12. The Brief, Revisited

After the experience of my first design critique, and the follow-up email, I began to question my fundamental understanding of the brief.


So, I revisited it.

"This brief invites students to explore and reimagine the design spaces for the smart city... will work with the tools, techniques and methods used for thinking creatively with design to open up new or alternative spaces."

This part in particular:

"The challenge will be to consider what is possible given a plausible combination of technology and public life, in the urban realm. The end result will be the design of a device, service or infrastructure that alters the experience of the city and impacts people’s lives for the better."

I interpreted this as "combine technology and public life in your design." However, from critique, and the message we all received after the critique, it appears I misunderstood.

"We want you to open up a space for thinking differently about the smart city - a way of working critically against technology centric and solution driven approaches to living together in cities. "

I feel that this could have been more clear from the beginning. The brief specifically stated to utilize technology and have an 'end result of a design' and yet this comment seems to oppose utilizing technology and question the notion of solutionism as a concept.

This all makes sense given the Rosner framing we've been using this entire semester, however, I felt this could have been more clearly conveyed. With just the brief, it is entirely plausible that a group could have chosen a very narrow and specific problem city dwellers face and created a solution. Needless to say, I was confused.

The intent is really good. I like the idea of this project, just wish I'd understood it sooner as it changes a lot about my approach. Before, I thought we needed to actually come up with a plausible solution (not necessarily a product) in the time allowed, so I put my project planner hat on and immediately worked backward from the due date to create a timeline and milestones. This now seems futile. Had I realised the intent was more critical, I would have spent more time immersing myself in the context and not rushing to meet deadlines. Professionally, I now hope to integrate this into my method.


Recommendations for next time,

I recommend splitting up the assignment into two parts. Start by assigning groups and asking learners to identify a problem space in the city.

This allows learners to explore creatively with only a vague understanding of what they're looking for. Perhaps that is a "me" problem, but I like to know the purpose of what I'm doing. I am happy to immerse myself in context and research potential problems we could tackle, but by getting the brief first I had on a solution-oriented lens. The difference between: "What areas can we have the most impact on?" Instead of "what are the biggest problems that I see?"

After 2-3 weeks, once groups have identified and researched some problem areas - evaluate them. Discuss them like we did in the critique, but perhaps more informally. Give groups feedback regarding the direction they are headed.

Next, ask groups to consider the problem area they've identified critically, what causes the problems? What types of interventions might help to ameliorate those problems? Then, make it explicit that the end product does not need to be a solution to the problem. After that, the project can go forward in the same way, but by providing that minimal guidance it helps to clarify the objectives a bit better.


With this insight, I am moving forward with a better understanding of the intention. Our group is now reexamining our ideas from the user perspective. I hope to approach this endeavour with a fresh perspective and able to engage more critically and less focused on fixing a problem.