UTDesignLabSymposium Constructive Controversies
Cristina Ionas

Symposium Constructive Controversies

On the 5th of October, the Symposium on constructive controversies was held at the DesignLab. It provided an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with the transdisciplinary research project: Designing for Controversies in Responsible Smart Cities. This project was initiated by the scientific co-directors of DesignLab, Mascha van der Voort and Peter Paul Verbeek, and it marked the first Responsible Design project funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

The event consisted of two parts: a panel discussion to deliberate on the significance of constructive controversies, and a workshop to explore one of the project's outcomes: Future Frictions.

Professors Dr. Ir. Ole B. Jensen and Dr. Ir. Bregje van Eekelen were invited to reflect on the use of controversies and how they could be employed constructively. Controversy is the coexistence of conflicting perspectives on an issue, leading to debate. Controversies are inherent not only in the development of smart cities but also in healthcare, sustainability, or the application of new technologies. Controversies are an integral part of every societal challenge we encounter.

Currently, we tend to view controversies with a negative connotation, as something to avoid or resolve as quickly as possible. This research project aims to change that perspective. Instead of focusing on finding solutions to controversies, we should highlight and embrace them, recognizing them as a valuable opportunity to open up debates. This is what "constructive controversies" means. Once the debate exists, it becomes clear what people's values are and what the conflicts might be. This can enhance the inclusion of diverse viewpoints.

Designers play a crucial role in this. It is essential to identify the responsibility that design researchers have in fostering these public debates. Until now, design researchers have concentrated on city design and technology implementation. However, the growing expertise in design can be utilized to mediate and ensure that there is a space for public debate. Within this approach, instead of designing the final solution to a controversy, the goal is to design the process that leads to the ultimate design. This project highlights a role beyond that, a provocative role, to initiate public debates.

In the context of smart city design, it is vital to democratise the discussion and give citizens a voice, enabling them to participate in the debate. Design researchers should provide support and tools to ensure that citizens can be strong partners at the table, expressing their opinions and addressing their concerns when discussing the impact of technology in the city.

One of the outcomes of this research was the book "Towards Responsible Smart Cities: Cook-it Book." This book outlines various stakeholders in the smart city development process, showcasing the different actions they could take and offering various methods that can be applied to encourage the active participation of different stakeholders in public debates.

Another tangible result was "Future Frictions." In the second part of this symposium, researchers Dr. Ir. Julieta Matos Castaño and Corelia Baibarac-Duignan facilitated the workshop, where attendees had the chance to explore the simulation. This interactive game portrays a neighbourhood where you can interact with specific characters. At a certain point, the user needs to make controversial decisions regarding the implementation of technologies in cities. Once a decision is made, the system displays the impacts of that decision. This simulation aims to provoke reflection on the ethical implications of technologies and the role that stakeholders play in making those decisions, serving as a starting point to open up the debate.

If you'd like to experience the simulation, there is an installation available at the DesignLab for exploring "Future Frictions." You can also access it through this link: https://responsiblecities.nl/