Making Cities Smarter: An interview with Martin Tomitsch

Gerry Gaffney Urban Design Leave a Comment

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Martin Tomitsch on the confluence of UX and urban design

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

My guest today is an Associate Professor and Chair of Design at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

He’s a founding member of the Media Architecture Institute and he also holds adjunct roles at the Vienna University of Technology and the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts.

As well as a large number of academic publications, he is author of the recent book Making Cities Smarter: Designing Interactive Urban Applications.

Dr Martin Tomitsch, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Martin Tomitsch

Thank you, it’s really great to be here.

Gerry

Okay Martin let’s get some of the fundamentals out of the way first. Can you tell me what is a smart city?

Martin

Yeah that’s a very good question. It’s partly a good question because there are many different interpretations of what a smart city is and also because the original idea of a smart city or the concept of a smart city actually came out urbanism and the fields of urban geography and research in those fields.

But then the term was popularised through large tech corporations like IBM and Cisco, for example. And it’s really interesting to see how this term has become very popular which is maybe because everyone has sort of an idea of what it might mean. So it makes sense [to ask] what a smart city might be. And it’s a great concept also in terms of selling it as an idea but it’s also a little bit dangerous because people have different perspectives of what it means.

Someone from the city council, for example, might have a very different idea of what a smart city might be or should be compared to someone who’s trying to sell a product for a tech corporation.

And so for me a smart city is a city that improves the life of its citizens through augmenting existing services and infrastructure through digital technology. And in many cases that digital technology involves sensors to collect data about the city and the life in the city. But from a user experience perspective it’s really important that the conversation doesn’t stop at the deployment of sensors.

Gerry

Okay so that gives an idea of what a smart city is. What is a city app?

Martin

So in my book I use this term “smart city app” or just for short “city app” to emphasise the human element in smart cities. And I use it because much of the smart city discourse focuses on the technology and on how to build smart cities. And for tech corporations again that’s really great because smart cities are the best news since the invention of the personal computer, since it allows them to sell city-wide software solutions to councils and city governments.

But one of the issues in my view is that the users of smart city solutions are not necessarily the same as the customers. So tech corporations therefore optimise the solutions to be attractive to the customers, which are the city councils and government organisations, but that completely leaves the end user out of the picture.

And so for me city apps are that missing link in smart cities. So they make, for example, the data that has been collected in the smart city available to people when and where it matters. And they are therefore, in a way we can describe them or see them as a user interface between people and smart cities.

Gerry

So can you give us an example of a city app or a smart city app?

Martin

Yes, almost any object in the public space could be turned into a smart city app; so it could be a swing for example or a traffic light or a bench or even a trash bin. Even a traffic light, for example, if you look at the traffic light [it] is an example of a city app in that it’s an interface between urban infrastructure and people. It allows people to interact and also provides information to people using the urban environment.

Gerry

Now you’ve already referred to this but you talk in the book about the global hype around the big data movement. Is there a danger of the concept of smart cities being hijacked? I mean you said that the likes of IBM and Cisco are very excited because it gives them I guess the opportunity to sell fancy dashboards to city councils but is this a danger that some of these solution vendors may neither understand nor care about citizen centricity?

Martin

Absolutely and actually you already see this happening and many academics around the world are arguing against this approach to smart cities. And what’s great is that we’re already seeing a shift with city authorities, and also even some of the large tech corporations, increasingly becoming more aware of the need to remain citizen centric.

So I think as with every new technology or tech platform, we’re still in early days trying to figure out things like how to collect, store and analyse the data. But it’s really important, it’s really critical that we start thinking already also about the design and the use case scenarios, the every day aspects of this new technology and how we can use it to improve urban liveability.

And I think that’s why it’s really important for UX designers to get involved in those conversations.

Gerry

Yeah and of course there’s also a danger of this sort of system becoming you know additional surveillance.

Martin

Yes absolutely so again I think that’s why user experience designers really need to have a voice in that process to ensure that the technology is used in the right way.

Gerry

How can we engage citizens in the design process for these sorts of applications?

Martin

One way of how we can do that is actually by drawing another on mythologies used in the design field in other domains. So, for example, we can follow a co-design approach and actually start by talking to people, citizens but also other stakeholders and actually involving them in the design process along the way.

And also following a particular design process that is iterative so that it sort of keeps going back to the stakeholders and refining the solution.<.p>

Gerry

It’s pretty hard though isn’t it to iterate on the sort of scale you’re typically talking about with a smart city app?

Martin

It is hard not just because of the scale but also because of the environment, because of the urban environment, and because of the many restrictions around the urban environment. So when we’re designing apps for an urban environment we have to deal with, for example, road regulations and various bodies that have to give approval for a solution to be rolled out in that space.

So there are a number of strategies that we can use to address this that I also talk about in my book. So, for example, one way of doing this, resolving this could be doing some of the testing in controlled environments so that can even be in the lab environment or maybe in the controlled environment, like we do a lot of work in our university campus, for example. So we have more control over what we do in that environment. But then also strategies in terms of how these city apps could be tested or rolled out. So, for example, something we found in our own work was that… there is a great opportunity to use exhibitions or festivals, for example, to test city apps. So in Sydney you have the Vivid Sydney light festival, for example, and that’s a great framework to test city apps.

And by putting city apps into an exhibition there’s also less risk and also it’s less likely that people will complain or have sort of negative critique about the city app because it’s clearly a different context. So it’s a very good starting point to test city apps.

Gerry

You do talk about the fear that many organisations like councils, local government and the like may have in rolling out city apps because, you know, the media will feast on something that seemed to fail in any way.

Martin

That’s right it seems to be that the media really likes to pick up failed public trials in the urban environment. Partly because they’re often funded through taxpayers’ money and so that always makes for a good media story if that money is spent in ways that fails. And that’s sort of going actually against a design approach where failure is part of coming up with the design solution.

And it’s especially a problem with city apps because of their public nature. So if the roll out of the city app is in the public environment and it fails that’s a very public failure. So again it’s important to keep that in mind, when designing city apps and also when deploying city apps to try to counteract that potential and try… Itt becomes part of the design process and again coming back to co-design, for example involving communities in the design of the city app you could also help with that issue.

Gerry

I guess we’ve seen… I’m not sure that it’s quite a city app but we’ve seen the reasonably spectacular failure of a dockless bicycle share scheme here when oBike rolled out in Melbourne without any community consultation and ended up becoming virtually a public nuisance.

Martin

That’s a great example and it’s also an example I refer to in the book as well. It’s a great example of a city app in many ways. It’s also a great example of the smart city solution in other ways because it’s augmenting an existing infrastructure – bikes – with digital technology and, as you say, you’re right because it was done without consultation it wasn’t necessarily very well executed, even though it actually provides some real benefits and it could be a really great solution to a lot of the problems that cities have.

Gerry

I don’t have the reference here from the book but you did mention, you referenced the book How Buildings Learn which talks about the different layers of a building and you know how it ages at different speeds and so on and you had an analogy with city apps behaving in the same way. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Martin

Yeah again it’s something that’s very unique to designing city apps and especially for UX designers, it’s quite different from designing other interfaces such as websites or mobile apps, for example in that you notice in designing that software that we actually have to think about the city app as a package… that consists of many layers and the reason I use this model of layers or this idea of thinking in layers is that the different parts of the city app also have different life spans.
So there might be certain elements or aspects of city app that need to be updated more regularly and then there are other elements that might be in the urban environment for 20 or more years maybe.

And so the model that I describe in the book has the layers, the four layers of the system infrastructure; the physical interfaces, the control interfaces and the soft interfaces.

And so the systems infrastructure is made up, for example, through the hardware, the cables, everything that is needed to actually operate the city app, things like power, networking, but even wireless connection apps.

Physical interfaces are elements like displays or lighting components, push buttons, again on traffic lights, for example, you see those push buttons.

And then control interfaces are usually sort of back-end solution for controlling certain aspects of the smart city system. So those are often things or in the form of a dashboard and they’re usually operated by official authorities, the city authorities and their employees.

And then the soft interfaces finally, which is the part that is most often updated, are the software elements that the users of soft city apps interact with. So it could be, for example, the digital interface on an urban touch screen kiosk. So that’s something that might be updated several times during a year.

Gerry

You just reminded me, you were talking about touch screens. There’s such a tendency, I know you’ve already mentioned not making design decisions based on available technology solutions but so many things like local councils opt for high tech touch screens that have no real use case and you just see them taking up space and providing no value to the citizens, don’t you at times?

Martin

Indeed and certainly that happens. I think again it comes back to some of the problems we’ve already discussed but also to the fact that there’s a bit of a lure of fancy technologies so there is a tendency to install something that seems to be very state-of-the-art in modern technology without actually thinking about what is the use case, sort of purpose and again without consulting or considering the end users.

And again it also comes back to the problem that those tech operations that sell those touch screens or other solutions to city councils or governments are actually targeting those councils rather than thinking about the user or keeping the user’s needs in mind. And then they end up with solutions that look very shiny for a short while but no-one actually needs them and they’re not really being used.

I also in the book argue against focusing too much on using new technology because often technology [that] is very new might be outdated very quickly and that’s a big problem with smart city systems where solutions are designed around the particular new technology that the entire solution might become outdated very quickly and then it becomes sort of useless or outdated piece of urban public infrastructure.

Gerry

To move away from I guess the nitty-gritty and get a little bit philosophical. You write in the book that people compose their own city; can you tell us about that concept and some of the background to that?

Martin

Yeah it’s based on an idea that Martijn de Waal describes in his book which is called The City as Interface and so it’s this observation that digital technology or especially mobile devices like smart phones allow us to take our personal or private interactions into public space. So while before we had smart phones those personal interactions would take place in our homes, maybe in front of the TV, the smart phone allows us to have those interactions that are personal in a very public space. So even though while we’re sitting, for example, in a train or on a bus, we can use the smart phone to create this personal bubble around us and so that becomes what Martijn de Waal describes as a parochial space which is a private space within the public sphere in a way.

Gerry

Yeah and I’m not sure whether it’s de Waal or yourself that referred to I think layering one’s own city on the existing substructure.

Martin

Yeah it’s based on a quote from Martijn de Waal’s book and it’s again referring to this idea that because of technology and even technologies like cars, we are able to create our own city because we can sort of, for example using the car we can, allows us to move around quickly from one place to another in the city. And so that creates our own little city or experience of the city within the wider, bigger city and it’s something that we can’t really plan for because it’s very subjective and very personal. And so again translating that to the concept of design of city apps it’s really interesting in that there are a lot of very subjective aspects of city apps also that are very difficult to design for and that requires a lot of experimentation and testing.

And also what’s really important actually with city apps and with any solutions in the urban environment is they need to be very context specific. So again that’s different to designing apps for smart phones, for example, where everyone has the same smart phone and you can design an app that looks the same on all the smart phones. Every urban context has its own requirements in terms of the demographic, so the people living there but also the things that people, the activities the people are doing in that place, how that space changes over time, for example, or changes depending on the day of the week. And so all these things need to be considered in the design of the city app solution.

Gerry

And of course city apps risk being exclusionary to the extent that they require, in some cases… I was thinking the other day I was standing at the bus stop and I had my app so I knew when the next bus was coming along but somebody else who happened to be there, I could see them looking at the physical timetable, which is meaningless work of fiction. But there’s a huge divide between the information I had and the information the other person had. How do we avoid that sort of effect with these city apps?

Martin

I agree that’s in particular an issue with apps that rely on smart phones and people having smart phones. It’s not just about having a smart phone but also having the ability to discover new apps and installing those new apps and operating those apps.

So it can be considered in the city app process in that a city app is, as I said earlier, a user interface between people and the city, or the smart city and so if you’re using the example of the bus stop we can start thinking about different user interfaces that satisfy different users’ needs or the needs of different users with different abilities. So we can actually empower people who don’t have maybe certain abilities or in this case a smart phone would have this information available through physical representation. So for a city app that’s in the form of a display, for example, inside the bus stop which is really important not just only of interest to people who don’t have smart phones or not the ability to operate smart phones but also in the particular contexts makes also a lot of sense to have that information. For example, if you’re running for the bus or if you want to have that information you can quickly glance at. So those are things that can all be considered in the design of the city app.

And actually using more advanced technology and we’ve done some speculative work around this as well and using […] sensors we could even develop city apps that respond to other abilities of people, like for example, the content might change for a user in a wheelchair so that it actually becomes accessible for that user. Whereas in the traditional touch screen often that’s not the case. So there might be information on the touch screen that a person in the wheelchair can’t reach. So a city app could automatically adapt to those abilities of people and adjust its content.

Gerry

Although I can imagine sitting in a budget meeting at the bus company and they’re going to say “Well we don’t need to worry about providing that information because everybody has a smart phone.”

Martin

That indeed happens and that’s a real challenge with those sorts of solutions. So what we usually do is you can sort of draw on data, right. So you can either draw on data across smart phone users or the number of apps, the number of times an app is being used or how much an app is being used but also even again going back to UX research methods to actually doing interviews and observations of people at bus stops.

Gerry

You write in the book about the need for a new profession that understands both the design of cities and the design of digital experiences. For a listener or reader who has some experience perhaps in traditional UX, if such a thing exists, but is interested in the whole smart city area, where should they start? What should they do? Do they need to learn about sensors?

Martin

[Laughs.] I wouldn’t say to start there and, again, that’s a great question. It’s also a common question that I often get when I give talks, for example, about this topic and was actually, it’s a good question because it’s actually one of the motivations for me to write this book because I wanted to give people a starting point. So I would say that this book is certainly a starting point for people who are interested in or even for the area of user experience design and I have also dedicated a whole section in the book to this particular question.

[I explore some great places to start, places where it’s sort of possible to start with. Some of those opportunities to look out for are, for example, are in the form of community projects where it’s possible for anyone to get involved in the community project and to contribute their expertise. So in that case could be contributing UX expertise. In some cases also councils are calling for projects. So it’s always or could be useful to talk to local councils or look out for project calls from the local council or even to collaborate with councils, for example, around fixing certain issues in the local area and then drawing on the UX knowledge and skills and bringing technology to that.

[We’ve also found that places like exhibitions and festivals again are great places to start and to try things and those are good opportunities to collaborate with other people that have complementary skills and to actually build something that is then experienced by people in the city, by the public. And I would even say that for UX designers who work in the corporation, in the company, and are interested in this area, they might even be able to pitch this to maybe their boss and maybe even create their own job title because it’s such a growing field and there’s so much interest and demand for this field that I think that more and more companies are moving into this space and they’re certainly, from my experience, a lot of need and demand from city councils and city governments to be able to work with people who have the ability in this space and a true understanding of how to design these smart city solutions from a human centred perspective.

Gerry

Yeah the book is great because you know there’s so much familiar UX stuff in it but there’s also a new philosophy and a new outlet and a whole new paradigm and I was very pleased actually to see Nadav Savio’s context diagram in there. I haven’t seen that for years, the one from giantant.com with the person walking the dog and the interface, the device, the connection, the carrier, culture, environment, the multi-layered experience, it sort of dropped perfectly into this book, didn’t it?

Martin

Yes it is a diagram that has been around for a while but it’s just really captures nicely some of the challenges around designing city apps and the many layers in a way that have to be considered when you’re designing city apps for a public space or apps that are used by people within the public space, within the public environment.

Gerry

Yeah well I enjoyed the book very much and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s got an interest in both UX and cities or urban design. The book is called Making Cities Smarter: Designing Interactive Urban Applications.
Martin Tomitsch thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Martin

Thank you very much for having me.

Gerry GaffneyMaking Cities Smarter: An interview with Martin Tomitsch

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