Since “Big Data” became the currency of our society for influencing the process of decisions-making across many fields (from finance, to politics, retail, manufacturing, transportation, etc), a wide range of sensors have been designed to record and display information that substantially influence the understanding and designing of digital and physical scenarios. In 1854 Dr John Snow demonstrated that cholera was not transmitted by “bad air” but contaminated water. He reached this conclusion by observing the map illustrating the number of deaths and wells in the neighbourhood of Soho in London. Indeed data helped build the case to review the existing scientific knowledge by linking the dynamics of transmission to the related environmental factors. Data played a key role for outlining the connections in the context. Nonetheless in our society data are employed otherwise. In urban planning, for instance, the information data generate doesn’t look at the context but focuses on what data literally display, which only gives a “partial truth”. Quantitative data help place related scenarios in context, but they don’t interpret, understand and evaluate information. It then follows that decision-makers across fields are half-blinded for the trust they put on data-visualiser instruments, which are not able to display the full picture.
To make the most of data in a urban related environments I would ask the following questions: what cities are for? Why do we live in cities? Why do we have cities in first place and not small urban clusters spread across the territory?
These questions shift the perspective of observation and put attention on the opportunities cities offer in terms of work, connections, diversity, entertainment, you name it. Indeed cities are special systems of places, which overlap and clustering make the reason why we want to live close to each other. Under this light why are urban data mainly used to design the most efficient system to produce value and to move, “store” and educate people? Should the reason why people move, live, make value and educate be the most relevant question to ask? This article from Citylab nicely analyses the problem by giving voices to the actual citizens, who explain what sensor based-data can’t actually offer.
The formula of engaging urban dwellers in the design of urban strategies through participation reveals a plethora of opportunities. By dinamically switching the lenses of observation participation can design flexible and sustainable ecosystems that include and embody the complexity of everyday life. In the essay “The Methodology of Participatory Design” Clay Spinuzzi describes how participation is a method first tested in the work environment to empower workers and the knowledge they build across time through experience. With participation tacit knowledge gets a pivotal role; the process of design is dynamically updated in relation to it and built across the participants’ engagement. For such value participation in urban design can offer better pictures of the diverse and complex dynamics any urban environment shapes – from mobility to housing – to develop custom solutions, which can be updated in relation to the surrounding context. In this paper I argue that data become a pivotal design strategy when used by the authors. In other words if data become matter of design that empower the general public of creative thinking it is possible to design resilient and sustainable cities that understand both the territory and the related community. The designer’s role is to oversee, understand, interpret, facilitate and create the dynamic tools that interface people, environment and infrastructure via technology. Under this light participation is a design tool that guides the process of shaping the dynamic outcomes by means of collaborative and dynamic processes that build places through participants’ tacit knowledge and designers’ expertise .