CityVerve, Four lLessons From Last Four Months

Four months have passed since CityVerve has kicked off. FutureEverything’s role is incorporating Human Centred Design (HCD) in the project. Here’s some of our learning so far.

Workshop participants capturing the moment after completing successfully the Marshmallow Challenge


Ways to manage projects in Smart City initiatives

CityVerve partners come from various organisations, have diverse backgrounds and roles within their companies. Additionally, we are aware there are tough challenges brought by creating a new consortium with an ambition as high as this one — creating an IoT Smart City demonstrator, led by the community, the policy makers and the entrepreneurs in Manchester.

The vision for Smart City projects can be either top-down or bottom-up. We believe that in CityVerve, these two visions will evolve together. Some of the CityVerve use cases have opposing properties, that will become even more evident along the way. Such contrast must shape the approach and style not only in the design and development, but mainly in the way the projects are managed.

In this Smart City initiative some of the products and services coming out of software development projects. Modern software development requirements evolve over time and usually the end result is unknown. Here the most efficient management approach must be fast paced and iterative — moving forward with often incremental (and affordable) changes. That’s why software development projects are more likely be managed in an Agile way.

Agile way as it works very well in projects where more is unknown than known.

In contrast, in CityVerve some projects in the infrastructure development, which must have very well defined requirements and barely no unknowns. They tend to be more linear and with higher degree of task dependency.

Historically, in infrastructure projects the initial commitments will become increasingly expensive to change in a later stages of the project.

So, here the decisions tend to be well weighted and carefully planned before the project starts. Infrastructure projects tend to establish using waterfall management methods, where proper planning and a predictable and linear process is paramount.

However, if you think on it companies like Toyota, or Tesla, you can observe that there are widely successful companies who don’t approach projects using thorough planning and linear processes. This is what just a bit of background to the following points. If I am honest I might be projecting my own bias towards project management methodologies.

1. One size doesn’t fit all

It’s okay to have different approaches

Some of the materials and props available in the workshops to develop a rapid prototype

In CityVerve there are dozens of different use cases developed across four thematic areas:

  1. Health and social care
  2. Energy and environment
  3. Transport and culture
  4. Public realm and community

Each use case breaks down into hundreds of possible scenarios that are currently being discovered and defined by the different project teams. Some teams are conducting in-depth research, some are experimenting technologies, and some others are evaluating their business model.

The interdependencies amongst project teams are multiple, and highly complex. We need to combine the ethnographic capacity of design research and quantitative marketing approach to achieve relevant and sustainable project outcomes.

At FutureEverything we learnt that in innovation projects with this level of complexity and number of partners, it’s OK to have different approaches. We are aware that each partner has expertise to deliver value in their sector, and that HCD is an approach to support that the value is being delivered in the most meaningful way. By the other side, decision makers must be open and willing to empower a design-led capacity to influence the direction of their projects. Namely by having designers, developers and dedicated researchers embedded in the use case teams so they are able to understand their role in bringing innovative solutions to life and delivering them.

2. Take your time

We need learn from each other

Learning is a two-way process, and as much as we’re advocating the HCD methodology, we’re acquiring an amount knowledge about other ways of approaching the design and development parts of the project.

First and foremost, HCD it’s not a linear orthodoxy, it has a flexible and collaborative nature, and it’s resilient. The tools and methods we are employing, aim to deliver purpose and make meaning in multiple ways and moments. However, this is still a new approach within CityVerve.

We have learned that one of the biggest challenges to innovation is organisational culture and how to adapt to new ideas and ways of working.

During our labs and workshops, alongside with HCD induction, we have been supporting CityVerve partners with the following:

  • Try not to be solution driven
    Before starting to think about solutions, it’s time to consider the assumptions made towards the problems they are trying to solve. What issues are they facing in their business area?
  • Scope projects around people’s needs
    Define how you can discover people’s needs and scope the project according to these.
  • Early prototyping and early learning
    When possible, explore solutions by producing prototypes quickly, rather than investing in lengthy and expensive development processes to develop solutions that will take longer before being tested and validated against end-user needs. Move fast and break things.

3. The importance of trust

Don’t just rely on words. HCD is an evidence-driven process.

When guiding partners on a new way of working we were wary that words were not enough. We needed to build trust, not just in FutureEverything, but in the HCD process and how it can deliver an entirely designed and developed IoT solution.

Participants discussing during the rapid prototyping session

How did we build this trust?
We based our HCD methodology, in the relevant context for each use case, by inviting the partners to define parameters, values and goals. These were used to reach the most appropriate, efficient and sustainable outcomes for Manchester. Partners became a part of the process, taking on the role of defining their role and the problem they were trying to solve, and this gave them ownership of their position in CityVerve, aiming to increase their trust in the processes we were advocating. At the end of the day, FutureEverything has a facilitator role, creating scaffolds for a conversation between the various capacities within the project and its objectives. We also aim to fix issues as they arise, rather than being too prescriptive and lecturing the partners about better ways to work and how they’re supposed to be experts on the subject.

4. Be open and listen

Concerns are a positive thing

In a consortium as vast as CityVerve (+20 organisations), the heterogeneity of organisations is almost endless, such as private and public sector companies, NGO’s and for profit, local SMEs and big multinational tech corporates. Collaboration is great, but it’s not always easy.

William Wu (Cisco), as the interviewer and myself, as the interviewee, during a mock user interview

At FutureEverything, we know that we have a lot to learn from every partner. We needed to understand what are the values they stand for, what is the dominant culture within their organisations and ultimately their ways of getting jobs done.

Listening — actively —  to our colleagues from other organisations and the things they care about is the only way we have to really bridge the gap between organisations and building empathy and truly collaborative mindset.

Being open and listening to each partner, has meant we’ve been able to change, iterate and reshape HCD on the ground and help make sure that the process has been able to fit around the present concerns, needs and desires of the CityVerve partners.

What’s next?

We’re four months into a 2-year project, and this is just the beginning of the journey. If you’d like to hear more about CityVerve check out the website and if you’re interested in learning more about HCD in Smart Cities, please feel free to get in touch!

Let us know your thoughts on this topic.

You might also want to read about other things we have been doing at FutureEverything or also check the blog of our Medium publication.

Special thanks to Vimla and Feimatta for their proofreading and editorial input.