Social Innovation Trend Canvas

Bringing design legibility back into the Smart City

By Hoa Nguyen

With the advancement of technology, many cities have implemented smart solutions to alleviate urban challenges. Urban systems have become exponentially more efficient in the monitoring and detection of problems; the use of data analytics and automation have allowed for both swift and innovative remedies for traffic congestion, air pollution, crime, and many other issues. Singapore and Surat, India are just two of the hundreds of cities that have installed comprehensive networks of closed-circuit television (CCTV) in its city in an attempt to reduce crime rate. The city of Santander has installed 12,000 sensors to measure traffic, weather, air pollution, and Oakland employs fleets of sensor-embedded Google cars to travel hundreds of miles throughout the city daily, mapping pollution, and traffic.

These technologies have undoubtedly made cities more productive and responsive, and yet they often remain in the background of the city’s operation, doing little to enhance the daily lived experiences of its citizens. As cities share and bring in smart practices from elsewhere, the urban landscape across cities today appears more and more similar, with their CCTVs, smart charging hubs, and digital billboards. Visitors and inhabitants quickly become disoriented amongst the never-ending crowd and over-saturation of information, creating unique problems associated specifically with urban living.  Given our global aging population, cities become a nightmare to navigate as dementia sets in; in China, 500,000 older adults go missing every year. The density of the urban built environment has been associated with mental disorder and anxiety amongst children and adults alike. Big cities like New York and London, even with their endless economic opportunities, are experiencing migration out of the city due to a confluence of factors, one of which being the worsening mental health that people face living in urban areas. Even as the city becomes more convenient and efficient, the immediate experience of the city can be less than pleasant.

Traditional theory on urban design legibility

To enhance the lived urban experience and bridge the gap between urban design and technological advancements, we can seek guidance from traditional planning theory of urban navigation. In his renowned book The Image of The City, urban planner Kevin Lynch wrote about the need for legibility in the planning and design of the city. Lynch addresses five elements that allow the city to be visualized and understood by its inhabitants:

  • Paths: Streets, sidewalks, routes that facilitate movement
  • Edges: Boundaries, such as wall and buildings
  • Districts: Large areas that share certain characteristics or identity
  • Nodes: Intersections or focus points of multiple paths
  • Landmarks: An object that serves as a point of reference in the urban landscape

Lynch argues that if these five elements are distinctive and well-designed, urban dwellers are better able to navigate the city. Lynch cited Boston as a city that leaves a very distinctive impression on its visitors due to coherent district identity, great landmarks, and memorable edges. That said, its nodes and paths can be confusing to navigate, leaving newcomers disorientated. With a better path system, visitors to Boston can better access destinations in the city, and gain a clear mental image of the city. When the five elements of the city come together nicely, inhabitants can develop a coherent understanding of the city, leading to a sense of security and connection to the physical landscape. A legible urban environment also adds to the memorability of the city, creating a distinct sense of place and identity.  This is not only important for those living in the city to feel a sense of rootedness, but also for the development of tourism and city branding, which in turn attracts more investment and development of businesses.

How do we make sense of this theory of urban legibility in the age of smart urbanism? While sensors and networks are key features of smart cities, these technologies are but means to larger ends; a ‘smartly-designed’ city should be inclusive, intuitive, and endearing to its residents. Cities can use technology to evoke a sense of interest and wonder in the public, making the urban landscape less anxiety-inducing. Lynch’s five elements of design legibility in the urban landscape must not be drowned out by fancy features and distracting gadgets, but rather be enhanced by them.

Reimagining urban legibility – creating more inclusive and interactive cityscapes through technology


Google is piloting AR Wayfinding on its Maps platform (Image source: Wikimedia)

Paths in the city have become much more navigable with the invention of global positioning system (GPS) technology, especially with the ubiquity of mobile phones. With increasing 5G connectivity and improved device form factors, augmented reality (AR) technology is making its appearance in wayfinding, such as Gatwick Airport introducing an AR wayfinding app for travellers. Beyond the navigation of paths using sight, cities also begin to experiment evoking other senses, making paths more distinctive and easier to navigate for its inhabitants. Melbourne is exploring the idea of making paths more distinct even for those without immediate access to technology or those with disabilities, with its Open Accessibility Programme in collaboration with the City’s Disability Advisory Committee. By understanding how the differently-abled navigate the city, Melbourne wants to explore ideas of embedding different technologies that may use sounds and smells, to make routes more recognizable and distinctive.


The cité mémoire project in Montreal enlivens exteriors with light and video projections of the city history (Image source: Pixabay)

While edges such as storefronts and building exteriors are often privately-owned, city governments have successfully worked together with building owners to transform and beautify empty walls and back alleys, making the city more memorable for pedestrians. Memphis is one of the many cities that has rejuvenated previously crime-ridden, dark alleys with the use of interactive art and video projections on its bare walls. Cities have also installed motion-sensor lighting along their quieter streets, to improve energy efficiency while also guiding pedestrians to safer pathways as they meander through the city. The combined use of technology and art has created captivating landscapes in the city that allow for much more pleasant, and at times safer experiences for visitors.


Dancing traffic lights in Lisbon leads to more people waiting for traffic instead of crossing (Image source: Futurism)

In big cities, complex intersections often evoke anxiety due to the large amount of pedestrian and auto vehicle traffic, creating a sense of disorientation, stress, and potentially safety issues. To help people better navigate these nodes, digital information hubs, which allow for more interactive wayfinding in the city, are being rolled out in smart cities across the world. Kansas City; Sarasota, Florida; and New York City are just a few places that have already rolled out digital interactive kiosks. London is also installing interactive street kiosks across the city in 2019, allowing for visitors to quickly orientate themselves at confusing intersections.

To address the issue of safety at intersections, the city of Lisbon has come up with an ingenious way to ease the tension at traffic nodes, with the installation of interactive dancing traffic lights. The dancing movements of the light mimic that of members of the public who were dancing in real-time in a booth nearby. Such fun interventions make the city seem more alive and memorable, reduce the dread of waiting, and effectively enhance safety busy traffic junctions.


The ear of Seoul City Hall is a functional landmark that shows the receptiveness of the city government (Image source: Kyungsub Shin)

Urban landmarks can be greatly enhanced by the use of technology to give the city more character. Many city governments have used interactive landmarks to better communicate with its citizens, lowering the barrier between governments and citizens. A notable example is the city of Seoul, where government officials have installed various technologies to receive citizen feedback and engage with its people. To make the message patently clear that the city government is listening to its people, Seoul installed a literal giant ear outside its City Hall, where citizens can speak their ideas directly into the ear, and these ideas would be broadcasted live into a chamber inside the building itself. The ear makes for a great landmark, while powerfully reinforcing the role of technology in connecting the Seoul government with its people. Another interesting example may be found in Tel Aviv, where the City Hall building has been transformed into a giant Tetris screen, for members of the public to battle it out over a game of Tetris. Such gamification breathes fresh air on existing landmarks, and allows the public to interact with elements that may be traditionally seen as unapproachable.


Talking statues all around Dublin brings out a sense of history and identity for the city (Image source: Talking Statues Dublin)

The interconnectedness of various elements in the city and the virtual networks that exist in cities have the power to enhance the identity of larger places. Even though QR code technology was previously only used in special sites such as museums and galleries, cities now deploy them widely at landmarks to provide information to visitors in a more systematic and coherent way. Rio de Janeiro has begun to put QR codes on its pavements in key locations, allowing visitors to access information about the city with the convenience of their mobile phones. Many cities have begun to develop ‘talking’ artefacts, creating a sense of character for even their inanimate objects. The city of Dublin enhanced its existing historical identity by making its statues ‘talk’ to passers-by if they scan a QR code, allowing the statues to share the history of the city with visitors. Similar technologies have also been piloted in Bristol, where hundreds of inanimate objects share the story of Bristol with passers-by via text message.


In our tireless strive to enhance city functionality with technology, we must not forget the fundamental principles that make the experience of the city an intuitive and enjoyable one. By looking at traditional elements of urban design and creatively infusing them with technology, we stand a chance to create better experiences of the city that are friendly, intuitive, and memorable, and reduce the risk of a fragmented and disorienting landscape. While there is an abundance of technology that exists for businesses and governments to tap into and explore, the seamless integration of technology and urban design requires the meeting of various stakeholders and the alignment of interests between governments, private players and the public. To achieve this, cities need close coordination amongst various parties, as well as on-the-ground research, ethnographic study, and investigative design of the urban experience. By strategically incorporating technology in the background and the forefront of urban planning and design, cities have the potential not only to become more liveable, but also to enhance the relationships between urban dwellers and their environment through innovative, shared experiences.

About the author
Hoa Nguyen is a Strategy Consultant in Eden’s Singapore office.



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