As you may have noticed, over here at the Mobile City we have recently shifted the focus of our program somewhat. Rather than addressing the role of digital media in cities in general, we decided to focus on a number of issues that we feel are particularly urgent in urban design. One of them we have labeled ‘ownership’. For us ‘ownership’ is about bringing about a sense of engagement with urban life and providing citizens with opportunities to (collaboratively) act. How can we design or employ digital media in such a way that they may contribute to such a sense of ‘ownership’?
We are very happy to address this question in a partnership with Virtueel Platform who has asked us to conduct a study on this issue (to be published at some point later this year). Last friday Virtueel Platform also organized an expert meeting that addressed the theme of ‘ownership’, and here I’d like to share my thoughts.
The City as a Platform
The meeting started with a presentation by Beth Coleman and Howard Goldkrand who are working on an idea they call ‘The City as Platform’. The central idea is that the city is generating all sorts of data. Now how can we tap into this wealth of data in a meaningful way? How do we create an API for the city that allows us to make use of the city in a better way? Currently we are seeing a lot of projects that have started to visuzalize these data, sometimes in impressive ways. But, Coleman and Goldkrand ask: So what? These mappings may create beautiful pictures and perhaps allow us to grasp some processes in the city that may have been invisible. Yet,
how do we move beyond ‘mapping’, beyond pretty pictures and allow for data uses that allow us to act?
Coleman and Goldkrand presented a number of design approaches, as counter strategies to the dominant design paradigm in urban media. Most of the innovation in this field comes from commercial companies who either offer you personalized services and / or try to monetize the use of digital media. For instance, Goldkran pointed to a recent deal between Foursquare and Groupon. We risk that are cities are turned into open air versions of the Mall of America: sanitized and commercial spaces, he claimed. Yet are cities could be so much more than providing citizens with digital coupons on mobile media, based on their location and individual preferences. Therefor, he suggested, designers should depart from three design-approaches (that can be used in combination), he and Coleman call:
- Public Space For Coleman and Goldkrand, Public space is (in my own words) about creating places of contact or zones of friction. How can we design for a co-presence of people, enabled through digital media?
- The Civic: whereas public space is just about bringing people together, The civic dimension is about designing tools for people to act and participate in affairs with regard to local communities
- The Poetic is about bringing a poetic dimension to urban media design that enchants, engages, and carries the interaction experience beyond the merely functional. How can we design ‘Rabit Holes’ in the urban world that allow us to temporarily disappear in magic worlds with different logic and stories?
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Their presenation included numerous examples that have departed from these criteria. Varying from ‘unwired’ examples such as graffiti-art to ‘cross-reality’ approaches such as Tidystreet.org, interventions by the Jejune Institute as well as transmedia-storytelling projects as the ARG Goldkran co-designed for the American television series Dexter.
In her presentation, Ekim Tan stated that architects (‘the proud makers of the city form the last century’) are starting to admit that they are ‘loosing ground’. They used to see themselves as the main designers of urban environments, but now see their position challenged by designers working in other disciplines such as mobile apps. The way people experience and make use of urban space, as well as the way they organize themselves socially and spatially now partially takes place through the interfaces of digital media.
Facing this new condition, she took inspiration from Manuel de Landa. When designing cities, designers should first investigate the relation between stakeholders and try to translate those into urban patterns, rather than the other way around. To do this (and thus trying to give several stake holders a sense of ‘ownership’ in the design process), Tan has designed a number of city games. Currently she is running World of City Craft in Amsterdam Noord.
World of Citycraft is an interactive real-time real-agent city generation game. World of Citycraft is the medium to craft a city besides decision making and designing. Citycraft is dependent on the individual agents and evolving local decisions based on real urgencies and needs more than the artificial and stylistic obsession of designers and/or planners.
The goal is to use an intricate game structure to “introduce a participatory urban planning and create a transparent planning process that enables citizens to react on early initiatives instead of leaving them to protest at ‘inspraakavonden’”.
Gamify, bleh …
Another interesting presentation was given by Alper Çugun, of Hubbub and Monsterswell. He gave a short version of Kars Alfrinks wonderful talk at Futureverything in which he addressed the issue of ‘gamifcation’. There is this idea circulating around that urban life can be made more interesting by turning mundane tasks into games. For many things you do you can now earn points, badges, and rewards.Perhaps, is the idea, this can even enable a sense of ownership in particular issues, such as the virtual plants that grow on the Hybrid Ford Fusion dashboard, indicating your contribution to ‘saving the environment’.
While some of these playful designs may be able to create poetic experiences of the everyday and mundane, Çugun and Alfrink do takes issue with this development:
One, gamification forces people to play. And two: it indiscriminately slaps reward systems on tasks both shallow and deep. It risks hollowing out intrinsically rewarding activities. It’s also the case that whereas true play is always engaged in voluntarily, many gamification designs leave you with no choice. You are confronted with a system you must use for utilitarian reasons, and now you are asked to jump through additional hoops so that you will be more “engaged”. You do not play a gamified system, this system is playing you.
They propose an alternative approach. Urban games should be designed for open ended play rather than for pre-scripted ones, and allow for emergence, like lego-blocks that allow players to make their own creations. Games should give humans agency rather than merely trying to force them to do things. Çugun gives two examples he likes: Chromaroma and Fitibit. Chromaroma is a game than can be played with your Oyster Card in the London subway. Fitibit is a small device that measures the calories you burn on a day. It doesn’t give you any points per se or encourage any particular behaviour, but the data it generates can become part of a game between friends or the starting point for discussions.
[Note: If you would like to read more on some of these issues, see also an earlier post on The City as an Interaction Platform, as well as my contribution to the Sentient City book, that builds upon the issue brought about by Benjamin Bratton and Nathalie Jeremijenko: how to move beyond mapping and design 'interfaces'?, as well as this article Cisco’s Urban Ecomaps and Medialab-Prado’s In the Air: How to move from awareness about environmental problems to action? For more on designing Urban games, see: Some notes on the design of pervasive games]