Droog Design utilises virtual reality as a tool to develop actual reality

Social City Exhibition at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen. Photo Droog Design

AMSTERDAM — Architecture and urbanism have long been subject to a ‘top-down’ design approach, where a few elite determine a resultant product for many. In recent years, ‘bottom-up’ approaches have taken a particular spot in the limelight – where communities focus on their own desires and take the initiative to drive local developments. The Amsterdam-based studio Droog Design is leading the development of a platform that is meeting somewhere in the middle, as a user-centred approach to designing the city through a research and cooperation called Design + Desires. Like most user-centred design methodologies, the project team is made up of collaborators who seek user involvement not only at a data collection level but also at a product realisation level; progressing through iterations, the process is an open dialogue of development.

The platform has a principal project entitled Social City which is supported by various other initiatives that contribute to researching city development. The core team involved is made up of: Renny Ramakers, founder of Droog and Mark van der Net, architect and programmer from OSCity. Social City is a virtual city that hopes to collect the desires of all those who contribute to it; so far over 900 ‘social citizens’ are involved. The intention of the project is to explore the paradox between diversity and integration of people within city-making, and to avoid separatist communities while embracing identity. The first version of the platform was launched during the Next City Living Lab at the 2015 Beijing Design Week. After that, in the same year it was shown at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen where it received the Peoples' Choice Award. More recently, Social City was displayed at the 4th Mercado Arte Design in Sãao Paulo, Brazil. Mark magazine spoke to the project manager Suki de Boer of Droog about the project.

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What is Social City and how are people involved?
Social City is a virtual city on our . By taking our unique poll and answering questions about what your ideal city looks like and why it should look that way, you become a Social Citizen and contribute in our Social City. Our poll not only addresses cities in terms of bricks-and-mortar, it also addresses the invisible city and various underlying social structures that cities intrinsically possess. We intentionally developed it to be very playful. Upon answering the various questions, you receive a unique avatar visually modeled from your personal input. The results allow your avatar to participate in the virtual city and in turn see the city grow in relation to other participants. For example, if you want to live in an apartment block and opt for solar energy, you can see that this block and solar panels are added. The intent of Social City is to create a new community. The data we gather through the poll is used for further reflection, debate and development. In addition to our large scale poll, we have created so-called ‘mini-polls’ to cover a variety of topics that gather more specified input from our citizens.  The Social City data also functions to feed some of our other projects. One is Social City Beta which aims to visualise a future city based on the dreams and desires of people throughout the world. TD Architects has completed the first drawing based on feedback given in the large-scale poll. We are continually receiving new input from the Social Citizens, thus the drawing is constantly modified and in turn the visual results are shared with all of our Social Citizens. It is an iterative process; the drawing develops as a result of input from the poll.

What do you think about the first city depiction and its format? Will different modes of representation evolve and how do you think this effects the project?
TD Architects designed the representation and deliberately choose a more traditional architectural style in order to keep in line with the futuristic architectural drawings of the past.  We have not seen these kind of utopian vistas for some time. We like to keep visuals in line with this tradition but add new life to them by basing them on people’s actual dreams. We imagine in the future we will also ask young architects to give their interpretation of the dreams and desires of the Social Citizens so with this the outcome and interpretations will be different. This is the next step!


Social City Beta - Illustration by TD Architects

How do you see this information utilised in the future?
The information is used internally to feed and fuel future projects. We also use the information to open new dialogues with our external network. The intent is that the Design + Desires website and the virtual Social City develop into a hybrid between a ‘social medium’ and ‘online community’ to create new dialogues and discussions centring on information and designs garnered from our projects. Although we gather a lot of information from Social Citizens, we always strive to maintain a dialogue and be transparent with them about what we aim to do with the data.

How do you ensure user involvement from a wide audience aside from industry professionals who are innately interested in this topic?
We do various projects, debates and lectures within Design + Desires. These activities always involve people from city neighbourhoods. The processes and results of these supplementary undertakings are communicated on our platform. The continuous feedback from citizens, not only those who have participated in projects, is a very important aspect of our people-centred research-and-do method. We are aware that we have to go beyond the circle of usual suspects. We do this primarily through our local projects. We just finished the first phase of a project in Amsterdam's Dapperbuurt, a neighbourhood with a huge amount of youth employment. We approached the youngsters via a social media campaign and a poll with the slogan: 'Would you like to turn your passion into your dream job?' With this campaign we reached 11,500 people and 366 of them took our poll.

How long will you run the Social City project and what is the ultimate outcome?

Social City is a growing virtual city with no definite end. We are committed to continue collecting input from different citizens all over the world. The ultimate outcome is that the viewpoints collected span a variety of different citizens worldwide. Their dreams are the starting point for all of our projects, whether on a local or a global scale. And of course, the ultimate dream is that outcomes from our design research would be applied to an actual, functioning urban infrastructure.



How do you think data harvesting or crowd sourced information can affect design disciplines in the process of creation?
Harvesting data or crowd sourcing information does provide insight on who people are, how people live, and what they desire and hope for. More data means that we have to take into account more diverse needs. This urges us to come up with smarter solutions to bridge seemingly conflicting human interests. We look at the huge diversity of dreams and desires of city dwellers as a design tool. To us, diversity is a continuous balancing act between integration and exclusion. Our process of creation always starts and ends with design thinking. With Design + Desires, we bridge the gap between top-down and bottom-up. Our main quest is to design a city that takes conflicting desires as a catalyst instead of simply following the rule of the majority.

When I first discovered the Social City project, it reminded me of Second Life. How do you think the two ideas relate? Could you use a platform like Second Life to gather further information or increase your audience?
Second Life is about having a digital life next to your ordinary life in real-time. To a certain extent there is a relationship. However, Second Life addresses digital life from another angle with another layer by focusing on creating and manifesting your dreams in the virtual world. Social City is really looking at future living from a different viewpoint and has a different purpose. At its core, Social City acts as the catalyst for innovation based on individuals' dreams and needs. The desires expressed online are the breeding ground for all of our projects and designs in real-life. We are not only interested in virtual connections and solutions but we also want to make an impact on a truly tangible city. We haven’t thought about connecting to Second Life yet, but it is an interesting thought. Connecting to Second Life would perhaps increase our audience and this connection may increase diversity, which is something we feel very passionate about and continually strive to do.


Social City - by Droog Design


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