MozFest workshop: Connecting citizens, not only devices

What is a city without its people? Not much. But sometimes, in all the technology talk around cities, the focus on people gets lost. How can we foster a citizen-led approach to smart city development, and how might that change how smart cities are defined and realised?

That was the question we posed during another walking workshop we were recently invited to conduct, this time in the context of the open Internet movement. MozFest, Mozilla’s annual festival, returned to London to host an international community of educators, technologists, artists, journalists and activists, as well as anyone else engaged with the challenges arising within online privacy, web literacy, and the realisation of a healthy, open Internet.

In our ‘walkshop’, we wanted to explore the future of the connected, online city. Specifically, we wanted to explore and champion a bottom-up, emergent city model rather than one based on technology-push approaches. Such a model would put people at the centre of the development of its services and systems. We invited people to join us on an experience tour of the local area to find out how this might be done.

A ‘smart city’ is an urban environment that responds to citizens’ needs and behaviour, and use of its infrastructure. As physical environments and objects get hooked up to the Internet and start to swap data collected via their sensors, cities are becoming interactive environments in which the social, material and digital are tangled together.

Making a city ‘smart’ is supposed to make it a more efficient, pleasurable, healthier and environmentally friendly place. To achieve this, we believe local people and their needs need to be positioned at the centre of smart city development, and this is where design research can play an invaluable role. Design research can also help policy-makers and civil servants develop and procure better and more relevant solutions (with or without IT at their core).

Throughout this ‘walkshop’ our participants collectively experimented with a few design research tools to unpack and explore some major issues facing the residents of Greenwich, and identified opportunities where ‘smart’ innovations could be extremely relevant.

Before the workshop, we had done some research and found three major issues that Greenwich is facing:

•Accessibility for the ageing population; a rapidly growing population imposes pressure on housing and infrastructure, with a growing demographic of people over the age of 80 creating new needs and challenges.

•Congestion & greenhouse gas emissions; private car use leads to high levels of pollution in the locale.

•Obesity: local data (2012/2013) suggest an increase in obesity rates in children under the age of 11.

We mapped out a route and created an ‘activity pack’ for participants, to help them record their journey. We asked them to observe what is at play in the local community: Who is there? How do people interact with each other, and with the environment? Are there any routines?

Participants broke out in pairs and each chose an issue to focus their investigation. Teams were encouraged to take photos and notes, to sketch, and to document their conversations with people. We used the AEIOU framework in the field workbook to help teams guide their field research.

 

We set out to explore the local area of North Greenwich, and the surroundings of Ravensbourne college. We visited various sites along the way, including the O2 centre, a local park, a construction site, and the riverside Thames path. Our participants noted down their observations, sparking discussions and thoughts on the key issues that were being revealed to us on our walk.  It was interesting to think about how the built environment might improve walkability, and thereby health. Parks and riverside pathways were roomy enough for both pedestrians and cyclists, but the pavement and road underground stations was limited, and less accessible for those with limited mobility. And one of our participants noted that some of the new building developments was not very accessible either, seemingly built around the tenant’s needs rather than the community’s.

What might help us in making a truly smart city? Jonathan Rez of the University of New South Wales has suggested one way “might be for architects and urban planners to have psychologists and ethnographers on the team.” That would certainly create a better understanding of what technologists call the “end user” – in this case, the citizen.

 

See our previous ‘walkshop’ here.

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