Nordkapp, Urbanscale LLC
City of Helsinki / Forum Virium Helsinki
These people got what design fiction is all about. They created a cleverly designed interface to provide useful information to both locals and visitors on any city. – Bernardo Fernandez
I’m on record as saying that “Urbanflow Helsinki” is one of the finest works of speculative design that I’ve ever seen. – Bruce Sterling
Urbanflow does a very sexy job proposing “big data” for people in the city but still keeps people in traditional social roles–they simply consume the new and improved data through better interfaces. – Maria Bezaitis
Urbanflow Helsinki is a concept and a piece of design fiction on an interactive, situated service for urban screens and connected devices, designed and conceived in collaboration between Nordkapp and Urbanscale LLC.
The work comprises of a concept video, website and set of presentations to communicate the idea forward inside the city, as well as to act as an inspirational piece for outsiders. The project also worked as a testbed for a larger set of ideas how to make a system like this reality in Helsinki and other cities around the world.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Since 2009, city of Helsinki has had 20+ interactive urban screens installed in co-operation with Clear Channel. Sadly they are completely underutilized and reserved just for advertising.
With Urbanflow Helsinki we set out to communicate how the screens and the system around them could integrate better in the daily lives of people living and visiting Helsinki. From early on, we decided that a video prototype and a piece of design fiction would be absolutely best way to tell the story in a clear and coherent form.
Visually, we realized early on that we needed to create a scalable and adaptable visual system based on a solid graphic design principles such as grid system, strong typography, clear iconography and a friendly tone of voice.
While we support modern paradigms such as multitouch, but all the core functionality is designed around the main Design intent, easy one-handed interaction.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Having worked with both the area and the client, we basically wrote the brief for ourselves. Our client needed something that would communicate the potential of the screens to the city stakeholders, along with a wider audience.
The three emergent needs we found were:
1 – Wayshowing: Routes, transport, “where is x” -type of questions. The first users for this kind of service are mainly for visitors and tourists—the locals don’t really know they need this kind of service… yet.
2 – What’s going on right now and where? A modern city is a living and breathing organism with a pulse, one we want to tap into and enable for the city and its citizens too. In addition to this, we’ll incorporate the emerging open data initiatives by really making the invisible data in the city visible and tangible for its people. For example, how are the noise levels on your street right now?
3 – Direct feedback to the City: there are times when using your mobile isn’t just enough, and the situation is over already when you’re at your computer. Direct participation makes people relate to their city more deeply, too.
A platform that brings together web, mobile and situated screens has a place in the city. Currently our cities are mostly being served one way advertising which has the danger of just merely adding to the urban noise. Instead, we want to make cities better by encouraging transparency, interactivity and immediatiteness for the people.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
Like stated, we’ve been working on the area for a long time already. Designing Urbanflow has been a pretty much a textbook example of creating a disruptive new experience through strategic interaction design.
First, we conducted consumer research and observation in Helsinki and Tallinn on our own. To understand the area better, we also arranged an open workshop with 30 professionals on the topic. When our client and Forum Virium Helsinki and us agreed on the scope of project in late 2010, we also proceeded to interviewed business, content and infrastructure stakeholders inside the city administration. Along this we did desk search on any related materials we could find.
This all was synthesized into a set of drivers and an idea of what the system could be. At the same out our partner Urbanscale started sketching out the product behind Urbanflow and came up with and idea of the modularity and structure, and a draft of the technologies used for the actual physical product.
Through rigorous synthesis, prototyping and sketching we eventually set out to define a set of functionality, ergonomy, technologies and behavior the system should integrate. We had acquired a touch screen equivalent of the ones on Helsinki streets so we could prototype and mock up ideas on real form factor. At this stage we also had a set of design principles and drivers guiding us on our design work.
At the same time, we had started benchmarking and definition of visual design and the brand through benchmarking wayfinding and any related services we could find. This was then developed into a custom design guidelines, including iconography, the grid, typography, mapping and the visual system to apply this into future cities’ brand as easily as possible.
With a solid understanding how everything should work and what the system should do, we set out to design the final product. The design was done through video — the script we wrote was the lens we used to narrow down stories, functionality and visual style of the system. At this time we also shot the time-lapse photography and developed the visual assets based on what we needed.
Nearly everything was done in-house in Helsinki. We had naturally helping hands and guidance from Urbanscale during the work, but even the animation and music was produced with out team. For the voice over we used a professional, native speaker.
Once done, everything was documented into a set of presentations for our clients and the website at http://helsinki.urbanflow.io.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
- For our client, it has exceeded expectations of actually making the decision makers realize the potential of urban screens and urban informatics. The video is now a regular feature on city workshops on developing digital services and way finding for the city, especially the new areas Helsinki is building. The work to make the ideas reality continues to this day, and were looking forward on implementing this starting 2013.
- In general, the project has been featured in online and offline publications all over the world. It is doing its own part on slowly modernizing the image of what Finnish design really is. The concept video is closing 30 000 views on Vimeo which we consider pretty good for a five minute presentation on an emerging topic.
- For us, this has been a quite a success in terms of communication what we as a design company do. About 80% of our work never sees the light of the day, so as designers and a design firm this kind of work is very important to us in many levels.