Real spaces need real experiences - the soft opening of Tallinn City HUB
The challenge of any smart city pilot is to acquire an in-depth understanding about user needs to ensure the success and long-term sustainability of a proposed innovation. The pandemic has limited opportunities to test new tools and solutions in real-life situations, such as physical workshops. However, often spatial conditions and experiences cannot be translated into the digital realm but need a physical and collective output.
The GreenTwins pilot project is a joint initiative between the cities of Tallinn and Helsinki, and FinEst Centre for Smart Cities. The pilot focuses on developing a layer of trees and green areas for urban digital twins. In the FinEst GreenTwins pilot project we have argued that it is important to include diverse stakeholders into the design of participatory processes at first place. Therefore, we are developing our digital tools as well as physical co-creation spaces in close collaboration with prospective users: urban planners, real estate developers, citizens and citizens-activists, who are actively involved into planning related discussions.
One of the core outputs of the project is the construction of Permanent Centre for Smart and Inclusive Urban Planning (the Hub). The Hub is a physical space in the city center of Tallinn at Kaarli puiestee 1, next to the Vabaduse Väljak, which is equipped with the state-of-the-art visualization technologies, and which is meant for bringing diverse stakeholder groups into discussion of urban plans and co-creation of desired urban futures. It will open, in time for the start of European Green Capital Tallinn, in early 2023.
In the end March 2022 we organized a week-long workshop in the future premises of the Hub in order to provide an opportunity for the potential users to experience both the Hub space as well as different digital tools, that will be used to augment participatory activities taking place in the Hub. As both the space itself and the digital tools developed by the GreenTwins project are still in the development phase, this provided an excellent opportunity to co-develop the more detailed concept of the Hub together with its actual users and gather feedback about digital planning support tools in their “natural habitat”.
The workshop was run in collaboration with the High-Performance Comution Center Stuttgart with the aid of its Head of Visualizations Uwe Wössner, who facilitated the virtual reality workshops using COVISE (Collaborative VIsualization and Simulation Environment) software and shutter glasses. This technology was used to collectively investigate and experience the virtual reality environments in different urban planning use cases depending on the interest and background of the participants. The examples ranged from building and infrastructure BIM models to the 3D model of Tallinn Old Town or new housing areas in Germany.
The second digital tool showcased to the wider public for the first time was the Virtual Green Planner, developed for large scale urban visioning. It allows to create and analyze digital three-dimensional sketches of the areas under development and used as demo area the Estonian National Opera building and surroundings in order to allow the users to test this collaborative tool for the first time. The visitors of the space could also leave feedback using digital questionnaires regarding their experience of the workshop and expectations for HUB space.
Over the course of 3 days around 100 people visited the HUB and participated in one of the 12 test sessions ran in the course of the workshop. The participants included people with a variety of backgrounds (planning experts, students, researchers, and citizens). Many of the participants were intentionally invited from the different departments of City of Tallinn, including two vice-mayors, to experience the possibilities of the City HUB and find ways to collaborate and use the HUB in a way to break the departmental silos. The HUB is already attracted active interim use by the city of Tallinn. For example, in May, the award ceremony of Putukaväil installation competition was held in the HUB.
The HUB workshop provided a crucial learning experience for the GreenTwins project team.
Firstly soft-openings of other live-workshops are crucial for understanding not only actual spatial needs but also the spatial shortcomings such as noise insulation, capacity of the room or visibility from the street.
Secondly, live workshops provide concrete spatial experience about the possible uses-cases of digital and non-digital tools for both expert and non-expert use. While the general experience was on the positive side and majority of the participants considered the proposed planning support tools useful, the actual integration of the tools to formal planning process and capacity to provide digital contents for the tool requires extra commitment and efforts from the city as well as private companies providing the plans.
Thirdly, next to developing the physical facilities and brand for the HUB, the space also needs extended curatorship and programme to be integrated to the formal urban design and planning activities involving various departments and city-districts of the city of Tallinn. This requires a wider commitment to the development of participatory planning culture to ensure long-term sustainability of the HUB.
This work has been supported by the Estonian Ministry of Research and Education and European Regional Development Fund (grant 2014-2020.4.01.20-0289).