Wearables + future cities

Inspiration and innovation from two events, Wearable Futures and Re.Work Cities, both covering design, technology and the future of cities. 

Both of these good looking events were held early December, not normally associated with being conference circuit season, but they deserved to be checked out. Wearable Futures (videos of all talks here) explored the future of wearables, from smart materials to new technologies. Offering 300 attendees a healthy measure of innovation, this free (yes free!) two day event produced by Ravensbourne, was organised by the excellent Cassie Robinson and Amanda Gore at the The Point People. With just too much useful stuff to cover, here are just a few of my highlights:

A talk by magician Kieron Kirkland in the Wearable Magic session was great for considering the blurred lines between science, tech, magic and discovery. Kieron was Magician in Residence at the Pervasive Media Studio and discussed what magic is – breaking the rules about what is physically possible – and how designers and technologists can benefit from magic’s principles – telling good strong narratives. Telling stories behind products and innovations is something I am a big fan of

In the Wearable Cities panel, technologist Tom Armitage spoke about working with cities as a fabric. He talks of how tech can help understand the rhythm of a city, creating the heart beat of a place. He reminded us that cities are already platforms – a jumble of services. Working on the Hello Lamp Post project in Bristol, the idea was to give people permission to be playful in public and be inclusive, allowing people to see everyone else’s versions of Bristol.

Claire McDonald from NHS England spoke about how healthcare can benefit from new tech (video here). Claire’s focus is on non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and alcohol related diseases and the challenges which go alongside helping behaviour change. Their newly commissioned app, The Walk aims to motivate people to go walking, trying to find that ever-tricky balance of incentivising and changing behaviours.

Dominic Wilcox is all about imagination and experimentation – his humorous observations and narratives on everyday life are simply spot on. His GPS embedded shoes navigate you to your destination upon clicking your heels together, just like Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, but with more LED lights. I reckon more refreshingly different speakers like Dominic should be invited to speak at conferences!

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Above: Dominic Wilcox’s GPS embedded shoes

The second summit, Re.work Cities (videos of all talks here) considered how technology can make the future of our cities more efficient, safer and sustainable; which covered big topics such as A.I, nano tech, big data and other emerging tech.

For me, Manu Fernadez hits the nail on the head, saying that cities should be driven by smart citizens not by big technology providers. He writes about this in Future Everything’s Smart Citizens report, which I came across after we developed We Dundee – I agree with his approaches to how we engage, build and organise our cities with citizens and enjoyed his talk which considered amongst other things, what if roads were designed for pedestrians rather than drivers.

During the Internet of Things session, Carlo Ratti, from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab talked rubbish. He ran a project which invited 500 people to find out the truth about where their 5000 items of waste ended up by tagging and following the items. The scary truth is that these items travelled hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Why is this important? Carlo has found that opening up this type of data can help change group behaviour of those involved. Simple but effective, ’when objects can talk back to us, they can tell us unexpected stories’. Drones are a hot topic just now, Carlo ended his talk by showing us a more positive vision of the drone future – as a navigational devices in the project Sky Call (video here).

Also discussed was the potential of Drone swarms used in arts and cultural events – light shows etc. Again, it was refreshing to hear this vision rather than the usual apocalyptic version often portrayed.

Above: Synchronised drones – check out 1 minute in…

Allison Dring’s created the world’s largest air-purifier, at Mexico city’s hospital – Torre de Especialidades – the project is pretty special. The decorative facade isn’t just there for show, it’s helping clean up a huge chunk of city smog too.

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Above: Torre de Especialidades – the world’s largest air purifier

Urban Mobility in the Future of Cities – Fahim Kawsar from Bell Labs focuses on what different parts of London mean to people at different times of day, using mobile data. By visualising these temporal behaviours, fascinating pattern maps emerge – showing how citizens move throughout the city. Actual city hot-spots are often not the popular attractions you may think. I find this type of work really interesting, enabling you to see how cities actually really function.

Apart from other some good stuff on the quantified self and future materials, it was great to see common threads emerging at both events which are of particular interest to me – on the role of tech helping behaviour change, creating emotional interactions to crowd power city development and creating more playful cities.

As conferences go, both were good, but for me, Wearable Futures had the complete edge with interactive showcases, a lab with live demos and specially commissioned wearable prototypes – Futures 10. The way they were presented really brought the magic to life.  As a fan of hands on engagement (like at Modern Magic Materials), from now on my decision to go to conferences will be based not on the speaker list, but on how the audience is brought into the narrative. Well done team Wearable Futures and I look forward to WF 2014!