What could be new opportunities for smart objects in the urban realm?
With the rise of the so-called Internet of Things ‘computers’ are no longer separate machines for limited purposes on our desks or in our pockets. They are integrated ever more in the objects of daily life – for example in home environments, in hotel rooms, and in cars – smart interfaces communicate with you, accept orders but also advice you or act automatically. And also in the city smart objects become ever more present, but as Adam Greenfield states, mostly in applications of control (surveillance cameras), efficiency (traffic management) and commerce (advertisements, gadgets). This is obvious, as this is how the city is primarily organised.
But we believe there must be a vast realm of other possibilities -yet undiscovered- for smart objects in public space – perhaps they will even be playing a role in the quest for new ways of urban planning.
So urban planning today is still at large based on the same paradigms as postwar modern planning – and not only urban planning but the entire building industry. Everything revolves around a strict division in functional zones: housing, work and play – conceived into large scale areas interconnected with thick ropes of roads and railways. Its most distinct values are efficiency, mass development, consumerism and uniformity.
These are by no means values that cover any of our needs today, and the conflicts in the city point out sharply what these shortcomings are. The building industry seems at the same time incapable of dissolving its own rigidity, or to react on today’s urgent calls for small scale, specific development, refurbishment and slow, sensitive transformation.
And this criticism is by no means new: Alison and Peter Smithson already declared the need for a city based on human association on the CIAM meeting in 1959. But since the economical crisis it is clear once more that we simply cannot continue on the old track.
Now it is often said that perhaps techniques from the computing and gaming industry could be the missing link in finding new methods of urban development. I my opinion that is not necessarily BIM that is now being applied merely for better integration of technical specialties in ever more complex design projects. It lies in a more intuitive realm of open-end interactivity – game-ish protocols that invite people to engage afresh – to be able to understand our cities by understanding human (inter)actions. This is why we want to bring together architects and game/software designers to investigate on this by building real prototypes.
But the first inspiration for our workshop came in fact from a much older example: the elegant playgrounds designed by Aldo van Eyck – in the 1950s the very first public realm especially designed for children. These playgrounds were at first situated literally in the blank spots of the modern urban maze – on temporarily available sites and gaps. Later they were planned as standard ingredients for new housing areas, as Van Eyck designed over 700 playgrounds in total. [Aldo van Eyck the Playgrounds and the City – by Liane Lefraivre and Ingeborg de Roode]
These playgrounds consist of very abstract, geometrical objects, in different configurations for each specific location. In themselves, these objects mean nothing yet. Play only arises when the imagination of children Is projected on these objects. So precisely because of their abstractness, these objects are able to be the carrier of all play and the imagination of all children. Therefore, these playgrounds can offer truly co-creative shared public experiences.
We want to repeat this experiment in a new way: to design a co-creative interactive object in public space and to investigate on the social dynamics of resource sharing. The notion of the object’s nature being ‘open-end’ instead of ‘pre-scripted’ is a vital distinction.
I will borrow the definitions of open-end play vs. prescripted play from Kars Alfrink’s talk New Games New Cities, available at his blog http://whatsthehubbub.nl/blog/2011/05/new-games-for-new-cities-at-futureeverything/
Prescripted play is consumptive, confirmative or even prescriptive.
The user has to follow a determined path, he has no real influence on the nature of the game and the game will not be essentially different when it is played again. We can compare this with going to a concert hall, where you buy a ticket for one seat. The orchestra is set up on stage in its usual configuration and you will experience the music from one angle and as one sound. The next time it may be a different repertoire in a different seat but the experience will be the same in essentials.
Open-end play is creative, productive or even transformative
The game is not ready-made – the user creates it as he plays it, he influences the game himself and the game can be entirely different any time it’s played again. We can compare this with the beautiful concert plan sketch by Xenakis, the famous architect/composer. There is still an orchestra, a conductor with musicians around him, but the difference is the audience: the people are invited to walk around between the musicians, making their own sound experience with each step and turn they take. The next time, the same concert can be experienced in an entirely different way, just by following a different route.
So open-end play requires a truly active engagement of the player – but this is of course true for many ways of acting and interacting – play can be a metaphor for almost everything here.
In his recent Premsela lecture Out of Touch, Richard Sennett talks about the loss of the sense of touch in contemporary life, amongst others in how people work. He describes the complex and highly personal learning process of a cello player, and compares this to working with user-friendly computer programs and standardized work protocols like the SAP management system.
The user friendly computer program is based on hiding every form of complexity and to minimize resistance in using it. It is the ultimate pre-scripted protocol: no room for personalization, multiple identities or ambiguity and most users do not see the structure and idea behind the program and they cannot influence it.
An open-end protocol would take much more time to master, but during this process the user learns how the device works and might even find unexpected solutions and possibilities.
A prescripted protocol forces the user into passiveness. Work as a rigid process of limitation and simulation leads to alienation and indifference.
And in fact something similar can be said about our cities. The city and its public space is being forced upon its inhabitants by governments, developers and fixed urban plans. The financial framework requires large-scale mono-functional developments; for reasons of control and security public space is designed as pre-scripted as possible. Public space offers no real possibility for participation for its users and therefore provokes them into passiveness and indifference.
If we want to find new ways of designing the city we have to start here: we need to find new methods to design possibilities for the re-appropriation of public space.
Public space requires a sense of ownership of its users in order to be successful.’
The re-appropriation of public space into co-creative experiences requires possibilities for open-end use.
We can design evolving frameworks instead of ready-mades for the city.
We can incorporate much more and complex information in ever evolving open-end models of space.
Urban fields have to offer the possibility of transition under the influence of its inhabitants and their needs. Urban planning should not be designing fixed schemes, but designing evolving protocols, based on these transitions and human associations and interactions.
The public domain is where we learn what our city needs and how it evolves.
We therefore need to design a learning, smart environment, for inhabitants and for designers.
The workshop IoT – Builders at Play will took place September 2-4 at the Waag Society on the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam. After the workshop its results will be published on a website Smart in Public that is to facilitate the continuation of this research as an open source educational community.