Social cities and technology

The challenge

Our relationship with technology in public spaces isn't healthy. Can we reimagine this relationship in a way that's less destructive to the social connectedness of our communities?

In this article

  • How the internet of things (IoT) works and how we might leverage it to integrate technology more seamlessly into our surroundings.
  • The two prototypes we developed: a digital way-finding solution using e-ink displays and a custom built sensor array.
  • Where those prototypes are now.

Our relationship with technology in public spaces isn’t healthy. Constantly craning our necks to our phones means we engage less with the people around us and less with our surroundings. 

However, we can improve this relationship by using the Internet of Things (IoT). Building 'calm' technology into our environment can actually prompt social interaction and heighten the experience of our environment.

IoT connects everyday objects through feedback loops of information sensing, data processing, and action. While the technology has been common since the 1990s, even the most innovative cities have tended to limit their use of IoT technology to optimise the management of existing infrastructure. But what if we designed the tech to step back and give centre stage to how we use, understand and feel in our environment?

For this project, our Melbourne Digital team, RMIT Spatial Information and Architecture Laboratory, a local startup Sandpit and our Arup London Digital Studio partnered with the Collingwood Arts Precinct (CAP).

In the heart of metropolitan Melbourne, the CAP site has a 140 year history of collaboratively making and creating new technologies. Formerly the site of a polytechnic college, CAP is being reimagined as a space for creative and community enterprise. Being a new development, there was an opportunity to build, test, and implement emerging IoT technology from day one.

Below is a video of some of the possibilities the team came up with. You can see a few different ideas in there—calm tech, personalised signs, and communication from people directly to a building. Don't worry, there's not supposed to be any sound (super calm, right?)

Prototyping, Testing, Iterating, Collaborating

Our research told us that people wanted to make choices about the information that they received and to have a say in how they programmed the building. Together, we created two prototypes. The first was a responsive digital wayfinding prototype using e-paper. The system allows users to actively shape the visibility of information along their journey without being overwhelmed by too much information and noise.

The second was a physical sensor array that linked applications to the building fabric, allowing users to invite social interaction or create private spaces as they moved through the site.

“This project is interesting because it’s about prototyping new ways of working: doing user research differently, building technology differently, and how we share that technology through open source means.”

Each time we created a prototype it was tested on site. We’ve now scaled these and are applying them to other projects in cities, including environmental and acoustic sensing and data analytics along major infrastructure projects such as Melbourne Metro and pedestrian air quality sensing on city streets with the City of Perth.

This project also let us galvanise a collaborative team who worked together from user research to final prototype. Sandpit, who specialise in designing and deploying creative digital solutions in the physical world, helped the team to create the concepts, Dan from RMIT helped us develop the technical solutions, and Chris Green from the Arup Digital Studio storyboarded, filmed and shot the video prototype.

Dan Hill at work with some of our CAP collaborators.  Photo Arup

Human Centred Design

From day one, we used a human-centred approach to explore how technology could improve the way the communities around the Collingwood Arts Precinct interacted with the environment. Collingwood is a suburb in transition. Its community is multicultural, multi-generational and mixed-income. It was important for us to hear from as many community representatives as possible and to spend time in the area ourselves.

We were looking for gaps and pain points that we might be able to help solve through a combination of design and technology.  Listening to the community, already expert local users, helped us identify key themes and problems. We then started designing, prototyping, testing, and iterating solutions on site.

“Social interactions will always exist in urban environments, what we’re seeing now is the opportunity to curate them mildly.”

This research was unusual in that we had the opportunity to enter the project so early, well before any construction plans were made. We were able to better shape the vision, facilitate a more participatory design process and create stronger outcomes.

Walking through the halls of the former polytechnic, soon to be transformed into a thriving arts precinct. Photo Arup


  • We can renegotiate the way we live with technology in public spaces to promote rather than hinder social interaction by using Internet of Things technologies that encourage us to engage with each other and our surroundings.
  • By combining qualitative research, digital know-how and engineering we were able to create outcomes that responded not only to the site but peoples’ lived experience and vision of their future.
  • Over-the-counter sensors didn’t have good enough calibration for us to use in our professional engineering applications. But we built and tested our own, quickly and cheaply.
  • We created two prototypes: a sensor and a wayfinding system that we’re now using on several large, city infrastructure projects.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Alexandra Sinickas
Alex leads Arup Research in Australasia.

Ask Alex about

  1. How we conducted and derived insights from our user research
  2. How we developed our digital prototypes and then tested and iterated upon each solution using a participatory design process
  3. How we're applying what we learned through these IoT prototypes to other projects


Research TEAM

Dan leads the Arup Digital Studio team from London.
Olga is a senior digital consultant and service designer in our Melbourne team.
Chris is a designer with Arup Digital Studio in New York.
Fire Engineer, Sydney office
Program manager, Advisory, Melbourne office
Westbury and CAP
Marcus Westbury is the CEO of Collingwood Arts Precinct in Melbourne.
Koerner and Sandpit
Dan is co-founder of Sandpit, and runs creative digital projects.
Prohasky and RMIT
Daniel is a research engineer with Swinburne University looking at IoT, robotics and automation
Matt is a Digital Consultant with McKinsey and Co.

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