Empowering communities: UP PhD graduate’s journey in smart urban integration

Posted on May 14, 2024

Among the thousands of students graduating during the University of Pretoria’s (UP) autumn ceremonies is Dr Terence Fenn, a senior lecturer in interaction design and Acting Head of the Department of Multimedia in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg.

Dr Fenn has obtained a doctoral degree in Informatics through UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology. His thesis – titled ‘Community-fitting: A novel design research method for co-projecting smart urban places’ – explores the impact that smart technologies can have on communities.

“Community-fitting” is the co-design of projective research prototypes orientated towards anticipating smart urban neighbourhood places. Its purpose is to identify, and effectively communicate the needs and opportunities for urban action to a professional design audience.

“The primary contributions of the study are a novel design research method called community-fitting and a new visual technique for presenting design-orientated research that reflects digital placemaking,” Dr Fenn explains.

By developing the innovative research method of community-fitting, Dr Fenn’s research ensures that the integration of smart technologies aligns with the needs and desires of communities.

“This research is important because smart technologies have the ability to improve urban places for communities,” he adds. “However, there is a lack of comprehensive understanding about their effective deployment within local South African urban contexts to truly enhance the daily experiences of residents.”

His studies found that without understanding the preferences of people in these areas, it’s likely that the digital infusion of urban spaces will harm rather than help neighbourhood communities. Examples of the issues that may arise include a loss of privacy, and the commodification of public spaces and services by private companies.

Dr Fenn built a prototype illustrating the integration of smart technologies in urban areas.

“The prototype, or ‘provotype’, I designed projects a futuristic view of the suburb of Westbury in Johannesburg that anticipates an ideal integration of smart technology in the suburb and the systemic, positive effects of the technology for residents and the urban environment,” he explains.

The provotype was informed by insights gained through various workshops with neighbourhood residents, and uses the lens of a possible but fictitious future to suggest to other designers, urban planners or technologists the essential values and desires of the community.

Identified community needs included improved security; access to cultural spaces and content; the enablement of cultural and creative production; the renewal and management of green and recreational spaces; and better access to services such as health and education.

In terms of shared community values, the following emerged: firstly, the Westbury neighbourhood was not just a geographical location but could be understood as a close-knit community with a shared heritage and distinct culture; secondly, while some community members were involved in drugs and gangsterism, many others were active in projects and organisations focused on uplifting the community; thirdly, while life can be hard in Westbury, residents enjoy activities such as music, acting, art, fashion and showing off their cars; lastly, ensuring the safety of family members and friends is the strongest aspiration of all residents.

                                                                                  Front image of the ‘provotype’

As for his future plans, Dr Fenn says he’s focusing on publishing and presenting research articles based on his PhD and related work.

“I’m also leveraging the experience I gained during this project to introduce my design students to the value of working with communities such as Westbury,” he says, adding that he is determined to leverage technology to enrich and uplift communities, while ensuring that its impact does not cause harm.

- Author Mmaradikesa Prudance Minyuku

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