Fabien Girardin is a co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory a thinking, making, design, development and research practice speculating on the near future possibilities for digital worlds. He is active in the domains of user experience, data science and urban informatics.
In his practice he mixes qualitative observations with quantitative data analysis to gain insights from the integration and appropriation of technologies. Subsequently, he exploits the gained knowledge with engineering techniques to prototype and evaluate concepts and solutions for urban service providers and decision makers.
The framework of this interview is related to the Ciudad de Bits article that speculates on the future of the city, a title inspired by William J. Mitchell’s book “City of Bits. Space, Place, and the Infobahn “. One of the first historical analogical references that came to our minds to address the issue of the City of Bits was “Powers of ten”, by the Eames brothers. What books or videos would you recommended, intuitively, if asked about the City of Bits as a concept?
At MIT, I got the chance to participate in conversations with William J. Mitchell, and got fascinated by his capacity to inspire and sketch the future. However, my research on the co-evolution of people and technology in urban environments got more influenced by geographers studying sociology of technology such as Stephen Graham, Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin or Phil Hubbard. The Cybercities Reader is most certainly a seminal book, but my personal favorite references that concisely describing the role of science and technology as makers of the urban landscape are Code/Space and The Hybrid City. I particularly like their total lack of emotions towards technologies and the ‘magic’ we all have a tendency to grant them.
You define yourself as a researcher, engineer and entrepreneur. How did you move from academia to the world of business? What have you learned in the process that you would like to share with someone who is finishing her studies or research at a university?
The trajectory that led me to obtain a PhD taught me a lot. First, as an engineer, I felt I was missing a critical skills to evaluate how my own technical work was getting closer to people. Back then I was developing sensors to detect mobility as well as collaborative interfaces. So I decided to learn about sciences directly related to humans and explore the application of research methods that allowed me to detect the implications of my technical work.
Second, academia can be a fierce competitive environment that stimulates the necessity to convince that a research is systematic and – not only to get publications accepted but to obtain grants. I have learned a lot from that rigor. However, the academic world never fully responded to my aspiration. Particularly for its lack of transparency and multi-disciplinarily that work at the crossroad of the understanding of humans, technology and the urban space necessitates. This is where my research blog comes from. It responded to the urge to break these kind of limitations. It got me to get inspired by individuals (e.g. Adam Greenfield, Julian Bleecker, Stephen Graham) who I would have never been in contact with in a unique academic community.
At Near Future Laboratory we give priority to constantly communicate our ideas and results, using our blogs, pamphlets, talks and workshops as echo chambers. As a consequence, our business thrives on this ability to involve multiple practices and networks for question formulations, data collection and solution creation. We found out that leaving academia improved our ability to formulate our methods particularly thanks to the diversity of constraints that demand a diversity of techniques. However, we make efforts in keeping the ideological approach of a researcher intact. It implies staying humble, not starting an investigation with a priori assumptions and not being afraid to express dots. When conveyed with assertiveness, this posture of the researcher driven by doubts but confident in its methods is what makes our value.
In some of your posts you make reference to the fact that in your professional activity you must follow your curiosity to take you to the limits of your career’s reach. You’re not a computer engineer nor today’s usual academic researcher, you look like a hybrid. Was it you curiosity that took you there?
Absolutely. Particularly the curiosities about how other practices investigate the world (geographers, social scientists) and solve problems (e.g. architects, urban planner). At Near Future Laboratory we nurture this type of curiosity as a state of mind rather than a real set of rules. Our experience in academia certainly helps us in always be in doubt and investigate new domains. We like to think when entering a new area one has to spend a year listening, reading, learning about a new practice. Find out who the thought leaders are and why. Then invest the next year helping out and apprenticing. Be a humble servant, asking questions but also getting hands dirty and trousers scuffed. Be active, modest and become a learner. Move about, but focus on the nuances of the craft aspects of the practice community.
Finally spend a year making/creating/building on your own, whatever the field might be. Prepare to be a contributor in a more active way. Find a voice of your own. You would’ve created a network that knits you into the community by this time.
After some time at Liftlab, you open, with some colleagues, the Near Future Laboratory. You refer to a stage where you refine your practice that takes you on new journeys. What are the keys to this new journey into the future you start?
The Near Future Laboratory is a natural evolution by experimenting in other directions than the regular consulting firm. We are moving, refining, finding ways to continue to learn and bringing all the other bits of learning, the other “fields”, the other ways of knowing and seeing the world, all the other bounded disciplines. Along with Julian Bleecker, Nicolas Nova and a network of tactical scouts we form a technology-based practice that combines insight and analysis with design and research with rapid prototyping to transform ideas into material form. Our practices help us get closer to the “weak signals” that echo from the fringes of digital culture, where the near-future already exists.
What are the methods you use to attack new works referred to the city? Do you have a recent example of work that could serve as an example?
Our current projects on the city mainly focus on ‘exploiting’ the data that are the byproduct of people digital activities (i.e. network data). As data has become the ‘new oil’, we are approached to find solutions from untapped data sources, uncover opportunities to refine data rather than purely selling it, and materialize new services based on network data. Our method first consists in desk research that contemplates datasets related to a matter. We map possible future changes to highlight new opportunities and prepare for them. Using tools and perspectives from near futures research, we look for emerging social and technological shifts that indicate possible changes. Then we like to develop potential solutions, often several avenues that aim at provoking. There are often tangible for participants of the project to actually build their own scenarios. Based on prototyping methods, we materialize product ideas or insights coming from field studies.
For instance this is the kind of process we apply with BBVA to investigate the roles of a retail bank in the ‘smart’ city of the near future. The bank had fairly good ideas of their potential contributions to a world that needs real-time information exchange platform. This is the kind of service a bank is extremely familiar with. However, they had limited knowledge the type of information that could feed and emerge from this kind of platform. As part of our consulting work, we sketched a pretty advanced dashboard for participants of the project to explore and interrogate their data with fresh perspectives. The use of the dashboard helped the participants craft and tune indicators that qualify the space based on its business activity. This experience was used to develop specific scenarios involving services and products that exploit a bank and its clients could take advantage of.
Graphic recording (real-time visual summary) by Alexandra Etel Rodríguez, Business Creativity + Innovation Facilitator. Partner ConnectingBrains
It is curious that in your work –urban informatics– you reference the process of sketching, typicalof more creative professions (such as architects or planners). One would mistakenly imagine that you would work with just flat code and operators. Could you explain more the meaning of the data sketch in your workflow?
The different stages that form the process materializing information from network data demands to find answers and ask new questions. As a ‘data scientist’ I found the necessity to very quickly being able to visualize temporary results, communicate them to members of the project. In this kind of exploratory investigation there is a necessity to fail or succeed early to keep a proper momentum. We cannot afford to move out and wait for months to return to the participants of the projects with results.
We used to develop my own tools to quickly produce tangible results, what we call ‘sketches’ (maps, animations, interactive interface). Now based on this experience and in collaboration with my friends at the information visualization consultancy Bestiario, I co-created Quadrigram, a platform that I use to easily access, manipulate, analyze, and visualize data flows. We hope the tools it provide help respond to the growing necessity to treat data as a living material that must be crafted and manipulated at the different stages of knowledge and service production.
Flickr de Fabien Giardin (Quadrigram)
The city, and therefore the city of bits, is a complex entity involving many fields and professions. What is your vision of the work of professionals from different areas coming together in urban informatics?
There is a necessity of speaking different languages (the technology, the space, the people) and be aware of the practices of other. I often act as middlemen, helping articulate the different practices that form the groups working of digital technologies in the city. Being able to quickly sketch an interactive dashboard is a guarantee to have a common language that helps the different actors in asking better questions, getting better feedback from them and properly focusing the investigation (some call it visual thinking or to some extend predictive analytics).
This type of multi-disciplinary work will need new tools. I certainly hope that tools like Quadrigram will lower the barriers of multi-disciplinary project and offer the opportunity to collect insights that give a project the upper hand in decision making.
We know your approach, in which quantitative data are not sufficient to give answers about the city from urban informatics. Can you share the importance of qualitative data and its relationship with users and citizens?
It might be obvious for some, but many in the world of ‘data science’ and computer science still lack of sensitiveness to the limitations of quantitative evidences and the models we can build on to of them. I am often confronted to these limitations. In a project for the Louvre Museum we developed indicators of hyper-congestion (i.e. when the quantity of visitors influences the quality of their visit) based on sensor data. We produced unprecedented measures, but they were revealing the symptoms rather than explaining their sources. So we used the results and their visualizations to complement our measures with qualitative evidences from the surveillance team on the field. There are insights that only in-situ observations can provide. It requests a different set of skills and at the Near Future Laboratory we are game mixing both quantitative and qualitative evidences.
Thank for everything, Fabien.
This interview with Fabien Girardin was conducted by ZZZINC in collaboration with Mosaic through the use of a shared document between February 16th and March 7th, 2012.
ZZZINC is an independent culture research lab.
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