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Urban Colloquium

Urban Colloquium 2: “Collective Verbs – change, design, better”

In 2006, TIME Magazine chose ‘YOU’ as their Person of the Year. The world has changed to accommodate you,” began Sruthi Krishnan, of Fields of View, Bangalore, thus setting the stage for our second urban colloquium on March 15th.

Sruthi posed some pertinent questions:

In the realm of the human-made, design is the promise of life for the better – for you, the user.” Is this relationship one-way or two-way? Is the end purpose of design restricted only to use/utility?

Designers’ individual points of view influence their product output. By averaging out the views of many, we are presented with a one size fits all scenario. How do we begin thinking about the ‘group’ or ‘collective’ as diverse voices, and not a single, flattened-out view of the universe?

How may we avoid a fixation on results as ‘things’, and transition to understanding them as systems and processes?

Could we think of fluidity in design embedded in dialogue and interaction, which accounts for the ‘push and pull’ dynamics in a group or collective?

In a complex world full of ‘wicked problems’, that cannot be captured by simple equations, where everything is interconnected – a web of problems and possibilities, what might be the best tools to capture this information, facilitate dialogue, and effect positive outcome?

These investigations form the cornerstone of the work at Fields of View (FOV).

FOV uses games, visualisations, and simulations to decode, predict, and address real-world challenges. Sruthi was immediately keen to differentiate between ‘serious games’ or ‘gamification’ and mere ‘gaming’. “Games only allow for immediate gratification or a reward at the end, like frequent flyer miles. Serious games on the other hand using game elements, environment, and rules, to create an immersive and interactive experience of a real-world situation – the implications of actions taken within a game generating new thought processes and learning.

Sruthi led us through several projects at FOV to illustrate the possibilities.

The Indian Energy Game brought together energy policy planners, government, and citizens in a multi-player game to educate participants on the complexity of energy policy design in India.

Another game helped operators resolve Bangalore metro train schedules.

Conver[s]tation – installed at Bangalore’s train stations – kiosks that allow women and men to anonymously report harassment, and input suggestions for physical improvement, helping authorities with quantitative data and prioritising need – better lighting, security guards etc.

The most interesting to all of us gathered was the City Game, designed to explore emergent urban form as participants played out their preferences for the city.

Sruthi shared an interesting anecdote of when the ‘City Game’ was played with a group of urban planners in Bangalore. “There was consensus on large urban greenways, and high-street shopping etc., all the usual stuff that planners fantasize about. Very soon, the room became an echo chamber of thoughts, everyone agreeing with one another. When we introduced a non-planner woman into the group, she asked for public toilets – quickly stunning the group into silence, and changing the course of the game.

A cautionary tale for sure!

How exciting are the possibilities of the City Game? In the planning of our neighbourhoods and cities, where stakeholder voices range from the meek to the competitive, capitalistic, and idealistic – imagine a neighbourhood that would emerge when all these voices are thrown together, and imagine watching the repercussions of their choices rise before their eyes!

FOV has played games with a wide variety of participants – women rights organisations, medical students and professionals, disaster management agencies, transport and urban planners, municipal bodies, policy makers, students, researchers, engineers, corporates, NGOs, and the public.

The applications of ‘game thinking’ and ‘serious games’ seem plentiful and useful, allowing for safe practice and testing before actual implementation. The ability to predict outcomes and experience the implications of decisions could allow better decision-making in policy and practice.

This got me thinking about our own professional process. As architects, urban designers, and planners, our traditional education trajectory most often focuses on individual ‘creative thinking’. This extends into our work lives. We go out to conduct stakeholder interviews, mapping of physical environments, collecting vast mounds of data. We sit behind our computer screens, or sometimes with each other around a large table, sketching and drawing up plans that will affect the lives of thousands of ‘users’. We are content with defining this extent of our practice as a collaborative process. But do we really capture real aspirations of the ‘users’ of what we create? Are we able to predict what the outcomes of our design decisions today, fed into the multiple forces, physical and non-tangible, that will collide against them, will produce? Has our profession lagged behind in tapping into the creativity and resourcefulness that true collaboration can achieve?

With regards to the work at FOV, the most important question that remains is how the data collected through these games reaches its useful conclusion.

As Sruthi avers, “the limit of technology is eventually the human being!


Sruthi Krishnan is a writer and journalist, currently involved in a book on design theory intended for a general audience. Previously, she reported on technology at The Hindu after graduating from the Asian College of Journalism. She was a software engineer in another lifetime, with around five years of experience in an IT major. She cofounded Fields of View, and is interested in telling stories with data.

Devangi Ramakrishnan is an architect and urban designer, living and working in Pondicherry since October 2012. She provides project-based consultancy to Intach Pondicherry, and manages communications and outreach for UDC.


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