On Thursday 8th of July, FutureEverything took residence in Citylabs to deliver a workshop for the partners of Project SimplifAI, an exciting new project using artificial intelligence to manage traffic in an attempt to reduce pollution and improve air quality for the city. A collaboration between KAM Futures, University of Huddersfield, Transport for Greater Manchester, Infohub and BT.

The workshop helped these partners work out what the issues, barriers and complications of using connected objects, data and Artificial Intelligence (AI). We heard from speakers across the SimplifAI project and invited some of our own to introduce different perspectives to spur discussion in our later workshop. BuggyAir, a project by IoT Academy and Superflux and shared by Paul Tanner uses a sensor clipped onto pushchairs to monitor air quality at the level of a child, Tom Ford from ODI Leeds showed how they’re using public open data, Paul Grayston from Dynniq talked about their new service air quality analytics service, Bianca Manu from Invisible Dust spoke on their latest commission, Human Sensor by Kasia Molga, and Gyorgi Galik and Belen Palacious spoke on the LIFE project which is working to reduce ambulance journey times.

Our main goal as facilitators was to draw out the social consequences of the technologies and infrastructure involved in air quality and traffic management, as change over time impacts on behaviours, culture and understanding. We opened the session with a brief introduction to futures, and encouraged them to think about broken, mundane futures, introducing Nick Foster’s work around this idea of designing for the background talent, not the hero. We also referenced Madeline Ashby’s talk at FutureEverything 2016 which asked us to consider how your utopia could be someone else’s dystopia.

Using foresight and horizon scanning techniques and PESTLE(V), we asked our participants to pick a topic, and think about its future over the next 5-10 years. We then asked them to imagine some probable (very likely to happen), plausible (possible with our current knowledge) and possible (relatively unlikely but could happen) trends and drivers that would determine that future. Rather than go towards a preferable scenario we asked our participants to question their assumptions; Where does the introduction of a new system lock someone out? Who benefits and who doesn’t? What could happen if we don’t anticipate uncertainty?

The point of the exercise wasn’t to anticipate what was definitely possible, but use speculative scenarios of the near future in order to look back on the problems we face in the present. Sometimes it’s useful to reach towards a stranger, wilder conclusion as it gives you the freedom to work out and expand upon issues that might come up, in the case of this workshop, around public perceptions of data collection in the city, pollution and access. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but once our groups started feeling more comfortable about loosening their grips on the immediate reality, they started to uncover a whole host of issues and potential alternatives. It’s not that these futures should, or will, happen, but it’s important to see that they could so that we know how to avoid them.

Some of our workshop participants went on to discuss issues around personal transport and disability or those living in hard to reach areas, and how improvements to those services would be a main barrier to stop private, gas-guzzling car useage. Another group questioned what levels of infrastructure were available once you’d left public transport, how easy is it to navigate the city so you don’t resort to using your car? We then asked them to take a few steps further into the future, with some proposing self-driving car networks, though acknowledging their limitations on safety, reliance and accessibility (a wheelchair is a struggle to get into current models and disability aids are yet to be considered for installation). One group took their thinking to a slightly more far-away speculative scenario, with a ban on non-commercial vehicles in the city centre to reduce pollution leading to a secret smuggling ring, with city workers hopping into the back of vans to commute in.

As participants poked and prodded at the near future possibilities, behaviours and cultural changes, we started to see just how much technology adoption was dependant on behaviours; if people don’t understand it or feel left out from it, they won’t like it, and we should listen to those concerns to develop meaningful, useful systems that will benefit the city at large.