7: Is Urban IxD the (Wo)Man in The Mirror? Response from Han

Han Pham: Michael Jackson is on the radio. The strains of “Man in the Mirror” kickstart my response to Martin’s question about the flipside of Urban IxD: “What is missing? Or, rather, who is missing? Are we all here?”

“.. There Are Some With No
Home, Not A Nickel To Loan
Could It Be Really Me,
Pretending That They're Not

… They Follow The Pattern Of
The Wind, Ya' See
Cause They Got No Place
To Be…”

In reflecting on the three posts I’ve shared in this discussion on Urban IxD, I realise there is a theme linking them: that urban interaction design is not just digital – it can be lo-fi or no-fi. Urban interaction design can leap the digital divide, or at least not widen it, by re-envisioning its tools and skillsets.

-          In “Everybody wants to be a pirate” I raise the spectre of urban high streets, small businesses pushed out by high rents and one organisation’s stake in the modern-day black market of … literacy – in order to propose that we consider what is being displaced in our cities, and how do we (re)place them?

-          In the response to Tobias’ invitation to continue exploring “invisible cities between borders”, I shared the story of Vancouver’s response to London’s “Homeless spikes” in which we see the debate about the fraught and fragile nature of the urban commons sparring across borders, designed into what public benches symbolise. In that article I ask, how do we use urban interaction design to cater to the vulnerable, and the unexpected?

-          In the third collaboration with Manu on bringing urban interaction design more meaningfully to the public, we glimpsed the story of an innovative project fostering a more active public life for families in cities – a part of a growing trend in government to use more adhoc and transparent ways of codesigning sustainable urban experiences with, or by, citizens. However, they don’t usually call it urban interaction design. That project brought together sustainable enterprise, environmental education, health and wellness – speaking to some of the tenets of urban interaction design without naming it so. Looking beyond the project, as Manu suggested, “some of the most transformative outcomes may show up in after the catalyzing project: What happens next and who is going to operate seem to be main concerns in designing what interaction designs are for." That post posed the challenge to think creatively about business – How can urban interaction design sustain itself?

While, as Manu suggested, Urban interaction design itself is not necessarily new but a reimagined opportunity to acquaint ourselves with our shared and disparate skillsets, what I observed at the Urban IxD summer school last year in Split, Croatia, among the gathering of 40-odd nascent voices in the field, from urban planners to economists, designers to scientists, was a desire to call into question what future we are making.

What I found was a courage, at least in rhetoric, of the power in reimagining relationships in the new urban city. What particularly intrigued me were those projects that refused to be swayed by the hegemony of a new paradigm but stayed, swaying yet resolute, in the center of instability – investigating the strange siren call of the illicit.

In one of the projects, The Future Cloud is Buried, the team suggested that the collective public of one city decides to recapture the intangibilty of virtualised information by burying “all its local, most valuable data in an off-grid cloud just outside the city.”

The twist, however, was that in “providing [a] meaningful physical interface for future Splitonians, the buried cloud also gives birth to a new pirate-tourism industry as well as a new drug scene.” Borders, especially those at the sociotechnical edge, bleed. The attempt to keep people out whether in policy, practice, or technological change, propels new strategies of inclusion.

In the posts above, we see urban interaction design not only as a tool for entertainment or media, but projects re-envisioning impacts on the health, the environment, education, crime, ethics, policy of our cities.

I like to focus on analog examples because too often we forget that the bleeding edge of social innovation doesn’t always need to start digitally, although digital means can accelerate those endeavours.

I am inspired by a recent example showcased in the article, “Untouchable to indispensable: the Dalit women revolutionising waste in India” in which the author describes how the city of Pune, India has given an “army of mostly Dalit ('untouchable') women the sole rights to collect and recycle the city's mountains of trash.” In doing so, the hidden infrastructure and industry of a city is coupled with social transformation. “The wider focus has achieved an unthinkable triumph: women from the lowest caste – those who are barred from drinking from the same water tap as others – now interact with the households they service and, for now, have beaten out powerful competitors for the right to collect the city's refuse.”

In the Urban IxD twitter conversation as well as our online conversation, we touched upon the question of how a city sustains itself; asked – what, exactly, is the business of urban interaction design?

For Manu and Tobias both, I would like to ask you to focus on the role of women in urban interaction design (current, potential), as designers and designed for – and ask you to call attention to some of the specific gendered challenges and opportunities of our growing cities, from the safety of our streets to the way urban interaction design might have an impact on the business of work. In addition to sharing your ideas, I’d also invite you to share your questions.

As US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “I began to think maybe the law could catch up with changes in society. That was an empowering idea.” Perhaps before the law, we can imagine how the way we relate to the city, and to each other, can reveal, and perhaps alter, some of its broken seams.

Thank you, Martin, Manu and Tobias, for this chance to think and reflect with you. See you all in Venice.

This post is part of the online conversation about urban interaction design: June 2014