Smart Cities: Jeff Risom (GEHL)

Jeff Risom from GEHL talks Smart Cities, design for positive behaviour change and using big data to break political bubbles. Questions from Stephen Hilton, Digital Placemaking Fellow at the Bristol+Bath Creative R&D


In Bristol and Bath we are interested in bending the typical definition of ‘The Smart City’ to include places that are creative, inclusive, open and democratic. So, can Smart Cities be both fun as well as being safe and efficient?

I prefer the definition of a Smart City that learns from its citizens and visitors and responds to their needs.  In this way Smart Cities have to be creative, inclusive, open, democratic and more!  In fact, I push back against the idea of efficiency – when we talk to citizens we hear words like comfort, convenient, inviting and joyful. We rarely hear the word efficient, unless we are talking to tech companies about their solutions.

Can social data drawn from Facebook and other channels provide insight into how people use public spaces? 

We are collaborating with Aalborg University on the ‘The Danish Facebook Atlas’, which has collected digital traces from 69,000 Danish Facebook pages from 2012 to 2018. All pages are public pages; thus, no data is collected from either personal profiles or groups. Furthermore, the database is anonymized, is GDPR registered, and the users’ names and demography have been deleted. Since the dataset contains anonymized IDs, it has been possible to see detailed patterns illustrating how these anonymized users interact with both political content and events in Copenhagen on Facebook. We have mapped 5,000 places in Copenhagen (eg. bars, sports venues, music venues, shops and public squares) a colour signalling the political leaning of their crowd. We identified venues, blocks, and districts in the city that are the most politically homogenous and the most heterogenous and spent time studying these places ethnographically. So in this way digital behaviour is both revealing the physical use of the city and guiding our work to understand the use of those places.

We’re all going to have to make some rapid changes in how we use Cities if we are to tackle the Climate Emergency.  How do you feel people-centred co-design can help with this?

For us to actively tackle the climate emergency, all citizens have to shift their behaviour. We believe design should invite the behaviour we need to practice going forward. So in this way the healthy, sustainable choice must be the easy choice. For this colossal design challenge to succeed, it must be done hand-in-hand with the people whose behaviour we hope to shift. Therefore we as designers and city leaders need to spend considerable time learning from citizens, meeting them where they are and learning from them about their challenges and needs to make the shift convenient, easy, and even beneficial to their everyday quality of life.

Place-makers often talk about “Hybrid Space” – a place where the digital and physical realms come together. Is Digital Placemaking something that Gehl considers when designing cities for people?

We tend to spend time with people like ourselves. This is why our political discussions often take place in a bubble where we rarely encounter opinions that conflict with our own. Urban life and urban space can either strengthen or break such bubbles. Our public realms are places with possibilities for chance encounters with different people. But which parts of the city succeeds in breaking political bubbles? And which parts come to serve as home for a very specific political crowd? These are some questions one can answer by observing how people use public space and then cross-referencing this with online behaviour and tendencies.

The Internet is now often seen as a place where trolls live; where Governments use data to control us or big business uses ‘surveillance capitalism’ to sell us more things that we don’t really need. Instead, you talk about using technology to help create cities as a ‘platform for yes’ is this really possible?

I believe it is possible but difficult. The key is to create opportunities to celebrate what we all have in common as Homo sapiens and what is different based on race, age, ethnicity and culture. An effective way to accomplish this is through demonstration or pilot projects. Small scale urban interventions—recently coined as tactical urbanism—grew out of our work with New York City’s Department of Transportation in the transformation of Broadway in Manhattan. This approach of using real life projects as a platform for civic engagement could increase the number of contributing stakeholders. By bringing the project to people, decision makers meet the general population wherever they are in the city as part of their everyday routine as opposed to inviting people to a church basement or community centre to hear presentations and view boards of illustrations that are difficult to understand. With a chance to touch, see and experience a project first-hand, citizens regardless of personal experience and education, are better equipped to engage in a constructive dialogue with experts and decision makers. This approach leads to a more authentic form of city development made possible through inclusive empowerment; thus allowing a broader segment of community to express what is most vitally needed in community development. Today, citizen involvement is strongest when opposing change; citizen groups are most fervently engaged when saying “no.” In addition to serving as a more inclusive form of empowerment, pilot projects can become a platform for a more positive use of citizen energy aimed at saying “yes” to particular interventions.