The city is my homescreen

How design practice can work better for people, services and cities together, and not simply individuals.

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Feb 2 · 25 min read

Ed. This paper was written to accompany a speech I gave to open the ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces 2018 conference in Tokyo, November 2018. It was published in the accompanying Wikitopia project’s publication. Thanks to Wikitopia organiser and Sony Computer Science Laboratories’ Yuichiro Takeuchi for comments, and for letting me share here. The title, and key metaphor, of ‘the city being my homescreen’ came from a conversation with Patrick Keenan at Sidewalk Labs.


Everyday situations

The smartphone is the device of our time, just as the car was for the time before. There is an argument to be made that it is the most successful product of all time, at least in terms of sales volumes, of total revenue, of cultural impact. Capabilities, almost unimaginable to previous generations, are now at hand almost all the time – under our fingers, in the street, at home, at work, always around us. At least for most of us.

Many of our daily interactions have become organised around that glowing homescreen. Everything from the mundane, like calling a cab, to the life-changing, like starting a relationship, pivot around those glowing icons nestled in our palm. And these discrete, quotidian, tech-enabled interactions combine to shape the city itself; again, just as the car did. Writing a generation before the likes of Uber and Airbnb would emerge, the architect Ralph Erskine would have had different things in mind when he wrote, “it is the everyday situations that are important and that shape the major part of our lives and our cities.” Yet his point that it is these workaday interactions that define our cities, rather than ‘grand projets’, continues to ring true.

And so the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

While hardly as deleterious as the privately-owned car, for which a case could be made that it is one of the most damaging consumer products ever created, the last few years have seen the smartphone, and the tightly bound array of digital services and algorithmic systems that comprise the true product here, held responsible for Trump and Brexit, obesity and waste, filter bubbles and addiction, environmental damage and civic collapse, precarious work and no work, ‘sexting’ and sleep deprivation.

Often, these are emotive or subjective arguments rather than grounded or objective findings; not that they are any less meaningful as a result. Yet causative data is emerging, as part of an increasingly critical assessment of the systems lying ‘behind’ the phone in someone’s hand, perhaps even more affecting than its direct impact on sleep, attention and social interaction. For example, researchers Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker at the AI Now Institute are producing hugely meaningful research at the greater impact of machine learning on material resource use, labor patterns, ethics and politics. Or, as the Dartmouth computer scientist Hany Farid puts it more colloquially, “What’s really interesting about these technologies is how quickly they went from ‘Whoa, this is really cool’ to ‘Holy crap, this is subverting democracy.“

The phone is bound up with these new technologies of everyday urban life – machine learning, internet-of-things, social media; it is the perceptible signifier of systems whose impacts are otherwise difficult to read. Hence the finger-pointing at that homescreen. Yet understanding these broader systemic repercussions clearly means thinking beyond the homescreen, by definition.

Unfortunately, although design practice has developed and stretched powerfully in order to help drive these technologies forwards, our core digital design disciplines, such as interaction design or service design, do not train us for these broader challenges.

For example, judged from a pure interaction design practice point-of-view, Uber is clearly an exemplary user experience. Yet judged from a wider urban design point-of-view, its impact appears to be hugely damaging, with vast numbers of vehicles incentivised to drive into the middle of cities, apparently leading to increased congestion and reduced public transport use. Seeing like a system, it looks like a product designed to get drivers onto the road, at the expense of more sustainable options. Needless to say, this is literally the opposite of what most city governments are trying to achieve at this point. In effect, Uber works for the individual – a car is always within range – precisely because it does not work for the city, as the streets are deliberately congested with drivers.

This saturation approach, a kind of brute-force carpet-bombing typical of a venture capital-funded ploy to rapidly achieve ‘market domination’, can also be clearly seen with the ‘floating bike-sharing’ startups Mobike and Ofo (and similarly, e-scooter startups such as Lime and Bird.) Whilst bikes ‘everywhere’ is generally a good thing for cities, they cannot be literally everywhere, due to the mutually exclusive nature of urban space. Space is rivalrous, in this sense – to borrow a phrase from economists – and the impact of bikes strewn over pavements and squares, or collected in vast dumps in China, is an all-too-clear clear outcome of the saturation approach. As with Uber, the floating bikes may have caused as many problems for the operators and cities as they have solved for individuals, and are sheepishly withdrawing from many cities, or disappearing altogether. Airbnb is purported to produce equally problematic effects, offering a popular service to individuals whilst allegedly driving an increase in rental prices in cities with housing affordability problems.

Currently at least, when the homescreen impacts upon city, these services are not better for most. User-centred design works for individuals, yet not for people living together in cities.

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy. This is not a criticism, any more than we can blame a hammer for not sawing wood effectively. Perhaps it’s simply what they do.

However, if we reframe how we position these various technologies – digital products and services, internet of things and advanced networks, machine learning and autonomous systems – and what design practices we address them with, we do have the potential to shape Erskine’s “everyday situations” in more careful and considered yet powerfully systemic fashion. These could help produce the city that its citizens might both want and need, balancing desired interactions at the scale of the individual with the systemic outcomes required at the scale of the many. This enables and requires design for the homescreen and the city at the same time, to the extent that we understand that the city is my homescreen and vice versa; one is infused into the other, such that we can address both individual and city coherently.

Forcing that agenda will encourage designers using these contemporary and emerging technologies to break out beyond the bezels, to look up from pecking and pawing at those candy-coloured 180x180 icons and to engage with the reality of the context around them, and to see this as a rich, vibrant and endlessly inventive cultural and environmental terrain.

These opportunities stand before us, and not simply in the province of Big Tech: spaces and services could be adaptable, modular yet customised structures, constructed as required around real people’s needs and desires rather than generic developments. They could iterate, grow and evolve as communities do, matching their complexity rather than simplifying and reducing into inert structures. They could produce socially-equitable outcomes within local and participative decision-making structures, rather than simply concentrating wealth and power elsewhere. There are precedents for all of this, from decidedly low-tech environments such as cooperative-led housing projects in Zürich and Berlin, through to higher-tech urban systems, such as Barcelona’s recent pioneering work with digital identity systems and municipally-owned energy companies, or Helsinki’s careful incorporation of autonomous shuttles into its public transport networks. The kind of city that could look and feel like is described in detail elsewhere, in my essays Networked Urbanism, The Street as Platform 2050, A Cloud Atlas…, and The Battle for the Infrastructure of Everyday Life.

But what kind of design practice does this look and feel like?

Design principles between the homescreen and the city

When former Googler Tristran Harris critiqued tech’s impact on us, describing the need for a form of “design ethics”, he wrote that, “just like a city shapes the lives of its inhabitants, software shapes the lives of its users.” Yet we are now beyond simile; the city and software have merged. As discussed, this is partly due to the hybridised ‘internet of things’-based physical/digital systems, and partly due to physical spaces and systems operating to digital dynamics – via Uber, Airbnb, WeWork, for example. So we need design principles of the kind Harris espouses, as a broader form of ethics, yet in this hybrid environment, of homescreen and city combined.

For example, in our work at Arup Digital Studio, and previously at the Future Cities Catapult, a set of principles have emerged and been refined over many projects. These include quiet, humble, legible, local, social and strategic approaches to technology in the city. These are designed specifically to address the individualising aspects of technology, as filter bubbles and attention-shattering interfaces make for a particularly acute condition when they surface en masse in the city.

Concept designs for Punkt, Melbourne’s Collingwood Arts Precinct, London’s Royal Parks, Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk and Sluisbuurt, University of Melbourne campus, and Sidewalk Labs all attempted to address the balance between individuals and collectives, technologies and the environment, culture and place, the citizen and the city. Each tried to exert the faster moving layers of a city – sensors, bikes, embedded displays, shuttles, renewable energy, fabricated structures – based on the potential of new technology, yet within a broader framework of slower moving layers of buildings, environment and government. When it addressed buildings and districts, it was a ‘people, then buildings’ rather than ‘buildings, then people’ approach. At its core, the humble and social approach to these projects was a deliberate attempt to foreground physical interactions with others – other people, and the environment itself – via careful and considered use of digital technologies; in effect, trying to use tech for what it should do, not simply what it could do, by reframing it within broader urban contexts.

For the city is a place where, as the sociologist Richard Sennett describes, we learn to live with people that aren’t like you.

Cities are places where learning to live with strangers can happen directly, bodily, physically, on the ground. The size, density, and diversity of urban populations makes this sensate contact possible – but not inevitable. One of the key issues in urban life, and in urban studies, is how to make the complexities a city contains actually interact. [From Sennett, R., ‘Capitalism and the city’, in Ed. Echenique, M., & Saint, A. (2001), Cities for the New Millennium, Routledge, London]

The shift from homescreen to the city implies a broader civic awareness, a greater understanding of responsibility between individual actions – “directly, bodily, physically”. Making space for this requires technology not to over-reach or aggressively attempt to extend its capabilities as far as possible, but instead take a relatively ‘humble’ positioning in urban environments.

For example, such principles were deployed in a Future Cities Catapult design research project exploring new user experiences for cycling. These film-based design probes sketched augmented reality interfaces built into bike helmet visors, which enable cyclists to learn the city through landmarks and edges, borrowing from urban planner Kevin Lynch’s theories. The technology is effectively designed to disappear once the rider has learned to read the city, ensuring that we can unplug as well as log in, that we look up, reflect, truly connect.

Sketch video prototype of possible new user experiences for cyclists in London, by Future Cities Catapult

A further notional interface in this project indicated how cyclists might more easily follow routes with cleaner air, with real-time air quality inferred from super-local networks of municipal environmental sensors. This sketch featured a deliberately constrained device on the bike’s handlebars, connected to a phone in the pocket, taking air quality readings from sensors embedded in street-based infrastructure. This relatively simple looping between devices indicates how a system is constructed from simple, robust elements, with the user interface enabling as much attention as possible on the road – again, heads up, resilient, humble, quiet. It is also localised to London’s concerns over air quality and its particular pattern of street networks.

Projects such as these suggest a broader, more culturally-located view of privacy and anonymity, which are as core to the urban experience as visibility, sociality and conviviality. There are numerous reference points to draw from here, from well outside the tech sector. For example, viewing emblematic contemporary Japanese domestic architecture, such as those described in Tokyo Metabolizing (Kitayama et al, 2010), it is clear that there is an entirely different notion of public and private space than that found in the typical ‘Western’ city. Indeed, the architect Sou Fujimoto has said that “perhaps there is no differentiation between a house and the city, only the depth,” suggesting that innermost part of the house is simply the deepest part of the city, with a shifting shoji-like series of conditions in-between that and the street.

This is complex, but also entirely everyday, and easily explicable when experienced. We may need to draw from these ‘everyday-complex’ ideas in order to better understand how to design the distributed intelligence increasingly embedded in our urban infrastructure. Indeed, this sense of continuum of shared experience, as opposed to overly simplistic binary opposition of public and private, is perhaps akin to this idea of individual homescreen and shared city being connected, integrated, one and the same thing.

With tech, making this ‘everyday-complexity’ legible becomes increasingly important, in order to articulate the systems that reside in the space between homescreen and city. Making systems ‘seamful’, rather than seamless, in this way immediately asks more complex questions, provoking a more holistic approach to system design. Loading the homescreen into the city, metaphorically if not literally, requires us to engage with the impact of systems in terms of social fabric, of local cultural context, for example. How might such systems build trust rather than erode it? How might such systems knit together social fabric rather than shred it? These are design briefs to resolve.

Arup Digital Studio and Ericsson R&D’s Strategic Design Lab developed a ‘sketch prototype’ for visualising proposals for the city, whether planned developments or small interventions. This ‘design probe’ enables legibility in situ, revealing the seams of urban governance processes. As an augmented reality-based prototype, it asks questions of the appropriate interface and network technologies, but also how to best convey such proposed interventions; how to describe the value of projects, in order to stimulate meaningful participation or engagement. Ericsson’s team further developed the prototype into a Google Tango-based demo, working with UN HABITAT and Minecraft developer Mojang, and have since further absorbed the ideas into their Ericsson ONE work. These ideas built on a preceding project – Brickstarter, developed by SITRA’s Strategic Design Unit in 2012, which sketched out a kind of ‘View Source’ command for the city itself – as well as observations of how planning notices in the UK are currently articulated. Ericsson’s work stands out as an example of prototyping advanced technology for strategic urban concerns.

Arup Digital Studio sketch video prototype of potential for augmented reality in engaging citizens in urban proposals. Produced for Ericsson R&D. (Video has no voiceover.)

As with the Catapult’s bike UX sketch prototypes, these Ericsson examples also demonstrate the value of speculative design. Speculative design – sometimes design futures or design fiction – uses the processes and artefacts of design practice to address, uncover and articulate unknowns, often from a critical perspective. All design is in the future, by definition: the question is whether the designer is producing something for two weeks’ time, two years’ time, two decades’ time. As such, speculative design becomes more like an attitude that can be applied as a kind of ‘ratchet’ or time-slider on practices like interaction or service design. One can produce interaction design at any of these timescales, for example. Clarity is greatest the shorter the timeframe, whereas longer timeframes can be more exploratory or provocative. Policymakers and politicians may prefer the former, given electoral cycles, whilst those at one remove from public responsibility may tend to the latter. Yet we need all these modes exerted and connected when dealing with cities.

Moving beyond principles for interaction and service design, the emerging practice of strategic design offers approaches to addressing the wider systemic outcomes of these networked urbanism technologies. The Ericsson project started as a technology ‘explainer’ (and still functions as such, for 5G and augmented reality interfaces), yet became a much richer, broader exercise in citizen participation and urban planning across varied cultural contexts, emphasising its potential impact for meaningful opportunities in cities.

Drawing heavily from architecture and urban planning, aligning with systems thinking and other disciplines such as economics, political science and sociology, such strategic design is capable of aligning the homescreen and the city, balancing individual needs with wider urban outcomes. Its explicit role is to apply the principles of traditional design to ‘big picture’ systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change, helping redefine how problems are approached or how questions are framed, before identifying and conveying multi-faceted opportunities for action, and then helping to deliver more complete and resilient solutions.

In doing so, it must act as an umbrella across other disciplines, drawing them in to help make sense of more complex environments on their own terms. Indeed architecture can often be particularly useful in these broader challenges, as one of the few design disciplines with an ethical responsibility for the wider city, and an intrinsically multi-scalar, multi-user element at its core. The Italian architect Ernesto Rogers said architecture can stretch “from the spoon and the city”, suggesting this constant zooming back and forth between scales, paces, and contexts.

Technology-led systems would benefit from this balance between individual, service, and city, just as an architectural project attempts to connect the elegant door handle with a positive impact on the wider city. (The image above suggests how an early sketch prototype video for Sidewalk Labs flushes out questions at different scales and paces, from individual concerns to broader urban, strategic issues.)

Citizen, Service, City

For an example outside of architecture, the Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim public bike sharing networks can be described as ‘humble, local’ solutions; yet they are also a more ‘everyday-complex’ strategic approach to a new urban system, in the sense that they balance individual outcomes with operational and urban outcomes, reinforcing public good and building public value.

On one level, they are ‘simply’ extremely well-designed and well-executed urban bike-sharing systems, run by Norwegian startup Urban Sharing. All data associated with the bikes across Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim systems are shared with their respective municipalities as well as published openly. This data sharing at the municipality, combined with Urban Sharing’s machine learning-based distribution of bikes to docks, avoids the unmanaged rivalrous issues of Mobike or Uber. Numerous discrete adaptive design decisions enable the various layers of hardware and software to ‘shear’ against each other sustainably, just as careful brand/identity work is deployed to connect users to their city’s bikes, building a sense of shared ownership and responsibility. Oslo Bysykkel is clearly Oslo’s bikes, the city’s bikes, your bikes. The bikes belong to the city, and its citizens – as opposed to, say, London’s Santander Cycles, which belongs to whom, exactly?

The identity makes clear the Oslo link, with individual bikes often labelled with with common Oslo names, creating subtle links between rider, system and city. This civic relationship even seems to engender more care for the system, with reduced maintenance costs.

Person posting to Instagram when she rode an Oslo Byskkel bike with her name on it

Further, Oslo Bysykkel’s early morning maintenance crew comprises recently-released former felons from local prisons, who have been trained to fix bikes whilst ‘inside’. This solves a problem for Urban Sharing – it needs a maintenance crew – whilst also creating a wider public good, enabling a better reintegration of former prisoners into society. It is typically Nordic, perhaps, in that it is pragmatic and humane at the same time.

Cleverly, Urban Sharing’s hybrid approach to their Trondheim and Bergen implementations, works in smart lock, dumb dock mode, allowing for the use of “virtual” docking stations which can be created using geofencing technology, as well as formalised physical docking stations at logical points within the city. These features are a result of carefully understanding the balancing act between individual flexibility and urban outcomes; or, in this case between the often wasteful ‘floating bike’ systems and the relatively rigid typical urban bike-sharing model.

“With the hybrid model, city bikes and docking points become more accessible to users, and provide an organized yet flexible solution for the city” [From Urban Sharing]

Urban Sharing’s approach indicates a private company working for public and civic outcomes, indicating a wider concern for public good outcomes at the scale of the city, partly by positioning it fundamentally as Oslo’s system, rather than a broader global play by a private company. Note that this positive outcome also leans on sharp procurement by the municipalities involved; credit where it is due. In fact, beyond ‘mere’ procurement, working with companies like Urban Sharing – and the data they generate as well as the richer set of outcomes and possibilities in such systems – also suggests a more active role for municipal government, with more ambitious strategic goals (as can be seen in downtown Oslo.)

So the way that Oslo Bysykkel is designed and operated provides flexibility for the individual, efficiency for the operator, and social, civic and environmental outcomes for the city. It demonstrates the balancing act possible when combining interaction, service and strategic design, and delivering quality at all levels.

This last is important. Without good interaction design, strategic design is pointless, as no-one uses the service – as we can see from many poorly executed examples elsewhere.

The comparison with Mobike and Ofo, say, or indeed Uber, is stark. Although a startup, Urban Sharing produces what is essentially public transport, and is conveyed as such. It is technically innovative, cleverly balancing ‘floating’ and ‘fixed’ systems, and the emphasis on data-sharing is key. Open, public performance data – from both the operator and the city – is needed to understand how to calibrate supply and demand, and more active and productive regulation, policy, urban design and service design can then be the result, enabling a better balance of product, service, and space. Citizen, service, city.

Moreover, its underpinning values are clear, once you see them. (Einar Sneve Martinussen, at Oslo’s architecture school AHO, is leading interesting work about the potential of working with ‘Nordic Model’ values more explicitly.)

Strategic design addresses these kinds of balancing acts more completely across all aspects of city making and running, with an explicit agenda for enabling decision-making to produce public good outcomes within complex societal problems and opportunities. As the Urban Sharing example indicates, such designers do not have to exclusively reside in the public sector at all. Yet a more balanced distribution of designers across all contexts, including public sector, is likely to create better outcomes.

Looking at the artefacts and outputs across the design work going on in these examples, we can see the range of thinking and acting we need to deploy to balance homescreen and city.

  • User interface design produces shareable code and detailed design patterns.
  • User Experience (UX) Design, or Interaction Design, produces a coherent understanding of touchpoints, user journeys and user research.
  • Service design arranges and orchestrates those touchpoints, with service blueprints, user journey maps, organisational models, and related.
  • Architecture produces concept designs and system design at various scales, from door handle to neighbourhood, and foregrounds ethics and values.
  • Urban planning produces generative planning frameworks and principles.
  • Speculative design works as a kind of ‘ratchet’, or time-slider, on all these approaches.
  • And strategic design can access policy-making, law, territory mapping, value systems, organisational principles, as well as orchestrating the above as the broader ‘architecture of the problem’.

Seeing design as forms of decision-making across these various aspects is where the real invention is required, the true design agenda. These questions are complex:

  • At the scale and pace of buildings, streets, cities, how do we formulate the best aspects of experience, design, operation, governance and ownership, to use these various ‘networked urbanism’ technologies in a way that reinforces the idea of the city as a public good, not a mere collision of private ones?
  • How do we best address the conflict between increasingly urban economies and nation states responsible for the many regions in-between and apparently left behind?
  • At the greater scale again, and our greatest challenge, how do we collectively make the decisions necessary to limit the global average temperature rise to less than 1.5℃?

This ability to think and act at different scales and paces simultaneously, addressing the externalities and spillovers that leak from one to another, requires new forms of practice, albeit built from the foundations of design’s past and present.

Beyond user-centred design

Humans are social animals. Despite the signs around us, we are not necessarily self-centred individuals, head down, drawn into our glowing homescreens, and the deeper algorithmic currents within, ignoring the ‘everyday-complex’ city around us. Perhaps that is simply a phase we are going through, the awkward teenage years of our deepening relationship with 21st century tech. Indeed, the potential to wrap technology into the city, to unlock it from those homescreens, could free us from this sometimes abusive relationship and unlock a different kind of city, predicated on more positive relationships with each other and our environment.

This is beyond the capabilities of user-centred or human-centred design. As indicated initially, individually-focused interaction design can produce Uber, but not a good city with Uber in it. Indeed, there is a case to be made for an equal and opposite approach of environment-centred design, and understanding our place within that. The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

Equally, architecture, in its promise to go “from spoon to city”, may be as equally productive a starting point as interaction design. It can often find a way of intrinsically embodying and enabling complexity, rather than looking to reduce it. As noted, the complexities manifest in Japanese architecture could provide inspiration – how a house is a house, but is also an essay about individuals living together in the city and also a scalable model for doing so. Practices of critique, unfortunately largely alien to tech-focused design practices, may be required to articulate the complexity intrinsic within the structure. Architecture has an almost unparalleled set of useful capabilities in terms of thinking in scales and systems, context and content.

Unfortunately, architecture’s practice has its own self-inflicted limitations. It tends to be bound solely to buildings as ‘the answer’, with a few exceptions, either in its craft practice or typical business model. Yet those same business models and practices leave it unable to work with the building as an ongoing process, and the aspects of programme, operations, environment and people that define a building’s success, and ultimately, its point. Equally, the relatively slow pace of buildings renders architecture blind to the faster layers of change within a city, such as products, services, experiences – those affecting touchpoints accessed by Uber or Airbnb, autonomous shuttles or Oslo Byskkel, renewable energy or community organisation. These blindspots must all be addressed for architecture’s own sake, never mind its broader application within strategic design.

Urban planning, architecture’s bureaucratic relative, has other qualities. Finn Williams has eloquently described planning’s value for enabling generative systems. He points out how, at best, planning’s focus on frameworks, policies and guidelines enables a form of creative co-design to emerge within a city, as well as positioning it inside governance, connected to fundamentally strategic city-shaping dynamics. Yet, in abstracting ‘upwards’, planning perhaps too readily tends to avoid contact with the street, in terms of deeply understanding urban processes or meaningfully engaging people. Planning has frequently struggled to understand how to position itself, caught between overly-rigid guidelines which prevent invention or diversity, or being too absent, ‘asleep at the wheel’ as city after city develops unsustainably. And it too is stuck largely addressing the slow layers of change in a city, rarely present in the policy making room where the experience-led services of networked urbanism are discussed.

Stewart Brand’s pace layers applied to ‘civilisation’

However, this emerging strategic design practice can orchestrate these practices in new ways, in order to avoid these issues, addressing complexity on its own terms. Working alongside other disciplines as an integrator, it has the potential to pull focus on the street as well as panning out to the urban plan, to orchestrate the most powerful elements of all these disciplines, design and otherwise, across a broader, richer canvas, mapped onto the true everyday-complexity of the city. With reference to Daniel Kahnemann’s ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, it provides the city with a way of addressing both the ‘experiencing self’ (interaction design, service design) as well as the ‘remembering self’ (architecture, planning). Designing fast and slow.

By aligning all these disciplines – and engaging with others, such as economics, political science, communications – it can help form plans, polities, projects and products across an appropriately diverse range of paces and scales. It also moves design into a more productive position, of both strategy and responsibility.

From everyday situations to everyday complexity

Yet as much as the city-oriented design trades need to change to address these new contexts, tech could also learn much from the city itself. Last year, the Indian writer Gautam Bahn beautifully described the resilience enabled by the ‘everyday-complex’ city, in the face of the largely failing Indian smart cities agenda. He wrote of:

“the survival of the ordinary and the everyday; the survival of citizens over cities; of infrastructures of everyday dignity over big, signature, spectacular projects; of incremental change over instantaneous transformation; of the bazaar over the mall, the shared auto over the expressway” [Bahn, 2017]

This everyday-complexity is key. It provides a way of productively connecting homescreen and city, as IoT and machine learning begin to fuse both together, as hardware and software combine, as people and place and environment come together in new ways. This is complex, but not necessarily more complex than the bazaar that Bahn describes. And it is suitably complex, as the everyday-complex Oslo Bysykkel can be compared favourably to the everyday-simplistic carpet-bombing of Uber, Mobike, Lime et al.

Lest this seem intangible, we need only step outside and take a walk in Tokyo, or wherever you are, and look around with what fictional Baltimore PD Bunk Moreland describes as ‘soft eyes’:

“If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes, you staring at the same tree missing the forest.” [Bunk Moreland in The Wire, S04 E04]

With ‘soft eyes’ open, the city reveals itself. The street is a complex system. The medina is a complex system. The piazza is a complex system. They are all around us. Often, we have unhelpfully tried to address and manage similarly complex systems by over-simplifying them, engaging narrowly-focused existing silos with short-sighted ‘hard eyes’, copy-pasted templates of ‘best practice’, new public management, or shallow technocratic agendas such as ‘smart cities’. These attempts at over-simplification have hampered both design and political processes, as we can also see all around us, unfortunately. The writer and artist James Bridle suggests instead that “complexity is not a condition to be tamed but a lesson to be learned.”

The emerging ability to get technology out of our smartphones and into the street opens us to the everyday-complex, both in terms of outcome and in terms of design practice. The challenges posed by Internet-of-things, machine learning, digital services, if framed and delivered sensitively, humanely, equitably and sustainably, could enable us to engage with physical systems via digital dynamics, as a form of ‘networked urbanism’. If addressed holistically, from cooperatives to carbon, we can address complexity on its own terms.

In fusing together these systems, we must also develop a new hybrid design practice, drawing from interaction design to strategic design, and all relevant points in-between, as homescreen and city become one. It would benefit the design practices we apply at the scale of the homescreen – interaction design, service design – to understand and actively calibrate the wider impact on the city and environment. Equally, it would benefit the design practices we apply at the scale of the city – architecture, urban design and urban planning – to understand and directly address people, products, services, and the way they work as real-time systems, as real people and communities with shifting values and beliefs, via different kinds of iterative ongoing engagement.

Strategic design can help orchestrate and organise these practices, and link to other relevant disciplines and approaches, to unlock systemic changes in policy, regulation, organisation — thedark matterof the city — as well as the matter itself, as that begins to change too. Doing all this might enable us to balance desired interactions at the scale of the individual with the systemic outcomes required at the scale of the many.

The shift from homescreen to city is a way forward for design, and for the city. The city is our homescreen.


Ed. This paper was written to accompany a speech I gave to open the ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces 2018 conference in Tokyo, November 2018. It was published in the accompanying Wikitopia project’s publication. Thanks to Wikitopia organiser and Sony Computer Science Laboratories’ Yuichiro Takeuchi for comments, and for letting me share here. The title, and key metaphor, of ‘the city being my homescreen’ came from a conversation with Patrick Keenan at Sidewalk Labs.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Stockholm. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova. Visiting prof at UCL Bartlett IIPP; Adjunct prof at RMIT. cityofsound.com &c.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.