Report on Design & the City, 2016

The Living Lab Away: At Work and Play in Amsterdam

Three staff members of the Edinburgh Living Lab — Ewan Klein, James Stewart and myself — spent four days in April 2016 at the Design and the City event in Amsterdam. Organised by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Knowledge Mile, the event explored the role of design and designers in creating citizen-centered sustainable cities.

Three of the four days were focused on hands-on experiences or “learning by doing”. The first two days were a “Lab of Labs”, where we learned to use unique design methodologies developed by international practitioners to explore a variety of questions and challenges. Fields of View from India took participants through the process of creating a game to help stakeholders in a complex situation understand each other’s perspectives and work together. In the Waag Society lab, participants re-imagined the dynamics of a public square in the city and created prototypes of inventions and interventions that could make the space more welcoming and interactive for the diversity of people who pass through it.

Putting himself at the mercy of colleague Chris Speed and his team from Design Informatics running Blockchain City, our very own James Stewart produced, co-directed and starred in the film Handfastr while investigating how citizens who were given an “unfinished” technology platform could design and build applications that meet their particular needs and interests:

Ewan and I experienced the method-not-method of Kitchen Budapest, in which we and the other participants shaped and designed our own methodology based on our experiences, skills and interests — combining social media analysis, impromptu interviews and use of sensors to find new ways to connect tourists and residents in the city.

Attila Nemes of Kitchen Budapest
Attila Nemes of Kitchen Budapest

The conference on Thursday offered an outstanding array of speakers, beginning with urban planner Tony Garcia who explained how Tactical Urbanism uses rapid and low-cost interventions to spark and support citizen action for urban transformation. Other talks under the theme ‘Design & City Making’ looked at how architecture can help shape the ‘Self Made City’ through designing collective housing and helping citizens to design their own community-oriented buildings and how digital media can empower citizens to influence city-making in the ‘Hackable City’.

Two of my favorite talks took place under the themes ‘Design & Socio-Economical Change’ and ‘Design & Smart Citizens’. Joost Beunderman from Architecture 00 presented the idea of the civic economy, where investment is focused on realizing ‘system outcomes’, which are achieved by a combination of actors rather than individual actors and contribute to a more even balance between social, environmental and economic values. As an example of civic entrepreneurship, he described the Open Works, a shopfront experiment that gave citizens the tools and resources to design and test ideas that would benefit their neighborhood and make it an “inspiring and exciting place to live.”

Slide from talk by Christian Nold
Slide from talk by Christian Nold

Christian Nold challenged the audience with the question, “How can we design meaningful and political data?” by designing within controversies. While trying to design new ways to measure noise in the areas around Heathrow Airport, he discovered the political and social complexity of designing metrics that represent people’s experiences. He advocated that designers not hesitate to place themselves within controversies — because allowing ourselves to be affected by the problems that affect the people for and with whom we are designing can open up deeper possibilities for our design work to lead to meaningful change.

By the time Friday morning rolled around, I was feeling the intensity of the programme, but I wouldn’t have missed the workshop hosted by Kennisland on Redesigning the Governance of a Smart City for anything. While most of the other 14 (!) workshops — on topics from inclusive recycling to civic crowdfunding to participatory sensing — took place at the inspiring FabCity campus, where hundreds of people are demonstrating, developing and testing solutions for future cities, we — the workshop participants — wandered off to a peripheral area of the city in the opposite direction.

Spending most of the day immersed in the rhythms of Slotermeer, where social services and community organizations play a significant role in many people’s day-to-day lives, we tried to get an idea of how people in the area experience the neighbourhood, social services and technology. Loyd, my neighbourhood host for the day, is an active volunteer, a member of the community cooperative Westside Slotermeer and a renegade chef. As he walked me through the different community centres in the area — many of which he uses as venues for pop-up dining events and which offer a variety of services to residents — I asked him about his experience of public services.

Slotermeer
Slotermeer Market
Activities noticeboard

“Before, things were super,” he said. “You could do things quick and easy. Now they watch you with all the new technology. The government wants to know too much about you. Things are hard now, but you still have all the same problems.” But a few minutes later, he continued, “I’m getting money from the government, and they [the government] know all these things I’m doing. They know where I’m working. My picture was in the news,” and he explained how the government used his story as an example to show how an unemployed person could be an active participant in and contributor to the neighbourhood.

At the end of the day, the workshop organizers and participants, the neighbourhood hosts and the Westside Slotermeer coordinators met as a group to share our conversations and experiences. After an hour of discussion, trying to make a bit of sense out of what we had heard and seen and provide some insights to inform Westside’s work, we had a lot of colorful Post-Its clustered and clumped together — and an intense craving for a cold beer. Before we got up to go, Loyd asked, “So what are you going to do with all this?” Good question, Loyd. How do we begin to connect individual conversations to systems change, a pile of post-its to influence on power and politics, technological innovations to public services transformation, ‘smart’-ness to sustainability and local citizen action to city-wide initiatives?

Of course I don’t have any answers. But perhaps my favourite new word of the week is ‘city-making’. From the beginning of the week to the end, I heard, saw, felt and experienced the idea that each inhabitant of the city can be a maker, a shaper, a creator, an innovator. Some ‘making’ actions will be joined up and gain traction publicly, while some will carry on in less visible ways. What is important is to find the most powerful ways to open up opportunities for every citizen to experience being a maker and to have the capacity and the tools to make the city a “liveable, sustainable and sociable” place for everyone.