Sidewalk Talk
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Sidewalk Talk

These icons are initial prototypes of a visual language for signage in the public realm that alerts the public to the presence of a digital technology. The black hexagons express the purpose of the technology; the blue and yellow hexagons show how identifiable information is used; and the white hexagons display the entity responsible for the technology. Another white hexagon with a QR code and URL enables people to learn more. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

How can we bring transparency to urban tech? These icons are a first step.

Our “Digital Transparency in the Public Realm” project brought people around the world together to co-create a visual language to demystify the tech in cities.

“We’re far from the days where signs needed to convey simple ideas like stop or go. Our public realm has become more complex and oversaturated with signs and informational cues. New technology requires a richer visual language with roots in visual systems we already understand. It requires the knowledge and ideas of a wide range of experts, an iterative and collaborate process and an obsession with getting it right.”

— Spencer Cathcart, Creative Director, Puncture Design

There are also great precedents of digital technologies embedded in physical places that create more enriching and inclusive experiences. At 307, our workplace in Toronto, navigational beacons installed by CNIB and BlindSquare help people who are visually-impaired find their way around the space and learn more about the explorations on display. Physical signs can become digital doorways, opening up new channels of information.

A co-design session for Digital Transparency in the Public Realm at 307, Sidewalk Labs’ experimental workspace in Toronto. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

“It was great to bring together people with different perspectives, including government representatives and disability activists, for a day of conversation, deliberation and design.”

– Cath Richardson, Research Lead, Projects by IF

Today we’re excited to share our initial prototypes: a starting point for what we hope will be a much larger conversation.

Visual Language

From our user research, we knew that there were some core concepts that people wanted to know while they were in the public realm: specifically, the purpose of a digital technology as well as its accountable entity. People also wanted to have an easy way to follow-up and learn more and know if the technology could “see” or identify them.

Example of how the icons are in use with a pilot deployment of Numina at 307, Sidewalk Labs’ experimental workspace in Toronto. Numina is a technology company that uses a privacy-by-design approach to measure the flows of people and differentiated transportation modes through streets and open spaces, to assist urban planners in designing more human-scale environments. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

A Digital Channel for Learning More

The QR code links the physical sign in the public realm to a digital channel that conveys much more information about the technology and provides a mechanism for people to provide feedback. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)
The visual system provides a consistently organized way to present information about the digital technology, starting with the purpose and the technology type, through details about the data and how it is processed, and ending with storage and access. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

“Our vision has always been to be transparent and pedestrian-centric in the way we design and deploy technology in public spaces — and to have a voice in shaping the standards and best practices for how smart cities technologies are layered into cities and neighborhoods. This is why we jumped at the opportunity to collaborate and look forward to testing this design system with everyone.”

— Sandra Richter, CEO, Soofa

What comes next?

Sidewalk Labs’ is making these concepts, including all the workshop activities and materials, publicly and freely available for others to adopt, use and build upon, so that we all can advance digital literacy and help people understand digital infrastructure in the public realm.

“We stand at a critical point in the development of our cities where technology is increasing all around us — yet most of us are oblivious to how this technology is being used and to what ends. This is a global challenge and we need global solutions. I commend all of our colleagues from civil society, government and the private sector who have come together to co-design these initial prototypes. Now it’s time to test, iterate and put these concepts into action.”

–Jeff Merritt, Head of IoT, Robotics and Smart Cities, World Economic Forum

In the coming weeks, we’ll be working on a digital solution that makes it easy for space managers to create their own signage with QR codes. Though we’re excited about where this ends up, we know this project’s future requires diverse organizations coming together to address this challenge. If you know an organization or institution with a mission that aligns with this work, please get in touch by emailing us at



Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities. The official blog of Sidewalk Labs.

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Jacqueline Lu

i build new nervous systems from tech+data. Leading Helpful Places and stewarding DTPR. Data Lead @mozilla. Alum @SidewalkLabs @NYCParks.