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.

PhD update – January 2019

Thought I’d post a quick update on my PhD. Since my pre­vi­ous post almost five months have passed. I’ve been devel­op­ing my plan fur­ther, for which you’ll find an updat­ed descrip­tion below. I’ve also put togeth­er my very first con­fer­ence paper, co-authored with my super­vi­sor Gerd Kortuem. It’s a case study of the MX3D smart bridge for Design­ing Inter­ac­tive Sys­tems 2019. We’ll see if it gets accept­ed. But in any case, writ­ing some­thing has been huge­ly edu­ca­tion­al. And once I final­ly fig­ured out what the hell I was doing, it was sort of fun as well. Still kind of a trip to be paid to do this kind of work. Look­ing ahead, I am set­ting goals for this year and the near­er term as well. It’s all very rough still but it will like­ly involve research through design as a method and maybe object ori­ent­ed ontol­ogy as a the­o­ry. All of which will serve to oper­a­tionalise and eval­u­ate the use­ful­ness of the “con­testa­bil­i­ty” con­cept in the con­text of smart city infra­struc­ture. To be continued—and I wel­come all your thoughts!

Design­ing Smart City Infra­struc­ture for Contestability

The use of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy in cities increas­ing­ly sub­jects cit­i­zens to auto­mat­ed data col­lec­tion, algo­rith­mic deci­sion mak­ing and remote con­trol of phys­i­cal space. Cit­i­zens tend to find these sys­tems and their out­comes hard to under­stand and pre­dict [1]. More­over, the opac­i­ty of smart urban sys­tems pre­cludes full cit­i­zen­ship and obstructs people’s ‘right to the city’ [2].

A com­mon­ly pro­posed solu­tion is to improve cit­i­zens under­stand­ing of sys­tems by mak­ing them more open and trans­par­ent [3]. For exam­ple, GDPR pre­scribes people’s right to expla­na­tion of auto­mat­ed deci­sions they have been sub­ject­ed to. For anoth­er exam­ple, the city of Ams­ter­dam offers a pub­licly acces­si­ble reg­is­ter of urban sen­sors, and is com­mit­ted to open­ing up all the data they collect.

How­ev­er, it is not clear that open­ness and trans­paren­cy in and of itself will yield the desired improve­ments in under­stand­ing and gov­ern­ing of smart city infra­struc­tures [4]. We would like to sug­gest that for a sys­tem to per­ceived as account­able, peo­ple must be able to con­test its workings—from the data it col­lects, to the deci­sions it makes, all the way through to how those deci­sions are act­ed on in the world.

The lead­ing research ques­tion for this PhD there­fore is how to design smart city infrastructure—urban sys­tems aug­ment­ed with inter­net-con­nect­ed sens­ing, pro­cess­ing and actu­at­ing capabilities—for con­testa­bil­i­ty [5]: the extent to which a sys­tem sup­ports the abil­i­ty of those sub­ject­ed to it to oppose its work­ings as wrong or mistaken.


  1. Bur­rell, Jen­na. “How the machine ‘thinks’: Under­stand­ing opac­i­ty in machine learn­ing algo­rithms.” Big Data & Soci­ety 3.1 (2016): 2053951715622512.
  2. Kitchin, Rob, Pao­lo Car­dul­lo, and Cesare Di Feli­cianto­nio. “Cit­i­zen­ship, Jus­tice and the Right to the Smart City.” (2018).
  3. Abdul, Ashraf, et al. “Trends and tra­jec­to­ries for explain­able, account­able and intel­li­gi­ble sys­tems: An hci research agen­da.” Pro­ceed­ings of the 2018 CHI Con­fer­ence on Human Fac­tors in Com­put­ing Sys­tems. ACM, 2018.
  4. Anan­ny, Mike, and Kate Craw­ford. “See­ing with­out know­ing: Lim­i­ta­tions of the trans­paren­cy ide­al and its appli­ca­tion to algo­rith­mic account­abil­i­ty.” New Media & Soci­ety 20.3 (2018): 973–989.
  5. Hirsch, Tad, et al. “Design­ing con­testa­bil­i­ty: Inter­ac­tion design, machine learn­ing, and men­tal health.” Pro­ceed­ings of the 2017 Con­fer­ence on Design­ing Inter­ac­tive Sys­tems. ACM, 2017.

Starting a PhD

Today is the first offi­cial work day of my new doc­tor­al researcher posi­tion at Delft Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy. After more than two years of lay­ing the ground work, I’m start­ing out on a new challenge. 

I remem­ber sit­ting out­side a Jew­el cof­fee bar in Sin­ga­pore1 and going over the var­i­ous options for what­ev­er would be next after shut­ting down Hub­bub. I knew I want­ed to delve into the impact of machine learn­ing and data sci­ence on inter­ac­tion design. And large­ly through process of elim­i­na­tion I felt the best place for me to do so would be inside of academia.

Back in the Nether­lands, with help from Ianus Keller, I start­ed mak­ing inroads at TU Delft, my first choice for this kind of work. I had vis­it­ed it on and off over the years, coach­ing stu­dents and doing guest lec­tures. I’d felt at home right away.

There were quite a few twists and turns along the way but now here we are. Start­ing this month I am a doc­tor­al can­di­date at Delft Uni­ver­si­ty of Technology’s fac­ul­ty of Indus­tri­al Design Engineering. 

My research is pro­vi­sion­al­ly titled ‘Intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty and Trans­paren­cy of Smart Pub­lic Infra­struc­tures: A Design Ori­ent­ed Approach’. Its main object of study is the MX3D smart bridge. My super­vi­sors are Gerd Kortuem and Neelke Doorn. And it’s all part of the NWO-fund­ed project ‘BRIdg­ing Data in the built Envi­ron­ment (BRIDE)’.

Below is a first rough abstract of the research. But in the months to come this is like­ly to change sub­stan­tial­ly as I start ham­mer­ing out a prop­er research plan. I plan to post the occa­sion­al update on my work here, so if you’re inter­est­ed your best bet is prob­a­bly to do the old RSS thing. There’s social media too, of course. And I might set up a newslet­ter at some point. We’ll see.

If any of this res­onates, do get in touch. I’d love to start a con­ver­sa­tion with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble about this stuff.

Intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty and Trans­paren­cy of Smart Pub­lic Infra­struc­tures: A Design Ori­ent­ed Approach

This phd will explore how design­ers, tech­nol­o­gists, and cit­i­zens can uti­lize rapid urban man­u­fac­tur­ing and IoT tech­nolo­gies for design­ing urban space that express­es its intel­li­gence from the inter­sec­tion of peo­ple, places, activ­i­ties and tech­nol­o­gy, not mere­ly from the pres­ence of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy. The key ques­tion is how smart pub­lic infra­struc­ture, i.e. data-dri­ven and algo­rithm-rich pub­lic infra­struc­tures, can be under­stood by lay-people.

The design-ori­ent­ed research will uti­lize a ‘research through design’ approach to devel­op a dig­i­tal expe­ri­ence around the bridge and the sur­round­ing urban space. Dur­ing this extend­ed design and mak­ing process the phd stu­dent will con­duct empir­i­cal research to inves­ti­gate design choic­es and their impli­ca­tions on (1) new forms of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry data-informed design process­es, (2) the tech­nol­o­gy-medi­at­ed expe­ri­ence of urban space, (3) the emerg­ing rela­tion­ship between res­i­dents and “their” bridge, and (4) new forms of data-informed, cit­i­zen led gov­er­nance of pub­lic space.

  1. My Foursquare his­to­ry and 750 Words archive tell me this was on Sat­ur­day, Jan­u­ary 16, 2016. []