March 6, 2024

Putting People First in Urban Digital Design


In a world where the term 'smart city' is thrown around all too easily, there's one crucial ingredient for success: putting people first. There is no doubt that our cities are becoming more intertwined with technology, but going digital isn't just about making cities smart; it's about making them people friendly. Urban digital projects need to consider the voices and needs of the people who live, work, and play in these spaces.

From smart traffic lights leveraging AI algorithms to interactive parks enhanced by sensors, technology has the potential to significantly improve our lives. However, ignoring the challenges of involving people in the design process and maintaining ongoing feedback would be naive. But these challenges shouldn't put us off.

Why User-Centric Design Matters

Imagine a city with a fancy new recycling system, seamlessly integrated into its digital infrastructure. While technically impressive, it's unusable if the interface is confusing, or the recycling bins are located in inconvenient places. This is a classic example of prioritising technology over people, leading to frustration and ultimately, a system no one uses.

Instead, we need to design with user-centricity in mind. This means understanding what people need by dragging them into the design process (typically through bribery with pizza) and listening to their feedback. This way, we can develop solutions that address real challenges and enhance the urban experience, whether it's through a digital platform, a smart service, or even physical spaces infused with digital innovations.

But does it Work?

Spoiler alert: Yes, it does!

Studies show that user-centric design makes a real difference. Research by the Centre for Active Design found that incorporating resident input into park designs resulted in increased park usage, improved community health outcomes, and a stronger sense of belonging among residents.
[Source: Center for Active Design ]

Similarly, Medellin, Colombia, completely transformed its public transportation system by involving its people in the design process. By listening to their needs and preferences, they ended up with a system that people actually wanted to use. The result? More riders, a safer environment, and a city centre that's buzzing with life again.
[Source: Medellín and the power of public transportation ]

Likewise, Singapore's "Smart Nation" initiative is all about giving residents a say in how their city develops. This not only helps them build a city that works for everyone, but also fosters a sense of shared ownership and pride in the transformation
[Source: Lessons from New York for Singapore's Smart Nation Journey - Centre for Liveable Cities ]

Challenges in Involving People

User-centred design is undeniably beneficial, but let's not sugar-coat it: involving people isn't always a walk in the park. Especially when we're talking about new developments or areas where digital connectivity is a luxury. Some might raise concerns about the investment required for public engagement or the complexities of integrating diverse perspectives.

It's true, getting people involved can be tricky. There are all sorts of other barriers to consider, such as limited access to technology, varying levels of digital literacy among stakeholders, the dominance of voices from easily accessible groups, and time constraints in engaging users.

Successful involvement goes beyond a one-size-fits-all solution; flexibility and adaptation are key. However, we can overcome some of these hurdles by getting creative. While it may seem counter-intuitive, sometimes using technology to address the challenges of technology is the way forward. Here are some examples, ranging from innovative to more traditional approaches:

  • Virtual reality allows people to experience new developments before they're built and provide feedback as if they were already in existence.
  • Living labs offer real-world test areas where residents can try out prototypes and provide immediate feedback.
  • Scenario planning workshops bring people together to envision future scenarios and brainstorm ideas for shaping their city.
  • Easily accessible online platforms like surveys, forums, and even games can facilitate gathering feedback and preferences.

Making it Happen

Once people's feedback has been heard, it's time to prioritise and turn their vision into reality. This involves translating user insights into actionable design principles, ensuring that every aspect of the project - from the layout of public spaces to the functionality of digital interfaces - is tailored to meet the stakeholder requirements.

There are various approaches to translating their vision into actionable plans. One method involves breaking it down into three simple steps:

Planning and Design:

  • Develop a detailed plan that integrates user feedback, technical feasibility, and physical infrastructure considerations.
  • Conduct user testing on design prototypes, both digital and physical, to ensure usability and seamless integration with the environment.
  • Refine the design based feedback and address user pain points.

Implementation and Operation:

  • Seamlessly integrate the technology with existing physical infrastructure, minimising disruption to daily life.
  • Provide clear and accessible user guides and training for everyone to benefit from the new technology.
  • Continuously monitor usage and gather feedback to identify areas for improvement.

Iteration and Adaptation:

  • Use ongoing feedback and data analysis to identify areas for improvement.
  • Regularly update and adapt the technology to meet evolving needs and ensure it remains relevant and user-friendly.
  • Foster a culture of continuous improvement, actively seeking user input to keep the project thriving and user centric.

Measuring Outcome

While tech metrics are undoubtedly cool, what really matters is the positive impact on people's lives. Perhaps more people start walking, or pollution levels go down, or we see a boom in local businesses. That's the real sign of a successful urban project.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and big data hold the potential to personalise user experiences in urban settings, ultimately enhancing their viability. By prioritising user-centricity while also embracing these emerging technologies, we can build cities that are not just smart, but also liveable, inclusive, and thriving.