"Wireframing the city": Andrew Travers at London IA

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 21 March 2011

Last week we held the latest of our London IA evenings, hosted by Sense Worldwide in Soho, and sponsored by Zebra People. I’ve already blogged my notes from Leisa Reichelt’s talk about “Strategic UX”. The other talk last Wednesday was from Andrew Travers, and he has posted a comprehensive set of speaker’s notes. Here is my take on what he had to say.

Andrew opened by pointing out that when Matthew Solle had asked him to speak at London IA, he was pretty certain that he wanted to talk about the “Cognitive Cities” conference he had yet to attend, so it was lucky that it turned out to be good. Andrew’s talk was part-redux of things he’d seen in Berlin, and part musing on what it meant for us as UX people.

In particular, he pointed out keynote speaker Adam Greenfield’s epic blog post “Beyond the ‘smart city’”, and pulled out one specific paragraph:

“Our ability to use the city around us, our flexibility in doing so, just who is able to do so, will be shaped by decisions made about the technical design of objects, their interfaces and the precise ways in which they are connected and made visible to the network.”

At London IA, Andrew said, he felt he was in a room full of the type of people who would actually be making those kinds of design decisions. He argued that the thing we do as IA and UX is fast becoming inseparable from the public realm. We are no longer constrained designing for “glowing rectangles”, but designing and building something much more diffuse, and developing services consumed in every way imaginable. “An Internet of things”, he said, “is a very different design challenge as a result.”

At Cognitive Cities, Matt Biddulph had quoted Mike Kuniavsky saying that “Information is quickly becoming a material to design with”. Andrew said there had been plenty of info-porn on display at the conference, some of it more useful than others. He showed, for example, an infographic illustrating the use of the London Underground network during the course of the day. Andrew suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that you didn’t need to process masses of data to know that the Tube is busy in the morning, then it quietens down a bit, and then it get really busy again in the early evening rush hour.

Regardless of the example though, he suggested that there was beginning to be a real difference in seeing data exposed that shows a city “as it is actually used”, rather than relying on anecdotal or incomplete evidence. The TFL bike scheme was cited a lot over the weekend in Berlin as an example of an urban dataset that is increasingly being made available to the public.

In conversation later on, Andrew and I discussed whether the release of data about urban usage might end up having a similar impact on the way that cities are shaped as the arrival of railways did. If you know anything about the history of London’s railway infrastructure, you’ll know that often branches were speculatively built out to small hamlets and villages, which then became ripe for development because a commute into town was feasible. The shape of London today owes a lot to which railway companies were granted concessions to build by Parliament at the time, even though they were not explicitly doing urban planning for houses and schools and roads.

I wondered if we’ll find that the areas of city life that are easiest to optimise and improve in the future will be those that have produced masses of public data. Data availability may well become a significant factor in shaping behaviour and investment decisions. If you can prove something works with data, you encourage more use - if you can prove something is broken with data, you can make a better case to get it fixed.

A major part of Andrew’s talk though, was to sound a note of caution. At the conference he had seen Tom Cordell’s film “Utopia London”. It looks at the way architecture in London was planned during the inter-war and post-Second World War periods. Andrew said: “The film felt like a warning note to bring us back down to earth”.

Designing lived environments and experiences is complex stuff. Those planners and architects imagined a very different London after the war based on an optimistic vision, just as we are trying to design “an information future”. The people of London turned very quickly against the ambitions and ideals of these architects. They weren’t people who had set out to make the phrase “council estate” urban shorthand for poverty and deprivation, they had set out to make buildings that people would want to live in, and where the community based life of pre-war London would continue to thrive. Andrew noted that many of these architects attracted such criticism for the buildings and the social conditions that developed on the estates, that they never worked in the UK again.

You can view Andrew’s slides on SlideShare.

Next...

The next London IA event is on April 19th, and features Chris Heathcote and Michael Blastland. Ticket details will be available soon.

If you are part of the London IA community, or another UX community, you might be interested in taking part in the debate that Matthew Solle and I are having in preparation for our panel appearance at the IA Summit in Denver, talking about “UX Communities: Starting from the beginning”. The first post in the series is over on Matthew’s blog.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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