The Problem.
Lahore is city of almost 14 million people, and street navigation is a nightmare . Major roads have street signs with inconsistent designs and placement, while at the publicly-designed neighborhood level, there is little to no thought given to the need for this basic, fundamental right of citizens.

The Solution.
A street signage system that used existing street names and markings from KML files on Google Maps, Lahore Development Authority Master Plan (60's era) nomenclature, and visual street signage that could handle the requirements of dense numbering, labelling and bilingual marking.

In 2012, TED granted ten awards of $10,000 to fund local projects likely to spur the creation of the City 2.0. This is basically an attempt at reimagining urban improvement by seed-funding innovative ideas from around the globe from people who had previously organized TEDx conferences.  Asim Fayaz, and I had organized TEDxLahore way back in 2010, and one of our talks centered around the speed with which Omer SheikhJabran Rafique and Faraz Ahmad had mapped Lahore on Google Maps.

My friends and I devised a simple plan that would address the embarrassing fact that Lahore - my hometown - continues to function in this modern age without a dependable system of street signage.

We had to think about, and do a lot of things people thought we had no experience in. Like picking a font that would accommodate the longest street names possible (in both Urdu and English). Testing full-size cardboard mockups on the streets we planned. Evaluating how even the reflectivity of the background needed to provide readability given the expected road speed of drivers. Font sizes. Sign heights. And then, the municipal/political support to make it happen through adoption.

The project is currently paused - as Asim, Omer and I tried extensively to get support for this at the municipal level. This is indeed the most diffficult part of this project. However, that's part of the challenge; designing services for anywhere will always require overcoming friction and red tape; a challenge we're looking forward to.

Here's the last update I sent to the TED foundation regarding our project:

" After setting the scope of the pilot project to one block of a dense part of the city, we decided to work very hard on the design of the sign. Being very passionate about form following function, we knew that the sign design had to be designed for maximum usability for drivers in Pakistan. So it had to be bilingual and also wide enough to accommodate any possible street/ road name in Lahore. 

Above all, we studied traffic manuals from the UK and UAE (they’ve got very extensive guidelines on sign usability), and used an academic approach to setting the font height for readability at speeds representative of urban traffic in dense areas. One really interesting thing for us was choosing the font; we found a foundry that had custom developed the font for Seoul’s road signs that faced a similar constraint: words in Korean fit just fine, but when written in English they’d overflow from the board. Hence, a narrow yet functional font that they found suitable, was also suitable for Lahore. One day, maybe they’ll be sister cities- starting with the font. Design saves the day- again.

We printed and mocked signs up first on cardboard, using very large printers in Asim’s office at LUMS, and then prototyped by sticking them onto existing poles in a llama Iqbal Town. Along with design and usability, one of the biggest keys to adoption of this project by municipal authorities, is how useful the occupants of the pilot neighbourhood find this project. We sampled random drivers and passers by, asking them about what they saw when we pointed out the boards to them.

Starting the discussion is imperative, particularly for community-driven design, which we want this to eventually become. We would weave in the narrative of how difficult it must be for their friends and loved ones to find their way to their homes. Everyone agreed. We figured we must be doing something right. We then hunted for a vendor who would be able to manufacture the board to international standards. Omer, even though he was in Dubai at the time, hunted down manufacturers to shortlist, and we prototyped with a vendor who’d done extensive work in Islamabad, our ‘most international city’, probably because they’ve got the best roads and surprise surprise, street signs on every corner. 

Getting the sign manufactured to exactly the specs we wanted was interesting. We sampled and learned about all sorts of reflectivity based on location and speed suitability, and finally produced one to exactly the spec we hoped. We were ecstatic when it arrived. I remember posting pictures on Facebook and tagging Asim and Omer, and everyone got to know about them quickly. We took the sign to the pilot neighbourhood, and mocked it up at different intersections. 

Taking lots of pictures and video (which we have lost unfortunately, with a hard drive failure, and iPod theft), we approached Lahore’s Traffic Engineering and Planning Authority, who directed us towards Lahore’s District Coordination Officer for approval and in all honesty, ‘blessing’. The DCO is akin to a city’s mayor, and getting his or her approval is key to getting things implemented downstream, all the way down to the neighbourhood level. 

Though he appreciated the concept, we were told to mount the sign on a pole, and bring that into his office again after three weeks as he was traveling. In our opinion, imagining a sign mounted on a pole, when you’ve already got the sign in front of you, is asking for someone to mock up something to 100% when you’ve already got 90% of it done; prototyping is supposed to be scrappy, and rapid for quick iteration and impact. Getting it from 90% to 100% put us into a time delay loop that cost us an audience with him ever again. The DCO eventually was replaced by someone who we had no access to, and getting time with public servants in Pakistan can be ironically difficult. We feel that mentioning this last part is essential, in order to let people know that design thinking in developing countries like ours add a very challenging but real aspect: that of red tape - in places where it shouldn’t be. But these are all part and parcel of life in a developing country, and knowing that a great deal of your time spent in solving the problem will include not solving the problem directly (i.e. red tape, dealing with power outages, terrorism related travel issues - the list is endless), the more honest ‘human centric design’ becomes. IDEO’s got a great design kit they just redid based on their world famous HCD principles, but the real world comes without beautiful PDF kits design in Palo Alto. There’s nothing wrong with that. My daughter didn’t come with a user’s manual either - you rise to the challenge only by getting into it fully.

Our project should have been further down the road, but since we are all working professionals, now in three different locations (Omer’s an expert telecom consultant in Dubai and Asim just started his masters degree at Berkeley), it’s a lot harder getting us all together to brainstorm on this, even over Skype. 

I’m ‘getting the band together’ now and restarting the push to get this pilot done, and give Lahore the only direction it needs: the ability to find it’s own way out of a mess.

With love from Lahore,

Khurram Siddiqi"

TED City 2.0: Lost in Lahore

TED Ideas Blog - Coverage

NPR Official Report on the project: