Social City at UABB 2015 (Bi-City Biennale of UrbanismArchitecture) in Shenzhen (China, 4 December 2015 - 1 March 2016), No.3 Gangwan Road, Shekou, Shenzhen (深圳市南山区港湾大道3号) .

The 21st century urban reality

In a mere 20 years, the way people live in cities has completely changed. Digital technology, social networks and globalization are the instigators of a drastically revised city life. The modern urbanite lives as much through virtual as through real relationships. Signs of this can be seen in the self-organization of citizens, the emergence of disruptive platform economies such as Airbnb and Uber, and the transnational streetscape. It makes for a city that is in a continuous state of transition, where opportunities and challenges of a different nature arise.

The image of a city as a compact unit has disappeared. The city of the 21st century is a network. Or actually: networks that are crawling over and through each other, creating a vibrant and sometimes confusing reality. As new forms of connections other than family, neighbors and occupation enter the urban scene, it becomes clear that city-inhabitants are not simply divided in homogeneous groups. We now live in a post-demographic time, as an international trend-watching firm has observed. It is a new reality that has huge impact on how people live and inhabit the city, and what they expect from their urban environment.

Between top-down and bottom-up

Since the early 1990s, Amsterdam-based Droog has been pioneering new directions for the field of design. Droog is a mentality, and this mentality goes beyond products to encompass spaces, events and city design. In 2011, Droog first addressed the scale of the city in Open House, a project about the future of suburbia. In this participatory event and design project, inhabitants and architects envisioned the transformation of a typical American suburb, Levittown, with greater density and possibility for more social interaction. Most intriguingly, it demonstrated the idea of bridging the gap between top-down and bottom-up solutions.

There is often a gap between the city people want to live in and the city people get to live in. There is a big difference between strategy and tactics, between the way professionals envision the environment and how people organize it on their own, and between theory and practice. Citizens are reduced to an abstraction in an urban planning tradition that leaves little room for the rich diversity of dreams, wishes, and needs of people living in the city. The space in between, between top-down and bottom-up, remains vacant but full of potential.

Design+Desires: a research program for user-centered urban planning

The contemporary city should be seen as an organization of a diversity of needs and desires. That is the idea behind the Design+Desires program, which Droog founded in 2014. Dedicated to exploring how dreams, passions and needs of city dwellers can shape the city of the 21st century, the program envisions user-centered urban planning on a human scale. Through a range of design projects, educational projects, academic research, exhibitions, citizen surveys, debates and expert meetings, the program aims to tackle existing problems in the city and create new opportunities, both in theory and practice, with the ultimate goal of creating an alternative model for urban planning.

Critical to the research is establishing connections and intersections amongst what used to be considered distinct demographic categories. People of differing income levels and cultural backgrounds might nonetheless have values in common. A higher-educated immigrant and a native-born doctor in Amsterdam might never live in the same neighborhood, due to disparate incomes, but they could share some of the same desires and needs. And so it can be more productive to look at the needs and interests of people than simply to look at the geography and demographics of housing.

Why, why, why: the challenge of knowing what people really want

Designing a city through desires may create new opportunities, but it certainly isn’t easy. People usually don’t know what they really want. Droog discovered this lesson while doing a project in the multicultural neighborhood of Tarwewijk in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The neighborhood was a freshly renovated place, but its public spaces seemed dead. Behind closed doors, on the other hand, there was a buzzing scene of unofficial little businesses. Inhabitants knew exactly where to go if they wanted their phone fixed or car washed, and social networks sprang up around these activities. When the Droog team started a conversation with the inhabitants about making this lively economy visible, people in the neighborhood expressed their frustration with all the design and art projects that seemed to benefit everyone but the neighborhood itself. It was a shock when people said, “We don’t trust you architects.” So Droog took budget from their project to let the inhabitants come up with their own plan. This process yielded interesting results, though the residents’ proposal – a playground for children – was not particularly creative. The underlying issue was the culture clash between immigrants who had lived for years in Tarwewijk and newer groups of immigrants. Understanding this dynamic was key to a more grounded, yet sophisticated design response.

In the Design+Desires program, the process of questioning what people want goes deeper than the surface layer. It’s not only about what people want in practical terms, but also about connecting on an emotional level. Therefore, we ask not only what and how, but also why, the question which makes it possible to discover and pinpoint shared desires. More precisely, the process requires asking why over and over again. If, for example, people want to have a better connection from A to B, they might say that the road is too dangerous or the bus stop is too far away. Of course, one could make the road safer or replace the bus stop, but one could also ask why the people want this connection. In doing so, Design+Desires collects new insights, which could help solve problems in unexpected ways.

Unique method

To get insight into the many changes taking place at the personal or micro level in urban life, Design+Desires has developed a unique method which combines three techniques: data mapping, active participatory citizen research and innovative design solutions. At UABB 2015, this method is used to both research passions of city dwellers all over the world, as well as to compare the cities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong with each other, with respect to their inhabitants’ needs and desires. How will these two neighboring cities – the one rooted in its history as a British colony, the other grown rapidly out of its village-jacket – look if they are mapped and analyzed according to this user-centered design method? Participants fill out online questionnaires on numerous topics about living in the city, and then receive an avatar with a house in a virtual city that continuously changes shape in response to new data.

Although data mapping is not new as a tool for urban planning, the Design+Desires program explores new sides of it, notably the qualitative data mining of emotional data, as developed by Mark van der Net. Not only does the project use the input of social media to discover focus points of desires and needs, but it also explores the artistic potentials of the mapping and visualization technology. Unlike conventional urban planning projects that start and end with maps, Design+Desires uses mapping techniques to go deeper into the life of the city. The data maps give a preview of what is happening in a given neighborhood: what topics are being discussed on social media, where people are gathering, what languages are being spoken. Design+Desires offers an interactive toolkit to help users navigate the city, according to the shifting patterns of happenings, people, and conversations. A progressive “soft mapping” technique practiced by artist Jan Rothuizen overlays drawings and text upon geography and history, combining memory and desire with empirical information.

The final component of the Design+Desires method consists of design interventions. Creating innovative products, places, services and atmospheres creates the opportunity for a city that is more in sync with its inhabitants. It is particularly the linkages between products and people, and the relations amongst people themselves, that reflect the input of desires, and the possibility of a more responsive city.

Toward a democratic city

The immediate objective of the design solutions is to improve city life and the existing environment. The next step is to upscale the results towards a larger infrastructure, in collaboration with city planners. It is in the bits and pieces of information, the hard and soft data and the solutions, that the Design+Desires program hopes to reach its ambition: to create a conceptual model for a partly self-organizing micro-city, arising from the latent needs, desires and dreams of diverse citizens.

Text (shortened version) by: Sanne van der Beek and edited by Gideon Fink Shapiro

Photos of Social City at UABB, click here.

Colophon Social City at UABB 2015:

Curator: Renny Ramakers (Droog /Design+Desires)

Contributors:

Installations Hong Kong and Shenzhen
Mark van der Net (OSCity)
Jan Rothuizen
TD (Theo Deutinger & Stefanos Filippas)

Social City platform
Created by Renny Ramakers (Droog /Design+Desires) and Mark van der Net (OSCity) in collaboration with Thonik (design)

Implementation technology: Mark van der Net, Eugene Tjoa

Implementation editorial concept: Renny Ramakers, Suki de Boer, Edith Gruson (Pro Arts Design), Judith Lekkerkerker (Ruimtevolk)

Editorial team: Renny, Ramakers, Mark Minkjan, Giulia Cosenza, Yaolan Luo

Graphic Design: Thonik

Spatial Design: Edith Gruson (Pro Arts Design), Giulia Cosenza, Yaolan Luo

General Assistance / Project Coordination: Suki

Production: Haochong Luo (Garden Party Design Studio)