Speculations on Human-centered Cities

If you live in a cramped urban metropolis, chances are that you often walk around frustrated with the living situation, with overcrowded streets with traffic bursting at its seams, extreme waste from the onslaught of consumerism, unbreathable air resulting in overwhelmed citizens, and more. Can Design Thinking and related fields transform the way we approach citizen involvement? How can we creatively spark more conversations with our cities?

I am a city gal. While I absolutely love the diversity cities have to offer, it amounts to nothing when you are left craving the basics — a bit of green to look out at, breathable air, peace and quiet. Wishful thinking? In certain emerging economies, urbanites sacrifice these bare necessities as a part of the accepted opportunity cost of living in cities, but I beg to differ. Cities that organically grow without thoughtfully incorporating the different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy form a highly unstable structure for long-term inhabitancy.

Speculations on how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs could be applied to the urban planning.

Indian cities that I’ve lived in in the past (i.e., Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru) have an abundance of entertainment and shopping centers but seem to fall short of offering widespread access to basic amenities like public sanitation facilities or even uninterrupted footpaths. Even beyond these essentials, our cities must foster a sense of ownership and belonging among its people. However, this is a shared responsibility wherein the community is just as accountable as the local government. As citizens, we need to stand up for our neighbourhoods and our neighbours. We can seek inspiration from our own Indian villages — rural communities subscribe to informal social practices such as self-help groups where members pool in their savings and offer loans to others in need, community-created, low-cost public centers usually hosted under the Banyan tree, or even sustainable traditions of repurposing cow dung. It feels as though the rapid expansion of cities has has taken away our love for our neighbourhoods.

I am a qualitative researcher at Quicksand, a design thinking firm based in India. We employ HCD methods to deal with big, audacious problems such as reducing plastic bag waste in Cambodia by informing systemic solutions with deep-rooted user insights. These wicked problems demand us to flip the issue on its head and trigger lasting behaviour change. As multidisciplinary thinkers and doers, we draw from a variety of fields to inform our practise: Behaviour Change, Game Theory, Participatory Design, Sociology, amongst others. What can we borrow from these fields to drive better citizen behaviour?

First, let me qualify this question to set the right tone. Cities and public spaces are owned by none and all. This confused ownership model makes it hard for anyone to take responsibility of the space making citizens critics and local bodies respondents. Yes, governments and local bodies ought to make infrastructural improvements but these changes will never last if citizens wipe their hands clean of their responsibilities. We need to approach the urban crisis with a dual ownership model — dividing tasks between the administration and individual residents.

What if…

As I walk about frustrated on the streets of Bengaluru, I wonder what could we do differently? I embarked on a speculative journey of sorts that could open up new doors to a better world. The design brief? If the sky’s the limit, what sort of solutions could we introduce to encourage citizens to be more involved in supporting cities? I have listed out three possibilities but there are many more that we can come up with together. I would urge you to think of these as thought-starters to spark a larger, more necessary discussion on the value of citizen engagement.

A Citizen-Leaderboard:

Gamification draws on applying the rules and tactics of game design to other services or engagement strategies. What if we gamified systems of citizen involvement? Inspired by China’s controversial Social Credit System, what if there could be an incentive system for rewarding socially responsible behaviour?

Let’s say you do one of the listed tasks on this digital platform (there could be an app for that, of course!), like plant a tree, or reduce your electricity consumption, and you earn points. These points add up to a social score that you can exchange for rewards or special benefits. While there are local changemakers, their gratification is largely intrinsic. By allowing people to trade their positive behaviour as currency for popular perks, we could popularise the adoption of good civic values beyond the early adopters. These rewards could be 1) virtual (i.e. badges and trophies that acknowledge player accomplishments), 2) monetary — discounted travel rates, tax exemptions, or for younger folks — scholarships for university, and 3) communal — if communities collectively bump up their neighbourhood’s score, local bodies could grant shared rewards such as vehicle-free zones, playgrounds, or even art markets.

Immersive Media:

Augmented Reality is a medium that overlays computer-generated images over the user’s view of the physical world. What if we could see the future of our cities and neighbourhoods using AR?

Remember when Pokemon Go took over the world? People were out on the streets chasing fictional characters and it was completely acceptable! Imagine a platform like this that asks you to make certain choices based on your everyday behaviour and as the black box works, the platform throws up a view of the projected future if everyone acted in a similar way. For example, if everyone consumed as much as you, in 5 years your neighbourhood can look bare and stripped of its natural habitat. If more people walked to work as you did, you see your streets flow with organised traffic. Visualising the future, especially the near future, can urge people to choose better.

Citizen Science:

Citizen Science urges the general public to participate in the process of data collection to fuel scientific observations. Dementia Citizens, SeasonWatch, Seeds for Needs and one of our UnBox partners, Public Lab, task citizens with data collection and documentation and convert them to relevant insights to further research and often, improved solutions. What if we could have platforms that projected crowdsourced heatmaps across citizen-centric filters like safety, culture, landscape, and many more?

Just like you would reroute based on Google Maps, you could avoid buying an apartment in certain neighbourhoods because it isn’t quantifiably good enough. With such data, local bodies can make better decisions and introduce subsidies to prioritise strategic development in dire locales.

A rough mockup of data-points revealed by the citizen-sourced heat map.

When you want to get fit or be more productive, you don’t blame the government, do you? What if we could look at our cities this way? There is much talk about ‘Smart Cities’ but what does it mean?

The Smart Cities Council India defines it as:

“A smart city uses information and communications technology to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability. ”

From this definition, it is obvious that contrary to popular belief, at the center of smart cities are its people and not the technology. Each of the three parameters — livability, workability and sustainability — are all relative to the citizens. Essentially, they are rendered meaningless without the involvement of the people. If we want to see tangible change realised in our cities, not only do we need ideas, models and solutions from all disciplines, we need people to come together and engage with the change.

Inspiration and Fun Stuff:

  1. Listen to the Freakonomics Podcast: How to Launch a Behaviour Change Revolution
  2. Understanding Behaviour Change: Behaviour Change Theories
  3. Wired’s coverage on China’s Social Credit System x 2020
  4. India’s Smart Cities Initiative