Over the past ten years, dozens of cities around the world have installed expensive, nominally “interactive” informational kiosks in their sidewalks, plazas and public places. Our research suggests that the overwhelming majority of these remain woefully underutilized, resulting in virtually no return on the significant investment involved in installing and maintaining them. We set about trying to understand why this is, and how we might go about designing something that would see real use.
We started with this simple, even obvious question: what might cities do with situated screens that would be generate value for itself, its citizens and visitors, given the wealth of information it has available?
We don’t believe that any particularly noteworthy progress will be made by dumping data on a screen and calling it a day, let alone transposing an utterly inappropriate “app” model from smartphones to large, situated displays. 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. (What you see in the accompanying illustrations is work we’ve done in collaboration with Helsinki’s Nordkapp.)
In Urbanflow, we bring 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 the case of cities as disparate as Chicago and Helsinki, the underground and through-building passageways that furnish pedestrians with alternative circulatory infrastructure in the winter months.
- 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 shop selling vintage clothing, an electric-car charging point, an exceptional 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.
- 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. We think there’s a place for Urbanflow screens in every major city worldwide.
If you’re a municipal manager, or are otherwise responsible for digital interventions in the public way, 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.