Speculative enactments for urban digital twins & public participation

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Cities want to give birth to their own twins, on a computer.

The urban digital twin is a digital copy of the city constructed from heaps of data rather than concrete, and it is being heralded as the driver for Smart Cities: by collecting more and more data and processing it in more and more sophisticated models we would monitor, predict and control the physical city’s behaviour to engineer solutions for today’s most pressing issues, from climate adaptation to crowd management and from infrastructure to governance.

This research critically examines the role urban digital twins can play in processes of public participation. While regularly mentioned in urban digital twin proposals, little research exists exploring this application, even less that takes a critical stance. One city that is looking to use urban digital twins in participation is Den Haag, which has started work on an urban digital twin called De Digitale Spiegelstad (The Digital Mirror City), and research has taken place primarily in the context of this city and this project.

To this end I iteratively developed visions of what a future urban digital twin for participation could look like. These visions challenged the mainstream or obvious narratives around urban digital twins, following the Adversarial Design philosophy of Carl DiSalvo. This led to a prototype that was used to act out a process of participation concerning the redesign of a playground with residents of the neighbourhood Moerwijk, using the research method of Speculative Enactments developed by Christ Elsden and colleagues. Enactments were followed by group interviews with participants about potential risks and benefits of urban digital twins for participation.

The thesis concludes that urban digital twins may have the potential to make public participation engaging to a wider group of citizens and could contribute to citizen trust and transparency in decision-making, but also poses the risk of steering citizens towards technocratic perspectives and leading conversations to focus on details rather than bigger issues. I provide a series of design recommendations in response to these.

Lastly I reflect on the methods and execution of the project, and the implications this may have for design researchers seeking to embark on a similar journey.