Thesis Weeknote 05 [infrastructure, design challenge]

So after several weeks of various distractions, we’ve finally been able to take a run at the thesis, and give it some much needed focused attention. We were also asked, by the end of the week, to have a neatly formulated thesis statement of intent; a design challenge.

Monday I met with my advisor, Gitte, and bounced some ideas for next steps and possible constraints back and forth. It was interesting and inspiring, as ever, but as there hadn’t been much (or any) real progress since our previous meeting before Lift, it was lacking any real… oomph. On Tuesday, I had a long talk with Matt Cottam, and a shorter chat with Timo Arnall, who were in the studio to review theses.

I seem to have become rather fixated on infrastructure as a starting point, or as something that’s interesting and rarely discussed in a design sense. Infrastructure, and where and how it becomes visible. Which is fascinating to think about and discuss, but is kinda difficult to find solutions, concepts, ideas around. So I’m on the hunt for constraints, things to push me, things to push against. Matt suggested thinking very specifically about who’s interests would be involved – challenged, threatened, strengthened – by the injection of technologies into the urban fabric, and who would have the scale, existing base, and business incentives to actually introduce them. We narrowed it down to government/municipal, private utility companies (esp. energy and water) or transport (esp. buses), communications (is that a utility, too?), building developers, and advertising. What kinds of incentives would there be from that side, and what incentives exist or could be created to engage an end user? For example, I don’t want to create a service to just more effectively pump advertising at people (even if that might be a very successful and profitable venture), but I’m fine with that being part of the equation, if I can make it a more equal one, somehow. That took us onto incentives, transactions. Might there be something interesting around microtransactions? Not just micropayments of currency, but perhaps a small service rendered or information contributed (information = power = profit?) for a small service in exchange? Charging a phone, network connectivity, super-localized weather or traffic information?

The key challenge with any of this is to find a balance, where the needs and business requirements of a stakeholder (company, organisation, institution) are met whilst always keeping in mind the perspective of the needs and aspirations of city-dwellers or -visitors.

I’m really keen to zero in on something really small. Maybe it’s making something mundane make that little bit more sense, do that little but more. Maybe it’s creating a moment of happiness or a smile in amongst the stress of city life. I want my outcome to be functional, not an artwork, or sculpture, or statement, or a critique or conceptual intervention. But if it can have the power to make somebody smile or think, then that’s a plus, in my mind.

Still: more constraints needed. No real spark as yet, but I’m working on it: it’s not just gonna land on my lap!

Phrasing a design challenge is hard, especially with the knowledge that, ultimately, the end result will be judged against it, looms overhead. That was our task for the end of last week, as part of a longer document spelling out our thesis intent, describing our explorations to date, and laying out research and projects in the field. Most of those were just simple braindumps, but the design challenge was new. A fine line to tread, as well: too broad, and it’s useless; too tight, and I risk missing my (self-assigned) target. If anything, I erred on the side of broad, big, everything. But boiling it all down to a sentence or two does serve to focus the mind.

There are magnificent bits of infrastructure just lying around (thanks russell). If we assume that every element of the city is creating and collecting information, what exciting services can we create by combining these emerging opportunities? The key challenge is to find an overlap between what is possible (or conceivably possible in the near future), the needs of stakeholders, and the needs and aspirations of the visitors and inhabitants to the city.

The short version: There are magnificent bits of infrastructure just lying around. If we assume that it’s all connected, what exciting things can we do with them?

With some good heads-down thinking, some user research, some brainstorms, and a walkshop coming up fast, I hope to find out! Hopefully sooner rather than later…

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