Cities in the Digital Age

Interaction designers can shape “smart” urban environments.


Illustration and cover banner by Ailadi Cortelletti, visual designer II at frog

For many people, the draw of cities is their pulse and flow, the veer and crush of humans, our shared machines, the vertical, the symmetrical, the seemingly impossible. We connect, go forward, are thrust. We revel in the contrasts of urban materials—steel, stone, leaf, blade, glass, branch, Plexiglas, vinyl, flesh. The sheer matrix of it, the complexity of relationships and their potential outcomes, is almost a will unto itself, compelling us to be shaped, inviting us to form and move with it.

This type of interconnected environment has evolved into an interface to computation that is nowhere near as conversational as it might be, as philosopher-scientist Paul Dourish has noted. I’d argue that this makes interaction design evermore crucial in the world, as we work to support people and the technologies upon which they’ve come to rely within the built environment.

Whether social or self-defining, physical and digital interaction requires a certain vocabulary that frames perception and action at every turn. To employ a linguistic metaphor, the “tense” can be either reflective or progressively situational (i.e., move forward over time). The following terms suggest how human perception and interaction might be formulated:

Performative
For the design of messaging and display contexts, how can architectural surfaces reflect interior intent? How are spaces designed to promote or mask human mobility or emotive objectives? Not too long ago, the act of talking on a mobile phone in public was performance-centric. And to the extent that it still is, what affordances have accrued in the interim? Networks? Graphics? Policy?

Pervasive
For the design of visceral or digital immersions, how can the combination of multiple sensors and cooperative networks render holistically in space? Can there be continuums of non-adjacent, location-based data? Must devices operate discretely, or might they share their resources within meshed computing topologies? The more integrated the sensate environment, the more interactive the infrastructure becomes.

Emergent
Designing for emergence is designing toward, or even with, nature and randomness. How do we account for novelty? Or the unexpected combination of elements? Or even basic preference? The depth and duration of ambiguity is prevalent here: a spectrum of mob behavior versus simple criteria for way-finding. A key sentiment for this frame might be, “If they can, they will.”

Phatic
Mastering the subtlety of gesture and body language is an overall exponent to greater or lesser degrees of expression. What are the “modifier keys” to primary environmental or digital interactions? How do voice and gesture contribute to the amplification of other actions? Can whole environments communicate intent through the slightest of ambient cues? The vocabulary and choreography in this area will continue to emerge in step with all other areas of spatial/temporal consideration.

To what end does this language move us? When we talk about a vocabulary for the built environment, the intent is to map its temporal and visceral, or behavioral, character. In so doing, we can identify opportunities for interaction design to play a role in the transformation of the space. These terms allow for a more fluid co-existence with technology, where comprehending human needs and desires is paramount. A formal application of such behavioral frameworks has only just begun to emerge, and the space to explore new forms of physical-digital interplay and interface is wide open. By applying their understanding of broader interaction frameworks to the built environment, interaction designers can elegantly weave engineering and experience, masking or exposing technology in the most relevant, meaningful ways.

Cities challenge us to manage their many networks, all of which must be managed or facilitated by both people and automated systems. Each of these systems has a certain timing, or a set of recurring and predictable flows that can enhance or disrupt people’s experiences. Therefore, designers need to thoughtfully and deliberately consider each system’s components and composition. In particular, we must overcome the challenge of ascribing physical experiences to virtual agents. What if we thought of software in terms of atoms and people as made up of bits? This could lead to not only innovative systems, but new cultural paradigms.

The goal, then, of a rational and coherent digital interaction scheme is an efficient, interconnected flow of resources. In the technologically enabled environment, synchronicity between the urban and natural ecology becomes possible. When infrastructure becomes “inter-actable,” a measure of agency over the built environments becomes available. Change is possible. Over time, it unlocks the design potential in humans and system behaviors.

Scott Nazarian is a creative director at frog.
Illustration by Ailadi Cortelletti, visual designer II at frog

The Future of The City

About

The adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk. To celebrate the New Cities Summit where frog hosted a workshop on the Meta-City, design mind presents a special digital issue exclusively on the future of the city and live coverage from the event.

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