ThingsCon 2018 workshop ‘Seeing Like a Bridge’

Work­shop in progress with a view of Rot­ter­dam’s Willems­brug across the Maas.

Ear­ly Decem­ber of last year Alec Shuldin­er and myself ran a work­shop at ThingsCon 2018 in Rotterdam.

Here’s the descrip­tion as it was list­ed on the con­fer­ence web­site:

In this work­shop we will take a deep dive into some of the chal­lenges of design­ing smart pub­lic infrastructure.

Smart city ideas are mov­ing from hype into real­i­ty. The every­day things that our con­tem­po­rary world runs on, such as roads, rail­ways and canals are not immune to this devel­op­ment. Basic, “hard” infra­struc­ture is being aug­ment­ed with inter­net-con­nect­ed sens­ing, pro­cess­ing and actu­at­ing capa­bil­i­ties. We are involved as prac­ti­tion­ers and researchers in one such project: the MX3D smart bridge, a pedes­tri­an bridge 3D print­ed from stain­less steel and equipped with a net­work of sensors.

The ques­tion fac­ing every­one involved with these devel­op­ments, from cit­i­zens to pro­fes­sion­als to pol­i­cy mak­ers is how to reap the poten­tial ben­e­fits of these tech­nolo­gies, with­out degrad­ing the urban fab­ric. For this to hap­pen, infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy needs to become more like the city: open-end­ed, flex­i­ble and adapt­able. And we need meth­ods and tools for the diverse range of stake­hold­ers to come togeth­er and col­lab­o­rate on the design of tru­ly intel­li­gent pub­lic infrastructure.

We will explore these ques­tions in this work­shop by first walk­ing you through the archi­tec­ture of the MX3D smart bridge—offering a unique­ly con­crete and prag­mat­ic view into a cut­ting edge smart city project. Sub­se­quent­ly we will togeth­er explore the ques­tion: What should a smart pedes­tri­an bridge that is aware of itself and its sur­round­ings be able to tell us? We will con­clude by shar­ing some of the high­lights from our con­ver­sa­tion, and make note of par­tic­u­lar­ly thorny ques­tions that require fur­ther work.

The work­shop’s struc­ture was quite sim­ple. After a round of intro­duc­tions, Alec intro­duced the MX3D bridge to the par­tic­i­pants. For a sense of what that intro­duc­tion talk was like, I rec­om­mend view­ing this record­ing of a pre­sen­ta­tion he deliv­ered at a recent Pakhuis de Zwi­jger event.

We then ran three rounds of group dis­cus­sion in the style of world cafe. each dis­cus­sion was guid­ed by one ques­tion. Par­tic­i­pants were asked to write, draw and doo­dle on the large sheets of paper cov­er­ing each table. At the end of each round, peo­ple moved to anoth­er table while one per­son remained to share the pre­ced­ing round’s dis­cus­sion with the new group.

The dis­cus­sion ques­tions were inspired by val­ue-sen­si­tive design. I was inter­est­ed to see if peo­ple could come up with alter­na­tive uses for a sen­sor-equipped 3D-print­ed foot­bridge if they first con­sid­ered what in their opin­ion made a city worth liv­ing in. 

The ques­tions we used were:

  1. What spe­cif­ic things do you like about your town? (Places, things to do, etc. Be specific.)
  2. What val­ues under­ly those things? (A val­ue is what a per­son or group of peo­ple con­sid­er impor­tant in life.)
  3. How would you redesign the bridge to sup­port those values?

At the end of the three dis­cus­sion rounds we went around to each table and shared the high­lights of what was pro­duced. We then had a bit of a back and forth about the out­comes and the work­shop approach, after which we wrapped up.

We did get to some inter­est­ing val­ues by start­ing from per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Par­tic­i­pants came from a vari­ety of coun­tries and that was reflect­ed in the range of exam­ples and relat­ed val­ues. The design ideas for the bridge remained some­what abstract. It turned out to be quite a chal­lenge to make the jump from val­ues to dif­fer­ent types of smart bridges. Despite this, we did get nice ideas such as hav­ing the bridge report on water qual­i­ty of the canal it cross­es, derived from the val­ue of care for the environment.

The response from par­tic­i­pants after­wards was pos­i­tive. Peo­ple found it thought-pro­vok­ing, which was def­i­nite­ly the point. Peo­ple were also eager to learn even more about the bridge project. It remains a thing that cap­tures peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion. For that rea­son alone, it con­tin­ues to be a very pro­duc­tive case to use for the ground­ing of these sorts of discussions.