by Andy Boucher and Bill Gaver

Early in the project, we worked with our design team (Dean Brown, Naho Matsuda, Liliana Ovalle, Andy Sheen, Mike Vanis) to produce a series of probes and proposals to help us all think about what more-than-human* smart cities might mean.

To us, probes and proposals are different. Probes are tasks we give to people to help them tell us about themselves and the topics our projects address, while proposals are suggestions about what directions our design work might take. This distinction is often blurry in practice, however. Reactions to probes can help us think about what we might do, and reactions to proposals can tell us about the person reacting. So here we don’t labour the differences but present a few examples from the 50+ probes and proposals we designed.

These explore issues such as how we might develop empathy with more-than-humans, how they might be represented politically, what services and infrastructure might suit them, and how data might be used for more-than-human benefit. Underlying them all, we explore questions such as whether more-than-humans can use data directly, or just if it is mediated by only-humans, and what it might mean to share the smart city with more-than-humans not as dependants or interlopers, but as true equals.

For instance, asking people ‘where do you go to…’ while thinking of different non-humans reminds us of the things they do and the places they go that we don’t see and might not think about. Imagining a leaflet drop from non-human neighbours spurs us to think about how such information might be made more easily available. Listening to Moondog’s fabulous ‘Enough about Human Rights’ puts us in our place and helps us see crushed snails with more sympathy.

Other proposals question how we can share power and the benefits of technology more equitably with neighbouring species. How can they be better represented – or even represent themselves – in government? Can we rethink technologies, like self-driving vehicles, for their benefit? How can we create signals that they can read directly? Or should we just relinquish half our space to them? Just how serious are we about sharing cities with the myriad of more-than-humans around us?

Proposals like these are simple and evocative, rather than detailed and prescriptive, creating a space for designs that can be elaborated by ourselves and others. Each is a simple pointer to a direction of design, opening possibilities and questions for future development. Some are serious, some impractical, some might be important, others not. More significant than the individual proposals is the design space they create, with each proposal a kind of temporary settlement within it, that can be further explored, expanded or focused.

* These days, some researchers use ‘more-than-human’ to refer to inanimate agents such as algorithms or furniture. In contrast, others – including us – use the term to refer to the different living beings with whom we share the planet.

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