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.