XXVI.3 May - June 2019
Page: 60
Digital Citation

More-than-human participation: Design for sustainable smart city futures

Rachel Clarke, Sara Heitlinger, Ann Light, Laura Forlano, Marcus Foth, Carl DiSalvo

back to top 

Out of necessity or choice, people and wildlife are increasingly living side by side in urban environments. As more species live together in cities, significant environmental challenges associated with high-density living, poor resource management, habitat loss, and pollution arise. These conditions can be toxic for humans and non-humans alike.

back to top  Insights


One response has been to make cities "smart" using networked sensing and cloud and mobile computing to optimize, control, and regulate urban processes. Smart initiatives are often presented as a social and environmental good. An accompanying agenda, however, has been to spur on sales of novel technology, with its attendant benefits for a small number of companies and their employees. In other words, smart cities are often positioned as solving environmental problems through technologically driven, human-centered, and solution-optimizing approaches that promise great benefit—but include a number of faulty premises.

While many governments are developing participatory approaches to sustainability challenges, the focus remains largely human centered. Such approaches are often too simplistic to address the complexities of long-term environmental sustainability. They also fail to acknowledge how human and non-human lives—or the "more than human"—are inseparable, and how we all participate in urban life [1]. Without care, smart city agendas may exacerbate the very problems they seek to solve.

What will it take to create a real shift in the mindsets of those responsible for smart city design, for those people to take a more-than-human participatory perspective? What can we, as designers and educators, do to respond to the environmental challenges our future cities face?

In this article, we propose an alternative smart city agenda for the interaction design community in responding to a more-than-human perspective. To help us explore and imagine what this agenda could be like, we illustrate our discussion with examples shared as part of an interdisciplinary workshop at the 2018 Participatory Design Conference in Hasselt, Belgium [2].

back to top  Encountering More-Than-Human Worlds

In the age of the Anthropocene—the most recent geological era, in which human activity is transforming Earth systems, accelerating climate change, and causing mass extinctions—a human-centered perspective of cities is increasingly seen as untenable [3]. In fields such as science and technology studies (STS), environmental humanities, geography, planning, fine art, design, and HCI, scholars are challenging traditional binaries such as culture/nature and human/non-human, to consider the entanglements between human and non-human worlds, including "things, objects, other animals, living beings, organisms, physical forces, spiritual entities" [4] in urban contexts.

For instance, projects such as Mitigation of Shock, a speculative design project by Superflux design studio, interrogates food scarcity in 2050 through an installation of a reconstructed apartment in London. Where there was once a lounge, a large food lab now dominates, made from recycled and salvaged electronics and everyday homeware. While exploring how food shortages prompted by climate change could be reimagined through alternative domestic food production, Anab Jain has described how a more meaningful codependent relationship emerged with the plants [5]:

The project gave birth to new relationships, as we moved from just making things, to making things that grew.... We saw how roots were born, how they were formed and grew into these delicate ecologies, how they transformed and died or grew incessantly.... This direct experience drew us into the world of many interacting species. It provided a useful vantage point for knowing ourselves as participants in more complex human and non-human relationships.

The project suggests opportunities for design process somewhere between science fact and speculative fabulation [6]. It also shows how making-with and growing-with have the potential for alternative forms of participation in fabricated multispecies worlds. But how could projects such as these also promote discussion on participation in smart city design to overcome problematic narratives of human privilege within the urban environment?

The following is our proposed future research agenda that responds to such challenges.

Decentering human agencies. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa [4] reminds us that any act of decentering needs to also remain "close to the predicaments and inheritances of situated human doings," that is, in how we interact, connect, and commune with other species and other worlds. This needs to be balanced with an urgent understanding that we cannot continue to act as though humans are separate from, and privileged over, other species. In fact, from the billions of bacteria within us to the multitude of species on which our food supply depends, our lives are completely entangled with the well-being of non-human others. Within cities we need to move away from a perspective where urban environments are for human inhabitants alone. But how do we make the experiences of non-human others palpable? How do we hear, and how do we encourage others to hear, the non-human voices? How do we bring them into participatory processes when designing for smart cities? Most important, how do we convince others, who are less familiar with such perspectives, that decentering human privilege is important and relevant for the future of interaction design?

There are already many examples and approaches across fine art, HCI, and design (see sidebar). However, we currently need more consolidation, critical reflection, and sharing of examples for others to learn from these exciting practices. For instance, approaches from animal-computer interaction (ACI) in developing embodied, compassionate, and affectionate relationships with nonhuman individuals are valuable. While a perspective that takes into account the rights and needs of individual species does not address the interdependencies of whole ecosystems, developing ethics and a sensitivity for individual members of other species could be one way to move beyond a human-centered perspective. Designer researchers could start to find ways to advocate with others to show how non-humans matter (e.g., Figures 1, 2, and 3). For example, in describing impact to our funders, we could talk about the impact of our work on individual non-human lives in the same way that we might talk about economic or social impact for people.

ins02.gif Figure 1. During the workshop, one group explored ways of making the voices of other species heard through imagining acoustic ecologies across the city. Paper cones were used as proxies to suggest swarms of technologies such as sensors and amplifiers to raise awareness of how species communicate with one another using sound.
ins03.gif Figure 2. The workshop included contributions to a public exhibition at the Z33 Gallery, Hasselt, from a selection of participants' existing work, including Kaylene Kau's Animal Diplomacy Bureau's Bird Games.
ins04.gif Figure 3. As part of the workshop, we developed a speculative participatory masked walk as an embodied experiment in decentering human agency. We used this approach to consider potential relationships between species in the city.

Exploring temporalities of the more-than-human. There is a tension between the urgency of climate change and the need to plan for longer timescales, or even deep geological time. Like our politicians and other decision makers, funded research typically focuses on limited linear timescales. How do we design for much longer timescales when our project funding is finite? How could we design an intervention that takes place over 100 years? Non-human timescales can be much shorter or longer than our own. How could we map our timescales with those of the more-than-human, for example other species, changing seasons, climate change? Stewart Brand's pace layers offer insight into how we might consider the interdependencies and hierarchies of timescales from different components of a particular species; from the one-year-old pine needle of the conifer tree to the 10,000-year-old biome in which it lives [7]. Other examples include Jo Law's series of "illustrated almanacs," which present layers of timescales from environmental phenomena (e.g., seasons and moon cycles) to different species migration. Also Natalie Jeremijenko's Phenology Clock, which shows life-cycle events for different species.

Incorporating other wisdom about the more-than-human. In some cultures, knowing the land is a part of a community's notion of valued knowledge. Human and non-human species are more entwined than typically presented in smart city projects. Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies, for instance, foreground respectful relationships between people, animals, spirits, and ghosts that drive environmental decision-making practices. Discussions on decolonizing design ( suggest potential alignments with this agenda in advocating for the use of "eroded" knowledge systems. Such multiplicity allows for different understandings of smartness and the role of adaptation. For example, working with trees as bio-sensors can provide insights into the wider environment, including pollution and responses to climate change. This can highlight potential impacts for a diversity of other species.

Designers could work collectively to create platforms, patchworks, and assemblages of technologies that incorporate certain environmental values. This would allow only certain actions, combining different wisdoms and layers of knowledge in order to underscore our interdependencies with other species.

Here we draw inspiration from Anna Tsing's forthcoming Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene. This is a digital archive, game, and research and teaching tool for documenting what Tsing calls the new wild: species that are thriving during the Anthropocene. Tsing evokes the term feral to describe how some species are adapting in unexpected ways, making use of new materials such as plastics and urban spaces by patching together available resources [8]. How could feral sociotechnical patchworks encourage alternative combinations and relationships that build on and continue to support more-than-human diversity in cities? Could the smart city combine salvaged, recycled, electronic, and living interfaces?

Design pedagogy and learning to mediate the more-than-human. While interaction design education is hugely diverse across departments and countries, there are currently few design programs that engage with other disciplines in substantial and longitudinal ways that could complement design expertise, particularly in areas of more-than-human design. Alternative design curricula should incorporate expertise from environmental legal professionals, community members, indigenous elders, environmental scientists, biologists, ecologists, geologists, anthropologists, and urban planners to support more integrated design courses within higher education. Projects could be focused on the specific locality—geology, cultures, flora and fauna—to introduce a more holistic approach to pedagogical practice for the more-than-human. Building on the decolonizing design agenda, curricula would steer away from more traditional design examples from the Western canon and work with folklore and mythologies.

One specific area of skill to be nurtured would be design mediation to help build new alliances. While this is not necessarily a new role for designers within participatory design practice, taking a more-than-human perspective on smart cities gives this a potential new dimension. To build such alliances, designer skill would focus on consolidating, interpreting, and finding ways to present a range of knowledges and wisdoms about local environments (e.g., the conditions needed for urban trees to thrive). Skills for recognizing, understanding, and making palpable the potential discomfort, tension, and compromise required to forge these new alliances would also be nurtured. For instance, how do we form partnerships with soils that host microscopic species we can barely see or moths that eat our clothes? Most important, how do we connect these worlds to those collectively responsible for making decisions in the smart cities of the future?

back to top  Where Do we Go From Here?

More than two-thirds of the global human population is expected to live in cities by 2050. This is alongside a vast array of species negotiating the ongoing impacts of climate change: the sixth mass extinction [6]. Smart city visions remain firmly focused on solving sustainability problems from a human-centered and technocratic starting point, often ignoring the interdependencies of life. A more-than-human participatory approach to interaction design is one way to sensitize and challenge such perceptions and nurture ways of learning to live with our already damaged Earth. But further care, attentiveness, and commitment are also needed to share and translate these ideas into inclusive exemplars of practice.

back to top  Acknowledgments

Thanks to all of our workshop participants who contributed their time and energy to these insights.

back to top  References

1. Franklin, A. The more-than-human city. The Sociological Review 65, 2 (2017), 202–217;

2. Heitlinger, S. et al. Avoiding ecocidal smart cities: participatory design for more-than-human futures. Proc. PDC '18, ACM, New York, 2018, Article 51;

3. Houston, D. et al. Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and 'becoming-world' in planning theory. Planning Theory 17, 2 (2017), 190–212;

4. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, U.S. and London, U.K, 2017.

5. Jain, A. More-than-human centred design. Keynote. Interactions Conference 2018, Lyon, France;

6. Haraway, D. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke Univ. Press, 2016.

7. Brand. S. Pace layering: How complex systems learn and keep learning. Journal of Design and Science (2018);

8. Tsing, A. The new wild. 2018;

back to top  Authors

Rachel Clarke is a Global Challenges Research Fellow in the School of Design at Northumbria University.

Sara Heitlinger is a lecturer in computer science in the School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering at City, University of London.

Ann Light is professor of design and creative technology at the University of Sussex.

Laura Forlano is an associate professor of design at the Institute for Design, Illinois Institute of Technology.

Marcus Foth is professor of urban informatics at Queensland University of Technology.

Carl DiSalvo is an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.

back to top  Sidebar: Decentering Human Agency: Examples

Active Ingredient:

Connected Seeds and Sensors:

Jo Law:

Kaylene Kau:

My Naturewatch:

Natalie Jeremijenko:

Nature Smart-Cities:


back to top 

Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2019 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found