Humanising the Smart City

Democratise Understanding Through Smart City Icons Design

Smart cities can bring benefits to many. But yet more than half of the population in major Asia-Pacific cities find it difficult to identify the value of smart city initiatives. Many of them are also worried about technology’s impact on their lives and societies. Smart city icons can help bridge that understanding. They can also empower people and bridge social divides. 
[Distilled from Empowering Traditional Trades and Forging Sustainable Households with Smart Recycling Platform (Lyle Fearnley, Poon King Wang, Andy Zheng Cheng, Gabriel Tusinski, Julienne Chen, Lim Yu Shaun, Pearlyn Neo, Norakmal Hakim Bin Norhashim, Insuk Ko); Living Digital 2040: Future of Work, Education and Healthcare (Poon King Wang, Hyowon Lee, Lim Wee Kiat, Mohan Rajesh Elara, Youngjin Chae, Gayathri Balasubramanian, Aaron Yong, Raymond Yeong); and the Smart Cities Lab at the LKYCIC/SUTD. Written and designed by Poon King Wang, Insuk Ko, Pearlyn Neo, Norakmal Hakim Bin Norhashim and Nichole Lim]

Early 1900s. The old order was falling apart in Europe. People were worried as they struggled to understand what was swirling around them. Those who were illiterate — and there were many — struggled even more.1 Divides were opening up.

Otto Neurath, an Austrian polymath, believed that “[p]ictures connect, words divide”.2 He worked with German artist Gerd Arntz and author Marie Reidemeister to design visual icons that could be “easily interpreted by all across society”3(see Figure 1 below). That way, “[A]s soon as all men can participate in a common culture and the canyon between the educated and the uneducated is bridged, life will be more fully understood and lived.”4

Figure 1: Visual icons to bridge people. It was decided that these icons would not be “veiled in scientific jargon, but illustrated in straightforward images.”5 (icons source – Gastev ( 3460153558/) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons).

These icons subsequently became known as Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education). Their influence is international. In cities for example, “[w]ritten directions in public spaces have been gradually replaced by pictograms that can be understood by people of all nationalities”.6 In user interfaces and displays, icons, emoticons, and emojis are standard.7 The London Victoria & Albert Museum even mounted a 2010 exhibition “Isotype: international picture language” to show “how pictures can be used to explain complex issues to ordinary people”.8


Smart Cities at a Crucial Juncture

One hundred years on, smart cities face a similar challenge: how to explain the smart city to people. The Economist Intelligence Unit conducted a “Smart and Sustainable Cities” survey of 2000 citizens across 20 cities in Asia Pacific – 52% of the citizens said they found it difficult to identify the value of smart city initiatives.9

More than half in these cities are thus struggling to see how smart cities benefit them. They wonder too if digital disruption – arising from the Fourth Industrial Revolution – might threaten their future. No wonder then that The New Yorker magazine says we are in “a golden age for dystopian fiction”.10 

Figure 2: Economist Intelligence Unit  “Smart and Sustainable Cities” survey of 2000 citizens across 20 cities in ASEAN/Asia Pacific 11

But there is hope. In the same survey, a substantially higher 82% said their city “should create more smart city initiatives”. 12They believed there are benefits even if the value is currently hard to pinpoint.

Cities MUST tap into this reservoir of optimism regarding the possibilities of smart cities. Cities must help citizens make sense of the world and illustrate the concrete benefits of smart cities. But cities must act fast: if dystopian voices grow louder, and as more digital disruptions occur (such as privacy and health data breaches), this reservoir of optimism could rapidly run dry.


A First Draft of Smart City Icons

An important first step is to demystify the smart city. How do we do this? We can borrow from the experience of the Isotype, and create smart city icons. These smart city icons will help citizens easily interpret and understand the overall value of specific smart city initiatives, i.e., benefits and risks. With this knowledge, citizens can begin to participate and live more fully in the smart city.

We thus embarked on a first draft of what such smart city icons might look like.


Privacy, Confidentiality and Data Protection

Take our information as a case in point. Recent data breaches13 demonstrate we can no longer take our privacy, confidentiality and data protection for granted. This is compounded by the lengthy legal agreements that we have to read before we start using many technologies. Most of us will often choose to not read – much less understand — and simply scroll down to click on the “Agree” button.

Figure 3: Understanding how much access we are giving companies

A set of smart city icons can be developed – see Figure 3 above – to clearly show us how much access we are giving.  We can then use this knowledge to calibrate our privacy and data settings, or to apply pressure on companies to behave better. Even if we choose not to make any changes, we do so fully aware of the perks and perils of the levels of access we have granted.


Autonomous Vehicles

Companies, cities and countries are pouring massive investments to pave the way for autonomous vehicles. However, with each accident, progress is set back.

What is very often proffered to prevent future accidents is a technology solution (e.g. better algorithms, sensors etc).  What is less often suggested is providing agency to pedestrians. For example, if pedestrians could tell the level of automation of the autonomous vehicles they come across14, they can take precautions and even evasive action if the vehicle is not “driving” the way it should be.

Figure 4: Smart city icons that inform people of the levels of automation of autonomous vehicles15 (for source of Waymo cars graphics, please see footnote)

Smart city icons about the vehicles’ level of automation – see Figure 4 above – could thus be created and imprinted onto the sides of autonomous vehicles.  They make it clear to pedestrians so that they can act accordingly when vehicles “misbehave”.


Human Control

Extending the above concept, we can develop smart city icons to help people understand the level of human control behind any given technology. We will then be better prepared when something goes wrong.

Figure 5: Smart city icons for how much control humans have over a technology


Cognitive Capacities

Frequent use of certain technologies can lead to diminished cognitive capacities. A simple example of this risk is how the more we rely on our digital contacts and diaries, the less we use our memory and cognition.

In our recently published book Living Digital 2040: Future of Work, Education and Healthcare 16, we found emerging and empirical evidence of this risk not only in memory, but – more worryingly – across accounting, financial trading, way-finding/GPS/navigation, game playing, architectural practice, programming, reading, and spelling.

Table 1: Potential impact of technologies on our cognitive capacities

Table 1 shows that technology diminishing our cognitive capacities is not just an individual risk. It could also be organizational (e.g. corporate governance) and even societal (e.g. health).

It is thus important that users of technologies are aware of the risks to their cognitive capacities, even as they reap the rewards of efficiency and productivity with those technologies.

Figure 6: Smart city icons to help us understand the degree to which technology can diminish our cognitive capacities i.e. risk of cognitive loss

Smart city icons can be developed — see Figure 6 – to highlight the degree of these risks. These can then be incorporated into the device, app or software to alert users of the risks.

For technologies with high risks (i.e. significant/severe cognitive loss), citizens, companies, cities, and countries can apply pressure on the suppliers of the technologies to develop better designs that maintain – or even improve our cognitive capacities (for more practical guidance on how to develop better designs, please read “Towards Establishing Design Principles for Balancing Usability and Maintaining Cognitive Abilities” 18).


Putting it All Together

These smart city icons do not exist in isolation from each other. Any given technology will need a mix of them to fully convey the benefits and risks to users.

To demonstrate this, we show how they can be combined for a recycling app – see Figure 7 below. This is a recycling app we are building for our smart recycling research project “Empowering Traditional Trades and Forging Sustainable Households with Smart Recycling Platform”. 19

The combination of smart city icons gives everyone a quick appreciation of the level of protection of their information, the risk – if any – to their cognitive capacities, and the level of control they have over the technology. They can then make an informed decision about their use, risks and benefits of the technology.

Figure 7: Combining smart city icons to give a better understanding of the benefits and risks of an app



Like the Isotype, these smart city icons humanize the smart city. They make the smart city intelligible. We can begin to see how smart city initiatives benefit our lives, and what precautions we need to take. We can then take full advantage of all that the smart city has to offer, so that more of us struggle less, and thrive more.

The smart city icons are also a common language for everyone across different societal segments. We can thus “participate in a common culture”. The icons then are a first step and tool to bridging divides, so that we can create a better life for each other.

In many ways, this mirrors many discussions on the future of technology, smart cities, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In these discussions, many of us – whether it is in Fintech, Edtech, Legaltech etc – have had to learn to talk tech. But recent trends have made it clear that deep human and social values often underpin the use, misuse, and abuse of technology. It is hence no longer enough to talk tech.

Tech has to speak society and talk human too.

1 This for example was because “Following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, loss of access to its resources fuelled rampant inflation, whilst shortages of food and housing threatened to undermine public health.” Powell, R. (2013). How Isotype Almost Conquered The World. Retrieved from:
3 Ibid
4 Johnston, W. M. (1976). The Austrian mind: an intellectual and social history, 1848-1938. University of California Press.
5 Gastev. (2009). Statistika Isotype. Retrieved from:, Neurath, O. (1937). Basic by Isotype. Retrieved from:]
6 Powell, R. (2013). How Isotype Almost Conquered The World. Retrieved from:
7 Ibid
8 International Picture Language Collection Goes On Show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (2010). Retrieved from:
9 The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2016). Startup My City: Smart and sustainable cities in Asia. Retrieved from:
12 Ibid
13 See for example recent breaches at Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Yahoo, and Singhealth.
14 Norman, J. (2014). The Human Side of Automation. Retrieved from:
15 Based partly on Norman, J. (2014). The Human Side of Automation. Retrieved from:; Waymo driverless car is displayed on Dec. 13, 2016 during a Google event in San Francisco. Photo resource: Eric Risberg, AP); Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Concept (Image resource / Newsweek)
16 Outcome of a Singapore National Research Foundation- and Ministry of National Development-funded Future of Cities project at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities/Singapore University of Technology and Design
17 Ibid
18 See Live with AI whitepaper ( on Mind x AI for a non-academic read; for the academic/research paper – see Balasubramanian, G., Lee, H., Poon, K. W., Lim, W. K., & Yong, W. K. (2017, July). Towards Establishing Design Principles for Balancing Usability and Maintaining Cognitive Abilities. In International Conference of Design, User Experience, and Usability (pp. 3-18). Springer, Cham. for the source research/academic publication
19 Funded by the SUTD-MIT IDC (International Design Centre)

(Banner photo source : Ryoji Iwata)