Urban Technology at University of Michigan week 78
Deep dive on design for urban technology
One of the first commitments we made in imagining our new degree program was to embrace design as a pillar of the education. After all, “urban technology” surely involves a lot of technical effort coding and building the technologies in question, and it requires business models, legal frameworks, and policy, too. But design? It’s also important. Critical, even, because when design is done right, it’s a way to work through connections between the human and the systemic, the physical and the digital, the possible and the preferable.
This week we are sharing an excerpt from a longer essay unpacking our thinking on the role of design in urban technology and how we are evolving design education to make the most of this opportunity.
💬 Hello! This is the newsletter of the Urban Technology program at University of Michigan, in which we explore the ways that technology can be harnessed to nurture and improve urban life. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction to our degree program.
Since it’s also college application season for high school students and the ones who love them, here’s a good way to learn more about our degree program.
⚡️ JOB ALERT: HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN & URBANISM INSTRUCTOR ⚡️
🔭 An Excerpt from ‘What Does it Mean to Design Urban Technology?’
[ You can also read the full essay on Medium ]
During the past 18 months I have returned to two words at the heart of design work: Craft and Consequence. As a student in architecture, I was taught to have a healthy respect for the work and lifestyles that an architect sets in motion. The lines we draw translate to labor, waste, carbon output, perceptions, convenience (or the opposite), and many other things.
The bulk of the time in my design education, however—and I think this still holds true for design education in many places—was focused on questions of craft. In architecture school we spent hours and hours drawing lines just so, creating imaginative and evocative models, and obsessing over (read: copying) the details of famous buildings around the world. All of this is important, even more so if you want to design really special buildings, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.
Whereas many design educations could be summarized as Consequence<Craft, this is not the right equation for the needs of this century. Though we care how things look and how they’re made, we care about these less than we are concerned with the plural impacts of what we design—how it affects the people who encounter it and the environment around it.
When I interviewed people in design leadership roles at Google, Facebook, and other big tech houses as well as smaller design studios, a consistent theme was “we do not need more pixel pushers.” Not surprising, given the loud and accelerating criticism of Silicon Valley recently, but important to underscore. For all but the most rarefied few, pixel pushing is no longer enough to be considered a great designer. This is a reflection of the extent to which outcomes (or consequences) are driving decision-making.
Though craft of a pixel-perfect interface may be part of enticing users to join a platform or use a digital product, the sum total of that person’s experience of the platform is what matters, because it’s in the relationship between person and platform that consequences emerge. Does the hypothetical platform enrich the user’s life? Does it do so with fair and legible tradeoffs? These are very hard questions to answer and even harder to design, precisely because the answer is not in the pixels.
If the arrow is flipped and we imagine Consequences > Craft, then the focus becomes designing things of consequence (choosing the right problems to work on) and grappling with the consequences of what we design (meaningful response to the challenges we take on).
First Question: What Matters?
The top half of this diagram represents the role of designers in identifying and articulating relevant challenges. No good design presentation should ever be met with the response, “… so what?” but many are, because designers can be quick to find the problem they’re interested in, even if others do not see the importance of the chosen issue.
Our students should be capable of articulating challenges that are recognized as important to larger constituencies. To do this, they need to have a healthy respect for evidence to support the claims, propositions, and proposals that they work on, and to discover these things in deep collaboration with communities. I use the word “evidence” here exactly because it is akin to discussing a mystery. Evidence can be quantitative or qualitative, it is often imperfect or incomplete, and it always demands interpretation. Where does evidence come from? From micro-scale research with real people, and from macro-scale analysis of statistics and trends.
User research as it has grown in the Human-Computer Interaction (or HCI) community over decades, as well as the associated practices of design ethnography that have developed in design schools (but less often architecture schools) is now basic within the context of digital design. However, architecture often lacks such rigorous approaches to understanding the relationship between outputs (buildings) and behavior. Part of this is explained by the focus in the digital world on products that can be iterated relatively cheaply compared to physical architecture, which is always a prototype by virtue of the fact that buildings are (mostly) not created in factories or even duplicated very often. Buildings could be iterated, of course, but only at significant expense.
Human-centered design grew out of human-computer interaction and is now prevalent in design, business, education, and even law schools, but somewhat harder to find within architecture and planning departments or colleges! Partially for good reason. Human-centered design methodologies were developed to facilitate the design of products, and products (or services for that matter) are rarely asked to deal with contested interests. HCD is a practice designed for a world of abundance, but urban space is fundamentally defined by scarcity. You and your spouse do not need to agree on which razor to buy, you can easy buy the one that suits you best. Try the same with a municipal recycling plant.
When human-centered approaches work well, they help ensure that products exhibit care for the humans that use them. Oxo Good Grips is a classic example, in that these kitchen implements were designed to be easy for people with arthritis to use, but they also happen to be easier for everyone to use! Thank you, HCD and universal design! But the flip side of human-centered design’s ability to make things useful for people is the potential to make them too easy to use, like the addiction caused by social media and extremely well-crafted interfaces, or to make harmful things easy, like Juul vaping devices that George Aye recently disassembled in a talk at Taubman College.
Still, aspects of HCD and digital design practices in general are very useful. Designers working in traditional built environment fields have a lot to learn from baseline practices in the digital design world, and I often recommend Erika Hall’s excellent and concise book Just Enough Research as an example of how focused you can be on design research, for instance.
Our students will not know that it’s possible to design without evidence, as we will push them to search for, build, and interpret qualitative and quantitative data in making sense of the world. This perspective has been informed by my own work at places like IDEO, Finnish Innovation Fund, and Sidewalk Labs, supercharged by watching Public Policy Lab develop its rigorous design process, and has been fully crystalized in conversation with Andrea Cooper OBE at an event in Seoul where she drew a disarmingly simple diagram:
We know how to educate designers to handle the left side of Cooper’s diagram, but the right end is less common. But it shouldn’t be, right?! We have a unique opportunity with the Urban Technology program in that our students will all take a sequence of Python courses, as well as a required course in statistics and data science. In other words, by the time our burgeoning young designers arrive at their first studio, they will have a deeper set of tools to deal with data than your average design student. We’re normalizing the idea that designers can code. It’s 2022!
Second Question: What Next?
The lower half of the Consequence > Craft diagram is important as well: If designers are to own the consequences of their work, then they must be in the habit of answering the question, “what comes next after this designed thing becomes part of everyday life?” What’s the world in which this is normal? What is different about that world compared to the status quo?
It’s a mouthful, but an important thing to reckon with when working in a context of technology, where design proposals have the potential to scale rapidly by definition. Designers cannot claim any special crystal ball that helps them see the future, but we can borrow from the adjacent fields of Foresight and Futures to adopt methods and perspectives that help follow design ideas to their plausible impacts, both direct and indirect.
As an example, consider the Starship delivery bot, seen above in a promotional shot from the company. A person and their dog confront a small robot on the sidewalk. The person seems amused, the dog curious: everything’s OK. That’s one possible outcome for this idea at an early stage or as a prototype, sure. But what happens when the timeline under consideration is stretched a little and this proposal for delivery-robots-on-sidewalk becomes the new normal?
Is the person in the image above as happy as when a single robot shared the sidewalk with them? When confronted with a sidewalk as congested as the highways, are you rosy about the technological possibilities? Do you have new questions about the design of the technical system in the scene above? Does the identity of the person or group who owns the robot matter more to you when there are lots of them around?
Whether you have these questions or others, when the presence of a specific technology multiplies in our current or near-future life, so too do questions about what happens next. The what that happens next is about economic, political, social, and cultural changes that are set in motion by technological development (and vice versa).
My professional work has been informed by conversations with designers and researchers like Superflux, Stuart Candy and the Situation Lab, Scott Smith at Changeist, Extrapolation Factory, Radha Mistry, and Anthony Townsend, who has been a frequent collaborator for almost a decade now. What we can borrow from the practices of these geniuses is a way to contend with the unintended consequences of the ideas that we bring into the world. To show love for your community is to follow ideas to their unintended potential outcomes and then use that experience to feed back into the original idea. Design with love.
As I’ve been writing these notes and sharing an early version of these ideas with colleagues, I met Cyd Harrell, whose work in civic technology I had followed for years (read her book btw). She in turn pointed me to Ron Bronson, who has been writing about… consequence design! It’s nice to know we’re not alone on this line of thought. Here’s a snippet from a recent interview:
“Consequence Design is the mat in front of the door,” Ron explains. “When you look underneath, insects who weren’t visible scurry in all directions. All designed interactions have consequences, whether it’s someone getting stuck buying a train ticket from a kiosk, or hidden menus inside of web applications. The consequences might be unintended but they cost time and money, and erode trust with our platforms. We need to uncover how a product can cause harm and fix it.”
What Ron describes here in terms of costing time and money or eroding trust is an order of magnitude more important when we’re focusing on urban technologies. If a music app erodes your trust, you can use a different app, but if robots on your sidewalk undermine your ability to use the sidewalk easily, then an entirely different order of harm has been done. The app store does not offer new sidewalks.
🏛 A world with more data means more pitfalls of governance over that data, particularly when it sits on private servers instead of being accountable to the public. Governing the Resource of Data: To What End and for Whom? explores commons-approaches to data governance. h/t Julia Powles
🕹 Speaking of commons, this is a fun timeline trivia game built on top of Wikipedia. h/t Jason Kottke
🔋 File under: tipping points. Taiwan is predicted to have more scooter battery charge points than gas stations by the end of this year.
❄️ Best name for a snow plow in Michigan? Control Salt Delete.
These weeks: Spring Semester planning. What’s your favorite or most surprising place to visit in Chicago? Admissions, of course. Breakfast with Darren Riley, one of our protogrant winners. A Detroit walk and talk about innovation districts. One degree inside, nine degrees outside. 🏃