FF at the Festival of Place

Earlier in the summer, I was invited to talk at the Festival of Place. The panel was titled “What is a truly ‘smart’ city?” and billed as ‘a discussion of what data can do for cities, plus some myth-busting about what it can’t’.

Robin Howie
Oct 21, 2019 · 11 min read

Here’s my slides from the talk…

Hello my name is Robin Howie. I’m the Creative Director and Founder of Fieldwork Facility

We are a design studio for uncharted territories and we love unusual design challenges… Our work is in the intersection of communication, innovation and place.

So let's get this out the way I am not an advocate for smart cities. Why?**BECAUSE WHAT DOES SMART CITIES EVEN MEAN!?**

As Cedric Price said ‘Technology is the answer, but what was the question?’.

My perspective is that technology can obviously play an exciting and innovative role in our cities but the language around smart cities is incredibly biased — Smart Cities is the rhetoric of global enterprise solutions who are looking to be the answer to all of a cities problems… problems that you probably didn’t know were there.

These Global IT enterprise organistaions have cleverly figured out that they can rewire their technologies to be applied at a municipal scale… and to help sell their capabilities to us they have invented a language around ‘smart cities’… just so we can easily identify a vision of the future that they see themselves as the centre of.

Essentially what we are talking about is putting data at the heart of municipal stewardship. which is fine, well… sort of… I've got issues with devolving decision making to sensors and machine learning. At best we get a more optimised and efficient city, at its very worst we could get cities that pave the way for authoritarian technocrats… not fantastic huh.

A certain level of efficiency in a city is welcome especially in a city as impatient as London, but what ‘smart city solutions’ do we really need? Do our cities really need the equivalent of Municipal Roombas?

But you know what, I think what makes a city feel great and feel alive isn’t its level of efficiency. It’s a cities people that make a city feel alive…

So cities aren’t smart. People are smart, a cities lifeblood is its people

We need to shift the dialogue away from “smart cities” and towards smart citizens. But you know what, let’s not just default and use the language of the huge IT corporations…

Instead of Smart Citizens please can we reframe our discussion around Networked Cities and Connected Citizens. And if we start at the beginning… start with people’s needs and a cities capacities then we can see what products and services we can design for public good.

Essentially I believe in using design and technology for public good.
A teeny tiny example of this was The Nest Project

The Nest Project was a project by Fieldwork facility to encourage bird-life in inner-city areas. I’m at home in the city but I actually grew up in the countryside. When I moved to London one of the things I noticed was how much I missed the connection to wildlife and nature. This isn’t just being romantic about rural pastures — a connection to nature has been proved time and again to improve people's wellbeing.

I was really shocked to learn that 20% of the world's bird species live in cities, so why is it that I couldn’t see any birds in my neighbourhood or hear birdsong on my road.

The Nest Project was devised so that it could easily start its life in either a home school or office. Participants are asked just to work in pencil for a week (inside the nest is a little pencil sharpener… every time you sharpen your pencil you are essentially making a cozier nest inside for incoming birds).

Next, we give safe instructions on how to responsibly place the nest in your own neighbourhood… so the project really has two outcomes, on one hand, you are making a home for a bird in an inner-city area, but on another level, the nests are little interventions, as they attach onto street furniture they highlight how us human folk can co-exist with nature in the urban realm.

This project opens up a few opportunities. For example, we can create different lenses within the neighbourhood… how might we create more visibility on the wildlife where we live?

And we can make new ways for citizens to be more connected with the wildlife in their neighbourhoods…

And how about this, if we design a way to get regular people to care about and engage with the quality of life for our feathery friends then actually we have created a trojan horse to talk about the quality of life for us human folk too. Bad air quality for birds also means bad air quality for humans… so maybe we can leverage the project to create a network of air sensors that contribute to our understanding of quality of life where we live.

Here’s another example of Fieldwork Facility working with air quality

Over on the Hammersmith Flyover we just painted supergraphics in support of the borough's low emission zone. Initially, we were invited to support an air quality project where Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council along with the BID had introduced planters to reduce the impact of air pollution to pedestrians, we played a supporting role and paid homage to previous local residents William Morris and Edward Johnston.

In the next location though there was no planters being introduced so we took it upon ourselves to create a public good. We discovered in research that air pollution has been linked to having an awful affect on our cognitive ability, even being linked to Parkinsons and Alzheimers… so we designed Brainteaser murals to keep local minds engaged as they pass through the area.

In our initial concepts we were also exploring ways to create platforms that offered more transparency over the quality of air in the neighbourhood.

For example, could we make a commitment that each year we could give the community an update on how the neighbourhood was doing compared to the rest of London? Our idea was to bring together the worlds of supergraphics and infographicsfor public good! Each year we would paint another pillar with up to date data on how the neighbourhood was doing…

Or another initial concept… could we turn the bridge into an interactive object that local citizens could literally communicate with. The concept was that each pillar was given a personality — each pillar would have a different personality with varying attitudes to the neighborhoods air quality, Bob is pretty optimistic, but Helen Bob’s immediate neighbouring pillar is downright angry about the state of air pollution in Hammersmith. Messaging a different pillar would give you different perspectives.

At Fieldwork Facility our approach is about designing for citizens to be connected, participative, active and engaged…

What I believe we all should be doing is designing opportunities for citizens to be connected, participative, active and engaged. Part of what worries me over the smart cities narrative is that decision making is devolved to data. My experience is that changing behaviour starts with qualitative research.

I don’t think anyone in this room will be a stranger to the inclusivity issues around ‘smart cities’…

Just last week I came across this twitter thread…

Let’s not forget that implementing technology into how we live has the potential to exclude masses of people.

Smartphones might be the norm in this room but we are far from this being the norm. Any product or service that relies on connectivity to the network automatically entirely excludes anyone without a connection.

Its easy to be enticed by silicon valleys ‘build and they will come’ attitude but frankly its bullshit. Accessibility and inclusivity are huge huge huge issues. I’m sure you’ve all heard the countless stories of racial biasses found in AI solutions… AI solutions are already deployed in the urban realm.

I’d like to share with you another Fieldwork Facility project… the Museum of Us — our collaboration with the NLA to reimagine community consultation. It’s a project with accessibility and inclusion at its core.

The project was for Southwark Council and was focussed around the Old Kent Roads opportunity area. Major changes are afoot in the area and our brief was to enable conversations and engagement on the long-term plans fo=or the area… critically we were asked to engage underrepresented voices in the process.

The Museum of Us was a campaign, exhibition, project space and programme of events designed to bring together members of the local community, the campaign featured portraits of local people photographed around the Old Kent Road, so if you lived in the area you might see yourself or your neighbour featured on one of the posters…

Next we took over a vacant shop and refurbished it and made an exhibition that was designed for participation.

My experience in creating engagement projects like the Museum of Us is that people aren’t asking for ‘smart cities solutions’. Perhaps that’s all a bit sci-fi for us regular people anyway… But if we do listen we can hear challenges that we can easily imagine services and products designed for connected citizens…

Again this is more about a qualitative approach, listening and observing and poking away at how people live in the urban environment.

Earlier I was talking about the risks of not being inclusive by adopting technology. The flip side of that is that digital platforms and digital infrastructure have become so rapidly engrained in how we live that they are part of our urban culture.

The runaway hits of this new urban culture are smartphones and social media. So here’s an odd challenge that we have. Within this connected urban culture our outlook has become global which is both a blessing and a curse when we need to mobilize action on a local level. we have great tools like social media and crowdfunding at our disposal but they are open to a global audience, how do you really rally a local issue on a global platform.

I think smart cities was a really exciting prospect when it emerged into the public conscious over a decade ago… and we are probably still rising on that excitement trickling down. I think Smart Cities piggybacked a little on the hype of Internet of Things and was stoked by the interests of IBMs, Siemens and Ciscos of the world.

But I also feel like a lot of the positivity and optimism has dropped out of the internet in general since those initial spikes in 2009… it makes sense that the pragmatic vendors are controlling the narrative still.

At Fieldwork Facility we are still optimists… A few of the projects we are developing include reimagining the newsstand for connected citizens…

Currently, we are working on a research project to reimagine the newsstand for tomorrow's connected citizens.

We are beginning to think about leveraging air quality data to better serve cyclists and public transport.

And we would love to explore what could make protests more legible in the city.

So to wrap up… We believe we have to stop supporting the narrative of ‘smart cities’

All projects start with people, not technology.

Our projects are more impactful and powerful when we…

We can’t ignore the seismic changes that urban life has undergone since the adoption of smartphones, but we can responsibly embrace it so we

Ultimately we believe that design is a role of citizenship so all our work has one underlying goal.

Thanks very much to Christine Murray and The Developer for having me at the Festival of Place. I’m enjoying doing the odd talk about our work so get in touch if you are interested.

It was a pleasure to speak alongside some lovely talented people:
, Neuroscientist and lab director of .
, Researcher, .
, Director of Operations,

the panel was chaired by
, Chief Executive, .

Big shout out to i make stuff. for recommending me, thanks buddy.

Fieldwork Facility

Fieldwork Facility is a design studio for uncharted…

Robin Howie

Written by

Creative Director and Founder of Fieldwork Facility. Fieldwork Facility is a design studio for uncharted territories. fieldworkfacility.com

Fieldwork Facility

Fieldwork Facility is a design studio for uncharted territories. We work in the intersection of communication, innovation and place.

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