by Sara Heitlinger and Alex Taylor
How might we design urban spaces to be more hospitable for a fox? How might a worm or a nettle plant experience the neighbourhood we live in? What kinds of urban data might a parakeet find useful? And how might digital infrastructure help us create more equitable living spaces for all of London’s inhabitants, human and non-human, big and small? These are some of the questions that we asked in the More-than-Human Data Interactions in the Smart City – or MoTH Cities – project. A research collaboration that involved academics across five institutions as well as two community organisations, the MoTH Cities activities took place between May to December 2021.
There are many different ways data is collected about people, services and resources in our cities. Some of this data helps organisations make key decisions about the ecological health of urban spaces. Much of this data is managed by local authorities or environmental organisations and not always available to local communities seeking to improve their neighbourhoods with a diverse range of species. Data collection technologies and sharing strategies have also been designed with a focus on human behaviours and interactions.
In this project we used creative methods to decenter the human and instead draw attention to the ways in which humans and non-human others—such as soil, trees, foxes, weeds and insects—rely on each other to flourish in urban spaces. We explored what it means to design for data interactions through what we call a more-than-human perspective. This is to imagine other ways data could be collected, repurposed and interacted with to support diverse forms of life and enrich the ways that different species live together in the city. This booklet presents some initial reflections from the project.
What we did
In July 2021 we brought together a diverse group of around 50 researchers, activists, community organisers, gardeners, artists, landscape designers, policy-makers, and other interested citizens to explore these questions and concerns in two workshops in east London. We organised ourselves and our thinking using a series of design probes and proposals. These were intended to be used as a way to help people move beyond a human-centred perspective and consider the city from the perspectives of other species. In addition, workshop participants adopted a non-human species to roleplay throughout the workshop. Species included urban animals such as foxes, parakeets, earthworms and bumblebees; plants such as lime trees, dandelions, and tomatoes; and microscopic life such as nematodes and bacteria.
Pets and pests in the community garden
We worked with Kate Poland and Debbie Mitchener from partnering organisation Cordwainers Grow to develop a workshop that focused on multispecies urban planning, asking how we might design our urban spaces for flourishing multispecies relationships. Building on Cordwainers’ practices of participatory walking and mapping of community gardens in Hackney, east London, we planned a workshop that involved walking and mapping of community gardens, structured around an activity booklet that included some of the probes and proposals.
We began in a community garden in Hackney (the Garden of Earthly Delights), situated on disused land and turned over for cultivation by local people. We explored where we, as our different species, might go about our daily business looking for food and love, raising our young. A listening activity prompted thinking about the different kinds of data that might be available or useful in that space for different species. We walked to the Haggerston Community Orchard, in Haggerston park, full of old-growth trees and wildlife areas. Here we tried to understand the different issues of urban space for other species by completing a FixMyStreet complaint, which triggered discussions around the different, conflicting needs of multispecies inhabitants in urban space. We looked at a London planning map, and explored different types of data that might be useful for different species. Finally, we gathered around a large map of the area to imagine combining data sources with different species to map out and imagine new services for different non-human inhabitants.
Life and death in the cemetery
For the second workshop we collaborated with Hari Byles, Ellie Doney and Melissa Thompson from the Roving Microscope to focus on our relationship with other species across different scales, including the microscopic. The workshop was set in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, an overgrown Victorian cemetery that is home to many rare species. We built on the Roving Microscope’s practices of collecting soil samples and viewing microscopic life through community microscopes as a way of paying attention to different species across different scales and considering ways of making the invisible perceptible. We also incorporated the design probes and proposals to generate ideas for new smart city services and infrastructures to repair interspecies relations and create more equitable cities.
Where do we go from here?
At a final event in December 2021 we wrap up the project with an evening celebration of talks, demonstrations, multispecies games, live music, food and drink amongst the plants, animals, and microbes that live and pass through Spitalfields City Farm in east London. We have also created a Discovery Box of ideas and probes that have been developed out of ideas generated in the workshops. We would like to explore how the Discovery Box might be used by different people in their work and daily lives, as a way of expanding our relationships with other species in the city. A website is also on the way at: mothcities.uk where we will present all the materials and reflections from the project, for others to build on.
About this booklet
This booklet presents reflections from team members, project partners and participants from the workshops. Andy Boucher and Bill Gaver describe the series of design probes and proposals, which were used in the workshops to help us think about how we might develop empathy with non-humans species, asking about whether data could be used by other species directly, rather than mediated through humans, raising issues of equality and power. Rachel Clarke takes inspiration from the roleplay elements of the workshops to explore the workshop sites from the perspective of four different species. Kate Poland from Cordwainers Grow discusses how the first workshop changed the way she experiences the city and her ongoing work with other gardeners and policy-makers. Helene Schulze ponders all the lives of different species that inhabit our cities and whether having data about them could change planning decisions to protect community growing spaces such as the Garden of Earthly Delights. Hari Byles and Ellie Doney from the Roving Microscope discuss how the activities in the second workshop developed out of their participatory microscope project and reflect on issues of inequality and power dynamics in research projects such as this one. Cagatay Turkay wonders in his text how much we are missing in our data systems, and considers what it would mean to visualise the under-represented, unseen, forgotten, and thus “unvisualised”, such as the movements of non-human species in the city. Viktor Bedö, a researcher and educator who participated in both workshops writes about how he adopted some of the workshop activities in a new workshop he ran with design students. Alison Powell concludes the booklet with reflections and a poem composted from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land to consider non-human inhabitants of the city from a relationship perspective, from the ground-up – literally.
Naho Matsuda’s magic touched all aspects of the project. She was involved in the design of the initial probes, produced the activity book and all the other visual materials for the project, helped to plan and deliver the workshop activities, and designed and produced the Discovery Boxes. She also designed this beautiful booklet.