Tiantian, a Mobile Marketplance

Tiantian is the outcome of a research project, conducted by Studio TAO and Tongji University with Nokia, to demonstrate how digital communication devices can help bridge the social gap between rural and urban China.
Below is the video and the presentation I made for the Design Research Society Conference in Bangkok (July 2012).



Main objective

The main objective of this project had been the study and the design of a system of device, interaction and mobile services, to connect the rural and city community through a platform that can drive a sustainable approach to knowledge sharing, sustainable valorisation and fair trade of local food production.
The project produced models of interaction and service systems that create a synergic connection among different resources of the urban and rural areas, exploring how Information Communication Technology can help bridging the divide between the two realities. The designed device is for people living in rural areas of China, and allow user with low technology education to access internet based services and communication tools.
Another important objective of the project is to provide citizens with rich information on local food and rural community, to create a better connection with the food they eat and the social and environmental context where it does come from.
Moreover, the purpose of our design is to connect different groups through effective and positive reciprocal communication activities that are not isolated, but inserted in an already existing framework of information and communication networks. Working with locals, we learnt once more that a deep knowledge of the context is needed to generate non-disruptive design interventions. Reducing the scale of intervention can also provide improved localized tangible benefits.

Brief Project Description

Tian Tian is a solution designed to connect rural and urban communities of China in a mobile marketplace. It is the concept of a virtual market, at the design stage, where local farmers and city people can exchange products and experiences.
TianTian is the main outcome of a research project conducted by Tongji University in cooperation with Nokia. It investigates the potential of Mobile Information and Communication Technologies in bridging the divide between fast developing Chinese cities and the surrounding countryside,that are facing problems of emigration of young people and low investment in local potential.
After a preliminary context research, we identified food and food production as the most promising driver to create a connection between the two realities. In urban contexts food can be purchased at wet markets, grocery stores, or even on-line. In general, the food chain (producer to consumer) includes so many steps that it is very hard for the final consumer to trace it. A new type of market, where it is possible to find local products, can help consumers to become closer to the food they eat. At the same time, they get the added benefit of shortening the food chain, getting to know farmers and producers in their area, and supporting local business. Food production, in fact, is the most developed asset of knowledge of Chinese countryside, and agriculture is commonly practiced both at a professional and domestic level. In particular, we decided to focus on small scale activities rather than big professional farms.
TianTian is designed to connect consumers with the producers, and provide them with a rich user experience and a variety of choices and information. The system, on the other hand, has to take the farmers needs into consideration; it is for them easy to use, so that they can participate in the service, without it being too complicated, or taking too much time from their work. The main design challenge in the project have been represented by the user interaction, that has to be designed specifically for each one of the two target groups.
TianTian Is a product-service system that includes a device to be used by the farmer and online/mobile platforms developed for the urban users.
The device allows the farmer to update his profile information on the database without having to use computers or complex electronic devices. A set of card sticks, each one representing a different product is provided with the device. When a product is ready to be picked, the farmer inserts the card stick in the device, and selects the quantity available. The device sends the information to the TianTian website, and the farmer’s profile is updated.
Urban users can use their mobile or computer to explore what is available on TianTian. They can see the profile of farmers and get more information on their farms, production methods and the products they offer.
When an order is placed on the platform, the quantity available displayed on the farmer’s device is automatically updated. The delivery is organized every week by the local community. The day before, the farmer receives a ticket with the list of products to prepare.
This basic interaction can lead to further actions of territorial exploration, personal relations and involvement in the local food network, facilitated by TianTian platform.

Ethographic research. Getting user insights through focus groups

Dissemination Efforts

The project has been presented and disseminated through the years to a variety of academic and public events, initiatives and exhibition (Pecha Kucha in Shanghai, 2011, and London, 2012; Design World Exhibition, Helsinki, 2012, participation and presentation at periodical Desis Forum, international workshops, lectures at Tongji University).
We presented and published a paper about the research part and the concept development at DRS International Conference in Bangkokg, July 2012.

Most relevant activities

The project lasted 12 months and have been articulated in different pahses and research activities hereby summarized.
– Desk research on Mobile and technology market in China.
– Ethnographic field research: rural people needs, behaviour and expectations; comparison with local urban users, development of ethnographic tools
– Territorial research: mapping of the island, communication streams between Chongming and Shanghai, promising case studies
– Concept of interaction, product-service design and ideas sketching
– International academic workshops and University course
– Design vision and concept development

Desk research has been conducted for a better understanding of mobile technology users, and to accumulate data on mobile markets and technology, user behavior trends, mainly in Chinese context. Different field research actions (interviews, focus groups, case studies, probes) have been conducted. All the activities have been documented through audio/video recording, transcripts, documentation and visual descriptions of people and contexts. The outcomes have been collected, analyzed and represented in a report.
Starting from critical findings from the research process, different scenarios have been visualized and described. Different concepts have been developed within the chosen design direction. Preliminary concepts have been described through specific design tools (renders, diagrams, maps etc.). Finally, one concept (TianTian) have been chosen and developed.
In parallel with the research project, academic activities have been organized. Chinese and international students have been involved in a workshop (DESIS Summer School 2011) and a university course (at Tongji University). With the support of a series of lectures to provide the necessary background and methodology, the students have contributed to the research work by generating concepts and developping ideas.
Finally a research dissemination phase have been organized. Intermediate report have been diffused and discussed, and academic publication have been achieved. Research materials and documentation are meant to be public and publicily disseminated.
A final part is still missing: the completion of the technical prototype of the device and the platform. This would be the main use of the award funding. Our next objective is a real scale prototype of the system, its testing and evaluation.

Background and justification

The TianTian research project is a part of the DESIGN Harvests framework, that collects sustainable social and economic initiatives to bridge urban and rural China. The project explores the relationship between the urban centre of Shanghai and rural villages on nearby Chongming Island, considering urban and rural as a complementary yin yang relationship to maintain identity but promote exchanges of resources.
Design Harvests started in 2008, as a research project based on strong academy-practitioners collaboration and interaction and involves, through workshops and design activities, a network of international partners. The research project is mainly conducted by Tongji University and Studio TekTao from Shanghai, supported by DESIS China
Rapid growth, substantial socio-economic changes, and massive migration from the countryside to the urban areas, are creating an imbalance in the urban-rural system. No visible value is given to activities and resources related to the countryside. Young people move to urban areas to find a job to economically sustain their families; social fabric is weakening and traditional practices and local skills are disappearing.
DESIGN Harvest explores ways to connect rural areas with the city to enhance the exchange of resources. Moreover, deep contextual analysis and fieldwork have contributed to the creation of a local network of farmers, inhabitants and small entrepreneurs, which are in touch and involved in the project in different ways.
Through the years the research has included different initiatives related to the topics of food production and consumption, valorisation of local heritage and crafts and technology supported services. Two main challenges animate the research: first, the strong ethnographic approach that is preliminary to any design action and that continues throughout the design process, second, the focus on prototype outputs, not just for a practical evaluation of design results in the context, but mostly to continuously feed the target and the research context with practice based experiments.
With the support of Nokia we have been able to investigate particularly the characteristics of Chinese mobile market, its diffusion within different user groups and its potential.
The connection between rural and urban areas, through devices designed for inclusiveness, can help local population to keep in touch with relatives and friends from the city, find new small business opportunities, exchange experiences, and being updated.
The research project’s vision have been also coherent with the development guidelines promoted by the Chinese government. The Twelfth Five-year Program from the Communist Party of China, in fact, puts the development of rural area as one of the major targets in next five years. Government will speed up the transformation of rural area developing structure with high technology and social innovation, so that to build a balance developing situation between urban and rural. Government will put more effort in building a better strategic environment for pushing development by technology and innovation, working on community and urban support agriculture and rural development.
The project is a joint initiative based in Shanghai and supported by Design and Innovation (D&I) at Tongji University and the Sino-Finnish Center of Tongji University and Aalto University. The main financial support and investment comes from Studio TekTAO, a design think and action tank for research in practice, with a particular focus on sustainability and social innovation, often working in partnership with a network of international design consultancies, research groups and design institutes.
The project is monitored by DESIS International and DESIS China, networks of school and organizations in the field of design and sustainability.

DESIGN Harvests research


Most relevant outcomes

The main outcomes of the research are a series of intermediate reports (delivered at different stage of the project), technical documentation, academic publication, and material for the project presentation and dissemination.
A paper had been accepted for presentation at publication at International Design Research Society Conference in Bangkok, July 2012. The research reports are attached for further details.
Didactic activities have been organized along the time of the research implementation: one Summer School with international students from DESIS schools in August 2011, and a semester of lecturer lessons with workshop activities in Product Service System Design at the Master Course of Tongji University.
Public communication and dissemination of results have been achieved participating to public events, initiatives and exhibition and producing a video that describe mechanism and background of TianTian device, as well as a series of presentation and storytelling version of the research process.
As project documentation renders, interface concept and layouts, system maps, videos, technical details have been produced.

Awards and distinctions

The project has been exhibit at Design Museum in Helsinki, during the Design Harvests Exhibition hosted in from January 2012 to May 2012 in the framework of Helsinki Design Capital, Design Workd Exhibition

Exhibition at the Design Museum of Helsinki 2012 (Helsinki World Design Capital)

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