The City Infrastructure Lab was led by experts in foresight, urbanism and civic innovation from FutureEverything and some of our close collaborators. During the event, participants worked with their peers to identify opportunities for action and generate ideas in response, and mentors were on hand to help develop concepts into useable products and services. The outcomes of the workshop will inform the development of the Greater Manchester Open Data Infrastructure Map. Here’s our coverage, where we looked at the problems and potential scenarios of our future urban environments.

Opening the day’s discussions, researcher and writer Paul Graham Raven asked us to radically reassess the way that we think about infrastructure, or understand it to be. Rather than seeing it as a series of silos, we should be seeing it as one big networked system of many different, multi-layered elements. As Raven explained, infrastructure is not an island and needs to be treated as such.

Introducing our participants to some potential considerations when designing a city infrastructure system, Paul asked what happens when an element fundamental to our systems breaks? Quoting a few versions of The Stacks, namely Benjamin Bratton’s ‘Black Stacks’ example, Paul demonstrated a way of seeing the many layers of infrastructure from user to network, interface to the earth and how the removal of one can bring infrastructure to its knees. What happens when cloud services controlling our cities’ information fail, or the supplier of your key technology dissolves?

Finally, with his own model, Paul showed the complex and intertwining relationship between infrastructure (the systems controlling technology), interfaces (the devices and services which we use to interact with technology) and practises (the behaviours we have when interacting with technology).

Next, we heard from the founder of Biospheric Foundation, Vincent Walsh, who took us through his idea of viewing the city as a living organism, arguing that the key to successful urban systems and cities is density and diversity, much like a biological ecosystem. Showcasing a current urban problem of earth toxicity with the potential solution offered by the foundation through agroforestry, Vincent showed a way of treating the city as something to be balanced.

Following the talks, problems were discussed within the teams. Conversations in the room were spurred on by the introduction of the STEEP framework (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political), where the participants pulled apart the multifaceted problems facing their areas of expertise. What environmental problems face a city outfitted with sensors? How does public opinion and culture affect innovation? What happens if a fundamental link in your supply chain falls away?

With so many new and developing technologies changing the landscape, Paul Graham Raven suggested examples of what drivers of innovation the groups needed to consider. Paul started the conversation with a list of the technologies in play, which consisted of products, services and systems that are coming to the surface or gaining prominence, or already have an unavoidable influence on our understanding and development of infrastructure. Framing the problems they encountered around the potential technologies that would impact them, the teams asked themselves several important questions; how will 3D printing affect public infrastructure, and is it a solution at all? Can UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) enable citizens to keep an eye on problems in their neighbourhood, or is this a step too far? If you introduce sensors into an environment to track city data, is there a way to opt out as a citizen?

Over the two day lab, the teams identified several problems, from finding ways to empower citizens in effectively generate solutions for the problems that affect them, to giving people access to linked data and making infrastructure tangible to citizens. Other teams asked how to repurpose older, victorian city infrastructure into something that enables growth, improves local neighbourhoods, and enhances the living environments for vulnerable people. Working directly with the Greater Manchester Open Data Infrastructure Map, the teams generated ideas that aimed to tackle the problems acknowledged in the previous day. Prototypes were presented as a result of the group’s research, including a system that allowed the council to empower communities through data to take responsibility for their infrastructure, while also providing efficiencies to the council in managing and supporting that infrastructure.

With conversations continuing beyond the workshop, the City Infrastructure Lab left participants to think about infrastructure as a multifaceted mechanism, what innovation is really needed in the city and how to identify it, and what things we often see as ‘Someone Else’s Problem’.

The City Infrastructure Lab took place 4-5th June 2015 at Citylabs.

With thanks to:
New Economy Manchester
Manchester Science Partnerships
Future Cities Catapult
Digital Catapult
The Cabinet Office
Red Ninja
Hyper Island


Photos: Red Ninja