-sniffing techniques, and defeat surveillance drones with special dog-shaped blankets disguising them as dogs.
Animals of the Smart City is a long-term and protean project ultimately addressed to the ones designing and implementing the smart cities10Design Friction wrote a fictional compendium including different pieces of fiction from Animals of the Smart City (In French): https://medium.com/design-friction/design-centr%C3%A9-sur-les-animaux-en-milieu-urbain-connect%C3%A9-notes-du-compendium-1-c6be77d67bac.. Our work is still in progress, but we highlighted three key insights from this weird exploration:
1. Non-humans – animals and plants – matter. The techno-centered as well as the user-centered approaches of connected urbanism are accountable for the effects they produce on other city-dwelling species.
2. The polyphony of visions, meaning the plurality of points of view cohabiting in the same scenario, is crucial. A fiction becomes relevant when it starts to embed views and counterpoints about the same topic, even if this is from a non-humans perspective.
3. For a topic as complex as the interactions of animals with urban infrastructures, world-building tools and methods inherited from video games help to craft coherent systemic scenarios. Video game world-building inspired us to build an ecosystem of design fictions that works as a network of fictions on an alternating micro and macro scale.
Mitigating the mitigation
The three mitigation strategies in this essay share the ambition to have an impact by providing tools and stories to the ones living in the city and building it on a daily basis, at every imaginable scale. Nevertheless, we need to remain aware of our own influence on urban development and to be clear about our own dependencies on myths and ideologies. We need to double-check our privileges and the undesired effects of our actions. We need to remain a counter-propaganda, not a form of manipulation. As a reminder of this need of constant reflexivity, we keep updated a list of the challenges we are still facing. Among them:
– How might we best mitigate the Eurocentric echoes of our fictions?
– How might we best document and share insights generated by our provocative scenarios?
– How might we best go from fictions to actions?
– How might we best ensure our fictions are understood in their original contexts, not solutions, the risk of accelerating unwanted perspectives?
It is at the price of overcoming these limits of our practice that we will be able to keep producing relevant counter-narratives, inclusive participatory processes and genuinely adversarial strategies.