City follows people
Introduction by Martijn de Waal & Dr. Gabriele Ferri
In the spring of 2016, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences hosted the Design & The City conference where Ralston Bau participated and led an Ideal Village workshop. Around 500 participants from all over the world convened to discuss citizen-centered design approaches for the smart-city. Which design approaches could contribute to more liveable, sustainable and sociable urban communities? How could the perspective of citizens be highlighted in the processes of urban design and city-making? And how could smart city technologies be employed to serve public interests? Those were the main issues addressed during the four-day event that took place at the Knowledge Mile, a field lab in central Amsterdam.
As organizers, we were inspired by broader debates in the field of design, where over the last few years a ‘human centered approach’ has been gaining traction. Design, according to this vision, should start from an empathic understanding of citizens and their needs. At Design & The City, we wanted to explore concrete practices of such human centered design- principles. What could such an approach mean in the context of the emerging smart city? How can humans be included as ‘actors’ in the design process, rather than as mere ‘factors’? And what methods could designers use to come to a better understanding of these ‘full human beings’ and their needs?
To get a deeper understanding of methods for human centered design, we invited five design- and living labs from around the world to host a two-day charette as part of the Design & The City event. We asked each lab to share their approaches and methods with over fifty participants from a broad variety of disciplines and cultural backgrounds. For two days, each lab worked on a local issue. Differently from a ‘hackathon’, the main goal was not to produce actual solutions – much more time and local stakeholder involvement would be needed for that. Rather, this event was organized to enable participants to experience, understand and compare different methodologies. It was, as we labelled the charettes, meant to be a ‘Lab of Labs’, a hands-on opportunity to explore various design methods that each put humans center stage.
Each of these five labs brought in a unique perspective to bring out a better understanding of the problem space and the various citizens and organizations involved. Fields of View (India) demonstrated a human-centered workshop process based on game-making and game design; Waag Society (Netherlands) leveraged the power of narrative-based methods; Ralston Bau / Ideal Lab (Norway/France) focused on fieldwork and empathic dialogue; KiBu (Hungary) demonstrated a mixed-method approach also considering data from social media, and the Centre for Design Informatics (United Kingdom) worked with Design Fiction, Technology Probes and Experience Prototyping.
If there is anything we learned from these days, it is that there is no such a single thing as the living lab or an essential ‘citizen-centered design’ approach. Instead, we see a broad variety of approaches and methods. Whereas they all depart from a human-centered perspective, these differences matter in terms of what a designer would aim to achieve in a given situation. As we observed first-hand, it is not a question of better or worse, but rather a matter of finding the right match between locally set issues, their particular characteristics and their desired trajectories. For instance, in some cases, coming to a mutual understanding and consensus between stakeholders might be essential for the support of an intervention. In other cases it might be more important to work towards a viable business-model that can support an intervention in the long run. Similarly, there are different ways to record, map, detail, illustrate, probe, explore or provoke the needs, interest and desires of stakeholders, that all could be useful depending on the exact situation.
Ideal Lab: Root and identities
Ideal Lab is a design research program that invites designers, researchers, artists and scholars sharing a broadly interdisciplinary perspective and a process-oriented approach. Since 2010, Ideal Lab carries out design investigations through fieldwork and workshops, with the objectives of defining upcoming needs, providing human results and realising future scenarios through tangible products and processes.
What is the problem space we will address?
We will explore design concepts for interventions in public spaces to collect, tease out and curate the many cultural, social and historical strands of local identities. Local identities connected to places or communities are often composites and, especially in larger cities, produced through the accumulation of diverse social, cultural and historical contributions. Place- making, the process with which the identity of a specific area is gradually constructed, is often linked to the creation and retelling of stories throughout a local community.
Building upon qualitative data collected throughout the charrette, we explore design ideas for artefacts and public installations and happenings that invite the citizens of the Knowledge Mile to collect and curate local micro-narratives, thus contributing to the creation of a shared map of the local identity of that neighbourhood.
Which methodologies will be adopted?
Participants will experiment with qualitative design research methods grounded in social sciences, mapping the northern part of the Knowledge Mile neighbourhood, and documenting the different socio-cultural elements that give shape to its identity. They will also ideate and sketch design concepts for public interventions to make local identities and shared stories more visible to citizens and visitors alike.
“We don’t design for persona, we design for people” Ralston Bau.
The Ideal Lab is a research through design program that focuses on social issues. It was founded by Birgitta Ralston and Alexandre Bau, and launched in 2010. The goal of the Ideal Lab program is to define upcoming needs of local communities and develop future scenarios through the design of tangible products and processes. For instance, in the Ideal Lab program on the theme of ‘Empathic Home’ carried out in 2014, participants mapped the current and future housing, living and working circumstances in the Norwegian community Dale i Sunnfjord. Part of this process consisted of the design of a number of physical installations in public space as well as artistic performances that embodied or provoked discussions about the future development of working and living spaces and the underlying values that should be articulated in their design.
Trying to understand the intricate networks of local identities in connection to places or communities is an important aspect of The Ideal Lab-approach. Identities are often composite and, especially in larger cities, created by accumulating many social, cultural and historical contributions. It’s these composite complexities that Ideal Lab wants to investigate, connecting them to particular design themes and challenges. As sociologist Laurent Chambon wrote to contextualize Ideal Lab’s explorations,
“[identity] is essential for forming a community, be it religious, national, local, sexual, racial or artistic. What makes an identity interesting is that it is, in fact, a combination of multiple identities that are unique to each one of us and resembles a tool box. [...] It allows us to find a similarity with other people and create a connection, an identified community, even if it is a superficial and momentary one. Some can use their identity to exclude, but the traveller knows it is more useful to use the identity that includes”
The Ideal Lab programme is organized in year-long cycles on particular themes. These cycles consist of various rounds of workshops and interventions. In these workshops, creative agents with different professional backgrounds such as arts, science and design are invited to work with the local community. These agents do not receive any pre-defined goal, or product to work towards. Agents are free to select which areas in relation to the theme they want to investigate further, and towards what goals or results they want to work. They are encouraged to explore the theme in an investigative and process-oriented way, always in close collaboration with the users and the environment. As such Ideal lab has found a unique methodology to build scenarios around future social issues, centered around the making of design artefacts that in turn build upon or bring into question the intricate ‘roots and identities’ of local communities.
For the Amsterdam-based charette, Ideal Lab-principals Birgitta Ralston and Alexandre Bau encouraged participants to collect, tease out and curate the many cultural, social and historical strands of local identities of people living, working or visiting at the Knowledge Mile. These were to be explored by coming up with design concepts and scenario’s for interventions in public spaces. The goal of this approach was to critically examine the processes of “place-making” and “identity-making” in Amsterdam’s Knowledge Mile. Whereas the main streets (Wibautstraat, Weesperstraat, Sint Antoniesbreestraat) of this area are certainly known to the locals, the notion of the Knowledge Mile is in a strange limbo: well-known to the institutional stakeholders supporting it, but sometimes obscure to those who live in the area. For those reasons, the charette focused on discovering and understanding the identities of some local inhabitants. These could consequently be used as a start point to reflect on the further development of a collective local identity for the Knowledge Mile.
Central to the approach was The Ideal Lab-principle that real humans are too complex to be abstracted and simplified in arbitrary schemas. Therefore, Ralston Bau rely on qualitative methods, such as interviews, in-person observations, and storytelling. This methodology brings empathic face-to-face dialogue to the forefront, with the objective of collecting the surprising inspiration offered by the direct and open interaction with ’flesh-and-blood’ stakeholders.
The charette started with an overview of a number of these methods (interviews, storytelling and story-gathering, visualization, physical prototyping...). They were intentionally presented in an open manner, left open to interpretation and adaptation. In other words, the Ideal Lab’s process embraces openness, it does not prescribe a strict sequence of steps but a flexible approach that should be adapted to the specific circumstances. Ralston Bau encourage designers to immerse in a physical and social environment “as a blank slate”, and to react creatively to the inputs gathered from their informants.
Empathic face-to-face dialogue
The first step involved a physical exploration of the Knowledge Mile, and the collection of local stories and qualitative insights through interviews. The whole group was split into two teams, and each received a brief about interview techniques. Practical tips were provided, with Ralston Bau underlining the need to establish an empathic relationship with the interviewee. In other words, the Ideal Lab’s perspective frames dialogue not as a way to validate specific assumptions, but as a means to “take a walk in someone else’s shoes”. Questions should not sound like a checklist (“What do you think of this? How would you rate that?”), but open and non-leading prompts, such as “Tell me a story about you and this place”. Charette participants were directed to ask interviewees for narratives, to pay special attention to the physical places mentioned in the narratives, and to note which connotations were attached to them. They also took a picture – a portrait of sorts – of each of their interviewees. Such approach ensured that the interviews did not follow a pre-made, cold and rigid script, but instead enabled the interviewees to present their own personal experience. Students, shop- owners, migrants, young parents, and a local policeman were among the inhabitants of the Knowledge Mile with whom the charette participants spent their time.
After half-day “in the field” to observe, interview and gather stories, the participants regrouped. Photos were printed out and put on display in the meeting room where the charette took place, to remind that the insights came from actual ‘flesh-and-blood’ humans, and to avoid stereotypical assumptions. Having photos of actual people, explained Ralston Bau, helps to empathize more easily. Each team presented their interviews and pictures to the rest of the group. While the contents of the various conversations were recounted, everyone was tasked with isolating significant elements by writing them down on post-it notes. Once again, this method of collective annotation was left open, and participants were free to focus on broad thematic elements (e.g. “gentrification”), more specific narrative parts (e.g. “the owner of an art gallery cannot live in the neighbourhood anymore because of rising costs”), or more minute components (e.g. the idea of “being snob”).
Affinity diagrams: what is not there?
All these elements were first arranged separately, constructing a shared interpretation of each interviewee’s story, and then clustered together in one big affinity diagram. With this “gentle” approach to interviewing, stakeholders’ needs and desires emerged naturally from the stories told and recorded. Rather than gathering structured interviews, charette participants were more collecting and curating local stories, leaving participants time to speak and not pressing on specific topics. Gentrification, the tension between newcomers and “born-and-raised Amsterdammers”, the cost of living, and the idea of real/virtual boundaries were among the most frequent themes.
The post-it notes composing the affinity diagram were grouped and regrouped by the team members in a seemingly unstructured way: participants began “to play a bit with these themes, sometimes turning them on their head”, as one of them recalled in the final presentation. The charette leader asked to focus not only on the existing elements, but also on what is not there. For instance, most narratives about gentrification focused on the cost of living but, in addition to these negative parts, tended to overlook how new people arrived in the neighbourhood and could also constitute a resource. Finally, building upon these apparently conflicting narratives, participants were tasked to materialize design ideas. Two speculative scenarios, “Movable Knowledge Bazaar” and “Imaginary Lines”, were presented as conclusions to this process. In the Ideal Lab’s approach, scenarios are understood as a step in-between the initial exploration, and the conclusive prototyping phase when concrete artefacts are actually created. The Movable Knowledge Bazaar imagines a temporary complex of boats, street carts, stands and speakers’ corners in which various people can exchange their knowledge, varying from academic insights to practical knowledge about everyday life-affairs in the area. Participants to the charette envision the Bazaar as a temporary event, scheduled to appear in various places of the Knowledge Mile’s canals and on the Amstel River. They propose to use it as a place for socializing, storytelling, and knowledge sharing.
Imaginary Lines is a speculative idea composed of a special marker that can draw lines visible only through a corresponding set of glasses. By being able to draw ad-hoc boundaries, citizens could rezone the neighbourhood for themselves, reclaiming spaces, and creating new opportunities for socializing at the overlapping of different areas. The Movable Knowledge Bazaar and Imaginary Lines are not ‘solutions’ in themselves, but rather “tools to think with”, ways of materializing the qualitative insights and ideas gathered during the charette. They can be thought of as tools that designers can use to bring out issues and provoke in depth-discussion that help in defining the problem space as well, as well as leading to a broad variety of idea’s and scenario’s that could be taken up in the further design process. We will return on the characteristics of this approach and the usefulness of its design methods in the analysis section.
As practitioners and initiators of the Ideal Lab research program, how would you describe your process? Was it adapted somehow for this charette at Design & The City?
In our professional practice at Ralston & Bau, we follow what we call an “Ideal Design Process”, and what we demonstrated in our Design & the City charette is two parts of it. The Ideal Design includes the empathic approach of Design Thinking, scenario building method, placing the project in a big picture context, with a particular attention to crafting, form-giving, and physical modelling. After all, we design furniture and other objects! The cues for the final products can be found in all steps of the process, so we work on shapes, aesthetics and other design elements as soon as possible in the process and, at the same time, we meet as many people as we can. These two parts, designing and interviewing, feed into each other and, in our experience, are very productive for generating concepts.
While Ideal Design is the overall process we follow in our profession, for this specific charette we teased out Design Thinking methods and the scenario building part. If brief, we gave our participants the task of collecting and curating local stories related to the identities of people living in the Knowledge Mile. This allowed the groups to gather a considerable amount of insights, which were later formalized and made a bit more tractable through some fairly standard Design Thinking exercises, such as affinity diagrams. In the end, the participants generated complex scenarios describing not just one artifact, but how several of them could work as a system, connected with other objects, places and social actors. And, for this last stage of scenario-building, we made sure to have craft supplies – such as cardboard, glue and twine – ready at hand to make the participants’ creativity immediately physical.
In general, we think that Design Thinking and other human-centered methodologies are very relevant for complex contexts such as cities, but we also wish they would be even more “designerly”. A clear design-related sensibility all through the process – thinking about shapes, aesthetics, forms, functions... – with an empathic attitude, make the final designs to really connect with the stakeholders. We feel the need of a broader system, so in the Ideal Design we start with placing the task in a Big Picture perspective. How does our mission relate and connect to the world and become a beneficial ingredient in the ecosystem.
Using a playful approach seemed to be a shared characteristic across many of the charettes at Design & The City. How would you describe your relation with games and play in the context of design processes?
We work as a couple, but Alexandre is often the disruptive element while Birgitta has a more structured approach to playfulness. Sometimes we forget that humans are animals that learn a lot by playing. As designers and organizers of research initiatives such as Ideal Lab, our job is to extract people as fast as possible from their comfort zone. And to do so, we rely on humour, on making people laugh, and also on telling stories. It is a bit of a cliché, but one does not solve a problem with the same state of mind that created it. This tells us that if we leave people in their usual context, we might not get good results design-wise.
One thing we often do is asking people to stand up and come together to discuss. In every group, there are social dynamics at work – someone is the disruptor, someone else the sceptic, and so on... – and by experience we have found that if one asks people to stand up, mingle, be a bit silly, those social barriers come down.
During the final presentation of the outcomes of all the charettes, there was a clear division between the teams who developed persona and other abstractions, and those who relied on more empirical observations. What did your participants do to understand and represent your potential users?
We made a very conscious choice to not develop persona in our process, foregrounding instead interviews and in-person explorations of the neighbourhood around us. If we wanted to sum it up in a slogan, we could say that there’s nothing stranger and more interesting than real life. For this reason, we asked our participants to focus primarily on meeting strangers, having long conversations with them, and reporting back to the whole groups. Reality is amazing. One just cannot imagine and artificially construct the diversity of reality. So, when designers meet actual people and succeed in getting to know their underlying emotional motivations and their story overall, it will be most of the times quite surprising and inspiring.
Another reason we did not develop personas is the risk of introducing involuntary bias. Personas are stereotypes to fantasize on, but they are shaped only by the experience of those developing them. For this reason, they might often reflect the understanding that someone has of a specific group of people. For example, we were recently at another workshop, and we saw several groups of young designers develop at least one senior persona, and they had mostly negative connotations. Whereas – who knows – some seniors might very well be quite happy and live a definitely unconventional life.
Did your charette make also use of physical or material elements, in addition to digital ones?
Yes, we actually used almost only non-digital tools, if we exclude cameras and smartphones. We leveraged basic arts and crafts supplies – such as cardboard and glue, for example – to “make tangible” the concepts our participants proposed. We believe it is a precious resource for people to express their idea, to visualize them, to share them. And that is extremely valuable, and you often get that ”Oh, that’s what you mean” moment that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. And at least one of those cheap mock-ups was actually shown on stage during the final public presentation, when one of our participant acted out how a special pair of glasses would function in one of the scenarios we developed. Using one’s own body, in addition to material components, is an immediate form of communication that is particularly effective: not only it looks real and it’s understandable, but acting out can even change someone’s perception of a concept.
In this conclusive analysis, we tease out two aspects of the Ideal Lab charette. First, we focus on the explicit choice not to use personas as a design method, and its implications for the overall process. Finally, we delve deeper in the concept of “scenarios”, which constitutes the final deliverable of this charette.
Designing for personas, or for people?
“We don’t design for personas, we design for people” was a powerful statement made by Birgitta Ralston during the closing presentation of the charette’s results. This sparked a discussion with the audience, represented here through the considerations by Felipe Escobar Vega, practicing designer and co-author of this chapter, who observed the Ideal Lab charette and, in his design education and practice, had often used personas as a tool to model citizens.
Personas are a well-known design method, introduced by Lene Nielsen in 1998, referring to the Greek word for ‘mask’. As practitioners work with personas to develop new products, they metaphorically wear their users’ mask to understand them and their needs. As Nielsen argued, “to put yourself in the shoes of the users gives you an idea about what their wishes are and how they will use the product to be designed, whether it is a website, a mobile phone, or a new bike. Also, a persona makes it possible to create a clear idea about what the user will use the product for and in what situation or context the product is to be used”. As Ralston Bau criticize the use of personas as a design method, Escobar Vega reflects: “This was a challenging argument to interpret from my own industrial design background. After all, during my Master studies, I was taught that personas are one of the few ways to summarize preliminary design research.” And this use of personas as ‘short-cuts’ towards understanding users is almost taken for granted by many designers nowadays. As Escobar Vega puts it, “design school trained me to turn to personas as a way to remove biases and help create empathy within the entire team for users.” But, in the end, personas are bona fide simplifications and characters created by the designers themselves as supports for their process. Ralston Bau warn against implicit biases that might be inadvertently transferred into personas, and call instead for dialogue with real people which, they guarantee, are way more interesting and inspiring.
As a design method, personas are still relatively new, and many practitioners tend to intuitively reinterpret them. Moser. introduced a protocol to generate personas, emphasizing how they should be based on data, be it quantitative (e.g. statistics provided by an institutional stakeholder), qualitative (e.g. a grounded-theory analysis of ethnographic observations and interviews), or both. Let us compare this to Ralston Bau’s argument that designers sometimes produce biased personas according to their preconceptions, leading for instance to imagine senior users as frail and isolated even though this might not always be the case. The Ideal Lab’s criticism of personas and Moser et al.’s study converge on one key point: personas should not be generated without data to support them. To create them relying only on one’s own personal experience and expectations is a lazy short-cut that should be avoided. And this is where Ralston Bau’s emphasis on “talking to people” becomes crucial. When one does not have time and resources for a large-scale study to support the creation of ‘proper personas’, the Ideal Lab’s suggestion is to just skip them and focus on actual users with in-depth, empathic interviews and use them in lieu of abstract representations.
In the end, the Ideal Lab charette produced two design scenarios, “Movable Knowledge Bazaar” and “Imaginary Lines”, which were presented as conclusions to this process. As we analyse the methodology demonstrated by Ralston Bau, it is worth delving deeper in the exact meaning of “scenario” in this specific design context. To do so, we refer first to a document published in 2015 by the Ideal Lab project as a report on their “Replanted Identity” project, where they articulate more in details the process they followed. In that text, they address their workshop process, which tasks a number of Agents (designers, artists, activists...) to cooperate with Participants (“local habitants or users are invited to take part in co- creative workshops to transmit their point of view and knowledge to the Agents”) on specific Themes (such as ‘identity’). Agents and Participants start from qualitative observations to create scenarios that connect with the chosen theme. Those scenarios are, finally, the base for concrete products that are prototyped by the Agents. From this brief outline of the Ideal Lab methodology, scenarios emerge as an intermediate step standing in-between initial data and final products. The Movable Knowledge Bazaar and Imaginary Lines are a context narrative that could have inspired designers to actually craft specific artefacts during an (hypothetical) follow-up to the charette.
There is, however, more to it. As scenarios and scenario-based design have been part of user-centered and human- centered approaches since the 1990s, now we would like to broaden our focus and provide more context. In the context of usability engineering, scenarios were originally understood as “simply a story about people carrying out an activity; a problem scenario is a story about the problem domain as it exists prior to technology introduction.” In this sense, life-like scenarios listing the steps that a user would need to carry out to execute an activity as a short story could provide a richer context and insights than of a sequence of check-boxes. In the following years, as design research began focusing more on collaboration and group-work, scenarios started to programmatically include more actors, describing the behaviours and experiences of each of them. More recently, scenario-based design has begun to take into account the various actors’ experience, feelings, desires, as well as their socio-cultural background and identity. Scenarios may also be speculative (as it is the case for this charette’s output), meaning that the context they describe is not plausible in the near future, but is meant as an exploration of a possible reality - as an exercise, or a provocation. In sum, in today’s design practice, to develop a scenario means to produce a complex narrative flow-chart that takes into account a variety of stakeholders, and their actions in relation to the artifact that one is designing for.
We see, in sum, intriguing similarities and differences between how Ralston Bau conceptualizes “scenarios”, and how they are commonly understood in design research and practice. Normally, a scenario is composed by a diagram that explains the needs and goals of the various stakeholders involved, plus a set of micro-narratives to give some context. Vice versa, the Movable Knowledge Bazaar and Imaginary Lines – as they emerged from this charette – are first and foremost narratives about possible contexts, a sort of “sandbox” where to place potential users and possible artefacts to design. They are, in other words, a sort of canvas that synthesizes many of the insights from the previous observations and explorations.
We have explored two outstanding features of the Ideal Lab process, as it was demonstrated at the Design & The City conference. Fieldwork, interviews, and story-gathering are key elements that characterized the Ideal Lab charette. Two in specific stood out: the decision not to use the commonplace method of personas, and a broader-than-usual understanding of what a scenario is. In conclusion, we see a connection across all these elements. Ralston & Bau emphasize fieldwork with ‘real people’, which they do not want to replace with synthetic personas. Likewise, scenarios would normally be developed from some personas’ perspective, and – coherently – Ralston Bau choose to adapt them to their process, making scenarios that are more open, inspirational and narrative, and less precise. As Escobar Vega summarizes in conclusion, “I understand that it takes more time and effort, but it gives space to designs that will fit better real people and their expectations with a space, product or service and gives space to use things that stand out from a specific person, if it is seen as a meaningful theme.”
Report written by Dr. Gabriele Ferri & Felipe Escobar Vega.