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:

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.

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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).

(c)  Seagate . Generic smart city visualizations such as this one from  Seagate  is by no means unfamiliar, and it is easy to understand the incentive for pushing the “smartness” development from the perspective of tech companies. DCL took a different route, by questioning what “smartness” actually means, and who gets to decide? Data in the above context has a carefully crafted aura of truth, optimizing our urban living by making our everyday more efficient. This is a very technocentric (and highly dominant) vision. From a design perspective, I was interested in treating lies told by local citizens as an ambiguous, but valid data set. Also, I wanted to engage a much broader and richer collective imaginary, beyond tech “smartness”.

(c) Seagate. Generic smart city visualizations such as this one from Seagate is by no means unfamiliar, and it is easy to understand the incentive for pushing the “smartness” development from the perspective of tech companies. DCL took a different route, by questioning what “smartness” actually means, and who gets to decide? Data in the above context has a carefully crafted aura of truth, optimizing our urban living by making our everyday more efficient. This is a very technocentric (and highly dominant) vision. From a design perspective, I was interested in treating lies told by local citizens as an ambiguous, but valid data set. Also, I wanted to engage a much broader and richer collective imaginary, beyond tech “smartness”.

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.

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lies data set

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 first workshop, taking place at the  TRADERS Open School  on April 24 2017, first saw all participants out and about in Hasselt asking citizens to tell them lies and where to go next. The session concluded with a synthesis session that saw insights emerge from the collective pool of lies and their mapping unto the city. Above: Workshop participants Stef Lemmens, Maria Tsaneva, and Gino Bodt discussing and mapping what the city isn’t.

The first workshop, taking place at the TRADERS Open School on April 24 2017, first saw all participants out and about in Hasselt asking citizens to tell them lies and where to go next. The session concluded with a synthesis session that saw insights emerge from the collective pool of lies and their mapping unto the city. Above: Workshop participants Stef Lemmens, Maria Tsaneva, and Gino Bodt discussing and mapping what the city isn’t.

Above: After the workshop, all of this was collected into a lies data kit. Screenshot of a part of the lies data set, a Microsoft Excel sheet, using the same format as other data sets employed by Agoria, that were accessible.

Above: After the workshop, all of this was collected into a lies data kit. Screenshot of a part of the lies data set, a Microsoft Excel sheet, using the same format as other data sets employed by Agoria, that were accessible.

 

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.

Both of the interventions picked up on the synthesis of lies from the first workshop, especially in the way two public spaces, acting as gateways into the inevitable old cobblestone city center, were being perceived negatively, one being the square in front of the public library and the other being the train and bus station area.   In addition to this material, the Library Party incorporated previous fieldwork done by one of the residents,  Serena Chalker , who had noticed the way in which people would line up in front of the library every morning before it opened. In order to give that moment and place a sense of occasion, a grand celebration was thrown one Wednesday morning, with locals participating with wearing party hats, holding balloons, cutting a silk ribbon, and spontaneously singing. The Library Party intervention was coordinated and lead by  Serena Chalker .   (c)  Yanina Shevchenko .

Both of the interventions picked up on the synthesis of lies from the first workshop, especially in the way two public spaces, acting as gateways into the inevitable old cobblestone city center, were being perceived negatively, one being the square in front of the public library and the other being the train and bus station area.

In addition to this material, the Library Party incorporated previous fieldwork done by one of the residents, Serena Chalker, who had noticed the way in which people would line up in front of the library every morning before it opened. In order to give that moment and place a sense of occasion, a grand celebration was thrown one Wednesday morning, with locals participating with wearing party hats, holding balloons, cutting a silk ribbon, and spontaneously singing. The Library Party intervention was coordinated and lead by Serena Chalker.

(c) Yanina Shevchenko.

Video documentation of the Library Party intervention by Chantalle Weerts.

(c) Chantalle Weerts

In addition to the synthesis from the first workshop concerning the negative perception of the station area, The Sofa Intervention addressed the lies “Hasselt is not cozy” and “The number of places in Hasselt that are not cozy are increasing”. It responded by designing and staging the possibility for cozy encounters at the station area, bringing a series of cozy artifacts to the public space (couch, tea, candles, colors) for 1-2 hours around a Wednesday noon. Locals were invited to sit down with a resident, with others using the range of props to make the situation as cozy as possible for the person in question. A conversation on how to make the area more cozy would unfold, effectively prototyping coziness in situ. The Sofa Intervention was coordinated and lead by  Yanina Shevchenko .   (c)  Yanina Shevchenko

In addition to the synthesis from the first workshop concerning the negative perception of the station area, The Sofa Intervention addressed the lies “Hasselt is not cozy” and “The number of places in Hasselt that are not cozy are increasing”. It responded by designing and staging the possibility for cozy encounters at the station area, bringing a series of cozy artifacts to the public space (couch, tea, candles, colors) for 1-2 hours around a Wednesday noon. Locals were invited to sit down with a resident, with others using the range of props to make the situation as cozy as possible for the person in question. A conversation on how to make the area more cozy would unfold, effectively prototyping coziness in situ. The Sofa Intervention was coordinated and lead by Yanina Shevchenko.

(c) Yanina Shevchenko

Video documentation of the Library Party intervention by Femke can der Werf.

(c) Femke van der Werf

 
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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.

Documentation of the final z33 exhibition set-up (c) Kristof Vrancken. The left projection first shows a selection of the lies collected during the first workshop, to then turn off, as the right shows documentation of one the interventions carried out, incl. information on the bridge between, i.e. the lies data which the intervention responded to. As the intervention video stopped, the lies video would come back on, and so on.   The ballot box in the space provided visitors with the opportunity to submit lies about Hasselt themselves and thereby actively engage the city’s shifting imaginary.   As the exhibition ran for 3 months (with no admission fee) it was a great opportunity feed back the entire project to the city and its citizens, in order to spiral onwards.

Documentation of the final z33 exhibition set-up (c) Kristof Vrancken. The left projection first shows a selection of the lies collected during the first workshop, to then turn off, as the right shows documentation of one the interventions carried out, incl. information on the bridge between, i.e. the lies data which the intervention responded to. As the intervention video stopped, the lies video would come back on, and so on.

The ballot box in the space provided visitors with the opportunity to submit lies about Hasselt themselves and thereby actively engage the city’s shifting imaginary.

As the exhibition ran for 3 months (with no admission fee) it was a great opportunity feed back the entire project to the city and its citizens, in order to spiral onwards.

Documentation from the opening night of Politics of Design: Act 1. Visitors submitting more lies in the ballot box.

Documentation from the opening night of Politics of Design: Act 1. Visitors submitting more lies in the ballot box.

Above: The pile of lies submitted during the 3 months the exhibition ran. Right: Examples of lies submitted during the exhibition.

Above: The pile of lies submitted during the 3 months the exhibition ran. Right: Examples of lies submitted during the exhibition.

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Documentation of the PDC2018 workshop on DCL, held in the exhibition space at z33. Rather than simply presenting the project, I was very interested in having my colleagues try out the process, and so they both had the opportunity to collect new lies as well as prototype new urban futures.

Documentation of the PDC2018 workshop on DCL, held in the exhibition space at z33. Rather than simply presenting the project, I was very interested in having my colleagues try out the process, and so they both had the opportunity to collect new lies as well as prototype new urban futures.

Above: One of the two briefs given to the workshop participants, working in groups of 2-3, this one focusing on prototyping new futures, using the existing lies data set collected in the first Hasselt workshop.   Right: The Onion Doughnut. Example of one of the group outcomes to the yellow brief.   From the synthesized insights from Workshop 1, they focused on the way that some only perceived the centre of the city as Hasselt. As a consequence, they started working on making the suburbs more attractive, as evident in their future city laws, combining hard laws with the ability to distill alcohol as a sort of nudging for people to move out. This strategy was part based on one of the lies from the first workshop, “You can’t find cheap beer in Hasselt”, and part inspired by the city where one of the participants grew up, Falun in Sweden, an old mining city, where the widows to miners who died in the mine were uniquely granted the permission to distill alcohol. Eventually the group went more radical and simply cut out the city center. The onion doughnut thus emerged as the hybrid figure combining a circular city with a void in its midst, and emphasized the one-way movement of citizens towards its outer layers. The group further envisaged the onion doughnut as an actual local delicacy, and a souvenir that would aid in the branding of Hasselt, while also being a source of income for the city. While it is unclear whether the onion doughnut is a conscious reference to the famous local biscuit ‘spek-lââs’ produced in Hasselt since the end of the 14th century, it is interesting to observe the connection nonetheless.

Above: One of the two briefs given to the workshop participants, working in groups of 2-3, this one focusing on prototyping new futures, using the existing lies data set collected in the first Hasselt workshop.

Right: The Onion Doughnut. Example of one of the group outcomes to the yellow brief.

From the synthesized insights from Workshop 1, they focused on the way that some only perceived the centre of the city as Hasselt. As a consequence, they started working on making the suburbs more attractive, as evident in their future city laws, combining hard laws with the ability to distill alcohol as a sort of nudging for people to move out. This strategy was part based on one of the lies from the first workshop, “You can’t find cheap beer in Hasselt”, and part inspired by the city where one of the participants grew up, Falun in Sweden, an old mining city, where the widows to miners who died in the mine were uniquely granted the permission to distill alcohol. Eventually the group went more radical and simply cut out the city center. The onion doughnut thus emerged as the hybrid figure combining a circular city with a void in its midst, and emphasized the one-way movement of citizens towards its outer layers. The group further envisaged the onion doughnut as an actual local delicacy, and a souvenir that would aid in the branding of Hasselt, while also being a source of income for the city. While it is unclear whether the onion doughnut is a conscious reference to the famous local biscuit ‘spek-lââs’ produced in Hasselt since the end of the 14th century, it is interesting to observe the connection nonetheless.

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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).