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Embracing the unexpected


Imagine that you are exploring your city on a bicycle, but not following a predetermined route or going to a specific destination. Instead, you're following a path that leads you on a delightful journey along quaint streets, small parks and unknown landmarks.


This is exactly the goal of the third pilot in the Serendipity Engine project, which is developed by imec. They're collaborating with Anyways, an open-source mobility software consultant that creates smart routing and analysis solutions for different modes of transport, and with Open Knowledge Belgium, a non-profit organization that promotes open knowledge and open data to create a more transparent and democratic society.



Serendipitous elements

Serendipity describes the occurrence of unexpected, pleasant, and beneficial events. It entails chance encounters, fortuitous occurrences, and all kinds of spontaneous discoveries. Serendipity can be an unexpected conversation with a stranger on the bus, a shortcut through an unfamiliar neighborhood in the city, or a scenic detour on your way home, that leads you to a beautiful countryside view.


Serendipity in the city brings citizens, commuters, tourists, joy, connection, and inspiration. Moreover, it can also 'train' them to navigate the sometimes complex and unpredictable nature of urban environments, making them more resilient and adaptable in the face of unexpected challenges.


Imec plays a prominent role in creating a social and economic impact in Flanders by performing demand-driven technological research. It does this together with public agencies, other imec divisions, research centers, companies and others. It discovers the role of digital technology in tackling contemporary challenges in society - like mobility, health, energy, sustainability - with a multidisciplinary approach.

Added value for cyclists

How can we promote and measure serendipitous experiences in people's travels by using the power of data analytics, artificial intelligence and user experience design? We could improve the quality of people’s mobility, rather than only focusing on its efficiency. Society will benefit from the project through the following aspects:


Firstly, we want to raise awareness on the positive impact of serendipity. Secondly, we will provide an easy-to-use toolkit for developers to design their apps for serendipity. Moreover, we will evaluate the users’ experience in their applications. And lastly, we will develop policy recommendations and guidelines to support the policy makers and public actors at all levels of government.

I love cycling through cities. It’s a fast form of urban mobility. And it’s slow, as it keeps you in touch with the world around you. I also love serendipity. The way in which you’re open for sparkling freshness in that world around you. — And let’s be clear: serendipitous environments are no accident. The same goes for the role of technology in our lives, in our cities. Do recommendation engines and navigation apps steer you towards the same, trusted, expected destinations or routes? Or do they stimulate or incorporate serendipity? This is an exciting challenge for social and technical researchers. Together. — Applying those new insights to urban cyclists is a novel approach to a timely research topic.

Jan Adriaenssens, director Public Technology at imec


Our team will therefore develop several app components that promote serendipity in collaboration with the project partners and stakeholders. We will evaluate the integration of these components in a real-life context with three pilot use cases that have been defined in co-creation with varying stakeholders, one of which is a cycling route planner.


Route planning

Within this pilot, we therefore aim to develop a cycling application to allow for serendipitous cycling. This will help cyclists to discover new and exciting places in their city while still being able to reach their desired destination.


Cycling route planner in development by Anyways
Anyways cycling route planner web app for Genk

Anyways is developing a cross-platform cycling route planner that can be used to promote cycling and to show the local cycling infrastructure and network. They are interested in gathering travel data from the users and gain insights into their cycling behavior. The feedback on the route quality in terms of comfort, serendipitous experiences and safety will give added value to the cyclists by allowing the app to offer safer, more speedy or more beautiful routes depending on the users' preferences.


The research done in the Serendipity project will contribute to their goal to better understand how people can experience or get to know a city in a less programmed and a more explorative way, especially for touristic cyclists, for example by offering slightly longer routes that contain detours to visit quaint parks, beautiful monuments or breathtaking views. These landmarks or places will be retrieved from existing open datasets in collaboration with Open Knowledge Belgium, while incorporating other data sources on cycling preferences and behaviors to create more personalized, serendipitous routes.


Route Planning for regular trips from A to B is very mathematical and with a clear aim. Fastest route, shortest route are well known examples. It is both a challenge and a source of inspiration for us to explore serendipity in our work! How do we build routes based on mathematics yet allowing for the discovery of places and roads less obvious? What if the destination is unknown? Is there perhaps still a role for math, using randomness for example?

Wim Michiels, CEO at Anyways



In the future, we also see opportunities to integrate serendipity in other, more generic, navigation apps. They could, for example, in the case of large roadworks or big events, nudge citizens or visitors towards more sustainable alternatives such as walking or cycling. Not only, our pilot will gather valuable insights into the travel behavior of cyclists. It will also offer a great opportunity to experiment with how different design patterns and UI components can engender or harm the serendipity that the users experience on their cycling route, by testing the app with different configurations.


Summary

In conclusion, this project will demonstrate how technology can enhance the quality of urban mobility and provide unexpected moments of joy, connection, and inspiration in our everyday lives.


We aim to develop a proof-of-concept of a cross-platform cycling route planner that allows for serendipitous cycling based on novel data analytics, artificial intelligence, and user experience design experiments. Not only, we aim to offer added value to cyclists, but we only want to gather valuable data to assess travel behavior that can be used to promote sustainable alternatives for car transportation, and we want to experiment with different design patterns and user interface components to aim to increase the serendipity that users experience in their daily travels.



Does this spark your interest?


We hope to meet you along our way, serendipitously or meticulously planned. You might increase the chances of staying informed about the Serendipity Engine project by subscribing to our newsletter or connecting on LinkedIn.


Any questions in the meantime? Feel free to contact us at evelien.marlier@imec.be or serendipityengine@vub.be.


This post is written by imec. It is mainly responsible for the work package on the pilot integrations and validations. Imec's researchers on this project are Casper Van Gheluwe, Thomas De Meester, Olivia Willems, Eridona Selita, and project officer Evelien Marlier.


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