Are you fascinated with complex urban issues? Do you wonder whether social media may offer a new design perspective? Would you like to know what threats or opportunities may come up along the way?

Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal of The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform held a four-day conference in Amsterdam called Social Cities of Tomorrow February 14-17 that featured an intense exchange of ideas, knowledge, and experience between diverse participants to answer these questions and more.

Here’s a breakdown of the conference:

Workshop Day 1: Explore

As the workshop started, 25 people of different professional and cultural backgrounds came together to work on four real urban issues:

  1. Evaluating the chances for temporal use of a huge, empty plot in Amsterdam, called Zeeburgereiland (initiator and stakeholder: architecture office Temp.Architecture)
  2. Mapping the qualities of an industrial area (“Binckhorst”) in the Hague (stakeholder: cultural organization STROOM)
  3. Exploring the potential of digital media for attracting young and creative people to the former industrial area in Eindhoven (stakeholder: housing corporation TRUDO)
  4. Creating a civic innovator network for Amsterdam (stakeholder: municipality of Amsterdam).

After stakeholders presented the problem of each case, the rest of the day was devoted to a profound analysis of the location and the context. I went with Team 2 to the Hague where we had very inspiring, deep talks about the issues and qualities of the area with a number of involved parties: a municipality urban planner, a social artist, two company owners full of enthusiasm to share their ideas and vision, and a head of the local companies’ union. After interviewing all these stakeholders, it became clear what exactly was not working. The initial request about mapping the qualities transformed into a question: How can we improve the communication channel between the municipality and the Binckhorst community?

A local artist and an urban planner tell about the opportunities and obstacles of the Binckhorst area.

Workshop Day 2: Dive

The second day began with a presentation by Ekim Tan from Play the City, a foundation for serious games in urban planning. She spoke about the challenges of bringing different stakeholders to one table, helping them to understand each other and to form a shared strategy. According to her experience, it was very important to involve the real players of the area, and not to try to imitate them with a team.

This whole day was a dive into understanding, mapping, brainstorming, and coming up with a first concept idea. At lunch, each group reported on the progress and it appeared that all groups reformulated the initial question of the case.

In the evening, a panel discussion on the subject of Design and Trust took place, hosted by Premsela (Institute for Design and Fashion). The main question of the discussion was about the role of trust in today’s shared economy and services. Writer Scott Burnham shared an insight that he has found in statistics: The loss of trust in one domain immediately results in a rise of trust in another domain (for example, the formal banking system vs. the informal one). Another interesting remark was about the vulnerability of commonly owned systems. Apparently, an element of “weakness” can make such systems resilient, as every single member is aware of and alert to this issue.

A panel presentation during the workshop explores the steps to better communication.

Workshop Day 3: Round-up and Present

It was the last day of the workshop, so the groups focused on the elaboration of the concepts and on the final presentation. The great support of this day was the presence of two experts in social hands-on interaction: Sabrina Lindemann and Kars Alfrink. They shared their knowledge of what triggers people, residents, strangers to participate and get engaged in a project.

In the evening, all the teams presented their cases and developed concepts at Mediamatic:

  1. an app aiming to build a community of developers (Case 1);
  2. a web-based database of ideas, problems, and requests supported by an offline lunch-bus (Case 2);
  3. an experimental game zone with a website where people can plan, submit, or discuss their game ideas (Case 3);
  4. and, finally, a bottom-up innovation network used as a strategic change for the municipality policy approach (Case 4).

For more detailed information about the projects and proposals, you can refer to the official blog Part 1 and Part 2.

Each presentation was followed by a response from the official partner of the case – and all of them expressed an interest in developing these concepts into more concrete and grounded proposals.

My personal impression, however, was that, although all groups made really huge progress in the three days, most of them missed the real understanding of the context, so it became either too detailed or too abstract, but none of the concepts resonated in public with the energy “Yes! It works!” I guess if the initial stakeholders were involved in the workshop process all the way, it would have helped the participants to stay more connected to the reality of each case.

More photos of the event used courtesy of Virtueel Platform:

Conference Day

The venue for the conference – Westergasfabriek – was perfectly chosen. Years ago, this area was an industrial zone with contaminated soil. Then, with the combined effort of creative partners and municipality, it was firstly transformed into a big park and then slowly it became an actively used social area with cafes, cinema, exhibitions, and fairs.

“How can we make our cities more social instead of more hi-tech? How do we design for ownership? Why are people missing in the concepts of the smart cities?” With these questions, Michiel and Martijn framed the opening of the discussion. It was remarkable for them to see that about 40 percent of the audience were architects and urbanists. This represented the change that had taken place since a similar conference four years ago, when only a few architects showed up.

Usman Haque, founder of Pachube, was the first keynote speaker. He stated that collecting data is not about creating a complete and controlled image of the world, but about providing a platform for people to share, collaborate, and make use of information around them: “Help public making data, instead of making data public.” He showed three different projects as examples for such social collaboration: Geiger Counter Kit, that was used during the Fukushima disaster to collectively measure the level of radiation; a hands-on workshop in Barcelona for collecting data about levels of pollution with the help of simple white napkins; and a rather funny project, a community game about a network of plants with sensors monitoring the level of carbon impact of your electricity consumption.

Rounding up his presentation, Usman pointed out the fundamental mistake about the role of a designer: “Designers are not here to simplify the world, but to demonstrate the complexity of it. Embrace the complexity and make an action upon it.”

Then the time came for a few showcase presentations:

  • Apps for Amsterdam – results of a contest (by Alper Cugun);
  • Instant Master Plan – report on using digital media for engaging citizens;
  • NetworkLAB – story-telling project at NDSM wharf (by Lilet Breddels and Alexander Zeh);
  • UrbanISO – developing a tangible standard for urban sensor systems (by Mac Oosterhuizen).

Natalie Jeremijenko is an urban artist and founder of Environmental Health Clinic, an experimental space where urban “impatients” are treated. With the use of art, technology, and her curiosity – “What is beyond?” – she questions our relationship toward the greater context, with the environment we live in. Natalie believes that we can learn a lot from nature and, thus, she explores human and non-human co-habitation. Among the 10 shown projects, I was especially impressed with a playful, yet serious, attempt at rediscovering the possibilities of urban flight (xAirport), developing “no parking zones” into green and recharging around soil lots (No Park), and a grid of censors located in the river indicating the presence of fish or the quality of water (Fish Censor). At the end of her talk, Natalie stated that many small actions build up significant effect.

Then the floor was given over for short presentations of the workshop and the next-round showcase presentations:

The final keynote speech was presented by Dan Hill, Strategic Design lead at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. He started his talk by telling about five big failures he had experienced. Later on, he explained that it is crucial for a designer to prototype and, thus, regularly fail. He continued showing his diverse projects, stressing the level of complexity of big institutions and the different ways a designer can deal with it. Policy makers, politicians, and major companies constantly make design decisions, not being aware of it. Designers should be able to participate in the design process on that level and, for that, we need to develop a new culture of decision making. We should be able to build not the architecture of a solution, but the architecture of the problem as it automatically provides us with answers.

The most popular quote of Dan’s talk was spread around twitter: “Unfortunately Government 2.0 = Government 1.0 with a Web 2.0 front-end.”

At the end, the speakers came on stage to answer questions and sum up what had been touched upon during the day. The first shared statement was that digital media/technology is not a drive in itself, but a tool only, which is very “fertile” at this moment, so we should take the advantage of it. Another subject for discussion was the changing role of a designer becoming a strategic consultant. And then one beautiful remark came from the audience: “Should not we reconsider the term ‘smart cities’? If we speak about people in the center of the complex systems, ‘smart cities’ can be replaced with ‘wise cities.’ Wisdom refers to the rich history of human experience and culture. So let’s embrace the complexity of the world instead of imagining a technologically perfect future machine.”


Interesting Dutch websites, mentioned several times during the workshop and conference:

Photos by Yulia Kryazheva and Lawrence Bird. Used with permission.

Yulia Kryazheva


Yulia Kryazheva

Yulia Kryazheva is an architect and illustrator with a deep interest in social innovations and people-oriented design approach on all levels: graphics & interface, products & services, architectural & urban