2. A commentary on readings - Week 1, October 3

Updated: Oct 27, 2018

This week's readings were thought-provoking and provided insights into structuring my approach towards designing a "smart" city solution.

So far since receiving our project brief I've watched videos and read articles about what a city is, and maybe a few things on smart cities.

Our readings had nothing to do with smart cities. Or cities.

They were about design.

Rosner, Wakeford, and Singer all questioned the methodologies we use in design. I found their arguments interesting, although they all made very different points.


Critiquing Dominant Paradigms.

Wakeford discussed different methodologies that have been adopted (or co-opted) by the design community, and other instances where boundary objects facilitated interprofessional hyperlinks. These instances both push design forward by revisiting its methodological foundations, while allowing for greater collaboration across disciplines. She sums up her discussion by arguing that methodology needs to be continually revisited in order for it to be effective as it needs to come from an informed place.

I found this discussion particularly interesting for two reasons. First, I studied political economy as an undergrad and straddled two disciplines. I felt that I learned more as a result of this "cross-pollination" (as I called it) because so many topics were relevant to both subjects. In the end, while it was harder to navigate two distinct worlds, I came away happy with my experience and eager to tear down the silos of academia.

Second, I am very interested in moral philosophy, also called normative ethics. Why people do things fascinates me more than what they do. I am known as a 'deontologist' because I care more about the intent of an action than its consequences. Coming from this perspective, I completely agree with Wakeford because the reasons why we choose to do things shape our intentions, which in this case can affect design outcomes.

For example, if there is a project to design low-income housing you could design it with the intention of it being beautiful, or you could design it with the goal of completing the project under budget. These two are not necessarily incongruous, but if you design for beauty and livability first then you're more likely to get something that meets those criteria but perhaps uses the full budget. If you design for cost first, then you could come up with a variety of ways to complete the project, not once considering beauty or livability but coming in under budget.

This brings me to Rosner.

Rosner comes in with a bang. She has a lot of criticisms of the mainstream design community and wants you to know it. I really enjoyed reading her work because of this obvious passion. While I did not agree with every single point she made, I felt her overall message was clear: Design is not done in a vacuum, you cannot copy/paste design. As designers, it is on us to consider the entirety of the context within which we are designing. She defines her four main critiques of design (individualism, objectivism, universalism, and solutionism), which are undoubtedly going to be the basis of a framework later on in the book.

What I liked most about her work was the incorporation (not sure if consciously) of systems thinking. Systems thinking is a method of analysis that considers not just the whole, but all of its constituent parts, and their interrelationships.

I am very passionate about user-centred design, however, I have always found its apathy towards the broader system difficult to reconcile and something I have to inject on my own. Rosner solves for this dilemma.

The two disciplines also have more in common than you might expect. (A callback to Wakeford's interprofessional hyperlinks!)

For example, systems thinking uses system maps to visually diagram the components of a system and the inputs/outputs. These are very reminiscent of the domain models we are learning about in our Information Architecture module.

Here is an example from the seminal book on Systems Thinking, "Thinking in Systems" by Donella Meadows.

"Thinking in Systems" p.36

Livingston dove into the specifics of a particular technique, Ethnomethodology, in a particular case, analyzing pedestrians crossing. It didn't feel as critical the others, much more descriptive. At the end, however, he argues that the example highlights the importance of choosing the right method to analyse a given problem. Just because you can look at the 30,000 foot view doesn't mean it's going to yield the necessary insights.


How This Will Shape My Design.

The readings changed my perspective on the assignment. Not because the ideas they espoused were completely new to me, but because they made me question my methods and even the assignment itself.

When I worked at a foreign policy think tank, the first step I would take when researching something was to read everything I could about the topic. That was precisely how I approached this assignment, not even bothering with the assigned readings for the week before I jumped in head-first.

Going forward, I want to incorporate the ideas that Rosner, Wakeford, and Singer espoused by asking myself these questions:

  • Who built it? For whom did they build it? Who are the winners and losers?

  • What was the context in which it was built?

  • Why was it built? What was the methodology? Why was it the methodology?

I feel that applying this critical lens will ensure my ideas go beyond a superficial adherence to design process and truly engage with a problem.

More broadly, however, the brief assumes that smart cities are the solution, but why? It makes sense superficially, but nothing I've read thus far explains why cities are objectively better, how their benefits outweigh their costs. Using these same technologies, we could make living in towns as convenient as cities. Why not examine ideas that would reverse urbanization instead?

However, if I apply this new critical lens to just the basic research I've done thus far, I'd consider that while cities were once just the natural evolutions of towns, modern cities were built by urban planners and architects. The prevailing social standards of their time would have determined who could have those jobs. Who they were, and the society in which they operated, would in turn affect the design of the city. If they were a homogenous group, then that also could have affected the design.

If cities were built as a result of proximity to abundant natural resources, that is essentially chance. If a location is picked out for another reason, such as equidistant from most of the small towns so that people could walk to them, that demonstrates that greater intent was put into selecting its location.

Overall, I see great benefits in applying this critical approach when problem-solving in order to facilitate a deeper understanding that will hopefully yield more effective solutions.