The research project Smart in Public has kicked off with its first event: the workshop Builders at Play – in response to the IoT workshop by Archis/Volume earlier this year. We intended to bring various specialists together in interdisciplinary teams, to investigate on the possibilities for smart objects in public space, in order to create co-ownership through co-creativity and open-end play. We started the workshop with 15 participants, going by one or several of the titles architect, researcher, interaction designer, software developer, game designer, graphic designer, artist and/or product designer. The workshop is the starting point of an online research community called Smart in Public that is to host various events, collaborations and ongoing investigations on the subject.
On Sunday we had the pleasure of attending four presentations that all brought a different angle, approach and scenario to the table. The design and build process and results proved our initial briefing to be somewhat too ambitious: either the teams had mostly managed to build a great working prototype, or they had mostly been caught up in complex sociological discussions – uncovering very important issues but leaving little time for the actual building process. Despite the framework that we offered to get people already involved in the subject prior to the workshop and systematize their research along the way, three days was still too short to cover both the theoretical basis and the construction of the prototype. However we were very pleased to see the final results pointing out such a diverse range of issues – “research by design” means to put research first as the design becomes its vehicle – an ongoing open-end process.
In this team two architects cooperated with a visual artist. Although this team seems at first very design based and not so much into technicalities, they proved to have ample experience in cross-disciplinary projects and research fields, which allowed for good communication and knowledge enough to transform a design into a working installation. They did not spend much time in discussion – their idea was formed in the first hours of the workshop and changed but little along the way. Most time was spent on prototyping and less on the context or the theoretical framework of the workshop. The product therefore turned out slightly generic, but can be used as a tool in further discussion – how to upgrade the idea to a broader purpose.
Their primary object revolved around the idea of creating a standalone device, being a small tube containing RGB LEDs, a sensor set, a battery and a chip. The tubes can be spread out as points in space in any kind of configuration, in this case as a 70x70cm grid on the former slope on the NDSM wharf. They are not connected to any kind of network, but are each independently responsive to their environment. As all devices respond to the actions of people around them, the people then act as the network, connecting the output of the nodes in space with their presence. Overtime, the nodes are programmed to play back their actions of a few hours before, a ghost or shadow of the past.
The reconfigurability of the installations was found in the possibility for people to reprogram the nodes on the spot. People could tap them twice for instance to keep the LEDs on for half an hour, to create a temporary customised space such as a football field or a giant chess board.
By tapping three or four times, the nodes can respond in other ways, etc. The variety of possibilities however is limited as the simple chip in the tube has a maximum level of complexity. It is therefore not possible to make the installation entirely reconfigurable. The open-end aspect lies mainly in the quantity of nodes on the location that also multiplies the amount of configurations possible, but not in the nodes themselves.
The first interesting idea of this project is the statement that people should act as the only connection or ‘network’ between the nodes. In terms of ownership it makes indeed sense to keep the interaction and configurability location based: the main idea is that people create the sense of co-ownership on site. However, this could still be the case when the LED nodes are networked. As long as the connection to the internet is only used for reading and not writing data, the interaction can still be location based only, while allowing the data created to be of use for secondary layers of interactivity, for instance creating visualisations of the use over time and linking this to ideas for new development in the future.
The second interesting aspect is the idea for super cheap mass production of small modules containing sensors – software – output as stand alone devices. This means that any public environment can be made sensor based randomly, at all times, by anybody. But without a network connection the modules will never surpass the gadget status. If mass production and DIY sensoring is an issue, then what the modules definitely need is a GPS and a server connection, so that their data are collected and linked to a place. People could then start collecting the data they consider important and start tools and applications for it. This can still be playful, for instance by organising game competitions throughout the whole city with instant score updates online, but also more serious – for instance by collecting data about the air quality with the immediate on-the-spot output of a red or green light, so that people can react instantly by taking another route, and indirectly by letting the municipality know where the problem areas are. This could be an interesting scenario for pocket data generators that are accessible and comprehensible for anyone – therefore truly opening up the engagement in one’s environment.
The second project presented proposed the monitoring of pedestrians in a square area at NDSM. By entering the square field, one is automatically but anonymously detected by one of the four camera’s, followed and stored as a data trail. All movements through the space are daily collected and can be viewed online. Also the pavement in the square contains LED lights, that start replaying the movements of during the day at night: the idea is that the more the space is used during the day, the safer it will be at night – by providing a greater area that is lit.
In addition to this, a possibility is offered to check in with an RFID tag, so that your personal path is followed and collected and can be reviewed by you online, allowing you to play with your daily route by writing something or playing a game with others. This personalised route tracking can then be enhanced with a variety of apps – for instance the MTV building next to the square can add a music sharing game to your walk.
One of the starting points of this project was that it should be as easy as possible for people to be part of the experience. It is of course true that most people move through the city following their own schedule, and that they are perhaps not willing to engage in social interaction or urban games all the time. But the method here applied, that you become part of this installation whether you like it or not, just by entering a space that is supposed to be neutral, is indeed very questionable. For is a space then still neutral? Is a public space still a public space when your being filmed going through it? Who is watching you, whose cameras are those, who pays for them? How do we know when we walk there that the footage is only used anonymously?
Probably most people will not immediately object to being part of this, and the idea of daily activity creating safety for the night is sympathetic, but is this real social interaction? Does this installation create a sense of co-ownership and co-creation in public? Since the cameras and infrastructure belong to some party, even if it is a party that is supposed to be neutral like the municipality, the space is colonised in such a way that it is no longer truly public. It may create a sense of ownership indeed, but ownership by whom?
Here we see a distinctive difference in approach by team 1 and team 2: the importance of democratic use and the autonomy of interaction is key. It is very interesting to investigate on this fine line of privacy in the public realm. The notion of public space, it seems, is a vulnerable and precarious one indeed. Interventions, also if meant to be nothing but nice and playful, can still entirely sacrifice this inherent quality as a place. The idea that a place can, at the same time, belong to everybody and to nobody, is clearly not something to take for granted.
This team started with the idea of creating an ecosystem of data trails, as a display of use. Their original idea was to record people’s voices and mimic them as ‘insects’ – abstract sound trails that would start buzzing around. The tone of the voice would influence the character of the species, and the more recordings the more complex the ecosystem would get. This idea of enriching an environment overtime in an imitation of insect populations in nature was nice, but eventually turned out difficult to capture the data trails in a convincing way – here the accessibility and the low barrier for participation was a problem.
The idea then evolved into a new scenario: 64 cubes were placed on the grid of the Stelcon plates. Some of them are fixed on the site, most of them can be moved and dragged around the square to use them as chairs or to build a stage or an igloo. By using infrared signal communication, the fixed element generates a pulse that is passed through all blocks placed in a row connected to the generator. The pulse can be experienced for example as a light flash or an auditive signal. The block at the end knows it is the last one and bounces the signal back again. This can be played with in various ways, as a large and advanced type of Lego. Because the blocks are rather large, the effect on the space is significant. There is at first no intention to network this installation, but it could be linked to a second device for instance on the other side of the river, and act as a signaling beacon. Also the use of the square could be monitored by recording the way the blocks are being placed around.
A suggestion from the audience was to also let the blocks react on people sitting or standing on them – this could also be a music game as an audio fragment is produced by jumping on and off the blocks or running over them. All together, this concept can be a nice playground.
It would have been interesting if this group had somehow managed to incorporate in their second concept the social aspect of sharing a location that was present in the first concept. The idea to make the colonisation of an area tangible is quite interesting, especially in this location. The NDSM is a place with a rather interesting history in this sense: after gradually losing its function as a ship wharf for the harbour, it spent quite some years as a slightly spooky obsolete area. I have not been around long enough in Amsterdam to know all the particulars, but when I came to work at the NDSM about 5,5 years ago, it still had much of this vacancy. There were three large warehouses, one still in use by a harbour related company, the other as storage space for various organisations. The third one already housed the skate court and the first artist studios, and as the place had officially been declared a ‘broedplaats’ there was also an dépendance of the municipality that had to coordinate all upcoming activities. The IJ kantine had also recently opened, apparently expecting a new clientele there. However, it was a very cold winter, most spaces on the wharf were impossible to heat properly, and so the NDSM was practically deserted and made the most of its vast gloominess after dark. But after a few months, when I left the area for a job somewhere else, the Mtv building was just under construction and the summer promised many exciting NDSM festivals.
This little story shows the great variety of use that the NDSM houses: ever more people in more different professions work there every day now, but most of them have arrived only recently. The difference between the winter and the summer with all its festivals is still enormous, as the wharf suddenly overflows with people at Valtifest, Over t IJ Festival etc. Then there is the flea market, year round taking place each month, that still seems to belong to the ‘real’ Amsterdam Noord people, or at least it is quite different from the hip young art and festival crowd.
The ‘ecosystem’ at the NDSM is changing rapidly and produces ever more inhabiting species – therefore the idea to capture that development in data trails could be interesting. The ongoing colonisation of the NDSM, first by few then by many, is a process that can be very instructive for urban planners. This issue is closely related to the research of the last team:
This team’s main outcome was about identity: the manifold identities of people at the NDSM, sometimes hardly aware of each other, together forming the identity of the location. The idea is to ‘tag’ people – to give them a label, and to make their identity known by a visible code: a bracelet, something in their clothes, and perhaps even flags or passwords that stress the different groups even more. This is comparable to other examples of unofficial social coding applied in certain scenes – from the dots on people’s foreheads in India in earlier times, or hats in Europe a few centuries ago, to the hidden signals belonging to people meeting for sex in parking lots.
To visualise people’s identities they become aware of each other’s presence. The ‘tides’ of people coming in and leaving become tangible – for example this great difference in population between summer and winter, or between weekends and during the week. People can also adopt several identities overtime, as they come to NDSM more often for several different purposes – if you regard these identities as different species in an ecosystem, their identities merge as if they become cross breeds.
By monitoring these different adopted identities, the use and transition of the NDSM wharf can be captured in a data sculpture to visualise the informal development of the location.
Although the idea of this scenario was not as much developed into a working prototype as some of the other projects, this contribution gets its value from being the only project in the workshop that addresses both the specific conditions of the location and the specific groups of people there.
We considered being ‘specific’ to the location to be a very important element for the success of a social object in public space, but throughout the whole process I have come to question that a bit. Is Primal Source location specific? Probably not. Are Aldo’s playgrounds? Although they are designed for each location in a certain configuration, their essentials – the abstract objects facilitating the children’s imagination in play – is the same for all 700 playgrounds that were built.
We have tried to capture the relevant issues of this workshop’s goal into a spider diagram, in order to compare the different projects. One of these aspects is ‘location specific’: is this installation only valid on this particular spot or could basically it exist anywhere? Then there is
- incentive for participation: how easily can one engage in the interaction?
- level of interaction: how much contact with other people does it generate? How much awareness of the other is created?
- permanence of effect: does the action have a permanent impact on the location or is it gone within seconds?
- reconfigurability: how much influence have the people on the protocol of the installation? Is it entirely pre-scripted or open-end?
- granular level of participation: what is the scale of the experience? One person? One location? One city? The world? Does it spread out into different levels through connecting to a network?
What follows from the diagrams for the projects of this workshop and reference projects that we considered successful, is that most focus very heavily on two aspects: the accessibility of participation – a low barrier to opt into the experience – and a high level of interaction – a lot of contact between people through the interaction with the object. As Jyri Engeström remarked: “People do not just connect. They connect through a shared object.”
This is the basis. The other aspects follow from these two.
When such an experience can be linked to the location, and is connected to a network (so a greater granularity of participation through sharing), then the interaction can be ‘harvested’ into data scapes, displaying the use of the object and monitoring the environment. This should be open data – accessible to the community inhabiting the area, or open entirely to anyone.
When people have the possibility to also reconfigure the protocol and outcome at hand, the experience becomes truly dynamic, open end and ownable.
The permanence of the effect of the interaction follows from this locaton based, time based reconfigurability, and from to what extend the installation is related to its surroundings.
All in all, it does not necessarily follow that all aspects should be incorporated as much as possible. Strong concepts focus on the basic elements necessary for the first level of social relevance. The other aspects follow only from a particular urgency. We have to ask ourselves more specifically what the relevance of the intervention may be, for whom we create it and what, to a great level of detail, are the consequences for the public environment. The idea of open data, and more particularly, how to make data truly public and of use to people and their ‘living environments’.
This workshop alone was too short to incorporate all this, but we take this notion into the next projects. To be continued at www.smartinpublic.nl