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Recent speculative and critical design practices may critique the dominant socio-cultural assumptions of technologies, but often lack diversity and participatory input outside the privileged realm of academic and professional designers. #is paper investigates the process and potential of designing speculative futures with local communities, in order to collectively imagine technology that serves a common good and reinforces local identity. This study reflects on the “Sankofa City” project, a three-month community-university collaboration based in a historically black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. The project utilized design fiction scenario videos and collages to present provocative design concepts to local stakeholder meetings and the general public. This paper analyzes the methodology and outcomes of co-designing emerging technologies (such as augmented reality and self-driving cars) in order to establish “infrastructures of the imagination” for long-term strategies and alternative cultural models of innovation.
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Infrastructures of the Imagination: Community Design for
Speculative Urban Technologies
Karl Baumann
University of Southern
3470 McClintock Ave
Los Angeles, CA, USA
Benjamin Stokes
American University
4400 Massachuse!s Ave NW
Washington, DC, USA
François Bar
University of Southern
3630 Wa! Way
Los Angeles, CA, USA
Ben Caldwell
Kaos Network
4343 Leimert Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, USA
Recent speculative and critical design practices may critique the
dominant socio-cultural assumptions of technologies, but o$en
lack diversity and participatory input outside the privileged
realm of academic and professional designers. %is paper
investigates the process and potential of designing speculative
futures with local communities, in order to collectively imagine
technology that serves a common good and reinforces local
identity. %is study reects on the “Sankofa City”1 project, a
three-month community-university collaboration based in a
historically black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. %e
project utilized design ction scenario videos and collages to
present provocative design concepts to local stakeholder
meetings and the general public. %is paper analyzes the
methodology and outcomes of co-designing emerging
technologies (such as augmented reality and self-driving cars) in
order to establish “infrastructures of the imagination” for long-
term strategies and alternative cultural models of innovation.
Participatory Design Field Studies Scenario-based
Community-based Design, Speculative Design, Infrastructuring,
Design Fiction, Urban Technology, Autonomous Vehicles, AR
ACM Reference format:
K. Baumann, B. Stokes, F. Bar, and B. Caldwell. 2017. In Proceedings of the
8th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T '17),
4 pages.
DOI: 10.1145/3083671.3083700
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C&T '17,
June 26-30, 2017, Troyes, France
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The current population shift toward the urban core in US cities
has created an exciting and delicate time for urban innovation
and design. Attempts to bring new technology can easily
aggravate disparities, undermining local culture and
disproportionately benefiting newcomers. How can community-
based speculative design help to retain cultural values and plan
for the future, especially with technology? Infrastructures of the
imagination is a method to empower local populations to engage
with emerging technologies in their own cultural terms and even
to design potential implementations. By focusing on the
imagination, rather than strictly practical or feasible designs, we
hoped to encourage non-expert participation in the design
process. Rather than trying to fix contemporary problems,
speculative processes use design to push the imagination toward
wholly new sociotechnical systems.
The project here is part of a longer-term collaboration, started in
the South Los Angeles community of Leimert Park - a
neighborhood famous for African-American music and culture,
and where the construction of a new subway line threatens
significant ethnic and population shifts [1]. Within this context,
the authors started The Leimert Phone Company (LPC) in 2012
as a design collaborative, bringing together a university lab and a
community art center. Three of the authors were initially based
at a nearby university while the other author owns and
organizes a community art center. We use rapid-prototyping
workshops to empower community-student groups to imagine
technological interventions in the built environment [2]. While
we initially repurposed familiar urban objects (payphones, bus
benches, newspapers boxes, and community gardens) the
“Sankofa City” project co-designs emerging or yet-to-exist
By focusing on speculative technologies, we sought to give
participants a greater sense of imaginative freedom. Our method
used “what if” questions to define parameters and provoke
brainstorming, but the participants determined the designs. They
created a range of concepts in the form of basic prototypes, collages,
and a final design fiction video. Participant groups gravitated
towards certain “what if” conceptual domains over others, revealing
that the methodology was useful for generating designs and also
tracking what did not resonate with local participants and their
desires for the future.
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K.Baumann et al.
The participant groups came up with a wide range of designs: 1.)
self-driving public shuttles that dynamically display local history
along the route, 2.) socially networked shoes that communicate
when nearby friends are having a pop-up event or basketball game,
3.) augmented reality glasses that overlay “deep time” and ancestral
history onto the present, and 4.) a musical park equipped with a
sensor-based public garden that provides food while offering
activities for unemployed youth and the homeless (Figure 1). Each
concept was a synthesis of community participant and university
student collaborations, designed to resonate with local issues and
desires for the future.
Figure 1. Group designs: self-driving shuttles (top left),
networked shoes (top right), interactive garden (bottom
left), and ancestral augmented reality (bottom right).
Speculative and critical design [3] and design fiction [4] have
emerged in recent years as experimental forms of design that
represent alternative, critical, or yet-to-exist design objects and
interfaces. Bordering on conceptual art and science fiction, the
practices have a strong emphasis on aesthetics, storytelling, and
conceptual provocation. However, speculative and critical design
have been critiqued as a privileged space that is either elitist [5]
or ignores issues of class, race, and gender [6].
One strategy for speculative design would be to ground the work
within a community context, drawing from processes of co-
design and participatory design. Participatory design (PD)
initially emerged in Scandinavia as a method for democratizing
workplaces, but has evolved to engage a wide range of groups
such as elderly, immigrant, and indigenous populations [2,7,8].
By collaborating directly, designers gain a better understanding
of users’ desires and more importantly incorporate
alternative cultural practices and social beliefs into their designs.
The “Sankofa City” project worked with community participants
to define their preferable futures, often tied to local African-
American cultural norms and social practices. Their imagined
futures can present alternatives to dominant techno-cultures,
associated with Silicon Valley [9] or “The California Ideology”
[10], which is characterized as socially progressive while
economically neoliberal, using proprietary techno-systems to
replace traditional government services or organized labor.
In contrast, the Leimert Phone Company (LPC) is driven by an
ethos of developing public technology for the commons.In the
Commonwealth [11], political philosophers Hardt and Negri
argue that urban centers present the most powerful potentials
for establishing the commons through encounters across
different populations, in order to combat the isolation and
individualism of neoliberalist socio-economic practices.
The LPC process of design is based on deliberate encounters, or
contact zones [8], particularly between outsiders and local
residents. As the new subway will connect Leimert Park to the
rest of the city, there will inevitably be an influx of outside
populations. Rather than be defensive or self-victimizing, our
projects seek to create public technologies that facilitate
meaningful encounters or direct outsiders to engage with local
cultural history and institutions. We have previously created a
constellation [12] of designs around contact zones, while
developing long-term strategies for capacity building and
sustainable growth.
The “Sankofa City” project teamed USC students with local
residents, musicians, and artists. All workshops took place at the
Kaos Network art center in Leimert Park, with another workshop at
the USC film school’s green screen stage to shoot a design fiction
video. The workshops were run as an experimental course,
facilitated by the first author, who is a USC PhD student, and the
fourth author, who owns and operates the art center. Workshops
met for twelve weeks, with a final public presentation at the end.
The size varied from week to week, peaking at 16 participants in the
early weeks. We had 4 regular students, 2 occasional students, 2-9
community participants, and 2-4 organizers. One unexpected
participant/organizer was a design graduate student, who is
developing public autonomous-shuttles. A wide range of guest
speakers were also invited, including urban planners, local
historians, an AR designer, a critical race professor, a game designer,
a media theorist, and a multimedia designer.
The process included 3 phases, plus a final exhibition:
1.) Brainstorminghigh level concepts organized around
“what if” hypothetical questions and systematic imagining
of the neighborhood. Groups rotated weekly.
2.) Prototypinggroups solidify to create personas and
prototypes (wearables and urban objects) engaging the
larger systematic concepts.
3.) Design Fictionsdesigns and personas synthesize into
scenarios to create design fiction collages and a video.
4.) Presentationgroups present their collages and videos to
a local planning committee of stakeholders.
This process began with a broad set of ideas and then syphoned
down to a more focused set of particular designs, personas, and
Infrastructures of the Imagination: Community Design for
Speculative Urban Technologies
C&T’17, 26-30 June 2017, Troyes, France
scenario collages/videos. Throughout the process, we intentionally
balanced futurist provocations with local history and existing urban
forms, as well as systemic approaches with human-centric design
3.1 Speculative “what if” questions
To envision the future, we used hypothetical “what if” questions
to guide the process, acting as provocations [3] to trigger the
participants’ imagination while creating an infrastructure for
collaborative brainstorming. Rather than completely open-ended
questions, workshops benefit from thematic constraints to focus
designs and keep them from traveling into the purely fantastical.
The questions ranged from socializing new technology (like self-
driving cars) to more structural issues (like sustainable
gardening and no private property). Augmented reality was also
offered as a personal technology relevant to all groups. Below
are the provocations listed from specific to general:
1. Autonomous Vehicles: What if self-driving shuttles
replaced privately owned vehicles?
2. City as Instrument: What if the city could be played
like a musical instrument?
3. Gardening Community: What if the city was built
around community gardening/farming?
4. No Private Property: What if there was no private
property and no policing?
The questions were created by the organizers, based on our
community partner’s (fourth author’s) insights into ongoing
issues within the community and Los Angeles generally (Table
1). As Dunne and Raby point out, the benefit of speculative
design is to tackle wicked problems that plague society or design
thinking [3]. By suspending our beliefs in contemporary
solutions, we are able to collectively search for novel solutions
and inventions.
What if?
Issues and Concerns
Autonomous Vehicles
Traffic, pa rk ing, and attention
City as Musical Instrument
Cultural heritage and engagement
Garden Community
Sustainability and
Healthy food options
No Private Property
Homelessness, affordability
and policing
Table 1: “What if” prompts related to local and wicked
3.2 Initial Outcomes and Issues
As groups synthesized their designs, there was a noticeable gap
in which “what if” questions stuck and which slipped away. For
example, ideas generated from the No Private Property group
were not present by the fourth week. This may indicate that the
prompt was too open or systematically complex. While City as
Musical Instrument and Garden Community were not tied to one
single technology, they immediately conjured up design objects.
Participants could quickly grasp urban furniture, musical
instruments, and urban farming. In contrast, No Private Property
appeared too abstract and required a more drastic leap away
from our current property-based economic system. In trying to
tackle economic issues as well as homelessness and policing, the
concept proved too vast and slippery for the allotted workshop
While No Private Property was an explicit prompt for creating
the commons,” the other questions intuitively generated
alternative forms of property. The Gardening Community group
imagined collective urban farms that functioned through shared
labor, training programs (for unemployed youth or homeless),
and non-monetary exchange. The Autonomous Vehicles group
imagined self-driving shuttles as shared work spaces, and the
City as Instrument group imagined interactive musical parks for
public collaboration. So rather than introduce the “commons”
concept from the top-down, groups organically imagined designs
that modeled socio-technical systems for the common good.
3.3 Infrastructures of the Imagination
Throughout the workshops, it was invaluable to re-present
previous week’s work and develop a shared vocabulary. Even at
the stage of brainstorming and paper prototyping, technology
can be conceptually challenging. As new community participants
rotated in, some were alienated by casual uses of design jargon
or technological terms (like “augmented reality”). It was a crucial
lesson for infrastructuring [2] as we sought to empower
participants to understand emerging speculative technologies.
As Kafai et al. argue, community-based technology education
programs cannot simply focus on technical literacy but must also
emphasize normative dimensions of long-term cultural adoption
[13]. One novel approach from an older (and highly dedicated)
participant, was to imagine augmented reality overlays as a tool
for seeing ancestral temporalities within the present world. By
pairing his spiritual beliefs with the technology, he found a more
meaningful cultural engagement. Beyond technical literacy,
infrastructures of the imagination establish conceptual frames
that merge speculative design thinking with local worldviews.
After four weeks of rotating groups to cross-pollinate ideas, we
finalized groups to create personas, prototypes, and scenarios.
4.1 Personas and Contact Zones
Groups created personas to focus on individual users and ground
designs in the community experience [4]. Indeed, two personas
were directly inspired by the community participants, essentially
writing themselves into the future. Groups also created
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K.Baumann et al.
“outsider” personas, since the neighborhood is focused on
cultural preservation in the face of rapid urban development.
Teams thus designed around encounters or contact zones [8] -
meeting points of difference across professional, ethnic,
geographic, and class identities - to tie their designs to the larger
civic complexity of their neighborhood and to create urban
“commons” [11].
4.2 Rapid-Prototyping and Scenarios
Workshops strategically alternated between top-down systemic
perspectives and bottom-up human centric designs. One week,
groups created future neighborhood models out of foam, plastic,
and wood. Another week, participants prototyped augmented
reality glasses and wearable tech (Figure 2). Shifting between the
systemic and the human-centric fostered conversations and
designs that could create an ecosystem of modular and
interrelated activities. Each individual design object was not an
isolated element, but were Things [7], i.e, socio-material
assemblages that generated relationships between people and
Figure 2. Neighborhood design (left), brainstorming (top
right) and rapid-prototyping wearables (bottom right).
For public presentation, groups created scenarios [14] that
synthesized their personas and urban technologies. They created
visual collages of a day-in-the-life in their future neighborhood,
often interweaving multiple scenarios to show the modularity of
their concepts. For example, the garden based design (Figure 1)
represented 1.) an interactive musical fountain to activate the
local park, 2.) maintaining the continuing presence of drum
circles, and 3.) a community garden that has sensors to keep
track of water levels. The autonomous vehicle group showed 1.)
vehicles could have AR history tours for visitors, 2.) paratransit
for local families, and 3.) drones to trade produce across
4.3 Design Fiction Video
In each of our previous LPC community design projects, we have
used “design fiction videos” [4] to utilize the power of movie
making (echoing science fiction) to visualize our speculative
designs. For this project, we went a step further to use 3D
modeling and visual effects (VFX) to present designs that we
could not build. The video represented the experience of a visitor
driving through Leimert Park and becoming enraptured by the
rich local musical history and architecture.
Community is never singular, but is multi-dimensional, much as
many PD theorists have adopted Dewey’s term publics [7]. The
final outcome of our workshop series was a public presentation
at a local stakeholders and planning group. Our participants
presented 7 collages and their final video to provoke dialogue
about long-term strategies for developing new technologies. The
video was particularly effective in bringing the designs to life
and incorporating local archival music footage. Community
members said that they were “inspired” and asked to join future
workshop series. The organizer claimed it was “the rst time I’ve
seen [the university] do something signicant…where urban
planning and community values and taste are brought together.”
His statement spoke to an appreciation of the process and not
just the designs.
By working with communities directly, speculative design can
expand its methodological horizons and empower groups to
imagine alternative future solutions to “wicked problems.”
Focusing on imaginative possibilities, prompted by “what if?”
questions, frees participants to explore ideas and connections,
with less deference to expert contributions. Long-term
envisioning can also suggest more immediate planning strategies
that support the commons.” But formal and conceptual
unknowns can be alienating and require infrastructuring to
create shared vocabularies tied to local worldviews. Video is
particularly powerful for visualizing the more nebulous concepts
and for additional community recruitment. While the project
received positive feedback, the direct effect on local planning is
yet to be seen. This project demonstrates and advances our
understanding of infrastructures of the imagination that empower
local communities to develop future designs, concepts, and
strategies that are in line with their local culture and future
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... Moreover, the provision of backdrop has been found useful for participants to take a leap from the present, enter the fictional world, and get sensitised with the futuristic ambiance. For instance, in Baumann et al.'s [4] co-design project of envisioning future neighbourhood with urban technologies, researchers carefully embedded design brief in 'what if' prompts for participants, like 'what if self-driving shuttles replaced privately owned vehicles?'. Another strategy is seen in Wu et al.'s [62] work which envisions a future of autonomous shipping in 2035. ...
... The two social settings provided in Step 1 were to facilitate participants to enter the future world with the provision of backdrop [4]. And the plot structure took the common fictional structure of 'overcoming a monster' [7] with both elements of 'goal/problem' and 'actions/solutions'. ...
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