Human Centred Design In Smart Cities


This blog follows on from the theme of user involvement in my last blog post on power, user involvement and human centred design. In my previous blog I outlined some of my ideas about users need to be involved in the design process to enable effective and impactful design outcomes. Here I focus in on the idea of smart cities. I believe the ideas of user involvement and complexity in design that I have written about previously are particularly relevant to smart cities. Many smart city commentators such as Townsend argue that smart cities are too complex to be effectively designed through a top down approach. As outlined in this video and the book he references, more effective smart city design emerges from collaboration and engagement with citizens.

Smart Cities, Open Government, Collaboration and User Involvement

Many commentators argue that advances in information technology open up the potential for decision making and problem solving to take place more collaboratively between government and citizens.  An approach that is becoming common within IT projects is to include research into the perspectives and experience of existing and potential users of products, services and systems into their design (Gutierrez et al., 2019).  This approach resonates with smart city researchers who advocate the need to involve stakeholders such as communities within smart cities (Hemment & Townsend, 2013; Komninos et al., 2014; Krishnaraj, 2017; Townsend, 2013).  Kommos et al argue that the advancement of intelligent cities requires the active participation of all city actors.  They argue that solutions should be defined and implemented with the involvement of citizens, consumers and users.  Krishnaraj advocates the benefits of user research approaches including journey mapping, ethnography and persona development as part of smart city developments.  He argues that these approaches are useful to identify and help fix areas where user experiences are poor.  He also suggests that prototyping can be a useful process to help address issues early in the development process when they are still cheap to fix. 

Service Design In Smart Cities

It is becoming increasingly recognised that it is not just technologies that need to be designed, but also the service infrastructure that they fit within  (Serrano et al., 2011).  Some researchers make a link between citizen centric approaches to thinking about smart city development to the rise of user centred approaches in software design (Tomitsch et al., 2021).  Tomitsch et al, argue that the principles of human centred design can help address some of the issues associated with technocentric smart city approaches.  They argue that participatory design can be applied to bring the interests of citizens, users and communities into the design process, by giving them the status of experts in their own lives.  They also argue that the converging of physical and digital spaces in smart cities creates the requirement for those spaces to be designed.

Some researchers connect living labs to the idea of service design (Yasuoka et al., 2018). Yasuoka et al support the co creation approach outlined by Pallot et al but take it a step further. From a review of earlier studies, they identify that some recent studies conceive of users as partners that create a service together. Echoing the participatory design approaches outlined earlier, they give examples of cases where users have been actively involved in designing ICT services. Involvement ranges from making suggestions to involvement in concept development and prototype testing. In several of their case studies, users are involved in identifying problems and in the design process of working towards solutions. As outlined below, Yasuoka et al outline a living lab process that is very similar to service design methods conducted using Agile methodology.

(Yasuoka et al., 2018)

Living Labs to Apply Design Into Smart Cities

A research approach that is frequently associated with smart cities is the idea of a living lab.  Living labs are typically multi-disciplinary co-creation initiatives established to explore ideas that could lead to smart city innovations or to evaluate the implementation of such innovations (Pallot et al 2010).  Pallot et al argue that within a living lab, users are no longer considered observed subjects but actors that can contribute and add value. 

Design Thinking and Systems Thinking

Systems thinking and design thinking have both been advocated as approaches to enable greater participation in smart city decision making (Hudson et al., 2016).  Their relevance relates to the nature of complex or wicked problems in smart cities.  Both design thinking and systems thinking have been advocated as effective approaches for dealing with such problems.  As I outlined in an earlier blog post, some researchers argue that to address wicked problems systems thinking and design thinking should be combined (Buchanan, 1992, 2019; Mugadza, 2015; Pourdehnad, 2011).  Buchanan and Pourdenhnad both argue that the link between systems thinking and design goes back a long way.  As illustrated in figure 7, design thinking is a user centred iterative process that aims to help understand problems and find solutions (Dam & Siang, 2020).  Researchers argue that design thinking can help with smart city decision making by giving voice to end users and encouraging creativity (Eleutheriou & Teixeira, 2017).

(Eleutheriou & Teixeira, 2017

Systems thinking is a holistic approach that focusses on the relationships between different parts of a system.  Systems thinkers argue that traditional approaches that believe it is possible to understand a whole system by breaking it down into parts is reductionist (Flood, 2010).  Systems thinking is however interesting as there are different forms of systems thinking, that cross the objective vs subjective research divide.  There is a systems engineering form of systems thinking that applies sophisticated computer enabled modelling to help understand connections between different parts of a cities systems.  There are also more subjective and critical forms of systems thinking that focus more on engaging stakeholders including citizens in the process of decision making (Woolliscroft, 2018).  In part 1, I referenced a critique of the systems engineering form of systems thinking.  Both forms of systems thinking include creating knowledge to inform decision making.  The objective, hard data, cybernetic, form tends toward creating knowledge based on sophisticated models to inform city managers about planning services.  More subjective and critical systems thinking approaches conceive of knowledge being created through interactions between people.  A more subjective form of systems thinking, leads towards a more community focussed conceptualisation of smart cities, one where definitions of smart cities and the concept of smart communities move closer together.  Knowledge creation through digitally enabled communication is central to both these concepts (Woolliscroft, 2018, 2020).


As should be apparent from the ideas outlined above I see my interest in the ideas of design, systems thinking, community engagement and smart cities as very much interconneted. I have argued that I believe that effective design, especially design that is concerned with complex problems, requires community involvement. I have also argued that smart cities are an example of complex environments that require community involvement in design to achieve effective and impactful results.

Just to give a bit of a personal sales pitch, at the end of by blog as you may have noticed has become a pretty standard format from other blog posts, I believe that I am well placed to help conduct effective community centric design in smart city environments. The combination of my smart city focused PhD, my community sector background and more recent user research / human centred design experience make me well placed to help deliver this kind of smart city design project. I am able to fit into a research / design team that you are putting together alternatively I have colleagues I can collaborate with in this area and so could put together an ideal smart city design and delivery team for you if that was of interest. Feel free to contact me to discuss potential opportunities if this is of interest.

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