Urban Futures Lab

March 2015

Urban Futures Lab took place in The Hague. Under the framework of Agenda Stad this workshop was organised by World Design Forum in collaboration with STBY and U CREATE Centre of Expertise Creative Industries. For the duration of a week the former Cabinet of the Prime Minister in the Hague opened its doors to accommodate both students from the Hogeschool of Utrecht as officials from the Ministries of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. The students participating in this workshop were involved in the subject Creative Industries. Their backgrounds was in communication & journalism, commercial economy, communication & multimedia design, digital media & communication and media & technology. In different sessions the students were asked to develop and test probes under the supervision of coaches from STBY, U CREATE and World Design Forum. Probes is a method that is used in design research to present ‘what if’ questions. The probe can be an animation, an object, a drawing, a model, a map,… The probes that were made in this workshop gave an impression of a provocative scenario of the city of 2050. The aim of the probe was to provide insights into the values and motivations of citizens as they think about the presented future scenario for the city.

The State is the initiator of Agenda Stad and invites cities and other stakeholders, such as universities, companies and social parties to contribute to this agenda. It is a platform for an ongoing dialogue between the government, cities and stakeholders, with a first presentation in the summer of 2015, but working towards a bigger stage for the year 2016. That year the Netherlands will carry the chairmanship of the European Union and its aim is to put the city or a specific urban problem on the (political) agenda. With Agenda Stad the state want to fully exploit the potential of Dutch cities to remain at the top of the world in terms of competitiveness and quality of life. The focus of Agenda Stad is on growth (the sustainable city), innovation (the smart city) and quality of life (the social city). Urban Futures Lab serves as a stepping stone towards Agenda Stad.

The current think tank outlines a long-term vision in which the focus is mostly on economical growth, in combination with liveability in the city. The think tank does not sufficiently search for an opening towards citizens; it does not address or question “what ordinary people think”. In the participation democracy where new forms of governance are searched for and where it is crucial to understand the motivations of citizens this is problematic. A design research methodology can be valuable in uncovering these motivations and it can bring new insights in problems and potentials of the city of the future.

For policymakers the overarching research question is to understand where citizens base their choices on, and if and how they (as policy makers) can or should influence behaviour to let a development emerge in a certain direction. This overarching question was divided into subquestions for the students to work with during Urban Futures Lab. The idea of this workshop was not to come with answers to the research questions, but to engage with the questions from a design research perspective by using probes.

The formulation of the research questions was done a month prior to the workshop in a brainstorm session which took place in the Hague at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The participants in this meeting were the coaches and officials that were involved in the workshop. As basis for the brainstorm, reports had been sent to all participants about current challenges that the government is facing when it comes to city development. These reports came from independent research organs such as the Central Planning Agency, PBL (planbureau voor de leefomgeving), RLI (raad voor de leefomgeving en infrastructuur) and WRR (wetenschappelijke raad voor het regeringsbeleid).

The research questions that came out of this brainstorm and that would become central to the probes during the Urban Futures Lab were;

1. What if everyone wants to settle in the city?

2. What if supervision and policy in the city is only done/made by citizens?

3. What if everything in the city is shared?

4. What if our commuting in the city is completely controlled by digital technology? 

As preparation for Urban Futures Lab the students and officials were asked to perform a pre-workshop task. For this I made a booklet in which various future scenarios were presented in maps, photos and news articles. This material was meant as inspiration and was given to the students and officials a week prior to the workshop. At the end of the booklet there were tasks.

For the duration of six days they were asked to perform these tasks; for every day a different task was assigned. The aim was to start thinking of possible future scenarios and to empathise with the different subjects. By embedding the scenario in their routines and practices the students and officials were able to experience what the consequences of an imagined scenario could be on their current daily lives.

The students and officials were asked to make a picture of their findings and share it on Tumblr; an online social media platform that has the characteristics of a blog. They were asked to make a picture of the current situation using #2015 and a picture of their vision for the future using #2050. The reason for using a social media platform was for the students and officials to inspire and challenge each other when thinking of a possible future scenario. It was furthermore the first virtual encounter between the students and the officials, at least that was the plan. Ironically the government officials (who decide about the role of technology in our cities) do not have access to Tumblr because of blocked firewalls and could therefore not participate. 

These were the tasks that the students and officials were given:

Day 1 : Public Space
Determine what annoyed you today in public space, and what made you feel happy. Place yourself in the year 2050: what would this situation look like?

Day 2 : Commuting
Think about the way you’ve commuted today and record this (this can be both a physical and a virtual way of commuting). Place yourself in the year 2050 and visualise (drawing, collage …) what this would look like.

Day 3 : Sharing
Take a picture of something that you’ve shared with someone today. What was that? It can be a thing, a place, something virtual, etc. Then take a picture of an object that illustrates what you will share in 2050.

Day 4 : News Item
Take a picture of a news item of today’s  newspaper. Then place yourself in the year 2050: What would this news item look like?

Day 5 : Online Tracks
In what ways have you (un)consciously been online today and where are the (permanent) traces of it to be found? What would this situation look like in 2050?

Day 6 : Security
When did you feel in any way unsafe and/or 
insecure today. Describe how this will be in the year 2050.

During the workshop-week one of the previously decided research questions was worked out by two groups of students, guided by a coach. Together with Bas Raijmakers I coached two groups who were assigned the question of the disappearing role of the government in policy-making and supervision. Each of our groups had 4 students, in which one group was predominated by students with a background in commercial economy.  Several moments during the week the groups had to present their ideas to the officials in a feed-back session. The role of the officials was to sharpen the group’s research direction and to make it relate to current developments/ make it of relevance for the policy makers.

On the first day the groups discussed their topic and tried to look for interesting resources of current developments within their topic. One of the groups felt inclined towards the idea of civic supervision. They used an example that was used in the booklet in which a girl in the metro in South Korea refused to pick up the shit her dog left in the metro. When other travellers gave her a tissue to clean it up, she still refused and cleaned up her dog instead. This was filmed by a bystander and the video spread virally on social media, after which the girl was baptised ‘dog poop girl’ and publicly humiliated everywhere she went. Inspired by this real case scenario the group was interested in exploring to what extend citizens are willing to put their privacy in the hands of each other in order to ‘gain’ more freedom from (top down) governance? For instance, what if the camera’s in the city are watched over by citizens themselves by watching their mobile-phones and if something happens somewhere people can warn each other. And what if we don’t need prisons anymore because everybody is keeping an eye on everybody? Where in this group the primarily focus was based on a system of punishment it diverted over the course of the week into a system of rewarding. By taking on more public responsibilities (for instance in helping others citizens) one was able to save points.

The other group felt inclined towards the idea of ‘dataslaves’. They questioned as to what extend people are willing to give up their privacy in sharing data to ‘serve the city’. This serving would go hand in hand with a personal benefit. For instance, if the city needs more doctors, the ‘data machinery’ would track down the potentially talented people for this profession. These people would then be steered towards ‘choosing’ for a study in medicine. This ‘efficiency’ is not only in the benefit of society but could also be seen as a personal gain. After all, the data that you generate over the years is made by you and building on this experience, it knows to make better decisions for you than you can do for yourself. It can for instance result in not loosing years in studying something that you’re not talented in.

While both groups posted two interesting questions and (somehow) opposing scenarios they didn’t manage to engage others in their research question in an interesting way through the use of probes. In general did the students in both groups (but especially in the second group) have a difficult time dealing with the insecurity inherent in (design) research. Questions such as ’where does this lead to’ and ‘what are we expected to show at the end of the week’ illustrated their unease with not having clear deliverables. Although quite some effort was put in coaching, the week resulted too short or the students to unexperienced as to have them engage in a creative process. I felt that the design methodologies and even the value of probes were not very fully understood. As the week progressed the students fell back into old routines which resulted in rather boring presentations, of which only the end results were presented (not the previously developed probes). Most of the groups showed predictable outcomes and known methodologies (such as interviewing) instead of a further developing of the probes.

It was experienced as extremely difficult for the students to deal with a problem that is not clearly defined, a problem that does not have one answer and a way of working that has no linear process. Design research is aimed at purposely stepping out of a timeline and moving towards a sphere where one is no longer in his/her comfort zone; something that in general creatives tend to do naturally. What strike me this week was the enormous struggle for dealing with this, which was reflected by the endless discussions about where to start instead of engaging with the problem intuitively and just ‘starting somewhere’. It made me realise that design tools and methodologies are only of value when embedded in a creative process.

All the time more often are design methodologies and design tools used as if they were to solve complex problems by e.g a group of people hanging post-its on a wall. Even if post-it have proven to be time efficient and can give voice to people who are less likely to speak out, they are merely tools. Of real importance is the creative process behind it, which is currently pushed to the background because it needs time to evolve and it comes with risks (what if it doesn’t lead to interesting results..). Taking time and allowing risks are the perquisites for creativity. If during this week the students were able to engage in a creative process in which they had further developed and tested the probes it might have led to more interesting insights.