Worm’s Eye View: Participatory Urban Design

The new generation of consumers may not be inclined to own a vehicle; they would rather have more flexibility to move from one place to another, in easy and cost effective ways regardless of the mode of transport, says a recent report on Advancing Mobility published by the IBM Global Business Services. Emphasizing the significance of time for the modern consumer, Guy Claxton, a British psychologist, adds “we have developed an inner psychology of speed, of saving time and maximizing efficiency, which is getting stronger by the day.” Flexibility and efficiency also emerged as two key issues during a recent workshop I attended and organized as part of the CKS team for imagining the future of mobility solutions in urban India.

The workshop brought together various left and right brained professionals from diverse areas, such as urban lives and styles, energy, and information and communication technologies, which largely influence the design of mobility solutions. An important expert category though was missing from the participant group – the target users. Considering the extremely varied target consumer base residing in urban Indian cities, it is presumptuous to assume that the participants themselves would represent the user group or imagine their needs accurately.

Though the impact on environment and energy consumed per capita was discussed by participants during collaborative brainstorming sessions on scenario building and concept generation, real time mobility challenges which persist in Indian cities from several decades did not emerge as a focus. While most participants emphasized the need for designing more flexible and more efficient mobility solutions, only select few brought up issues of security and safety, a key concern among many women I have interacted with elsewhere. Only one participant, who had relocated to India after living in the US for several years, brought up the issue of safety of pedestrians in light of multi vehicular traffic. Similarly, the challenge of ambulances beating traffic jams to make it to the hospital on time was addressed only by one group during concept generation exercise though in reality it affects many Indian consumers living in Metro and Tier 1 cities. While detailing the total transportation experience related to mobility concepts, many participants could not envision themselves as users of their designed experiences.

Reflecting on the workshop outcomes with a bird’s eye view of the city of Pune from my airplane window, it became evident that a worm’s eye vision is required for designing the future of urban cities all over the world. Referring to the image of the city of Bogata, a participant in the workshop pointed that the future is not going to be about the vehicles, it will be about the people who inhabit these cities.”

Reference: Lloyd Wright, IT

While the value of directly involving users for designing the future of urban mobility solutions was not entirely evident when we were designing the workshop, it became quite apparent towards the end. Considering that the urban citizens may be more consciously aware and particular about their choices compared to their rural counterparts, it becomes critical to involve them in the design process.
One way to increase user participation would be to conduct user studies to develop personas of target users and involve them in scenario and concept generation workshops. Involving users at such collaborative platforms may yield unforeseen benefits, especially in sectors targeting more conscious and aware users, as they may be able to more accurately describe their needs, which can be then developed into concepts by domain and design experts. Our upcoming Design Public event addressing the issue of “Trust, Participation, and Innovation” will emphasize this significance of a participatory approach to design and how it may become central to certain areas of innovation, such as the design of smarter cities.

About Ekta Ohri

Ekta Ohri has a background in Architecture, Visual and Critical Studies, and Anthropology and is interested in exploring links between design, culture, and lived experience.
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