Designing Fukuoka 2030

Reflections on a weeklong Civic Futures workshop in Japan

“Future Cities, Future Ties”, 1938, on display in the Fukuoka City Museum

Earlier this year I ran a week-long ‘Winter School’ in Fukuoka, Japan, which was a perfect opportunity to test out with students a line of work that we’ve been developing in the strategic design practice at Dash Marshall for a few years now. We’ve been using the term “Civic Futures” to describe projects that are future oriented, embrace a mix of technological and social change, and involve design work at multiple scales from interactions to institutions. More on that here, if you’re interested.

The invitation came from Re:public, a top-notch social innovation ‘think and do tank’ in Japan who had previously hosted Helsinki Design Lab for a lecture during our final months. Re:public is a rare kind of group that works with universities, governments, and corporations with equal poise, and has been instrumental in putting together the K2 initiative, which hosted the Winter School. The name comes from the two ‘k’s behind the initiative, Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan and KAIST, in Daejeon, South Korea. The participants were a mix of 10 design students from each school, 10 students from a pool of international schools (including TU Delft, RCA, CCA), and about 10 employees from Japanese corporations.

Some of the blind contour portraits we drew as a way to get to know each other

The goal of the week-long studio was to design new services and systems that play out at an urban scale, are beneficial to the city, and are plausible on a 2030 timeline. Using “Fukuoka 2030” as the shorthand for this seemingly impossible mission, we focused in on six themes and a handful of technologies to shape a territory to be explored. Our themes were home, mobility, community, learning, work, and peace of mind. The technologies we focused on were robotics, artificial intelligence, and smart materials. More on all of these below.

Here’s what the week looked like:

The studio combined ethnographic research to help participants discover opportunities, social and technical innovation approaches to respond to those opportunities, strategic design methods to imagine how beneficial solutions could play out at urban scale, and filmmaking as a means of representing ideas. On Monday we started with nothing. On Saturday morning the teams presented short films.

The work, which is summarized below, was thoughtful and well executed for such a hyper speed studio, which is a testament to how dedicated the participants were. The hybrid nature of our approach meant that each of the participants was out of their depth at one point or another during the week. This was by design. I wanted to push everyone, including myself, to think about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind their design ideas, and to justify the responses to those questions with as much rigor as they would use to justify the design concepts themselves.

Building your own ladder

Taking on a topic as broad as the future of a city is hard enough on its own, but layer on different backgrounds and levels of experience, and you have a formula for complication. With a week there’s no time to slow down, so we needed to minimize the chances that people could get overwhelmed by the process. I designed the studio as a series of activities that each concluded with a pin-up of observations or ideas, laddering up in complexity (and abstraction) as the week went on. Each activity produced material that would support the next and, as the diagram above implies, with each step we incrementally filled the walls with bits of thinking, research, and making.

Before converging on Fukuoka the participants were each assigned two research topics, for which they created posters that became a common resource for the group:

During field work we adapted the AEIOU methodology, originally developed by Doblin, to create a pool of structured observations that included activities, environments, interactions, objects, and users specific to each of the themes. Each participant focused on one of the AEIOU letters and filled as many index cards as they could with observations. Due to the brevity of the studio, we lined up an afternoon of observations and interviews for each of the six teams. Lots of legwork went into that one, for which the Kyushu University team and Re:public deserve all the credit.

Each exercise ended with lots of index cards on the wall. This helps the group track its progress and feel like there’s forward momentum. It also creates opportunities for people to engage with content at their own pace, as opposed to having to keep up with verbal share-outs.

Using the observations, we created user journeys documenting how an individual interacts with a particular service. Here’s the Home team making a user journey for the daily routine of the family they visited:

As a warm up exercise before doing fieldwork, we provided sheets that guided participants through the observation and documentation process. These worksheets use open-source illustrations by UNICEF Office of Innovation
After coming back from the field, teams created their own user journeys. Photo: unknown participant (you’ll see a few of these below that are credited as such due to a shared folder of images with not attributions).

Using a partial manifesto that I drafted in advance as a straw man, each team developed a statement of their values by debating the points of the manifesto and rephrasing them at three scales: me, we, and everyone. For me to be sustainable = x. For us to be sustainable = y. For Fukuoka to be sustainable = z.

The thinking behind this exercise is that any act of design has values embedded within it, whether those values are explicit and intentional or not. This activity helps make them explicit and gives teams a chance to sort out the conflicts that emerge if and when something that makes sense at a small scale ceases to work as well at larger scales.

Debating scale on the left, posting our work on the right

Next we moved into sketching new ideas with a combinatorial approach. Each round began with picking an AEIOU observations from the wall, and selecting a card from a deck of prompts based on the partial manifesto. The task was to “remix” the two so that the thing on the AEIOU card exhibits or amplifies the value described on a values card drawn at random. For instance, pizza shop x sustainable = pizza shop that uses edible but expired produce. These were purposefully formulaic exercises so that they could be could run through multiple times to get used to generating ideas quickly. More often than not, the ideas that came out of this session were social in nature. These remix activities were designed with inspiration from Matt Ward, Thing Clash, and the Thing from the Future.

Things got weird real quick. For example, Human Centered x Roomba = “clean up your relationship with men”
Small sample of another wall full of index cards

A slightly different approach was taken to push our thinking on the possibilities of the technological innovation. With a heavy dose of inspiration from the Extrapolation Factory, I secured a pile of objects from a local 100¥ shop which we used in the next round of remixes. Let me tell you, it’s much harder than it sounds to shop for 50 random objects.

In this round, participants selected an object from the pile and then another card from the deck. This time, however, the deck of prompts described technologies, such as “Robotics: make it move,” instead of qualitative values. Remixing the card and the object they drew a sketch combining the two into a new product or service. The research that everyone had done in advance was posted on the walls of our studio space in case people needed to familiarize themselves with the technology on the card they drew at random.

Remixing a hand broom to use robotics and smart materials. Photo: unknown participant
As much as possible, every exercises ended with drawings

These fast-paced remix rounds generated a wall of ideas, some promising and some insane. Next we took a step back and combined all of the steps up to that point. Each team was asked to design a service that could be offered by Fukuoka in 2030. To do this, they drew a technology card and a values card, both at random, then chose a department of city hall that aligned with their theme. In about 2.5 hours, each team developed a concept and created a subway poster advertising it. As the participants learned, the toughest part of making an advertisement is deciding what to leave out.

Pitching city services from 2030. Photo: unknown participant
Not bad for 2.5 hours work

By the end of day Tuesday, our ‘ladder’ had been created. The walls were full of material documenting our collective understanding of daily life in Fukuoka, a small set of near-future technologies, expressions of the group’s values, hundreds of ‘stub’ ideas (half formed thoughts waiting to be expanded), and a small handful of attempts at synthesizing all of this into a clear and concise offering.

Wednesday and Thursday were spent wrestling with the themes and early exploratory sketches to home in on a design concept that improves life for individuals, small groups, and the city. By the end of Thursday each team articulated four aspects of their idea: 1. what assumptions are they making that define 2030, 2. what’s the challenge they’re tackling, 3. what’s their response to this challenge and 4. what are the impacts of that response? With these four questions answered and the clock ticking, we pushed to making storyboards.

Concept board on the left, storyboards in the making on the right. Photos: unknown participant

There was lots of sketching, editing, and shuffling of ideas around the whiteboard with one eye on content and the other on achievability from a production standpoint. Remarkably, those storyboards became films in a day, which shows the skill and discipline of the studio participants—and the strength of the bonds among team members that had formed five days earlier.

Snapshots from the rush of the final day and a half of the workshop: storyboarding, more storyboarding, the cleanest wood shop I’ve ever seen, props fabricated with the laser cutter, props repurposed from the 100¥ shop, and full power strips—the international sign of productivity.

Workshop outcomes

Below are the films that each group created, followed by a statement from the team, and commentary from me.

Though there is no doubt that these films will appear to some as toying with scary possibilities or relying on “magical thinking,” I pushed the participants to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia. Multiple times we found ourselves debating whether a proposal was taking too rosy a view of technology’s potential in the next 10–15 years, or underestimating a culture’s ability to resist change. For futurists who are into this kind of thing, we gravitated towards Jim Dator’s Continuation and Disruption quadrants, while steering clear of Abundance and Collapse. The next time I run a studio like this, however, I will require the teams to include a moment of failure in their films to hint at how things might go awry and confront the fact that all systems stumble at some point.


Team Home

Members: Akira Egawa, William Felker, Tomo Kihara, Bokyung Lee, Sunjeong Park, Yang Seoyeon, Ying Zhong

Team statement: “We have developed three concepts. The first is accommodating accessibility. We think the future public service system will be more flexible. The second is family mindfulness. Today, people can receive care or support from their families or best friends in their own homes. We think that people will be able to receive care or support from the entire city in the future. The third is emotional advocate. More emotional relationships can be made between the city and its people. This is our future city concept: A-Eye City.”

Commentary: Technology-driven visions of future cities tend to focus on how sensors, automation, and coordination (the building blocks of the so-called ‘smart city’) will generate an increased level of efficiency in the future. Usually in such visions, peddled by industry, the benefits of that efficiency accrue to city managers. But in this film we see a more humanist take, where surpluses created by an increase in efficiency are used to accommodate individual human needs (mental and physical) and soften the edges of urban life. The A-Eye City concept requires an almost creepy level of personal data to be functional, which begs us to wonder if the positive benefits of the proposed system are strong enough to make people willing to give up their personal info. I suspect that the difference between success and ‘Truman Show’ lies in the level of centralized ownership and control. Urban data platforms that are owned and operated by singular actors are likely to cause more challenges, socially, than those that allow a broad variety of actors to share—and benefit from the sharing of—data without giving up ownership.


Team Community

Members: Kohzo Hirose, Minsun Hong, Chorong Kim, Yuji Kishi, Tsukasa Muraya, Ha Ngoc Tuan, Varunyu Vorachart

Statement: “We designed an innovative system for citizens who suffer from dementia. We have designed a smart system using new technology, artificial intelligence, and smart materials to assist people with dementia at home or on the road, and we have included in our design a service system that allows them to live as normally as possible in society.”

Commentary: The Community team’s proposal imagines a future where dementia patients are able to roam the city more freely, rather than being confined to assisted living facilities. By doing so it provides a better life for them, while simultaneously allowing society at large to have broader contact with dementia, which leads to the development across society of a better understanding and level of empathy for the condition. Home and Community are two takes on similar ideas — whereas Home sites assistive technology in/on the objects of the city, Community proposes to site that assistive capacity in/on everyday objects already present in an individual’s life. It leads us to wonder who will be the first mover to establish data standards that enable widespread interoperability of internet-of-things devices—a battle that has not yet been won. I’d love to see a forward thinking city take the lead, but the national government of Estonia will probably figure it out first.


Team Mobility

Members: Clement Heinen, Tze-Wei Hsu, Soyoung Kim, Maho Kohga, Gao Pin, Yukiya Yamane, Dai Yoshida

Statement: “How might we create a decentralized infrastructure in Fukuoka to provide a fluid service and support system?” We would like to propose a platform that will augment the way we access services. ‘Already There’ is a service that will enable users to access services regardless of where they are, and it will provide them with the things that they need.”

Commentary: The Mobility team took autonomous vehicles (robotics) in a novel direction by focusing on the movement of services instead of people, proposing that everything you need could be provided in your neighborhood through a combination of permanent and on-demand services. The implication is that vehicular travel becomes something one does out of desire, rather than “needing” to put up with the necessity of the daily commute for work or school. They hint at the civic implications towards the end by proposing an on-demand park. This idea really gets interesting when you imagine core government services having the same mobility as the speakers and sushi-restaurant in the film. The video does not explore the implications on land use, but there’s a lot of potential to do so with this concept as a starting point.


Team Learning

Members: Jihye Choe, Tomohiro Itaya, Moojin Joh, Han-Jong Kim, Becky Marshall, Kyoko Maruo

Statement: “TasukeAI will use artificial intelligence technology and offer counsel to young people going through the struggles of growing up and company for elders who perhaps are experiencing isolation, all the while collecting data from these interactions for the city to learn from and offer services to all citizens. In the future, TasukeAI will use technology to provide a platform for large-scale sharing of wisdom from elders to younger people.”

Commentary: This project connects three needs in a virtuous circle. It recognizes that life involves moments such as having an argument with a loved one or negotiating for a promotion that are by nature difficult to practice — and thus hard to learn how to do gracefully. Older people generally have more practice, by virtue of their age, and yet in Japan there’s a growing population of elderly living by themselves who suffer loneliness. Finally, AI requires source data to be used for training (for now at least). Team Learning connects these needs by offering a chatbot type accompaniment for lonely elders, which in turn helps an AI develop soft skills, which the AI uses to coach mid-career people who are navigating life’s difficult moments. And if this works, Team Learning implies, it would be worthwhile for a local government to fund it as a way to collect aggregated sentiment data that would enable decision makers to be more responsive to citizen needs and desires. How might a system like this attract enough individuals, and a diverse enough set of them, to avoid self-reinforcing feedback loops?


Team Work

Members: Tabasa Hara, Leila Hyelip Lee, Toshihisa Mine, Natalia Postnova, Anderson Brandao Sudario, Nayoung Yoon

Statement: “We believe that working styles in the city will definitely change. Project-based working situations will be more common than ever before. We are constantly becoming beginners over and over again. We are always newcomers, new to communities. Having a great set of skills is not enough. We all know that being in the right place at the right time is of the utmost importance, so it is important to forge social dynamics. How can we easily jump into a new community? Let us show our solution, called “Skills Grid.”

Commentary: On its face, this proposal might look like LinkedIn writ large, but there are two provocative potentials that I want to push further. Team Work suggests that decomposing one’s CV into a set of skills and job offerings into a set of needs allows a more fluid matchmaking. The same would apply, and perhaps be even more interesting, if applied to companies, and particularly industrial clusters. How would a system like this encourage more dynamic relationships between companies within a cluster, particularly an industrial cluster retooling in the face of global economic changes? The second aspect to highlight is the positive — or potentially bizarre — social dynamics that could emerge when any arbitrary group of people as a way to understand the shape of their collective skills. If you were a calligrapher and you happened to find yourself on a train car full of calligraphers, would you be more inclined to strike up conversation? Could a concept like this help create moments to pull us out of out insular bubbles, or would it entrench them?


Team Peace of Mind

Members: Yuchun Yan, Jung Huh, Taku Inoue, Yuksel Omer Berk, Tomomi Ogata, Shunki Shibaoka

Statement: “PoM CAL system will make us think seriously about the balance of stress, productivity, and creativity in our lives. We would like to create a sustainable city that balances work and relaxation to keep people creative and productive. The PoM CAL system will create flexible schedules throughout the whole city. This system has two key functions; one is measuring stress and another is determining welfare for holidays. Smart materials will be used to turn every daily item into a platform for gathering data from citizens. A common calendar has two days off per week. When the stress goes up city-wide to a level in which creativity seems to be reduced, the city will change working days into new public holidays. Whenever the balance between stress and creativity returns to a normal level, the city will change the holidays back to their original scheduling. Our project will give more vitality to a sustainable working style in Fukuoka in 2030.”

Commentary: Team Peace of Mind set no small task for themselves. They chose to confront the 5-day work week with a goal of reinventing this industrial assumption for a new era of work. By monitoring stress and productivity they hoped to create a homeostatic feedback loop for the city, improving quality of life without degrading creative and productive output. The starting point for this concept is worth mentioning: Team Peace of Mind observed that freelancers and small companies often work at the whims of big corporations, who themselves are tied into global networks. While in theory a freelancer always has the option to take a day off, they rarely seem to do so. By contrast, the proposed city-wide system addresses the interdependency of our work-lives by treating it as a collective action problem that can be resolved by a new coordinating system. My prediction? The 21st century will force us to confront familiar-but-arbitrary aspects of everyday life, like the 5-day work calendar, and carefully evaluate whether we keep or reinvent them.


Civic Futures

The films depict visible interactions with objects and spaces which help us trace the contours of their invisible counterparts — the “dark matter,” as we called it at HDL, that define services and systems. As much as we might care about the design quality, the user experience, the human centeredness of websites and other visible things in our lives, those are influenced by, and in a real sense constrained by, other factors. Constraints are layered on by the organizations who bring things into the world, by the economy in which they emerge, by the policy and regulatory context, and so on. The design proposals you see in the films above are nascent ideas about products, services, and systems, but more importantly they are tools to help us reckon with the invisible factors that shape everyday life.

As a token of appreciation for the hard work of the participants, and because the studio was held in Japan where gifts are important, I made a special pin for everyone that commemorates the importance of this missing link between the scale of the individual and the scale of the city — between the visible and the invisible.

It was inspired by this quote from Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen:

“You should always design a thing by considering it in its next largest context: A chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, and an environment in a city plan.”

If you’ve visited one of Saarinen’s projects you know that he almost certainly meant this in the sense of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), where details and motifs are coordinated at all scales. It’s also, however, a succinct and memorable description of the ‘missing link’ described above, and a reminder that when designing interactions, institutions, or incentives, connections are what make us civic.

Note to self: end every project with a gift

Interested in exploring Civic Futures?

At Dash Marshall we host a limited number of studios per year. If you would like to bring a Civic Futures studio to your university or organization, please get in touch by emailing info (at) dashmarshall.com