City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Teaching and drawing Urban Sensing

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A lightweight teaching technique for perceiving, articulating and projecting urban data

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 2 September 2009.

Last year (2008) I helped teach a course around ‘The Street As Platform’ idea on the University of Technology Sydney ‘Master of Digital Architecture’ course, working with Anthony Burke, Mitchell Whitelaw and Jason McDermott.

This year (2009), I’m helping teach a course called ‘Urban Sensing’ at the University of Sydney, as part of the graduate program in Interaction Design and Electronics Arts, working with Andrew Vande Moere (of Information Aesthetics fame), Elmar Trefz and Gabriel Ulacco. It’s in broadly similar areas to ‘Street As…’, concerning urban informatics, sensors, visualisation and architectural interventions driven by such things. It’s longer in duration though, and this one includes fabrication of what Andrew’s currently calling ‘contraptions’, via CNC machining etc.

We’re doing various things, but last week I tried a technique with them that I’ve often used myself. Working with photographs of an average street scene, we asked students to imagine all the data that could be derived from the scene via sensors, in the broadest sense of the word, and then go on to sketch interventions or hacks into those scenes, drawn from such data sources.

I often produce photomontages in my work at Arup, in order to show how the city might be transformed by informatics in some way. These are a form of rendering, in the architectural sense, and yet also an old technique, of course. Yet by overlaying onto the actual and everyday, it is possible to connect a future of some kind to today’s reality. This is something that clients often struggle with otherwise, given the often-invisible nature of data-driven interventions and the relatively advanced technology at work.

Obviously, such an approach tend to focus on the immediately visual components, and the technological possibilities — the data, the architecture — rather than the social and cultural context, systems and patterns at play here. It’s not as easy to draw those, though diagrams would be possible.

Anyway, the students went at the first part of the exercise with gusto, imagining a rich diversity of data emanating from the photos (I’d just selected 30 or 40 shots of various streets scenes, some dense and urban, some suburban, some chock full of infrastructure, some apparently not, and drawn from Los Angeles, Geneva, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra etc.)

It’s somewhat worrying how easily students moved into Orwellian mode, but I think they were aware that, say, a hidden infrastructure weighing everyone on the street and generating their BMI whilst x-raying their handbags and profiling their facial characteristics might have some issues associated with it. We talked about it, at least.

It was more difficult — as ever — to generate meaningful interventions in these environments. Some seemed initially interesting, but quickly failed the ‘so what?’ test.

Yet some great ideas emerged from all corners nonetheless. Street furniture that collected rainwater, sprouted stalks to tie your dog to while you go into a shop, and offered the dog filtered rainwater to drink whilst using the remainder to clean the pavement after the dog has left (again, easier to summarise in sketch than in words, clearly). The gigantic casino in Melbourne was seen as a particularly interesting ‘data generator’. Real-time transit information that is projected only when someone stands at a tram-stop (avoiding the ‘data projected in the forest with no-one there to witness it using unnecessary power’ problem). Several health-monitors for neighbourhood trees. Various solutions for conveying parking amenities. Numerous variations on real-time transit data. A building that progressively cloaks or reveals itself depending on how ugly passers-by judge it. Road barriers as actuators, sliding around in response to traffic flow, a little scarily. A display that indicated which ATM is ‘winning’ based on daily activity (with a modification that would indicate when you’re standing behind an ATM user that is typically slow.) And so on and so on.

The drawing activity works well, but I’d also like to test the students with narrative construction at some point, getting them to write — along the lines of the original ‘street as platform’ piece, perhaps. These alternative fictions are another way of portraying possible futures, eliciting opportunities and issues as well as developing persuasion skills.

Experience suggests, however, that writing will prove more challenging than drawing — experience, that is, of professional architects and designers, many of whom can barely write at all, sadly (the honourable exceptions almost make up for it.) Writing is as important as drawing in practice, and can be just as exploratory, experimental and convincing when done well. It feels to me that it should be developed as a technique within a well-tempered design education.

I’m interested in all such techniques, somewhat in the spirit of ‘critical design’ (after Dunne & Raby), and would love to hear about other patterns and plays.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 2 September 2009.


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