Data, Design, Decision

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”  — Herbert Simon, 1971

Recent claims around big data, smart cities, and the Internet of Things suggest that we are on the verge of an unprecedented wave of information about the contemporary city. From IBM’s early “smarter cities” initiative to Google’s recent foray into “civic innovation technologies,” a variety of companies have entered the marketplace of urban informatics. At the same time, a number of open source developers have contributed platforms and strategies to help cities operationalize data for the public good. Governments have responded to a call for transparency and innovation by releasing data into the public domain for others to access, analyze, and leverage toward alternative and better futures. Today, a range of technology advocates, from technology corporations and open-source developers to architects, planners, and urban designers are advancing strategies to effectively resolve urban questions as data infiltrates the public realm. Concurrently, developments in design methodology, and the increasing prevalence of design thinking in the domains of business, public policy, and information technology, among others, promise innovation in decision-making processes.

While technological and social change may, in fact, produce more and better information, the status of that information relative to decision-making, especially in the urban context, has been a longstanding area of research in the design disciplines. Over the past half-century, the discourse and practices associated with design thinking have been proposed to describe the role of design in dealing with a surplus of data. Beginning with discussions of design methodology in architecture and urban design, design thinking emerged as a means to address the complexity of open societal systems through a propositional model of intervention in the world. In contrast to empirical or descriptive models of inquiry, design thinking is most often propositional. Rather than simply describing the world as found, design is capable of describing how it might change. This projective condition for design is most often concerned with material, spatial, or temporal interventions in the world. In this respect, design thinking is often characterized by its capacity to propose alternative and better futures, particularly in contexts where traditional forms of scientific inquiry are found inadequate to the complexity of the situation at hand.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Helen Kongsgaard, and Robert Pietrusko.