He chaired Cloud Innovation Hub at the Information Center, Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design, before moving on to head the Beijing Community Research Center and take on the role of CEO at Beijing City Quadrant Technology Co., Ltd (Urbanxyz.com), a data science start-up he founded in Beijing, China.
Mao Mingrui is not so much a city planner as a social observer. In his career he has spent more than 20 years traversing city streets and neighbourhoods and doing the things some might call “performance art” – like counting how many electricity meters there are in a hutong, “camping out” in a neighbourhood just to see how residents go about their day, feigning blindness to experience how well tactile pavement works for blind people… and even going out to count the amount of dog droppings on the street. For Mao, these strange actions or commonly-seen objects often bring pleasant surprises when translated into data.
For this, he relies heavily on observation and data analysis in order to carry out city planning, a process of understanding the massive and complex intricacies related to a city by collecting the attributes of things, people and behaviours. As Mao put it, “City planning is not a high-level thing. Only by paying attention to other people’s actual needs and adopting a people-oriented approach can cities become more liveable.”
A city observer off the beaten track
Mao is nicknamed “online celebrity planner” thanks to the dozens of public appearances he has made since he started his business in 2014. On Yixi and Dedao, the Chinese MOOC platforms, for instance, he gave fascinating speeches about the aspects of urban planning that might appear to be dull and boring for many. This is partly attributable to his down-to-earth way of talking, and partly to his long years of observation of city data.
Why do electricity meters and dog droppings have to be counted? When asked a question like this about something which would never have occurred to most people outside his profession, Mao explained: “It’s a detail closely related to neighbourhood lives. Take pet droppings for example. More droppings mean that more pets are walked along this street, and they also reflect where people tend to go, which in a sense represents the extent to which the street feels welcome. Of course, this can also demonstrate local public hygiene issues. “
Compared to conventional city planners, the approach of Mao and his team seems a little “off the beaten track”, but to many people’s surprises, he is definitely not an “ignorant outsider.”
After his graduation from Wuhan University, majoring in city planning, Mao Mingrui joined the Beijing Municipal Institute of Urban Planning & Design. In 2013, he and his colleagues set up “Beijing City Lab”, a youth community composed of planners, architects, geographers, economists and other researchers in many fields. Together they worked during the day and shared their findings at night, driven by nothing – no task-based bonus or client contract – except their passions.
In 2014, Shi Weiliang, the then president of BMIUPD, realised that city planning sounded an urgent call for change. In the tradition of research-driven practice at BMIUPD, Mao helped establish a Cloud Innovation Hub.
“Big data provides more data sources for us to learn about the city. With the help of big data, we can understand the individual’s spatio-temporal behaviour and needs with respect to planning, and these will profoundly change how we approach planning.”
Later the state issued a call for “innovative and entrepreneurial talent” and released a detailed directive for incentivizing researchers to leave their government-assigned posts and start businesses. This was an impetus for Mao’s entrepreneurship. In 2016, Beijing City Quadrant Technology Co. Ltd was founded with commitments to improving city governance through data science, and this was a change of direction for Mao’s career.
The needs for better tactile paving revealed by thousands of data entries
Mao Mingrui said that he had lost his sense of smell for many years due to nasal allergies. “One thing that hit me the hardest is the ‘social death’ I’ve experienced in my life.” On the morning of a weekday, Mao recalled, he pushed his way into the crowded subway train and steadied himself by the door before he discovered that the others were moving away. Without giving It too much thought, Mao began to look down at his mobile phone. It wasn’t until several stops later that he found a large pool of vomit next to the door. “I believe the entire carriage smelled terrible, and I also believe that other passengers must have thought I was an ‘oddball’.”
The experience of “social death” due to an olfactory disorder made Mao realise that he was overlooking problems around him. After this incident, he began to draw his attention back to city life, at times surprised by new discoveries around him: there were eight hand-made individual shelters for cats in his neighbourhood and 22 waiting seats just outside of his favourite hot pot restaurant. He was building a subtle connection with such details which he noticed. His own olfactory impairment also led him to think that an individual’s perception of the urban environment may impact how they relate to the city, and may even affect their happiness. No longer satisfied to be merely an observer, Mao began to consider how to engage and make a change.
One weekend in 2018, Mao came across a blind man at a bus stop, and was quite surprised to learn that he was going to “watch” a movie at Mind’s Eye Cinema. This was the first time he knew that blind people could “watch” movies. During their conversation, Mao learned about the difficulties the man and other members of the blind community had when traveling, and reached a better understanding of how blind people lived. “It seems that I tend to feel empathetic towards this group maybe because I have an olfactory disorder. I want to experience the world of blind people and wonder if tactile pavements really are friendly to them.”
On the International Day for the Blind in 2019, Mao’s company, in collaboration with a local aid group for the blind, organized a “Walking Blind” event to evaluate how accessible the streets were by observing and recording the behaviour of young blind volunteers.
Six blind children were videotaped while they walked a 1.6 kilometre section of Shuangjing Street in Beijing. “On this street, seeing people only need to take 7 turns while blind people need to take 73 turns, which is 10 times more.” Prior to spatio-temporal arrangement, the team attached more than 9,000 tags to specific factors identified in the 10-hour video, including obstacles on the tactile pavement, surrounding barriers, facial expressions, arm movements, blind cane taps, etc.
Mao found that the same part of the street meant a 1,600 metre walk for seeing people and more than 2,600 metres for blind people when using the tactile pavement, which could not offer precise guidance for the whole journey, even though it was there for most of it. “We divided the pavement into 16 sections, and calculated the turn index, disconnection index, deviation index, etc. according to their on-site status and the video data. Then we took out six sections with ‘wave crest’ deviations for analysis. Finally, we concluded that too many turns and disconnections are the main reasons for blind people to deviate from the tactile pavement.”
This was a little surprising for Mao. Too many turns make it difficult for blind people. The causes of this problem include the C-shaped turns around ground obstacles such as manhole covers, the Z-shaped turns used to connect disjointed strips, and the L-shaped turns that lead to zebra crossings at intersections.
“Some blind children lose their sense of direction when they deviate from the pavement, and it is difficult for them to get back onto it by themselves. The surrounding trees and vehicles may pose dangers to them.” According to the video-based statistics, each child hit an average of 76 obstacles with their blind cane, including 13 bollards, 12 telephone poles or lampposts, 49 walls and 2 bicycles.
“The most important thing is the emotional changes that blind people show while walking.” The team tagged the volunteers’ facial expressions and movements in the video, and selected 11 typical movements or facial expressions, such as hand-flinging, frowning, and head-scratching, that showed annoyance. During the walk, a total of 543 “upset points” were recognised, and most of them occurred when the travellers came across uneven surfaces, obstacles, tactile interruptions and other unexpected hurdles along the way. “They showed an extremely high frequency of negative emotions when they walked under the overpass, because they couldn’t hear the traffic light buzzer.”
Would tactile pavement be user-friendly if it conformed to all the accessibility standards and specifications currently available? Having been a city planner for many years, Mao insisted that friendly urban facilities are always people-oriented. “Even by accessibility standards, we may only find 20% of the problems, and the rest are not made explicit on paper. For example, the distance between a flower bed and tactile pavement seemed up to par at the time of construction, but as time goes by, some trees grow out of the flower bed, and blind people will keep hitting the branches when walking along the pavement. That’s why we must employ all our human senses for city planning. What we need to do is make everyone’s lives better, with timely updates to relevant standards and regulations, and spatial planning in alignment of how a city actually works, through behavioural observation and data research.”
For Mao, this research project was a success. By using the analysed data, they pinpointed the difficulties and needs of blind people walking, and evaluated the shortcomings of tactile paving. When the government released a “Beijing Action Plan for Further Promoting Accessibility in 2019-2021”, Mao’s company was commissioned to carry out a large-scale general survey of accessibility facilities.
“The previous effort was not cost-effective, and the lengthy follow-up analysis lasted for more than two weeks. It would not be feasible to conduct a large-scale urban accessibility survey this way.” Mao began to think about whether any technology was available in data science that could be used to survey the streets for blind people.
He found his inspiration in automobile reversing radar: “Equipped with radar, the blind cane could detect the distance of obstacles by reflecting radar waves, and warn the user with a buzzer. After collecting the data of radar waves and GPS, we could then understand the problems faced by blind people and the surrounding environment they are in while walking.”
Based on this idea, Mao and his team spent two months making a “radar” blind cane. In 2020, the new device was used to scan all buildings, public facilities and road sections within a radius of 5 square kilometres along Shuangjing Street. In this way they created the first urban street neighbourhood accessibility report in Beijing. With this achievement they took the lead in piloting an accessibility construction project across the capital.
“In fact, the streets may be unfriendly not just to blind people, but also to everyone moving about in the city. The space and other features of a street reflect the real status of local social life and the spirit of a city. We can’t ignore these ‘dangers’ and ‘pains’. Tactile paving probably won’t be needed anymore when all roads are made ‘easy’ one day.”
Spaces optimised for human use
Mao and his team are always looking for continuous improvement through practice in the context of data science. What they advocate is not a planning method, but rather a perspective of design in terms of good technology. In addition to the “radar” blind cane, they have developed a series of smart planning tools, such as the Cat’s Eye Quadrant and Bat Ultrasound Quadrant, and integrated them to collect data from the nooks and corners of the city.
Apart from tactile pavement, gathering places like community squares and parks, in Mao Mingrui’s view, are all urban public spaces activated by the people. All groups in a space should be considered in the planning and design processes, and their presence will inspire the planner in a positive way: is the planner able to address the daily needs of residents, provide basic amenities, and reduce disturbances to the lives of community members, in community planning? Is the planner able to make full use of the space, route activities to a specific venue, and create a community friendly to all?
Whether it’s the elderly, the young, the able-bodied or the disabled, urban development means different things to different groups. “An urban public space that is truly friendly is not a product of the planner, but a creation arising from public engagement.” Mao believes.
In a design contest sponsored by the Chaoyang Branch of the Beijing Municipal Planning and Natural Resources Commission and Zhongshe Social Work Development Foundation, Mao’s team was shortlisted with their micro-renewal programme for an extremely inefficient community space, where they had asked local residents, regardless of their ages and backgrounds, to join in and envisage how the space was going to change for the better.
“Before, you could say it was an abandoned space, and the people passing by barely paused. After the renewal, there are trampolines and swings for children, fitness equipment for the young and the elderly, flower beds with seats and accessibility ramps. We have also done some data analysis. The number of daily visits has increased by 50%. Residents come here for exercise, rest and socializing, and there are twice as many stays. The venue now has more viscosity. In fact, this is an example of what can happen with citizen engagement.”
Mao’s perspective was greatly influenced by American urbanist Jane Jacobs. In her book, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, she introduced a planning concept quite uncommon in the 1960s, along the lines of: “Pedestrian streets can be safe and healthy for socialising only if they are continuous with all kinds of grocery stores alongside. Green spaces and urban open spaces are not dynamic in themselves, and isolated parks and squares are dangerous places. Local areas should be integrated with other functional facilities to be significant as a public place.”
For Mao, cities are organic, and city planning is also a process full of life, supported by a beating heart and soul that pays attention and respect to everyone who lives in the city.