The art of smart cities

IAM assistant editor Andrew Anderson describes his experience working on a new smart cities project, and explains why the arts have a critical role to play in their creation

In 2015 Manchester was selected as the winner of CityVerve, a project that aims to create a ‘smart city demonstrator’. Through CityVerve, Manchester will become a blueprint for how technology can be used to improve the lives of city-dwellers across the world.

Smart bus stops that talk to you, traffic systems that re-route commuters to avoid congestion and apps that allow you to link up with other residents for exercise activities – all of these and more are part of the CityVerve plan. The project was set up by the British government via its Innovate UK funding stream, with technology partners such as Cisco, BT and Siemens.

But while it is all very well deciding to deliver a ‘smart city’ there might be a disconnect between this top-down model of technology implementation and the views of ordinary citizens. Are Mancunians happy to have their data collected so that bus stops can communicate with them, or does that feel a bit Orwellian? And what about this health and fitness app – is it really designed with the needs of Manchester in mind, or just what an unconnected engineer thinks they need?

To answer these questions, technology has turned to the arts – namely FutureEverything and Contact Theatre. FutureEverything is known for its annual festival of ideas and culture, while Contact is a world-leader in theatre for, by and about young people and marginalised groups. Together they are working to deliver workshops that not only answer these questions, but also give citizens the chance to try out the new technology for themselves.


This is also where I come into the story. When not wielding my assistant editor pen at IAM I work as a consultant at Contact, helping talented young artists develop into independent practitioners through our Creative Experts programme.

For CityVerve, the Creative Experts – or Community Champions, as we’ve been labelled for this project – first worked directly with engineers to help them gather useful insights from citizens that could inform their design work – an approach known as ‘user-centred design’. That work took place across 2016. Now, in the second stage, we’re delivering a series of workshops over the next 12 months to find out how people respond to the technology and creating a pool of ‘early adopters’ who can spread word of CityVerve.

Why do tech companies need the help of artists to do this? There are two main reasons. Firstly, in my personal experience engineers are not always attuned to the needs of everyday people. Since they are constantly immersed in technology it is sometimes hard for them to relate to those who might be wary of new devices, rather as a fish may struggle to understand why anyone would want to live on dry land.

Secondly, questionnaires and other quantitative approaches favoured by the tech sector don’t always lead to accurate results. For example, if you ask someone “are you worried about air quality in Manchester?” they will probably shrug and say “I’m not sure”. But lead them through a workshop where they are asked to imagine the city as a living animal, where they take part in breathing exercises and eventually paint their own interpretation of what Manchester as an animal might look like, and suddenly you start to uncover all kinds of thoughts and feelings on air quality.

Andrew Anderson
Andrew Anderson (far left) takes part in a CityVerve session

This is not to say that the statistical approach is not without benefit: we all know that surveys can provide real insights. Nor do I undervalue the work of engineers – after all, without them we would not have any of these amazing inventions to test and trial. However, a technical approach alone is rarely sufficient.

The reason for this that we are social animals, ones that thrive through creative activities. Concepts like ‘data sharing’, ‘internet of things’ and ‘augmented reality’ don’t mean much unless they are translated into relatable scenarios, ones where we can picture how they might impact our own lives, as well as those of our friends and family.

Take another example: social isolation. One of the goals of CityVerve is to reduce social isolation among the elderly by creating apps and devices that reconnect them. But the problem with social isolation is that the people you want to reach are unlikely to show up to a public forum where they can fill out your survey. And let’s face it; filling out a survey is a pretty cold and unemotional activity, not ideal when you’re trying to create a sense of inclusion.

So instead, we’ll be taking a performance piece into the streets of Manchester to try and understand the barriers that older people face when it comes to technology and isolation – after all, if isolated older people are not able to use apps then their problems are unlikely to be solved through them.

CityVerve workshop at Contact Theatre
CityVerve workshop at Contact Theatre

One of the Creative Experts will engage with people in character as an older person, based on input and ideas we will collect through workshops with socially isolated older people in locations like care homes. The public’s interaction with the character will help us understand some of the barriers these people face when it comes to technology, and hopefully generate ideas on how we might overcome them.

There are now just 12 months left of the CityVerve project and I’m starting to reflect on its meaning and implications. While I’ve had many thoughts – as well as a few conflicting emotions – on the project my key takeaway is this: technology is only going to become more integrated into our daily lives, whether we like it or not. The start button has already been pressed and the money put in place to make it happen.

However, the nature of this integration has yet to be decided. It is up to us as artists, creatives and cultural workers to help shape this technology, to make sure that it brings us together and creates positive shared experiences – the kind that we in the arts world are lucky to witness on an almost daily basis. If we don’t, we might find it pushes us further down the path towards a truly passive consumer society. |