Design-Thinkers Will Build the Smart City

Without engineers, we will not have smart cities. After all, it is the engineers who have either already given us, will give us, or will improve the gadgets that are fundamental to the functioning the smart city. I’m thinking of all the technological minutiae that power systems like self-driving cars, smart grids, solar panels, electric vehicles, smart homes, shared bicycles and integrated commuter networks, sensors that collect and sort data from all these systems, and smart phones that aggregate that data in visually compelling ways to the end-user: you and me.

So, say it with me . . .


But we need more than engineers. Or rather, we need more than “engineering-thinking.” We also and vitally need design-thinking.

Engineer-thinking loves it when you ask, “How does this work!?” Assuming you know the techno-lingo of that given gadget, you’ll be taken on an excruciatingly-specific, mountainously-dry hike through all the various sub-gadgets that power that gadget. Be careful, though, as you might get lost in the weedy details. I by no means want to suggest that this is how engineers are; but I do wish to argue that this is engineer-thinking.

Design-thinking, on the other hand, asks, “What are the implications of this gadget? What connections can be made to this new gadget? What unforeseen facets of our lives might be suddenly upended by this revolutionary gadget?” As Tim Brown says, design is not meant to be “small,” focused on making gadgets look sexy or user-friendly or sleek, like candy for the eye. That is certainly a part of design, but it is by no means exhausitive of design’s potential.

Instead, design-thinking, as an approach, devotes itself to “solving problems and creating world-changing innovations.” Furthermore, as Brown explains in his TED Talk, Design-Thinking: 1) starts with humans and what they might need; 2) embraces a culture of prototyping and experimentation, where failure, I might add, is simply an exhilarating detour in a constant process of co-creation; and 3) sees the end-user as a participant, not simply a consumer. As Brown so eloquently states at the end of his talk, design-thinking moves us away from trap of making the “best” choice out of possible alternatives to instead considering “why are these our only alternatives? What blinders are we all wearing that prevent us from seeing different paths?”

The stakes are high. Currently, there are probably 100s, if not 1000s, of smart city projects underway around the world, most of which are small-scale. Clarrise Pham, in her industrial report on smart cities, noted how Ernst and Young counted over 200 on-the-ground pilot projects in Japan alone. But you wouldn’t know that looking at a google maps. Indeed, you begin to sense what Professor Andrew DeWit refers to as the “Galapagos effect,” where smart city pilot projects remain just that — pilot projects that go nowhere because they fail to link together and leverage their social and knowledge capital.

“The Galapagos Effect,” whereby smart cities evolve in their own narrow niches, missing opportunities to cross-pollinate and share ideas. A more concerted effort would incite further innovation and, most importantly, implementation. The map above is not meant to accurately catalogue all the smart city projects around the world (which no one has done . . . research project anyone?), but to visually portray the isolated development of smart cities.

What we need are people who can connect the dots — people who can sense not only how the smart city is evolving, but can also give it a more human touch by asking the end-users “what matters to you in the city? In the home? What does ‘quality of life’ mean to you?” We need people who can map the connections among self-driving cars, motion-activated street lights, and small-scale, distributed-energy smart grids. We need design-thinkers to sit down with engineer-thinkers to explore how innovations for a particular room in a residence might scale up to the city, and how advanced interventions in the infrastructure of a smart city might scale down to the residence. We need dreamers, reformers, iconoclasts. We need to see things that have not yet been seen. We need to dare to imagine new human relations to each other and the [built] environment.

And that largely happens through design.

What are the stakes? Well, as Dr. DeWit repeats throughout his articles (which I highly recommend), the smart city movement risks becoming a fascinating set of islands unto themselves, where companies tinker with tiny pilot projects that hardly amount to anything in the grand scheme of things and develop “patents” and “brands” that prevent the open-source sharing of ideas and innovations. A few of these smart city pilot projects might turn into what Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin call “transcendent eco-cities,” or “ecologically secure gated communities” that, to be frank, protect the rich for the resource-starved poor.

So, what world do you want? If you see a future of radical sustainability and self and community empowerment, then I ask that you pitch in a bit, and help design it.