DESIGNING FOR A CITY OF LIES
Keywords: smart cities, lies as data, urban imaginaries, prototyping futures
In order to meaningfully speculate on what a city could become, we need to first understand what a city currently is. Moving from x —> y, implies some understanding of the here and now (x), if the proposed future (y) is to have any grounding in reality, and thus any sway.
Designing for a City of Lies (DCL) is a project that addresses this question—not through asking what the city is, but what it is not. In this sense it draws on this remarkable formula by the poet and pataphysician René Daumal:
In DCL designers haphazardly engage local citizens on the street, asking them to tell lies about their city, to then feed these lies back to the city as designed urban interventions, prototyping new urban futures.
DCL played out across several iterations, first in Hannover, then Oslo, to conclude with the most extensive three-part experiment in Hasselt, the smartest city in Belgium.
Left: As the first step in the project, locals were asked to tell a lie about their city, and point out where this lie can be experienced. The researcher would then document the hand along with the place, to then approach another participant there, and so on. Here the hand of a local from Hasselt telling the lie: ‘The dirtiest city’, pointing the researcher to some glass containers located under a bridge (above).
The final experiment was carried out in Hasselt, the smartest city of Belgium. Real cities, unlike the rendering above are particular, messy and complex places, both in terms of brick and mortar and imaginaries. Similarly, Hasselt’s status of being the smartest city in Belgium rests on particular parameters, data and metrics, namely achieving the highest score across the five smart city parameters employed by Agoria (Belgium’s largest employers’ organisation and trade association) in their smart city survey across Belgium.
The parameters are (with year of the data sets listed): Average kilos of household waste per inhabitant (2013), megawatt of energy consumed per inhabitant (2012), number of renovation permits in urban areas per 1000 inhabitants (2014), number of ICT companies per 1000 inhabitants (2014), and the sum of PM2.5 concentrations of PM10 of O3 and NO2 expressed in nanograms per cubic meter (2013).
Why exactly these five? Through communicating with Agoria, it turns out there are quite a few bottlenecks to consider: These include the need for the data to be public, to be comparable across the different regions in Belgium (with their complex governance, strong autonomy, and different languages), as well as be apolitical. However, all this is a matter of choice, and in this project I wanted to add the imaginative new data set of lies told by local citizens.
The experiment consisted of two workshops with 9 months apart. The first part of the project was carried out on April 24, 2017, as part of the TRADERS Open School, in collaboration with Dr. Saba Golchehr. Together, we not only got a better understanding of the reasoning behind five parameters, but also looked through some of the actual data sets. Turned out it was endless Microsoft Excel sheets. The screenshot above is from one of them (megawatt of energy consumed per inhabitant (2012).
The second workshop took part in January 2018, picking up from the part of the conclusive synthesis in Workshop 1. For this part, the project collaborated with The School in Hasselt, and came together with the assistance of Pablo Calderón Salazar and also Pablo Hannon. Based on the lies data kit, the School residents were encouraged to conceptualize and execute urban interventions as a form of prototyping new urban futures for Hasselt. The group ended up staging two interventions in the same day, the Library Party and The Sofa Intervention.
Video documentation of the Library Party intervention by Chantalle Weerts.
(c) Chantalle Weerts
Video documentation of the Library Party intervention by Femke can der Werf.
(c) Femke van der Werf
Finally, two opportunities for feeding back the results of the project—to Hasselt and design research at large presented themselves.
The first of these was a DCL exhibition piece as part of the group show Politics of Design: Act 1 at z33, an exhibition on “participation and political engagement in current design practices”.
Secondly, as the opening of this show coincided with the 2018 Participatory Design Conference held in Hasselt & Genk, I ran a series of 30 mins workshops for the conference participants, engaging them in the collection of lies and the prototyping of futures based on lies as data.
THANKS to everyone telling lies about cities, in Hannover, Oslo, and Hasselt. Thanks to Studio Urbane Landschaften & Volkswagen Foundation, and the OSLO Magazine editorial group (Ane Krogseth, Karoline Bakken Lund, Lea Michel, David Scherer and Orysia Zabeida with Harry Gassel and Eric Hu) in the Ventriloquist Summer School (Grafill Stortstipend 2016). A great big thanks to the workshop participants in Hasselt, Dr. Saba Golchehr, co-facilitator on the first Hasselt workshop, and Pablo Calderón Salazar, co-facilitator on the second one. The final three-fold experiment in Hasselt was made possible through the collaborators TRADERS, The School, z33, and PDC2018. An extra thanks to Mela Zuljevic for orchestrating both exhibition and workshop at z33. DCL is a project carried out as part of my doctoral research at Umeå Institute of Design, and is discussed further in my thesis (available here).