Heidi Benham
Sep 24 · 5 min read

It is an exciting time to be an experience designer. With the recognition that human-centered design is necessary across multiple industries and thought-leaders pushing the urgent need for collaboration, the importance of experience design for health, diversity and inclusion is being acknowledged and, more importantly, acted upon. An area where this is most prevalent is in urban design and planning, where UX enables more effective solutions that deliver great urban experiences for citizens.

‘First life, then spaces, then buildings — the other way around never works’ Jan Gehl

Over the past few weeks, I have gathered some key insights from events, MeetUps and general reading that I would like to share with you here:

#1. Ownership will hinder connected cities; sharing is key

Ownership and silos within cities will hinder the advancement of user-centered design and the connectivity of cities. What I mean by this is: by sharing information and data within and between industries, we are more able to take the information into a new context and result in deeper understanding. As a result, more data points will enable more insightful analytics and greater accuracy in machine/deep learning models.

There needs to be a significant shift in thinking that not only makes room for, but also prioritises sharing data. The aviation industry is a great example of this, where safety data is shared throughout the industry ensuring that everyone is informed and moves forward together. Knowledge is power, but sharing is even more powerful; sharing prevents the repetition of mistakes, enables better and faster decision making, stimulates innovation and growth and ultimately improves user experience.

Enabling open data between buildings will give rise to a greater experience of city-living and connectivity.

What would a city look like if the buildings could talk to each other? Building Management Systems (BMS) and the Internet of Things (IoT) have shown the power of connectivity within buildings, but more opportunities are opened up when we share more of this data outside, between buildings and organisations.

By sharing, we are able to create entire networks within cities that respond, react and adapt as we move through them, improving our experience. For example, when we leave one building it could inform our next destination of our arrival time, triggering the lights to come on and the temperature to reach a comfortable level. Architecture and infrastructure would adapt to changes in weather: rain covers could unfold over pathways; traffic could be redirected to more efficient routes as more vehicles are used; and, public transport could be increased to cope with demand.

All of which would create a more comfortable, safe environment for city dwellers. Sharing knowledge and data openly (whilst committing to pre-agreed privacy and security standards) will truly put the end-user at the centre of the design.

#2. The ground floor has the power to connect humans to cities and to each other

The ground floor of a building has the capacity to invite people both in and out. In the context of a city, the ground floor is able to accommodate a panoply of uses; it can become and cafe, a shop or a swimming pool. As David Sim describes them in his new book ‘Soft City’, active ground floors make walking around a city more interesting, they provide destinations by offering shared spaces to a community.

Twitter’s San Francisco office space has a fully open-plan ground floor, featuring cafes, restaurants and places to relax. The ground floor is open to passers-by, inviting the public to join the activity. The space is active, facilitating co-working and collaboration, promoting feelings of connectivity, community and comfort for both the public and employees.

Ground floors are significant for co-living, co-creating and co-working, they often allow for the space of a building to extend onto the street, inviting passers-by to be part of the activity. Ground floor cafes are able to place tables and chairs on the street, artists studios are able to open concertina doors and share their creations with their community. They are more integrated and more inclusive, facilitating wheelchairs, pushchairs and bicycles. They are connected to to the life going on outside of the building far more than other levels of a building; living becomes about sharing with others, building relationships and greater connection to those around you.

#3. We need to prioritise ‘walkability’ in cities.

Zoning cities is outdated; physical segregation leads to social segregation. Instead, we should look to create dense city spaces, that amalgamate our everyday destinations allowing us to walk, move, access our living areas quickly, safely and easily. Being able to move spontaneously between our most used spaces has a huge impact on our quality of life. Feelings of community and the development of a ‘neighbourhood’ is dependent on citizens being active in and around communal areas and public spaces.

Walkability is essential to connectivity, it increases social interaction, mixing of populations and increases volunteerism. People who live in walkable urban environments have more friends, on average, to those who don’t. As well as this, crime rates are reduced due to the presence of more people in the area.

‘[Walkability is] the extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area.’ Stephen Abley

From a sustainable perspective — walkability also means that carbon emissions from transport are greatly reduced. This improves air quality leading to a rise in the health of the community, as well as reducing contribution to climate change.

Harnessing the power of walkability in urban areas will provide invaluable opportunities for socioeconomic benefits, enabling citizens to connect to their local environment and to each other.

It is vital to approach the transformation of cities with the values and principles of design-thinking. Insights like these will enable a more considered, thoughtful, human-first approach to smart cities, prioritising quality of life, whilst maintaining a strong consideration for the future of the planet.

Heidi Benham

Written by

Experience designer preoccupied by urban environments and smart cities

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