Alicja Halbryt

Feb 4, 2020

4 min read

Service Design Futures for pedestrians — a brief summary

The following project was an MA Service Design dissertation. It followed the Futures Cone approach (Voros, 2003) and tried to find the preferable future for a very specific problem. The problem was defined and explored by utilising both futures design and service design methods. The tools included observations, online survey, co-ideation session, futures artifacts, prototyping and interviews with experts. The interviews gathered opinions from organisations such as Digital Catapult, Humanising Autonomy, Futurice, Sustrans, Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles — the technology believed to be the future of transportation — appears to be more of a threat to humans rather than an increase in safety when one digs into the topic more. The cars are likely to hit dark-skinned people more often due to the algorithmic bias (Futurism, 2019). They might have to be programmed to hit a specific demographic group and save others in an unavoidable accident (Moral Machine by MIT Media Lab). And most of all, they do not have the human common sense, often so crucial on the street. All this causes fear of being hit or not seen, but also (as found from a survey I conducted specifically for this project) people’s general willingness to adapt new behaviours in order to stay safe. The fear can have different consequences, one of which are human bullies.

So how might we prepare London pedestrians for daily interactions with self-driving cars? And how can we do it specifically in the transition period (which is likely to last for a very long time) — when there are both autonomous and regular cars on the street? How can it be done without the huge infrastructure or behaviour changes?

A future artifact created for this project — an article styled as The Times article (you can read more about it in the previous blog post) coming from 2025 talks about the first ever pedestrian protest in London against self-driving cars. It includes quotes from people who are scared and frustrated with their lack of knowledge on how to behave around the cars. It also features voices of passengers who are annoyed with pedestrians who stop their cars on purpose and hence disrupt their journey. This article was used in a co-ideation session. The session participants were asked to ideate ways of stopping the protest from happening. What could be done now to assure people don’t feel unsafe on the street in the future?

And why don’t we just let the cars know where we are and where we are going?

Pedestrian mode — an operating system feature
The proposed service enhances people’s safety on the street by increasing their visibility and predictability to the autonomous cars. It is a mode embedded in personal devices, such as smartphones, tablets, smart watches and even smart jewellery. It connects the device with the self-driving cars and certain pedestrian crossings through 5G, location data, Wi-Fi and different sensors. By this, the cars can know where a person is, which direction they go to, and how fast they walk. It allows them to adjust their speed whenever they sense a person is about to burst into the street. This solution also aims at improving pedestrian street crossing and traffic flow. It also means the algorithmic bias could be (to some extent) eliminated — it won’t be about a camera recognising or not a black face anymore, but simply about sensors enabled in a personal device.

Because this solution would bring a very high level of safety, pedestrians might feel too safe and start jaywalking much more than now. As long as we aim for making cities more pedestrian friendly, the fact that people would start walking freely on the roads might have a huge negative impact on the economy. Since the cars would stop for them every time, the congestion level would increase immensely. What is more, autonomous car passengers’ journeys could be constantly disrupted and last forever. For this reason, it is important to raise people’s awareness on how to act around self-driving cars and encourage good behaviour. It could be done through notifications asking people not to disrupt the cars and praising them for not doing so.

An initial idea included a penalty and reward system for pedestrians who disrupt (or who do not disrupt) the cars. However, since the project puts the interest of pedestrian first, the idea was given up in favour of simple notification system.

Why should we care about all this now?
We are all future pedestrians and we should have a say in what the future of mobility looks like. We should all know what kind of future the tech companies plan for us. And lastly, it is important to imagine preferable futures now in order to later create them.