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Grounding, and the layered complexity of place

Throughout their book Shaping Smart for Better Cities: Rethinking and Shaping Relationships between Urban Space and Digital Technologies, Alessandro Aurigi and Nancy Odendaal stress awareness of “place” as a complex and multidimensional arena and the need to face its complexity rather than withdraw into simplified stories when defining and analyzing it. In their words, “the grounding of smart within specific contexts requires consideration of the relationships that exist and evolve within those environments, in social, cognitive, and practical design terms. A variety of different agents/actants contribute to the making of digitally augmented places, and many of the chapters in this book explore the mechanisms through which this can be achieved. For example, through neighborhood-based consultation and careful cultural analysis, as explored by Ummu Sakiinah, Ingrid Mulder, Annemiek van Boeijen, and Rudi Darson in their account of how locally sensitive and connected smart design practices could offer a rich and meaningful way to revitalize a commercial street in Rotterdam.”

The SmaakReis project: Designing the Middellandstraat Food Journey

Through a growing influx of immigrants, Middellandstraat has evolved into a unique multicultural neighborhood with a similar mix of shops. Being part of an initiative to revitalize a multicultural shopping street in Rotterdam, Ummu Sakiinah reframed her graduation project in how to support the shops to attract more visitors to the shopping street through the food diversity. In particular, she developed SmaakReis, a service that enables people to be inspired and informed about the shop’s authentic identity, diversity and historical value, making visitors feel comfortable in the shops, and allow them to explore in depth the Middellandstraat. Through an integrated experience combining online and offline world, visitors can feel the food diversity experience in Middellandstraat. Additionally, visitors can get a package of special recipe and ingredients from the shop and locals to know more about their food culture and specialty. Importantly, Smaak Reis is also about co-creating and connecting the community. Visitors can request and submit their unique recipe to be featured and presented in the shop, and in this way become part of the diversity in Middellandstraat. Shop owners can provide cooking tutorials and visitors can interact and recommend the products, recipes, and shops with each other, also accompanied by a shopping buddy, to discover shops from a different perspective.

Designing smart to revitalize a multicultural shopping street

Taking a research through design approach, Ummu Sakiinah, Ingrid Mulder, Annemiek van Boeijen, and Rudi Darson elaborate upon learnings from the local contextually grounded design project of SmaakReis (the graduation project) and promote design as a means to improve and revitalize the street. After presenting the rich insights of the contextual study, the chapter describes the findings of the culture-sensitive design approach following its four stages and the resulting concept of SmaakReis. Next, barriers and enablers of culture-sensitive design are discussed along five themes that are found key in designing for the revitalization of the shopping street and reflect on the value of design and co-creation. From the lessons learned through SmaakReis, a series of ten guidelines for smart urban design and implementation were distilled that help practitioners to smartly design interventions in cities that account for contextual and cultural characteristics reflecting the complexity of place. It can be concluded that SmaakReis was helpful in codesigning futures with the local stakeholders and enabled them to act on the designed smart city vision in aligning their strategic activities. Interestingly the implementation of the SmaakReis concept in one of the local restaurants stresses the importance of capacity building and the relevance of the guidelines for cultural and local embedment.

Ten guidelines for smart urban design interventions focused on placemaking
  • Use the “sociable smart city” concept in terms of using the possibilities embedded in the targeted context and capabilities of the people. Smart here does not primarily refer to the application of new technologies, but first of all to building an empathic understanding of the local cultural context with its subcultures.
  • Consider how to delineate the local culture, on the appropriate skill, depending on cultural variation within the city areas. Negotiation on a local level is an essential part of the smart city design process, and since the cultural context can highly differ from location to location, the scale for revitalization should be considered and chosen carefully.
  • Identify a key asset of an area, which can be used to push its revitalization through socially engaged means (such as “food” in our example).
  • Integrate the virtual world with the physical world. A shopping street is not only about the physical stores but also about their virtual and online presence. It is crucial to integrate the digital experience of visitors with the physical experience of the shopping street.
  • Make use of the multicultural background of (local) people. It is a strength that makes the area unique. Bringing together the whole experience of the culture and showcase it can be a way to do it.
  • Adjust the design process with the local cultural context. Participatory sessions should be attuned to the participants’ backgrounds. For example, the used generative materials, selected participants, facilitators/design researchers, and language and style of communication should resonate with the people involved
  • Adjust the design with the local cultural context. While embracing people’s own cultural backgrounds, attune the design with the local culture (in our case this included the visitors). An example in this project is by provid- ing ways to communicate in direct ways to cater to the audience in the Netherlands (dominant culture).
  • Be aware of providing a sense of unity within the variety. Different cultural concepts can be confusing for visitors, so a sense of unity in the midst of the differences should also be considered.
  • Use the existing resources; facilitate people to enrich the experience. The multicultural background of the people in the area should not be a wall to understanding each other, but it can be used as a resource to enrich the experience. An example from this project was the change of having a buddy from the area for shopping around. The buddy knew the area, the dominant culture, and other cultural groups well and was the best guidance for a clueless visitor. It helped them to have a more personal relationship with the area.
  • Last but not least, reflect on the researcher/designer’s own culture to understand how that will influence the design process and the final result.

You can read and download Chapter 8 “Designing smart to revitalize a multicultural shopping street” and the entire book “Shaping Smart for Better Cities. Rethinking and Shaping Relationships between Urban Space and Digital Technologies” here


To cite this work please reference to it as follows:

Sakiinah, U., Mulder, I. van Boeiijen, A. & Darson, R. (2021). Designing smart to revitalize a multicultural shopping street (Chapter 8). in: Alessandro Aurigi and Nancy Odendaal (eds.) Shaping Smart for Better Cities. Rethinking and Shaping Relationships between Urban Space and Digital Technologies. Academic Press, pp. 123-155.