Boudewijn Bollmann STRP19 eersten LORES 03

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Making Digital Space

by Paul Clarke

In their blogs, other fellows have already offered good definitions of digital placemaking. According to mobile app developers Calvium, who I’ve collaborated with on a number of projects, ‘digital placemaking is focused on making places better’ (2019). I like this aspiration, but think it’s also important that we keep asking ourselves, better for whom?

I’ve been wondering whether we should use the term digital spacemaking. For me, a space is characterised by the way it’s used, made by how people behave in it and all the things that happen there. I’m interested in whether a city’s digital layers can make space for more representative voices and cultural practices. And what yet-to-be-imagined social interactions can hybrid physical-digital spaces make possible?

Intro: where am I coming from?

I’m one of the two academic fellows on the Digital Placemaking Pathfinder and I teach in the Theatre Department at University of Bristol. But I’m also an artist and most of my research is carried out through performance practice with Uninvited Guests, which is a resident company at the Pervasive Media Studio. Since our first collaborative work together over twenty years ago, the company has been experimenting with the relationship between theatre and technology. We’ve used performance and emerging tech to explore ways of telling stories spatially, rather than chronologically, to layer today’s city with fictions and also with histories; for instance in The Lost Palace, an interactive visitor experience for Historic Royal Palaces. Recently I’ve become interested in the city as a stage or interface and how location-specific stories enable us to travel imaginatively to distant places or connect us to other times, including times to come.

In2018 Uninvited Guests developed Billennium with Duncan Speakman and creative technologists FENYCE. Initially commissioned for Watershed and the Smart Internet Lab’s Layered Realities 5G Platform, this augmented reality (AR) performance has since shown at STRP 2019, Eindhoven’s festival of art and technology. Billennium is a theatrical guided tour, not of historic sites, but of a city’s futures, on which you walk through time to the locations of utopian and dystopian science fictions. Future architecture appears before your eyes and you hear what different worlds might sound like. Accompanied by performers as archaeologists of the future, you carry mobile devices – smartphones on selfie-sticks – that enable you to look into the future. The tour concludes with an opportunity to design tomorrow’s city together and you see the buildings you describe appear layered onto the architecture of today using AR.

Design Fictions and Sc-Fi Prototypes

When we’ve shown Billennium, people have talked with us about the possibility of applying our approach to real-world situations. They’ve suggested that this artwork has potential as a way of doing participatory building design and engaging local communities with planning consultation. These conversations – for instance with Melissa Mean of Knowle West Media Centre around their We Can Make housing project, and with Johann Beelen of Eindhoven’s Brainport Development – are the starting point for my Digital Placemaking research.

My plan for the fellowship is to explore possible applications of Billennium. I want to address whether creative tech, performance and science fiction can get people thinking critically about their built environment and enable them to collectively imagine alternative possibilities? Can we use augmented reality (AR) to get a wider range of people involved in planning consultations and would these processes be more effective in situ, in the places that are being developed? Can theatre and emerging technologies facilitate playful ways of doing speculative architecture and writing sci-fi stories together, as prototypes for the future of our cities?

I recognise the risk of becoming complicit in gentrification, art-washing and generating community buy in for contested schemes, which is what critic Stephen Pritchard accuses creative placemaking of. Hopefully though, as Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby propose, Billennium might help ‘people participate more actively as citizen[s]’ in co-creating ‘more socially constructive imaginary futures’? (2013)

Who shapes digital places?

I’ll end this blog post by returning to the broader questions with which I started. We need to keep asking who decides which futures are better for our city. Who has access to digital placemaking and who participates, both in designing a city’s physical architecture and also its digital layers of media and information? Who are hybrid spaces for and who shapes their digital infrastructure, services and content? Who gets excluded, both from consultation processes about them and from the physical-digital spaces designed? Is placemaking necessarily initiated top-down, or can its aims, objectives and methods be co-designed with communities from the ground-up, as well as people contributing content at later stages. These are some of the questions that will drive my research over the next year.

In the last Digital Placemaking Pathfinder workshop I tried out an experiment around collectively authoring science fictions about a place. Here’s the web address and, when you’re next at Watershed or nearby, I invite you to try this tool for designing fictions and sci-fi prototyping.