Grow: a smart city

sketching, personas, ideation, interview, probes, speculative design

Animation of roots growing from feet on a floor


Goal: Design a provocation or intervention that interrogates the idea of the "smart city", its purpose, and its users.

Outcome: A proposed installation to visualize the entangled tree and human networks within the urban environment.

My role: Our team of four worked very closely, so it is difficult to divide contributions distinctly, but I helped...


What is the data that existing "smart city" projects use? Who are these cities for? And how do you go beyond reacting to existing "problems" to designing for a better future?

This was probably one of the most difficult projects we had during our studies and one of the most rewarding. We were given a brief, a few creative angles with which to conduct our exploration of the city, and set loose to discover our projects.

Our team started by sharing a lot of behaviors and concepts that intrigued us. Through affinity diagramming, these soon coalesced into five key themes: repurposing, visualizing, communicating, sharing, and beliefs.

Ideas on post-its
We went classic, using post-its to brainstorm what aspect of a "city" we wanted to address in our project

We also played a lot of games. Games spark creativity and collaboration. "The Quiet Year" was particularly relevant when thinking about what goes into a community. (And personally I also just wanted to find an excuse to play games).

Quiet Year Ideation game
Some of the games we played to get a feel for possible connections between our ideas and create a speculative space apart from "reality"

Our original domains of research veered into researching the various ways the city repurposes:

We conducted interviews, dropped probes and took field trips (and played more games). The theme of an object's lifecycle emerged and we thought about how we could change existing beliefs to help extend their lifespans. From all this research, we got very familiar with these figures of the urban landscape—naturally, we built personas for them.

Creativity probes
We left a few zines in little free library locations as probes; one of my teammates made one for a phonebooth that we did get a response to!
Jumper Persona
I made a persona for a jumper to explore the needs and attributes of its lifecycle
Plant Persona
Annie made the plant persona to explore its lifecycle

It wasn't until we had our first feedback session that we realized we were going in too many directions, and took a vote to consider how to proceed. Plants won, so we threw our efforts into devising an intervention or artifact focused on plants. We knew we wanted to do something playful, so we initially settled on a game around the purposes of a few species of plants within human life. It was to be based on a London map, and we drew a lot of inspiration from Monopoly. Our goal was to challenge the attitudes of Londonders towards plants, and emphasize that plants are not just for human consumption or decoration—they're alive too.

Plant profiles
Trying out what information to include in a boardgame about the circular plant economy

In our design crit, it was pointed out that while our game purported to advocate for plants, our approach was too human-centered and our outcomes were not clear enough. So we made the tough decision to turn completely away from our original concept and consider into how we could give plants more agency. Because this happened during the Covid-19 lockdown, we turned to desk research, which propelled us into a deep dive on science, technology, and art. Some fun facts are:

When we were discussing science, we also couldn't help but discuss the way artists have visualized science. Inspirations included:

Through many rounds of sketching and research, discussion and voting, we arrived at our final design for the installation. Underpinning the process was key attention to our original five themes and questions of what we wanted to achieve and why. Later rounds incorporated the "how" as well, but we approached our design conceptually first in order to not get distracted by technology.

Diagram of our ideas
A family tree visualizing all the ideas we explored and discarded
My sketches Sketch by Annie Sketch by Rosie
Some sketches, mine is the first messy one. Second is by Annie, third by Rosie.

Upon reflection, it was very tough for me to not know where we were going to emerge. Whereas in other courses, we were constrained with the form of our final product (a digital technology, a site's information architecture, etc.) there was truly no restrictions placed on the final product for this project. I'm from a background where exploration is usually a means to a known end; to sit back and trust that we'd get somewhere good made me very uncomfortable. But discomfort helps us grow.

Thankfully our team was very invested. Rough patches were resolved, workload was split and completed, and somehow, we made it to an idea that grabbed all of us. When we put it all together for the final presentation, the feeling of accomplishment was great!


Through much research and exploration, we arrived at a vision of a shared future in which plants and humans share collaborative infrastructures that support symbiotic flows of communications and resources. In order to work towards this type of future, humans must undergo a paradigm shift with regard to our relationship with the world of flora. To spark this conversation, we proposed a series of site-specific, interactive art installations that visualize the invisible connectivity of the networks of humans and trees.

Installation in Highbury Corner Installation in Granary Square
Mock-ups of how this installation would look on site. First is by Rosie and Gemma, second is by me.

London’s green spaces are a patchy, disconnected collection of parks and in-between ‘waiting spaces’ used for decoration and recreation. Among these, a series of ‘tiny forests’ are scattered across the city; they are small, often marginalised or liminal public spaces which are home to groups of trees, such as roundabouts, plazas, and greens. By creating a site-specific series of exhibits, we can draw attention to the unique considerations for liminal green spaces within the city.

Our installation rewards stillness, encouraging passersby to pause to “grow roots” that connect with simulations of the roots of real trees and other humans within the space. The proposed design juxtaposes the subterranean infrastructures of two urban spaces in London (Highbury Corner and Granary Square) and asks humans to alter their patterns of movement and to reflect upon the invisible interconnections and isolations that result from the ways we design, build and inhabit the city.

Animation of roots growing from feet on a floor
Simple animation of roots growing, used to convey our vision in a presentation


This design was intended to become a tool to foster human-plant relationships and advocate for plants. We were keenly aware of the risk of creating a mere passing experience and continued to consider ways to engender deep engagement and reflection. However, this became our stopping point for the coursework assignment. Future iterations would have considered how to represent plants beyond our human perspectives, to truly give them voice and agency. Plants are more than just decoration, they are equal citizens of the city, ones that we must collaborate with for a mutually beneficial future.