Yesterday was spent assembling a big CSI style research wall to document and curate my thinking around my research question, ‘what does a public voice activated AI look like?’ This was a really useful exercise because it got me past that typical feeling of getting too precious over my research, but also having all of the ideas I had created in one space. I also looked like an evil genius, which is quite a nice thought to spur you on.
I separated my research into four segments, which were ‘voice activated technology’, ‘smart city technology’, ‘Dundee and it’s culture’ and ‘what makes a healthy internet?’ The two most fruitful research areas were around smart cities and the people of Dundee, with voice technologies and healthy internet supporting the information that I found in these areas. Below, I will focus upon the challenges I have extracted from the first three areas.
This research focused around what I studied for my honours project last year at DJCAD. Key insights going into the research included the idea that smart cities are not very humanistic and people centric. As described in the book ‘The Gameful World’ published by MIT Press, smart cities focus greatly on functionality and efficiency, but they largely ignore the needs of the people living in them. This conflict of interests may stem from local councils trying to install smart street lamps that track weather and light data to conserve energy and costs, whereas pedestrians may need smarter street lighting that improves safety on notorious streets. There is a real disparity here between councils and citizens, and the role of the designer is well positioned to deal with that burgeoning need.
Civic change needs to be put into the hands of the people, and initiatives in co-designing and a real DIY ethos would really enable citizens to craft better smart cities. For example, Future Cities Glasgow, a smart city demonstrator run in… well, Glasgow, showed how technology could be ingrained into the city’s way of life. However, what it done quite well was engage citizens, through events such as a roaming bus tour that helped people get hands on with the team and their work in different parts of Glasgow. Hackathons were conducted in the city to produce more left-brain design solutions and training workshops were hosted to teach people vital digital literacy skills. It is up to the government and local councils to facilitate this shared learning and development experience – the results can only be more effective and empathetic.
One final idea that my research touched upon – and arguably one of the most important thoughts – was that around gamification and humanistic technology. Mentioned previously, the intention around smart cities are not very people-focused. One way to build outward upon that is by gamifying experiences or at least thinking about people’s behaviour quite playfully.
One fantastic example of this is Volkswagen’s ‘Fun Theory’ – a project I’m a huge advocate of. They designed a set of musical stairs coloured like a piano keyboard, and course, when you walked upon them, they played notes. This is all fair and well, but once you realise the project was all about changing behaviours and encouraging people to take the stairs, and not the escalator, then the beauty of design thinking within the project really hits home. One way in which gamification can work is through behavioural change – a component of nudge theory. Nudge theory works on the premise that you can encourage people – or nudge – to do things for a basic reward, usually in regard to an action that is deemed unpleasant or unnecessary. The escalator project is a perfect example of this, however nudge has a sister theory that is also interesting to research.
Think theory is a component of nudge theory that is more time consuming to implement, yet has more long term value. Instead of providing a basic reward, think theory utilises reflection and understanding to shape behaviour. For instance, Fairtrade coffee may shape behaviours due to its awareness methods around ethical farming and fair pay for farmers in developing countries. A great example of this in terms of gamification in the city is ‘Hello LampPost’, a project based in Bristol that hacks into current infrastructure to allow citizens to text their lampposts, postboxes and other equipment and talk to these inanimate objects. The conversations with these objects are actually taken from past users who leave messages behind in the city, so for instance, someone can inform other users about the history of the city. A product such as this can develop a shared knowledge of the city and an inclusive game that engages different demographics.
Gamification can enhance inclusivity but it can also enhance the process of data collection. Whilst smart cities need to be human centred, they are only viable when councils can collect and shape data. Gamification and good humanistic design is very effective in harvesting data, but also in ensuring that users are more truthful with their responses. This can be vital in shaping a process that has concerns over privacy and security.
Dundee and it’s citizens
My second biggest area of research focused on Dundee and the culture around the city. Because I want to tell a story that is quite positive and playful, I began to focus on the opportunities around Dundee’s current rich culture, which largely focuses upon its creative scene. With the V&A and groups such as Creative Dundee in the city, we are currently living in a cultural hotbed that is growing and growing. The city therefore, is a blank canvas to present how design is shaping the city and create something that really ties into the culture of this city. One area that I liked inside this was Dundee’s City of Culture 2023 bid. For this, the council want people to tell their stories of the city in order to raise awareness for why the city deserves this title. I wonder if there is an opportunity for voice controlled technologies to be used here in a thoughtful, meaningful way?
I couldn’t help but wonder, however, what are the real problems in Dundee? If smart cities aren’t focusing enough on the actual needs of the city, then would designing for the burgeoning creative scene in Dundee be the most effective research route to pursue? Dundee, after all, is one of the most deprived cities in Scotland, with one in four people living in poverty in the city. An effective design solution would aim to solve these problems – but then again, how can that be achieved with voice technologies? These constraints are what makes a project exciting – juggling all these requirements and needs from stakeholders and users.
With major developments happening within the city, one could argue that there is a conflict in interests between people in the city in what Dundee needs. The city is at risk of being gentrified with a lack of concern for the quarter of the city’s population that goes to bed hungry at night – so how can this development of the city be used ethically to solve problems for our disadvantaged populous? The V&A and waterfront development is creating jobs, both in its build and execution, as well as the money that all that tourism brings into the city. Bar the economic benefits that comes alongside this, the V&A is also being used as an educational institution, which will provide free workshops and insight into the world of design, benefiting local residents within the city.
This won’t solve all of Dundee’s problems. But it’s a step in the right direction, and people will begin to see the benefits of this regeneration, whether or not it’s obvious instantly. Otherwise, how could we design to break down the barriers for the impoverished within the city? In the Dundee Fairness Report, one of the main topics that it touches upon is the idea of stigmatisation around the poor, and how most people simply believe that people are poor because they are lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it. However, one way we can tackle this and build a conversation around the issues of the poor is through storytelling. By helping people tell their stories, we can generate empathy and work as a community to create opportunities for disadvantaged people in the city.
This could be a perfect opportunity for voice technologies. In my other research, I looked at voice technology and internet health – however I thought that this research was more of an introduction to these concepts, and was something that I generated a lot of base learning in. One thing I did want to consider is the idea of finding a specific touch point in the area of voice control. The example I found in my research was that of home voice assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. These devices offer so much functionality – but at the very core of them, they’re basically the same products, locked into different services. Think, then, about Apple’s HomePod due to be released in December, and how instead of pitching itself as a voice assistant, it is instead branded as a smart music speaker. This shift of perspective onto music makes sense – Apple is synonymous with iTunes, and the iPod is the product which enabled millions to connect with music in a new way in the early 00’s. A service focused on music whilst providing all the benefits of the others instantly feels more buyable, more determined to create a real impact in that area.
What I’m saying, therefore, is that whatever I design and what I try to make a statement about, should at all times have a specific goal in mind. I don’t want to focus on doing everything all at once – obviously a voice controlled AI in public would probably do the thing that you’d think of first, giving information around local sights and places. But how can it zone in on the real problems – how can that story be compelling and human? I’m finding out, and I’m so excited to get to work.