Exploring the world (out of office)
Part of the work as a user experience researcher (or a designer) is of course to get out of the office and explore the world. It is not enough to only read about things and listening to the experiences of others. Journeys into people’s everyday lives will surely give a more holistic view of practices and increase the understanding for potential users of products and services. What would it be like to live their life? How do they solve tasks? What does their environment look like? Which cultural characteristics must be considered?
We try to take every chance to widen our perspectives, and earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend some time in the capitals of Asia’s two giants. Delhi, India and Beijing, China are both facing major challenges due to the massive migration of people from the countryside. Delhi is an emerging megacity struggling with large slum areas, insufficient infrastructure for water and electricity, and a lack of capacity in health services. Beijing is a more mature and economically strong megacity, but still having its share of challenges, such as, traffic congestions and the severe air pollution. The countries that the cities are located in do also have very different views on governance. China has the totally controlling state sector with a very structured and planned approach, running the country and the cities from a highly top-down perspective. India is a society with the rights to public voice and room for bottom-up initiatives, but also known for corruption in public services.
The differences are also very noticeable when traveling around the two cities. Delhi has a vitality, energy, and cultural diversity that is inspiring but at the same time a bit uncontrolled. As an example, several initiatives have been taken regarding the air pollution, such as, the use of natural gas for buses and to increase the tree cover (in an already surprisingly green city center). This has unfortunately not had the wanted effect on the air quality, but the city is also looking at how the enormous fleet of auto rickshaws can become safer, cleaner, and wider ranging, and thereby a more sustainable part of an (non-corrupted) urban transport system. At the same time the streets in Delhi are filled with people having migrated from rural areas, and the poverty in the slums is disturbing. The working conditions of the numerous waste pickers, looking for garbage to recycle and sell in landfill areas and along the highways are also terrible. The inequalities are factors contributing to the crime problems, which are worsened by the authorities inefficiency and lack of regional collaboration. The fear for crimes and terrorism is very evident wherever you go in Delhi through metal detectors, security checks, sandbag barricades, armed guards, and gated communities. And this does of course affect people’s behavior and how they choose to live their life in the city.
In Beijing, things appear to be very well planned and the city is laid out with wide streets, tall buildings, and the absence of crowds. Everywhere you go, the tearing down of the old and the impressive construction of a modern and efficient city is present. It does not seem to be any room for the traditional hutongs (narrow streets or alleys with courtyard residences), and nowadays it is difficult to take the bicycle into the city center due to all the roads built for cars. Unfortunately, the urban planning is often shortsighted and focus on directly measureable KPIs rather than the quality of life for the citizens. Huge residential suburbs, numerous large ring roads, and record-long metro lines are being built, but they sometimes lack a holistic view on how people live in and move around the city. In spite of the huge infrastructure efforts, the traffic is still very heavy on the roads and the public transportation lack capacity (here are the crowds) to be a sufficient alternative when people has to travel across the city. Private initiatives such as corporate bus sharing schemes are therefore common as a way to find a faster and personalized way around Beijing. Above all this, the skies are filled with smog as constant reminder of the environmental concerns.
Having so far focused on the differences, the similarities should not be forgotten. Beijing has, just like Delhi, migrant workers living informal lives in the city, trying to make a living and get hold of the benefits of city life. And Delhi has, just like Beijing, a crowded public transport system that forces people to choose car queues instead of the cheap metro to at least have some kind of personal space. And in both cities people are trying to escape the stress of the daily life and relax during weekends, whether it is in the shade of a tree in one of the green areas in Delhi or as a Ping-Pong game next to one of the ring roads in Beijing.
Many more things can be said about these two capitals in two countries that are both expected to be future economic superpowers. It is apparent that both Delhi and Beijing (like many other megacities) must improve the way they are tackling the urbanization challenges. And for us that are trying to create ICT solutions that support both city leaders and citizens in shaping better cities, it is crucial to understand the context in which the solutions will be used. Although the needs and the ultimate goal may be similar, the cultural, socioeconomical, and historical context may require that they come to life in slightly different ways. In this work that we have ahead, there are also several positive aspects that we can pick up on. In Delhi and India, the diversity, curiosity and creativity, and experience of a democratic reform. And in Beijing and China, the great collaborative will, the drive that anything can be done, and the innovative spirit.
Photos from the top:
Auto rickshaw ride in Delhi.
Fourth Ring Road (out of six) in Beijing.
Sandbag barricade outside a metro station in Delhi.
Ping-Pong game in one of the hutongs in Beijing.