This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 28: Introducing Urbanflow,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 14th of July 2011.

Week 28: Introducing Urbanflow

Adam Greenfield on 14 July 2011

Big, big doings this time around:

  • Today we announce Urbanflow Helsinki, the first fruit of our collaboration with Helsinki-based design practice Nordkapp. You can see Nordkapp’s video explaining the project here.

Urbanflow is the “operating system for cities” you will have heard us mention here and there over the past six months. You can certainly be forgiven if you were unable to reconstruct from those words alone just what we meant by them, but hopefully the video will go a long way toward clarifying the matter.

This Helsinki instantiation of Urbanflow is inspired by the twenty fully touch-capable HD screens that have been deployed around the city for the last several years, and which to date have displayed nothing but advertising and a rather forlorn, static map. Our initial question was simple, even obvious: what might the city do with those screens that would be more productive (for itself, its citizens and visitors) given the wealth of information it has available?

Of course, you’re not likely to get anywhere particularly noteworthy by dumping data on a screen and calling it a day. Urbanflow supports our contention that whether municipal, commercial or citizen-generated, data only becomes understandable and usefully actionable when it’s been designed: when it’s been couched in carefully-considered cartography, iconography, typography and language.

We’re bringing that design to bear on a few basic, map-based functions. These are things that we think ought to be useful for anyone encountering these screens as they move through the city — quite possibly without smartphones and/or local data plans of their own. The design desiderata we’ve worked from:

  • Journey planning and wayfinding/wayshowing. You should certainly be able to locate and orient yourself in the city as readily as you would when using the best conventional maps, then plan your way from your current location to any arbitrary point in the city. You should be able to take full advantage of our thinking about transmobility, and plan those trips so they respond to your own constraints of time, money, carbon footprint, exercise, scenery and so on. You should enjoy a map that is above all tuned to the pedestrian use of the city — including, in Helsinki’s case, the underground and through-building passageways that constitute so much of its circulatory infrastructure in the winter months. What you can’t see in this video: we’re working on some very neat behaviors to make touchscreen-based journey planning even more intuitive and useful.
  • Service discovery. You should be able to discover the existence and location of services of interest to you, whether that means 24-hour medical care, a Marimekko shop, an electric-car charging point, an exceptional Sichuan restaurant, a gallery featuring the best local photography or simply a good place for a long, thoughtful stroll. More: you should have a single read on available information about those services, including things like municipal health-and-cleanliness ratings, user reviews, and real-time open status. (As you can see, my way of thinking about this has always been strongly inflected by, Tina Aspiala’s pioneering, Helsinki-based restaurant discovery venture.)
  • Reads on ambient data. You should be able to layer over these essential functions information that grounds and colors your use and understanding of them. (Traffic, reported crime, ambient noise levels and air quality are the obvious ones, but really, there’s no limit to the variety of sources that could in principle be brought onto the Urbanflow map.)
  • Citizen responsiveness. At the very least, you should be able to report the existence and severity of defaults, breakdowns and damage to municipal services and infrastructure, directly to the bodies empowered to deal with them.

We believe that by providing these fundamental services, we can meaningfully improve the pedestrian experience, empower citizens and visitors with actionable knowledge about the place they’re inhabiting, and in every way make the city more legible, more usable, more useful and more successful. What you see here is a proposal for Helsinki’s Forum Virium, but we’re intent on developing and deploying instantiations of Urbanflow in cities worldwide.

And although what you see in the video is strictly limited to the urban-screen scenario, Urbanflow only really makes sense when deployed across a variety of platforms and (you’ll excuse the expression) touchpoints. You can expect to see us experimenting with different clients, therefore: different ways into this same information and functionality, that all look and feel consistent, yet offer whatever subset of functionality makes most sense given the context.

I want to thank our splendid partners at Nordkapp, their creative director Sami Niemelä, and particularly, to call attention to the painstaking, detailed work contributed by their Kate Whelan and Tia Sistonen, without whom none of the ideas in Urbanflow would look as good or be as rigorously grounded in observation as they are.

And if you’re a municipal manager and you’re interested in discussing the development of an Urbanflow instantiation for your city, please do get in touch — we look forward to hearing from you.

  • Logistics: Mayo and I remain in Copenhagen this week, working with our CIID students on their final Systems/Layers projects. He’ll be back in NYC next week for the Talk To Me opening at MoMA — an event I am sincerely gutted I won’t be able to attend, as I’ll be on my way to Seoul. (If you happen to see him, please congratulate him heartily on the two pieces he has in the show, one under the Urbanscale aegis and one under his own name.) J.D.’s cranking on LAFAYETTE — a project whose resonance and interoperability with Urbanflow ought to become apparent in short order — and Jeff’s making huge strides with JANE. More about both of those things next week, in addition to a PERRY update. See you then.