Human Centred Design for a Sustainable City

Techcityblog.co.uk is very lucky to have a seventh guest blog from Iain Cameron who worked for 25 years in the Department of Trade and Industry and Cabinet Office. He also worked for over ten years on business improvement in the UK automotive supply chain. Recently he has been developing a start-up, Industrial Strategy Communications and has worked on projects with Oxford University, the UK Commission for Skills and SMMT Industry Forum.

The concept of a mess was devised by Russell Ackoff, a US based pioneer of Operations Research, who died age 90 in 2009. He was a major influence on the emergence of Soft Systems Methodology in the UK. Ackoff developed the idea of the system of systems or ‘mess’.

His ‘mess’ concept was invoked on 4 December last year at the Crystal on Royal Victoria Dock where Re.Work mounted a conference on the future of cities. Here several speakers stressed that single system approaches to city development  have met with very  limited success. The way forward for the design of effective innovation initiatives in modern cities is to approach the issues as a system of systems or mess.

What kind of development process is best suited to working within a system of systems? The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has been focusing interest on Human Centred Design (HCD), an approach which was first established in the technology domain.

Jocelyn Wyatt, Executive Director of IDEO, has been advising CGI on the issues. IDEO was started to address poverty related challenges through design to encourage the use of human centred innovation in the social sector.
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Like many current design and development approaches, HCD proceeds iteratively. It is a participative method and so it must also generate sufficient user engagement. This be can be a major challenge in city projects. The city is a locality with users or participants in close proximity who enjoy disparate levels of wealth. Neither disadvantaged people nor people with high net worth are easy to engage at a suitable scale to in  an iterative interactive design process work. To achieve this goal, at the heart of the engagement process, there has to be some kind of shared value – shared between different categories of users and the other major stakeholders.

An international design management standard, ISO 9421-210:2010 provides requirements and recommendations for HCD throughout the life cycle of computer-based interactive systems.

The six key principles of the ISO standard for HCD are:

1. Design should be based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments

2. Users should be involved throughout the design and development

3. The design is driven and refined by user-centred evaluation

4. The process must be iterative

5. The design addresses the whole user experience

6. The design team includes multidisciplinary teams and perspectives.

There is nothing about these principles which is specific to the digital domain, of course. They can be applied equally well to any design project, not least to a hybrid digital/physical system within the modern urban context of a system of systems or mess.

Indeed, Robert Fabricant, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review recently, has put forward a broader vision of HCD linked to social impact.

A key concept which pulls together much of what has gone before is sustainability. In coming decades, global population growth and rocketing energy use  will be concentrated in cities. There will also be major social issues to deal with in future cities, especially the fast growing ones in emerging  economies.

Clearly it is an overriding priority that city system of systems become more sustainable. The core of sustainability the connection to values in use for a wide variety of people in their everyday lives.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has just concluded a study which shows that applying the principles of intelligent energy efficiency in a US urban context could yield remarkable results. They judge that applying some key principles in the urban transport sphere in a handful of ICT systems could reduce energy usage in transport by 13%.

This may sound unexceptional. While urban transport is a serious area of waste, the largest category in UK cities is the  energy used for space heating. Research at the UCL Interaction Centre confirms that, nonetheless, the majority of UK users are not able to use their central heating controls to regulate their domestic energy consumption.

Meanwhile resources are currently going into creating even more complex domestic energy management systems involving the internet of things, smart energy networks and more sophisticated energy meters. 2015 will see a mounting battle between two major approaches – one from the US and one from the UK. Will usability be a key factor on which wins out?

Currently, the additive manufacturing revolution is gathering pace and make spaces and fablabs are appearing inside and outside higher education establishments in London and elsewhere . There are at least four operating currently in London and more may be on the way.  This is the harbinger of an anticipated explosion of prototyping by nascent entrepreneurs at many different levels in society exploiting the drastic reduction in development cost that additive manufacturing brings. How will these nascent designer/entrepreneurs absorb the principles of user centred design so that they  increase the chances of their prototype turning into a sustainable product, especially a product or service which delivers value in use with the urban context of a system of systems?

Within academia, the practice of designing products, processes or systems to take proper account of the interactions between the artefact(s) and the people that use them goes by a number of different names, including human factors, ergonomics, comfort design, functional design and user friendly systems.

The Stephen Pheasant Memorial Trust uses the royalties generated from the writings of Stephen Pheasant, an ergonomist with a great gift for effective communication beyond narrow specialist groups, who died in 1996. Their goal is  to seed the future of the discipline and so the Trust is funding a short video taster to launch a project to generate AV resources which will both raise public awareness of the importance of using human factors in pursuing global sustainability goals and also also provide a practical resource to foster more effective design and prototyping across the UK in fablab and makespace communities and elsewhere.

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