While self-driving cars are already receiving a lot of publicity, all kinds of other autonomously operating vehicles and objects have also started showing up in our cities. In a few years, we will likely find ourselves surrounded by autonomous street-cleaners, vendors, advertisers, delivery vehicles, or security bots (fig.1). These kinds of devices are being developed by various big-tech companies and startups, driven by new business opportunities (fig.2). Perhaps because of that, we rarely hear the critical questions being asked about the impact these “city bots” will have on the everyday lives of people in cities.

Fig.1 People and diverse kinds of autonomous vehicles will very likely cohabit near-future cities (drawing by: Maria Luce Lupetti).
Fig. 2. The delivery robot developed by Starship Technologies is one of many examples of upcoming autonomous vehicles that might have an unpredictable impact on the everyday functioning of cities and the lives of their inhabitants (image copyright: Starship Technologies).

In the project Cities of Things Lab 010, we develop ways to engage inhabitants of various neighborhoods of Rotterdam in creating an alternative version to the above future: one in which city bots are designed, developed, owned, maintained, and supervised by the citizens themselves. We’re developing the “Wijkbot Kit” (where “wijk” means “neighborhood” in Dutch) as a collection of open-source, low-cost tools and methods for co-creating such robots. The kit includes hacked second-hand “hoverboard” electric toys, and off-the-shelf components. It allows people to build full-scale, remote-controlled robot prototypes in a few hours time (fig.3). A citizen-designer can then test the prototype as a “wizard-of-Oz”, controlling the robot's movements, talking through its speakers, listening and watching through its microphones and cameras. We are developing the next versions of the Wijkbot Kit to allow more autonomy to the prototyped robots, and to enable non-experts to operate and further develop these robots further on their own.

Fig. 3. “Mobeh” was a prototype of a small ambulance-robot built using the Wijkbot Kit and tried out on the streets of Rotterdam during a one-day hackathon.

Afrikaanderwijk is a diverse, lively neighborhood in Rotterdam Zuid, with the large Afrikaanderplein in the middle, where a bustling market takes place twice a week. A small group of inhabitants of Afrikaanderwijk used the Wijkbot Kit during co-creation sessions to imagine how their community and neighborhood could be supported by autonomous, robotic vehicles. They imagined robots that help to clean, recycle and up-cycle unsold vegetables and fruit from the market into locally-made and sold soup and smoothies (fig. 4). By that, the robots would help generate local jobs, but also be designed to contribute to the social life of the Afrikaanderwijkers, by encouraging spontaneous social contacts, or even helping local citizens in a protest action. The “afrikaanderbot” (fig.5.) is a prototype developed using the Wijkbot Kit, which is the first attempt of turning the imagined vision into reality.

Fig. 4 These four images of “a smart robot collecting fruit waste at the street market in Rotterdam” have been generated by Dall-E 2 AI from the quoted description.
"Find new ways for creating positive and productive ways of living and collaborating among citizens and city bots."

We are developing the Wijkbot Kit to find new ways for creating positive and productive ways of living and collaborating among citizens and city bots. By designing and prototyping them together in local communities, we aspire to strengthen local civic competences and capacities. We envision a future in which citizens, together with designers and new kinds of professionals, will design and develop city bot prototypes themselves, that match the daily practice and needs of Rotterdam residents. In the Afrikaanderwijk we are preparing to realize a “biotope of smart objects”, that will work and live as neighbors with residents and that improve social participation and inspire new experiences.

For more information and full credits visit: https://citiesofthings.nl/the-wijkbot-kit