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The art of people-centred smart cities: Manchester shows the way

Manchester’s CityVerve has generated a ‘blueprint’ for people-centred smart cities.


While almost all cities now talk about the importance of putting citizens at the centre of smart city initiatives, clear examples showing what this looks like in practice are rare.

At the CityVerve Marketplace event this week, which reported on the smart city demonstrator’s progress over two years, it was refreshing to hear about the approaches the Manchester-based project has taken to engage, inform and entertain its citizens with the technology being implemented.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the ‘culture and public realm’ strand of CityVerve is that it exists at all, said Drew Hemment, CEO, FutureEverything, which led on this work.

“If we think of conventional verticals we might address in a smart city project, health, transport and energy are safe bets,” he said. “I think culture and public realm was a step into the unknown for a project like this, and something where we’ve learnt a lot. “

Hemment pointed out that much of the technology and systems within smart cities are not transparent at the point of use, and in some cases not transparent even to experts.

He commented: “Trust among the public and among users is more important than ever, and without transparency we won’t get trust.” Without trust, smart cities will not be accepted or succeed, he added.

There were three key elements to the work FutureEverything did, alongside partners: human-centred design, citizen engagement, and adding “imaginative dimensions” to the smart city.

Bring in the artists

The CityVerve platform of platforms approach (connecting everything and harnessing its data) started in an unlikely place – with a work of art, Hemment said.

The every thing every time artwork by artist Naho Matsuda takes data generated around the city, turns it into meaningful sentences, and then presents them as seemingly random lines of poetry that people encounter through screens installed around the streets.

“The artwork was conceived to be the first implementation of the platform of platforms,” Hemment said. “It’s not intended to be simply a data platform; it’s a developer platform. And what art can show us is how we can build interfaces on data, where the only limit is our imagination.”

The artists built their own data platform and algorithms, and created the screens from old bus display units.

Hemment commented: “Their aim was to do more than just simply delight; it was to lead people to ask questions about data systems,” such as questioning what is true, where information comes from and how we feed into it.

Another art initiative, with Sparta Digital and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), used augmented reality to create digital versions of MMU Special Collection artefacts, turning the buildings ’inside out’ and giving increased access to people in the city. In another, SUPERGESTURES by Ling Tan, young people expressed their relationship to the city and their visions for the future with body gestures performed using wearable technology.

“The aim of all these projects is to make people think,” Hemment said. “It’s about visibility, but it’s more than that; it’s about building literacy and legibility.”

In a survey, 70% of the general public said engaging with the Everything Every Time artwork introduced them to types of data they didn’t know were collected.

Hemment advised bringing artists into a smart city initiative because: “They are often technologists themselves, and many of them are interested in those really tough, crunchy questions around ethics and the social dimensions of technology.”

Everything Every Time artwork
Everything Every Time artwork

Human-centred design

The second strand was human-centred design. Hemment puts it like this: “Human-centred design is all about putting people’s real needs at the forefront. Ultimately, it’s about developing services and products that are useful, usable and likely to be used. “

While the initial approach at CityVerve was around delivering training on human-centred design for use case leaders, the team quickly changed tack.

“One of the learnings was that it’s far more valuable to actually have designers embedded in teams,” Hemment said. “So, then we focused on a smaller number of use cases and had a deeper involvement where designers were embedded in those teams.”

Sparta Digital used human-centred design as part of the product design process for a new way-finding app. It turned out that as well as directions and transport information, citizens were also interested in discovering more about Manchester and its rich history.

Sparta Digital created the City Concierge app which uses augmented reality and sensors to help people find their way as well as learn more about the city and local events and businesses.

To take human-centred design beyond closed workshops, the CityVerve team also trialled the AR-based Buzzin App to help people navigate the Christmas markets, then asked users for their feedback.

Citizen engagement

The citizen engagement strand focused on defining what citizens count as success for the CityVerve project. It’s about “meaningful engagement” not just marketing, Hemment stressed.

The work included community forum meetings and monthly workshops. These started out as being loosely about smart cities and IoT, then became more focused on specific use cases and technologies.

Hemment said: “The outcomes were about generating buy-in among Manchester communities for the IoT and smart city services by creating contact points between the project and various communities and the delivery area. We tried to develop tailored experiences related to the use cases, including trials of some of the apps and services.”

A crucial aspect of this work was creating a "safe space" for discordant views, where people could express their honest opinions.

Hemment commented: “It’s not about just having a positive view reflected back at you; it’s about creating a genuine space for meaningful engagement.”

This involved working with community champions – often young people who are trained in facilitation, role playing and film making. These champions designed and delivered workshops to translate technology concepts into a format that would connect with residents.

CityVerve also began to develop community KPIs – a collaboration with citizens to define the criteria for success.

This has been turned into a four-stage process framework and published as a resource. It is already being adopted by other cities, such as Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

Hemment gave six recommendations for keeping people at the centre of the transformation to become a smarter city:

• Enable communities to define what counts as success
• Work with artists to create visibility and literacy around new technology
• Create contact zones between communities, and safe spaces for discordant views
• Listen to users – build in capacity and opportunities to accommodate their requirements
• Involve designers for the full length of the project
• Remember, communities exist beyond the length of the project – find intermediaries who already have longstanding links with the community that will last beyond the project

Scaling it

Although CityVerve demonstrates tangible progress in keeping citizens at the centre of smart cities, this type of approach still needs to scale. It reached more citizens than many initiatives but, Hemment admits: “It still wasn’t as many as we would’ve liked.”

He says the workshops reached hundreds, while lighter touch engagement such as the artworks reached thousands.

Nevertheless, experimenting with ways to co-create with citizens then sharing clear examples, challenges and tools with others is a great start.


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