Digital Roots

'So, it's greener than I expected,' is an accusation almost all Milton Keynes residents have to confront.

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Christian is a founder at Makilo, a Creative Development Agency from Milton Keynes. A designer focused on building practical digital tools that benefit organisations and individuals. Recent writing includes 'Visual Democratisation' for EVA (Electronic Visualisation & the Arts) London.

For the past half-century, our city, and its population, frequently defined by outsiders, have had to explain this and the other 'quirks' of a New Town to visitors. As frustrating as that sometimes feels, it presents many locals with an opportunity that is hard to resist - oversharing MK's intricacies to anyone open to listening. For example, responding to, 'Isn't it just all concrete and roundabouts?' with detail on how the grid roads are landscaped and tree-lined to deliberately separate traffic from the housing. Or how a network of pedestrian-friendly 'Redways' mean our population is never more than a kilometre from a green space. For us locals, disarming an MK cliché in seconds becomes a satisfyingly provincial rush.

Alongside the civic pride, stewardship of almost all the green space in Milton Keynes has been the responsibility of The Parks Trust since 1992. A charitable organisation focused on optimising the use of MK's natural environment for conservation and leisure-based activity on behalf of the city's population. The town's founders were steadfast in the belief that there should be a clear separation between the local authority and an organisation put in place to protect the landscapes within its boundaries. How the Trust has since represented the city in this role, as a location that is respectful to and in command of its environment is now having a significant influence on the work scheduled to take place in the coming years.

The pressure associated with this high level of expectation often falls on the Trust's workforce. For them, The Parks Trust's efforts go beyond simply keeping the threshold between the public and the environment safe and enjoyable. There's added importance around what’s a rare opportunity for a more localised approach to landscape and climate, particularly concerning a growing city's urban footprint. To the workforce, it feels crucial to take stock and prioritise the interventions they are making on the ground. Motivated by the possibilities that then emerge from making proactive interventions - a recent example being the extensive clearing and planting schemes connected to Ash Dieback.

Yet, for all the reach and experience the Trust had as an institution, little of their understanding of Milton Keynes was digital. Our company, Makilo, are a creative development agency with offices next door to a heavily wooded part of the city, so establishing our first digital collaboration in the city in connection with something ever-present in both the Trust's and our routine, the Trees, was a fantastic opportunity.

For a city of its overall size, Milton Keynes has a lot of trees, over 1,000,000 across 6,000 acres. The Trust's operations team carefully manage the landscape to retain both young and mature varieties, and one of the ways they do this is by monitoring them through regular tree inspections. Over the decades, this has produced vast amounts of data, including on their condition, location and species. However, maturing alongside the city's other infrastructure, has made this monitoring challenging. To address this effectively, the Trust recognised the need to build a new and sustainable digital picture around what’s one of the city's most prominent features. But, equally, they needed to get that information into the hands of the workforce responsible for maintaining it as fast as possible.

Behind every piece of technology, be that a clipboard, spreadsheet, website, app, or database, is a skilled worker using a tool that aims to make their job easier and more efficient. Effective tools place those skilled workers at the centre of their design. So when The Trust reached out to Makilo for a technical solution, they also wanted to ensure that the arborists worked alongside us in producing it. A solution developed for use within the city's boundaries - delivered by people living and working there.

With trees now the primary target, the Trust needed routes to streamline and digitise the survey process they already had and place a new system into the hands of those who best understood what was unique about MK’s landscaping - ideally doing so without the need to return to an office desk and typing up pages of notes each time. The other critical challenge; the overwhelming scale of the reporting and survey work required. With tens of thousands of instances to monitor each year, Makilo needed to create an application that could handle the volume of data across several very specific processes. We also had to consider the general working environment, from challenging health and safety concerns to the patchy areas of 4G signal in particular parts of the city.

The solution that Makilo and the Trust developed was an online web application that allowed the workforce to carry out inspections and record them using tablets and smartphones. The current version includes photo uploads, offline capabilities, and geo-mapping, meaning that users can define the location of a single tree or draw up the boundaries of a group of trees whilst out working. The system also enables tailored survey types, from basic to detailed inspections, depending on the tree's condition, age, size, location, and associated pests and diseases.

By focusing on the practical needs of daily users, the collaboration quickly outlined features that made the tool the Trust's own; 'chunky' buttons for gloved hands, a dark mode to save device battery, and visual cues to help plan routes and save fuel — the application slots neatly into the work patterns of the arborists and is already expanding to encompass a broader picture of the city through monitoring other assets including paths, bridges, lakes and even MK's native wildlife.

For Makilo, the project became a great example of how applied digital technology could not only be used to solve practical problems and indirectly contribute to our community. But also how quickly possible future uses of that technology start to seed new ideas once a stakeholder has a renewed sense of agency. As a result, Makilo and The Parks Trust hope to begin the third phase of the application development in the Summer of 2023.

It's easy to undertake a project like The Parks Trust web application and neglect how 'secondary' outcomes might influence those involved moving forward. While the Trust is now armed with a system that they can expand, adding scope and detail to the existing digital picture from an operational perspective, how we worked together, separating the organisation from a mixture of unruly software and old expectations, was likely just as important for the workforce involved.

Their attitude seems essential for our city. Both individuals and organisations need to decide, on their terms, what's truly representative of a Milton Keynes approach and then lean into it - at least for as long as external forces continue to impose Concrete Cow clichés on us all.

For Makilo, what we began to digitalise across the city raised the most questions. Primarily around how infrastructure could be better utilised. Or if we could harness the passion frequently displayed in residents' enthusiasm to provide some public benefit by allowing digital instances to tap into the aesthetics that make the city so distinct.

Makilo are now embarking on a studio project that we hope can capitalise on some of that municipal energy. Testing if locals, when given an opportunity, might champion an alternative new 'place'. Swapping the artifice of red bricks and empty warehouses so often adopted in post- industrial cities for contemporary 'placemaking' in favour of something different; the open, reflective, and potentially digital surfaces available here in MK.

The project aims to explore if, by occupying well-trodden public spaces digitally and allowing those moving through access to that occupation, new environments for digital collaboration might emerge, ideally highlighting the role of ‘threshold spaces’ in that relationship. While the tree surveys now frame a digital threshold that sits between the hard and soft landscaping of the city for the purpose of preservation, safety and aesthetics. We're interested in exploring similar themes with other digital utilities that prompt people to interact with their surroundings. Doing so with a low barrier for entry, such as visiting a URL, to provide something that feels accessible but also representative of their experiences within the city - maybe even the routes they take across it.

The network of over 300 underpasses in Milton Keynes seems a perfect fit. A series of physical threshold spaces, each with unique characteristics stemming from years of bedding into the city's scenery. As with other aspects of the city's design, they promote moving through the landscape on foot and at a pace, that contrasts with the speed of the grid roads above. Watching people move through them often feels quite contemplative, residents in their own headspace, en route, head down, music playing.

As such, Makilo is looking for partners to support a study into the viability of the underpass network hosting something whilst responding to how people already engage with them daily. We hope to set up an 'Underpass Festival' spread throughout the city. All housed in an accessible web-based application that utilises a blend of NFC, Bluetooth Beacon technology and a user's browser and headphones to access an audio experience.

Our endgame, alternative spaces for programming the art, music, and culture, outsiders suggest our city always 'lacks' into the very fabric of the MK landscape itself.

Are you interested in getting involved? Reach out to team@makilo.co.uk for more information and a workshop invite.

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