Concepting for a Smart City: a masterclass focussed on a human centred approach for the cities of tomorrow

Looking back on organising our masterclass for smart city design at the “Information Superpower”-themed Graphic Matters.

Daan Rongen
Sensor Lab
7 min readDec 11, 2019


Photo Masterclass Concepting for a Smart City, Graphic Matters, by Rosa Meininger.

The application of information technologies in smart cities is rather mysterious in two different ways. In our previous article on our research project Demystifying the Smart City, we published our research methods and insights on how inhabitants experience the collection, usage, and control of the data they generate by using the digital services of smart cities. We discovered that it is quite hard for inhabitants of the smart city to be aware of their participation and relation to these technologies. The other reason why we find this field mysterious is that when we look at the designs that enter the economy of smart city technologies, we see little to no applications that are designed with a human centred approach. This is peculiar because the philosophy of the smart city is based around improving the quality of lives of its citizens.

Digital design in smart cities is mostly represented in systems where large sums of data are generated for the sake of monitoring citizen behaviour. Even though these applications offer new services or improvement of existing services, citizens remain rather oblivious to these technologies. We believe that when the inhabitants of the smart city are empowered with awareness on and autonomy over the systems that improve their cities, they can create applications that increase the quality of life. To achieve this it would mostly be a matter of education and incitement to creation. That is why, when we had the opportunity to host an information design masterclass at Graphic Matters, we set up a one-day program to handle both of these issues.

Photo Masterclass Concepting for a Smart City, Graphic Matters, by Rosa Meininger.

Graphic Matters is an international, biennial festival about graphic design, set in Breda. The festival, consisting of both exhibitions and events such as masterclasses, explores the impact of information design. This year’s theme was “Information Superpower”, an ode to the powerful qualities that information can offer to many of today’s problems. In their announcement video for this years edition, they state that information is key for a sustainable world, balanced politics, and personal health. These values resonate with the core principles of smart city ideologies regarding the pursuit of making resources more accessible, (infrastructural) systems more efficient, and democratising urban life altogether.

Excerpt from the announcement video of Graphic Matters, from

Our ambitions were high, since we wanted the scope of this masterclass to be both broad and in-depth and wanted the event to be both accessible to anyone, as well as focus on some technical aspects some might find complex.

“Our aim is to help creative people get over their fear of technology.”

- Gert Franke

Applying, or maybe hacking, technologies that are around us holds a stigma of having a steep learning-curve. We introduced our participants to technical challenges such as receiving a sensor-signal from a microcontroller, filling a data-set, and visualising this data. Most important of all we wanted our participants to practice a human centred approach, through which they were going to solve real problems for citizens, respecting and representing this stakeholder. The course ranged from technical towards applicable and from inquisitive towards problem solving.

Artist talk by Gert Franke: Data visualization as a communication problem

We started the masterclass with an artist talk by Gert Franke. Gert presented a selection of works made by CLEVERºFRANKE to address the importance and complexity of transmitting valuable information. The key to this, Gert stated, is to have a clear intent on what you are trying to convey to your users, since the discipline of data-visualisation is a communication problem rather than a technological problem.

The Computerised City

The artist talk was followed by a lecture on the computerised city, which covered the digital revolution and explained how our cities became smart. In a timeline from 1950 until now, we appointed the progress of mainframe computing, personal computing, and ubiquitous computing. By laying out this timeline we explained to our participants how computer technology has evolved to what it is in its contemporary status: widely applied, omni-present and managing, processing, and communicating everything that is quantifiable in our world.

Photo Masterclass Concepting for a Smart City, Graphic Matters, by Rosa Meininger.

Livability in the Smart City

After this we deconstructed the container concept ‘smart city’ to convince our participants of the broader image: the concept of the smart city is not just about tech. It is rather an urban planning method that aims to improve livability by modernising urban life. The city is a bottom-up entity, and therefore it is shaped by its inhabitants who are both united and diverse at the same time. We invited our attendees to think about who the end-users of smart city applications really are. This prompted the participants to choose target-users such as disabled people and the non-tech savvy.

Design for the betterment of human life

This discussion session was followed up by our workshop on working with sensor technologies. We laid out all our microcontrollers and kits carrying our sensors and walked through all the steps required to fill a local dataset with data, concluding it with a seminar on data-visualisation. After we had given them a grasp of how easily-applicable these technologies can be, we let them design for the betterment of human life. When their concepts started to take shape, we asked them to prototype and set up a test scenario to validate their designs. This was challenging, since they could not leave the event space to test it out with real users from their target group. However, it allowed them to empathise with their end-user and iterate on their design based on this exercise.

Photos Masterclass Concepting for a Smart City, Graphic Matters, by Rosa Meininger.

Marketing and presentation

The participants had gained knowledge about the technologies currently dominating smart city applications and were convinced of this human centred approach. We concluded the masterclass with an exercise where the attendees designed a product packaging for their design that transmitted the promise of their application, the intended tone-of-voice towards its end-user, and how it would be installed and applied. During the final presentations the groups displayed their concepts using their packagings. The masterclass resulted in a series of digitally-powered or -enhanced products and services that improve everyday life for the citizens.

For instance, one group of participants made an attempt to bring modern urban services to users who have not adopted the use of digital services yet. Whether these users belong to the late majority, the non-tech savvy, techno-pessimists, or the digitally critic, there are lots of arguments to be made in favour of not owning the latest tech. Yet, mobility is changing in cities since new (ride-sharing) services like Uber have become more dominant. This group of participants thought of a pressure-activated street-tile that can be placed by municipalities to order a ride. On one hand this can be seen as a quite cumbersome alternative to a traditional bus-stop. However, it stimulates us to apply a critical design approach towards how we can make the technologies of the smart city more inclusive and accessible, especially for those who would feel left out when every solution required a smartphone application.

Photo Masterclass Concepting for a Smart City, Graphic Matters, by Rosa Meininger.

Reflecting on how this masterclass went, we valued two pillars: how did our participants react to our program? And did we show them that, once educated on the skills and tools needed, this fear of technology can be overcome? We were pleased with praise by the participants. They were excited about what they had made and learned. It was challenging setting up a course that covered both the disciplines of design and development not knowing the background of the participants that were going to enrol. Yet we managed to inspire these creators and artists to utilise the technologies in their environments to solve everyday problems. The masterclass was a great complement to our Demystifying the City research program, where we have been exploring creative ways to make smart cities relatable and participatory for citizens.

If you’re interested in learning more about this masterclass or setting up a similar workshop that’s also accessible to a wide range of participants, you can contact: Gert Franke (

Read more

If you want to learn more about our ‘Demystifying the Smart City’ research program, read our previous articles about the roundtable discussions, meetups, and field works that we organized as well as the Privacy Label project that was developed by CLEVER°FRANKE for Sensor Lab.



Daan Rongen
Sensor Lab

Creative Technologist • University of Arts London