Designing Humanity-centric Experiences to Build Socially Sustainable Cities

In 2020, UNStudio took part in the Penang South Island competition, designing a masterplan for three completely new islands off the south coast of the main Penang Island. A crucial element of the design involved presenting a strategy for how these islands, built on reclaimed land, would serve the existing communities who live and work in the area.

Our masterplan proposed a participatory culture focused on placing people at the centre of the design, enabling tools for collaboration and integrating a bottom-up approach across policy-making, data, infrastructure and architecture. As such, UNStudio’s design envisioned the implementation of entirely new digital services and systems of city management, governance and engagement. But for it to be successful, new ways to advance community knowledge of those systems also needed to be found.

For this, our UNSx team was brought in to explore a critical question in relation to this: how can we envision a planned city that assures social cohesion?

The team researched the challenges for the local community that new urban development presented, and ran a series of co-creative workshops to create a strategy for building a participatory culture and a series of inclusive urban experiences.

Understanding Community Challenges

We took a humanity-centric approach when considering the influence of new urban development on the local community. In Penang, the informal business sector is a vital part of local heritage and the source of socio-economic stability for the community. Therefore, the strategy needs to focus on vulnerable communities, such as street food vendors, artisans, fishers, and micro-business owners.

Together with a team of urban designers, technologists, architects, sustainability consultants, futurists and experience designers, UNSx carried out a number of internal workshops to find solutions that enable the city to expand while taking the need for social sustainability into consideration.

Using Journey Maps to Envision Inclusive Urban Experiences

During a co-creative experience-mapping workshop, we considered the role of the future physical and digital infrastructure in the daily lives of specific groups: the entrepreneurs, elderly, food vendors, fishermen, and micro-business owners.

To do this, we used journey maps combined with user prompts as a collaborative research tool. Through these maps, we outlined the multi-touchpoint experiences across the new development to assure that the physical infrastructure creates new business and community-building opportunities – and is accessible to all.

At the end of the session, we had outlined several future-focused community-centric experience concepts focused on the needs of three groups: micro-business owners, fishermen, and local entrepreneurs. Furthermore, we defined how the city services and infrastructure could look in 20-25 years.


Strategy for Building Participatory Culture

To ensure that the concept is as equitable as possible and doesn’t lead to technological exclusion for members of the community, we developed a long-term strategy for a transition towards the knowledge economy, in line with urban phasing over a 25-year period.

This participatory-culture strategy is focused on establishing tools and mechanisms for collaboration, and integrating a bottom-up approach across projects from policy-making and data to infrastructure and architecture.

The scaling strategy proposes that people should not be expected to make a leap themselves, but for the projects and activities to be implemented where they live and to be advocated by community spokespeople with accessible tools.

Scaling projects, tools, services, and infrastructures will allow those relationships and networks to become increasingly complex over time and span from hyper-local to global.

Team: Filippo Lodi, Beata Giermasinska, Huey Chan, Connor Cook, Ren Yee

Lead visualisation: A2 Studio