Homing Mechanisms: Orienting the Smart Citizen in the Smart City

smart watch

HannahK: Slight change of tone and theme for this post, but bear with us. Ben has graciously allowed me to dominate this week’s post.

BK: Well, I had to mow the lawn and fix a bookshelf.  And the last match of Newcastle’s season was on.

HK: Toon, Toon, Black and White Army! Ahem. The last few weeks have been crunch time for the submission of my primary research thesis for my MScR, and I’m still blinking computer-screen light and endless bibliography tweaking from my eyes. So, I thought I’d outline the stuff I’ve been working on.

My thesis has been considering how to balance out the discourse between the injection of ‘Smart’ technologies into civic culture and citizens receiving or engaging with these technologies. The overall intention was to create a scalable interaction model that can be used to describe engagement effectively, and optimise ‘Smart Citizens’ in the ‘Smart City’.

I’m sure you’ll be devastated to know that I’m not going to bore you with my 30 page dissertation. But, I’ll give you the bare bones and be interested in hearing thoughts and responses!

As we’ve described previously, it’s easy to interpret smart endeavours in city planning as either pretty but unnecessary ribbon on already functioning urban culture, or to use them as a conceptual safety net used to spread civic reach as wide and as possible, often resulting in a ‘catch all’ that only catches some.

The introduction of new technologies into the market, a city or to a home doesn’t necessarily mean these technologies will be used to greatest effect, or even adopted at all. This goes for multiple innovative endeavours: new app tools or websites, slick ‘Smart Fridges’, city lighting etc.

Users, particularly if they are used to being passively or affirmatively involved in digital engagement (another blog for another time), may see digital developments as invasive or unnecessary, finding it difficult to marry benefits to the effort of adoption into routine.

Further, and more importantly from a long-term perspective, the reliance on flashy, new technologies to drum up more smart city hype often requires, at minimum, consistent access to the internet, a computer or smartphone in order to engage with the tools being developed. Anyone below that minimum threshold to access, for example, with low digital literacy or a single shared house computer with slow connection, could conceivably and consistently fall off the edge of the ‘smart’ infrastructure, and be inhibited from re-engagement.

Then, particularly from the standpoint of governmental investment in urban technologies and the systems that hold them accountable to the citizens they are trying very hard to support, I believed it would be useful to develop an interaction ontology which describes optimised, active engagement with new technologies or information. The model I believe can be replicable to various interaction instances, and it outlines how users orient themselves around the tools and processes of engaging with their environment.

This schema might not only be used to describe where engagement can be scaled up and out, co-evolving smart citizen and smart city, but also where it might fall away, outlining where users could fall out of patterns of active engagement in ‘Smart’ technologies and civic interaction. I’ve so far called it a ‘homing’ mechanism.

This mechanism is an ontology describing basic instincts around complex and multiple psychological processes. However, it is an ontology that can be used to evaluate and design new ‘smart’ enterprises. It can be described in three parameters of space, one of time: recognition, access, withdrawal, and routine.

Recognition: The user must be able to recognise and observe the thresholds to accessing new technologies: what are they, why they should access them, how to engage with them. A citizen used to receiving council bills in the post might not understand, for example, why they should engage with an online hub to make transactions easier. Users must also recognise the incentives to access – why should they engage in the first place? We must not only make engagement instances recognisable, but ensure city responses to instances of engagement are clear, comprehensible and, predominantly, affirmative.

Access: This is also quite easy to wrap our brains around superficially, but access is a deep and intensely problematic issue in civic engagement. If access is recognisable, is it still accessible? What facilitates and hinders access – can users without internet access these services? Are they clear enough for the visually impaired, non-native language speakers, or digitally challenged, for example? How is this technology bolstering access incrementally and developing it over time? Methodologies of digital access should iterate, involving increasingly diverse sets of users in the processes of engagement.

Withdrawal: This may seem counterintuitive to theories of engagement, but it is vital that a user engaging with new methods, tools or digital technologies be able to refer them back to the processes they already inhabit, and orient the new against the expected. To be able to ‘withdraw’ from access, and thus control the processes of access, we change the culture of digital technologies to enact a more even discourse between users and their digital environments. The ability to withdraw, recalibrate and choose to engage is a vital affirmative action on the part of the city.

Furthermore, as citizens become more and more engaged with the smart city, those technologies should enact sensations of safety, withdrawal and consistency within the patterns of the city. Again, how does this technology relate to previous methodologies of engagement, what mechanisms does it use to facilitate withdrawal, why might a user choose access over withdrawal, when might a user want to withdraw, and where to – who is able and unable to comprehend their ability to withdraw and thus control their own processes of engagement?

Routine: Routine is the habitual processes of urban living and engagement into which the above mechanisms must be inserted in order to be effective. Designing a technology must not only fulfil a design purpose but a strategic one, and be able to consider who is accessing a technology, when access might be improved, and where? Where is that elusive gap in the routine where technology can support and improve the processes of sustainable engagement in a smart city’s infrastructure.

Using these ‘homing’ instincts to describe interaction and digital engagement should help us develop a consistent approach to integrating smart technologies and  facilitate citizen comprehension of and participation in in digital civic culture. Hopefully, with the aim of sustainably co-evolving the ‘smart citizen’ and the ‘smart city.

BK: For me, all that spins off lots of thinking, but that will have to wait until the next blog!  Please comment, it would be great to develop this as a discourse.homing mechanism



Case Study: Traffic Lights and Smartphone Sights

Ground Level Traffic Lights
Ground level traffic lights, taken from Dezeen.com

In which Hannah and Ben discuss the merits of reflecting user behaviours rather than resisting them

HK: At least three towns that I’ve heard of in the last year – in Australia, Germany and The Netherlands – have embedded traffic lights at pavement level to warn Smartphone users that they are passing onto a road.

Of course, I found this on the internet…  so groups are either praising it as a great idea, or they’re vehemently arguing that solutions like this are just spending a lot of money to help ‘bad behaviour’. There is a tendency to throw moralities at new technologies, whether they are inherently harmful or not, but it’s true that smartphone users don’t always have their sights set upwards, at street signs and corners, or road edges.

BK: One of the funnier sights is seeing a smartphone user walk straight into a bus shelter or lamppost.  Except when it was me!

HK: What a divvy. [Trans: ‘Idiot’ in Geordie dialect]. Though a lot of people I’ve met (including me sometimes) don’t know the names of streets they pass through daily because they’re using lines on their phone map and GPS to guide them. One article, describing the initiative in the Netherlands, calls them ‘smartphone zombies’, which comes across as inherently pejorative. But why shouldn’t cities reflect that actual habits of their citizens?

BK: Well, I guess that you could work that two ways – to what extent should the cities adapt to the habits of the citizen, versus to what extent should the city shape the habits of the citizen.  In this particular area – the very existence of kerbs and traffic lights shape the habits of citizens, in order to separate pedestrian and wheeled traffic. The ‘woonerf’ areas in the Netherlands, shared space in the UK or shared zones in Australia and New Zealand form a contrast. Isn’t this traffic light discussion another version of experimenting with adapt to, vs attempt to shape (aka nudge) vs attempt to control? I put three options in deliberately – as if you have two in, then you are limited to “either or” – a dualist approach which limits our thinking.  About as stable as a two-legged stool.

HK: Back to the subject please.

BK: Ah well. Anyhow whilst there are all sorts of positive outcomes of adapting to citizen habits, even with a bit of nudge: we have to take secondary consequences into consideration. For instance, the £1M cost to the NHS of falls because of the new ‘healthier/low pollution’ trams in Edinburgh; the public health benefits around encouraging more physical activity, vs ‘keeping people safe’ with kids walking to school.

HK: Then again, floor level traffic lights might reduce car/pedestrian collisions, safe police and medical services time and money. Inserting safety measures into residents’ lines of sight does seem pretty standard practice, like making sure stop signs can be seen from car level, or traffic lights at side-window level for the front car in a queue. – a habit in France, but not in the UK. Attempts to change the pattern to cope with ‘smartphone zombies’ could, I suppose, use other means,like more intense ‘crossing’ sounds, for example.

BK: But these could be could be startling and harmful to anyone else in the area. Light change seems fairly innocuous. Though – consider the partially sighted!  Road markings, and traffic lights, should be visible in all contingencies.

HK: And implementation for embedded lights is quite dear. There must be better options than digging them into the road. For example, there’s a huge trend right now into upscaling city lighting systems with new nodes, effective sensors [which should be next week’s blog] – why not attach a projection of floor level lighting?

BK: A colleague of mine – Steve Smith at Northumberland – pointed this one out – if you project from existing street furniture, then you don’t have to dig into the road surfaces; you can project from a point so it’s much easier to maintain; and the effect works (though admittedly not as effectively) even if the surface is covered with mud, water or snow.

But that’s just the practical. We have to consider all citizens – from the harried parent with children in hand, the hearing or sighting impaired, through to the inattentive mobile phone user. If we were being really sophisticated, we could consider combining sensors with warnings – so if someone stepped across a line into a dangerous junction, then not only would the lights under their feet flash, but a warning sound could go off.  

HK: So it’s passive and quiet – until needed, though I’d imagine that software like that isn’t cheap. But we’ve established that our cities aren’t full of zombies, with strategists as the brains:

BK: Well, sometimes around the Bigg Market in Newcastle on a Saturday morning?

HK: I’ll give you that. But civic action is most effective at keeping its citizens happy and healthy if it responds effectively to all behaviours, and their dangers.

BK: Seriously, a major mistake – at least in my opinion – is to think of a city, or indeed, any sufficiently complex system, as a machine that can be designed in which each cog behaves. It isn’t.  It’s an active mix of behaviours, interactions and decisions. This is an evolution of behaviour problem, not an engineering problem.

Setting up an environment in which that independence of decisions is understood and respected, but people are firmly guided away from behaviour which damages others (in this case, speeding, jumping red lights and jaywalking without care) requires us to consider each decision maker and shape the communal environment such that we strike a balance we can all live with.  

HK: So the advantage of ‘Smart’ in this case is that we can adapt that environment more accurately to a greater variety of behaviours?

BK: Yup.  So we can support a richer, more diverse environment.  Which loops neatly back to our second blog – ‘Why bother with Smart’’!