Information – A City’s Software

The Urban Informatics team here at Arup is in the practice of designing for the best possible experience of cities. This leads to an interesting idea -> developing the software of cities. This software could be defined in the behaviours and the information about how cities work, and the hearts and minds of people using it.

If the buildings, and the physical infrastructure form the hardware, how does the city’s software affect the way we live? What does the digitally connected always on reality mean for the way we can be in and use the world?

Fluid City

It’s exciting to imagine what the future of place might hold. Work place, entertainment place, quiet place, transit place, growing space, or eating place. What could it be like with these layers of soft infrastructure built in?

How will this fluidity of information affect behaviour in the cities within which we reside? Can we move towards communities that meet more of our innate human needs, without leaning so heavily on the world’s resources to get those needs met?

User Centred

In Informatics we think that this is possible, and the key is to make sure that the human impacts of design decisions are keenly kept in awareness throughout the design process. Firstly by gaining a full and measurable understanding of how people use and will be using a space. Then by creating the environment that facilitates human interaction and people’s activities to flourish, the space can naturally be used in a way that is sustainable.

The soft layers of the city, help us to measure the patterns of activity, and then to display and develop patterns of use, to guide people’s behaviour post-occupancy.

Inherently Connected

The nature of these places (be it a single office, a building, a precinct or a whole system) is inherently connected. The design process therefore must use a sort of joined up thinking, an integrated and holistic view of the way this place relates to the rest of the city.

The soft layers that we create for people link them to information and people to guide this understanding of connectedness, physically and functionally. When people come together in communities of understanding, sustainable practices will play out in their behaviour.


what is urban informatics?

I’m asked this quite often, what is urban informatics?  It sounds like a mathematical idea, or some kind of scientific concept but the term urban tends to confuse even further.  I’ve been a part of what we’re calling Urban Informatics for just over two years now, working alongside a slew of very incredibly intelligent people on a long list of projects — and even those whom I work with on a regular basis come to me with this repeat question.  What is it that you do?

I should also preface this by giving proper context.  My definition of Urban Informatics relates directly to the work I do at Arup, an multi-disciplinary design firm with a long lineage of buildings and infrastructure projects worldwide.  The list of Arup work in the built environment reads like a who’s who of architecture. The London Eye, Seattle Public Library, the Millenium Bridge, CCTV & the Beijing Water Cube to name a few.  Our first Sydney project was the Sydney Opera House.  To say the people who we work with are at the top of their game is clichéd but the proof is in the architecture, as it were, and the Arup pedigree is certainly stuff of legend.

This conversation ordinarily then, happens over drinks or mid-morning coffee banter, with people involved in more established disciplines such as structural engineering or acoustic design and it often consists of people honestly admitting that they don’t actually understand what it that Urban Informatics does.  For those of you involved in new industries, or even rapidly evolving industries, (which is highly likely, considering the impact of the internet in it’s short lifespan, not to mention the 4 year old iPhone), this may ring true. Traditional and digital design practices are evolving quite rapidly that new job titles are required to allow some semblance of order (two of my friends are known officially as respectively a futuryst, and a catalyst for magic).  But for those involved in traditional disciplines — a fluid, interactive, ever-changing discipline is hard to understand or pin down.

So, to begin.  What is Urban Informatics?  It’s a design practice.  It is a multi-disciplinary practice, involved in the interaction between information, place and experience.  At the micro scale we design experiences, at the macro scale we design strategies to help understand the potential for places.  We think about digital drivers, the changing nature of work, of knowledge, of play.  To put a finer point on it, UI is a design practice which designs for great urban experience.  That’s it.

But what does that mean?  We tell this not without anecdote or allegory, we tell this by pointing to our work as evidence.  But where does one begin to think about experience?  Aren’t we all doing that already?  I would say yes (to the architects, engineers, planners and the like — who of course grapple with the needs of the user), but not as the primary concern of your work.  The product of cities is something which requires understanding.  An understanding that building, the act of creating and making, can and will meet desires/needs/requirements and will also strongly shape and inform experience.

A product of Urban Informatics is a series of activation strategies.  Or a small interactive light robot.  Or a collection of people who are now engaged and equipped to think productively about the future.  Or a group of people who are co-creating ideas for new sustainable and intelligent cities.  We do a lot of different things.

Of course, when you consider the speed of technological development – where 18 months can bear witness to massive change – it’s no surprise to hear that this discipline is evolving.  The conversations we were having in 2008, around the importance of instrumenting the city, or the ones we had in 2009 about great user experience for transport systems, or the ones we had in 2010 about the new transparent governance structure and the role of the CIO+ — they’re all becoming reality.  In one way or another, cities around the world are taking on these ideas (not to imply deserved credit here, more to credit the strength of the ideas), and our urban realm is evolving as a result.  Yet many more places have lagged behind, and are slowly learning from the lessons of their peers.

We are in exciting times, where a small idea can grow and push massive change.  Urban Informatics is at the cusp of this change, we’re pushing it ourselves, as much as we can.  Design first with strategy in mind.  Asking questions.  Asking the right questions and really listening.  That’s what we do.

Urban Informatics cares about great design.  We care about how design affects the fuzzy things, the emotions, the hope and the fear.  We see great potential in looking through the lens of experience and using it to really improve peoples lives, and the state of the cities we live in.  As the saying goes, to shape a better world.

We hope you see this too.

Bright Hearts goes live

Bright Hearts is our first ever iOS app, created for the wonderfully patient George Khut.  We’re extremely proud of the app, not only for the gorgeous visuals it can generate with ease, but the impact we see this having on the real audience — kids at Westmead Children’s Hospital.  We can’t wait to see what happens next, but in the meantime, why not pop by the Bright Hearts installation at the UTS DAB LAB gallery?  It’s on show until the 26th November, don’t miss out!



say hello to our bright hearts

Today is the soft launch for our latest collaboration with George Khut, Bright Hearts.


Bright Hearts is a research project being led by George, focussed on human body bio feedback in the hospital environment, specifically children’s hospitals;

The project’s aim is to design and evaluate the efficacy of a heart-rate controlled interactive artwork to assist in the management and reduction of stress and anxiety experienced by children undergoing painful, recurrent clinical procedures. Currently in its design-research phase, the project will piloted in early 2012, followed by a clinical trial in the second half of 2012.

George has spent many years developing bio feedback as an art practice, introducing Cardiomorphologies in 2004.  We teamed up recently to create a modern version of the artwork, which will work on both the Mac and iOS devices.  We’re really excited to see it come to fruition, after some months of testing and experimenting with code.  Building on the amazing work generated in the open source OpenFrameworks community, we were able to create in record time a fully fledged visualisation app for use in George’s research.


 The original cardiomorphologies installation, from 2004. 

The artwork is composed of a few small components — a heart rate sensor, a MaxMSP patch used to process the sensor data into information, and the iOS apps which create beautiful visualisations of the heart rate data.   I developed the iOS app for George, and Frank designed + built the small sensor case for the installation.  It’s beautiful, make sure you check it out if you can.

 Images from the iOS Bright Hearts app, launching today.

Bright Hearts is launching at the DAB LAB Gallery at UTS tonight, 6pm.  It runs from the 2nd to 26th November.

Level 4 Courtyard, UTS, Faculty of Design, Architecture & Building, 702-730 Harris St, Ultimo.

See Bright Hearts for more.


The Green Transfer


coming soon…

Introducing Cardiomorphologies


Screen shot 2011-01-29 at 5.11.33 PM