Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Making Public Places : Afterthoughs on Technology, Public Space & The Augmented Forum

On Monday of last week Balmori Associates, Inc. held a design forum called Making Public Places. I had hoped to attend personally but instead was able to take part in the discussion thanks to their efforts to expand the audience, interactively, using twitter, video feeds and a chat service.

I had two reasons for participating in this forum. The first is centered around interests in design, planning and public space as these items relate to current research elucidating changes in public space and the role of artists working in the public realm. The second of my reasons was based upon a need for direct experience with what presents itself as a new means of discursive practice charged with the task of generating feedback on the making of public spaces. Through this practice the publicness of real time dialogue is extended through technology and social networking, augmenting the real space assumed by participants with a complementary virtual space. By and large this post is focused, roughly, around my experience from a relative distance through technology, the benefits of such technology and the current drawbacks encountered during this experience.

While I am not an expert in the fields of technology or design, my perspective comes from a place that can and should be valued. Public space, after all, is intended to be accessible and open to anyone. Without unearthing the breadth of positions and history of critical research related to public spaces I though it necessary to emphasis the focal point of this discussion, making public space. I will however leave my research objectives to another post and present what I found relevant to this experience, namely the virtual augmentation of public space.

Giving this forum an online presence generated an opportunity for individuals around the world to listen in on the dialogue as well as respond and ask questions. While most likely not the first of its kind, this was the first time I have experienced a forum over the web, particularly one that connects with a physical setting and real time dialogue. This experience was intriguing, welcomed, and forward thinking. The video that appears in this post is an unedited copy of the feed presented online. For anyone interested in the discussion that took place as well as trying to connect the twitter feeds to the physical dialogue I would suggest taking a look. I have provided links to information available at the bottom of this post.

Among the dialogue topics related to material use, behavior, vegetation, shared space, community involvement, funding and private/public ownership were covered. This made for an engaging discussion and participants hailed from Denmark, Sweden and the United States to mention only a few. I am however going to leave the reader to investigate the dialogue for his or herself and move on to highlight the extent of my experience as an online participant.

It is argued that public space in inherently democratic, concerned with the commons, and political. Balmori, by the very nature of opening this dialogue, a dialogue about public space to a wider audience, created a temporal form of just such a space. Their experimentation with emerging technology and social networking applications as a tool for creating an interactive sphere was a step towards the future of platforms that will extend the physical reality of public spaces and potentially reengage aspects of discursive democracy. I find this movement intriguing and yet problematic. Though I am going to bypass the problematic for a moment to discuss the potential of this methodology.

One highlight of this experience was the potential for interacting with a group of people discussing ideas that are important to me. And because of the use of technology, I, while not being in physical attendance was able to participate. While my participation, due to the dissonancy between the online community and those in physical attendance, was limited, without this two-way interaction I would have been relegated to consumer status, disenfranchised in a way, from the ability to thoughtfully articulate my ideas related to the way public spaces are produced. The opportunity to provide feedback, and have that feedback heard, reestablished my dignity as a producer, citizen and integral part of my environment. This two-way interaction is what stands out from traditional approaches to forums aired after the fact. It is an intriguing step away from consumer-oriented production of space, towards discursive practices that preserve the value of individuals not only as consumers but also as producers, active participants in life and the production of the spaces they inhabit. This reflects the potential to empower citizens through technology and in turn, thought listening and discursive practices related to the production of public spaces, invest in civic coherence and infrastructure that emerges from the bottom up.

To be sure that I not present the reader with a fluffy notion of this experience and an overtly optimistic view of this technology, I must insert into this post some of the drawbacks encountered during my experience. Not being there, physically, has presented several issues the most prevalent of which was the dissonance of the virtual experience with that of the real. To be clear, before I move on, I would first like to thank Balmori Associates for extending this forum and experimenting with new ways to increase the publicity efforts on the part of design professionals. This experience is a lead in to more coordinated, comprehensive coverage of such events that through technological means will increase the quality of future dialogue for those who wish to participate but cannot be in physical attendance. This was a seed in need of cultivation.

With any new technology or application there will be a time of rapid growth, potentially uncoordinated developments and rough edges. In this situation the rapid growth of a social networking application, Twitter, used by millions and made use of by Balmori to extend the dialogue to the public, brought about great opportunity along with the uncoordinated and rough edges.

Choosing Twitter meant that all feedback from the online community had to be limited to less than 140 characters. Which in turn meant questions and short answers. This in theory is good and keeps the dialogue moving, but not everyone can say what he or she wishes in less that 140 characters. Maybe they should be able to, maybe not. What is certain is that those in physical attendance were able to articulate complete thoughts without such limitations and few if any did so in less than 140 characters. This produced one of the first weak points leading to the dissonance between the two communities (online/physical).

The second weak point was the use of Tiny Chat. Tiny Chat was where the original video feed was posted, this was good, but broadcasting video was limited to those paying for the Tiny Chat service which was no one but Balmori. It would have been nice to see broadcasts of anyone who wished to participate and have the ability to see as well as hear online participants rather than limiting the online experience to text. With enough online presence this could of course lead to noise, but so can text and this is a greater problem associated with opening a forum to the world. Social interaction is not always regulated and pretty.

Probably the most inefficient hurdle was the use of multiple uncoordinated platforms. Tiny Chat, while allowing for longer messages and bypassing the 140-character issue, is not linked to twitter. So anyone posting on twitter did not see the tiny chat dialogue and vice versa. Lest of course, and this is what inevitably had to happen, the online user opened two separate windows, one for tiny chat and one for twitter.

Compounding the issues related to the cumbersome arrangement of windows, Twitter, in order to see the feeds as they are posted, must be refreshed or, yes another window must be opened and Twitterfall or some other real-time application for displaying twitter feeds must be opened.

The essential experience for the online participant thus involved, three open windows to view the video feed, post on the chat, and drop twitter comments/questions. This made for a disparate experience that certainly calls for the development of an application that can merge the strengths of each into one easy to use graphic interface. This is not the fault of balmori, as a matter of fact I believe they have done an excellent job trying to coordinate all of this and I applaud their effort. Case in point, when the Tiny Chat session was hacked, it took only a few minutes before the video was reestablished and the online community was notified of the new stream located on Ustream.

The dissonance was thus attributed to cumbersome new technologies that have yet to be integrated into easy to use tools that lend themselves to mass forums that combine real and virtual populations. I am sure it will only be a matter of time before fully integrated applications that provide user-friendly interfaces and elegant mashups appear on the peripheral and become absorbed by the masses. This will be an interesting time for public space and public practice.

A final note on the dissonance of this forum, and this one will most likely take a little more time to get over, is the difficulty combining two very different approaches to a forum. The first being a real forum in which participants can feel comfortable acting, listening, asking questions and generally functioning the way human beings do, in realty, physical space and with a group of real people. The second being a virtual forum, potentially muddied through mass communication, distant from all of things that make us human, but none the less here, and now a valuable tool employed all over the world. So how do we blend the two, without having them simply run in parallel or series? How do we integrate the two worlds seamlessly in a way that is comfortable for everyday human citizens so that everyone can participate in discursive practices that help to shape and form public spaces? How do these two worlds exist mutually and in a symbiotic fashion? And, what will be the public space remembered by history, of the twenty first century?

All this being said I think the future of public space is up to active and engaged individuals interested in developing the quality of urban fabrics and the role discursive democratic practices. Public space is an integral part of any democratic society and indeed an integral part of any society. The making of public space, its design, production, and reproduction is the responsibility of every citizen who takes a vested interest in the quality of their environment. I am happy to know that I live in a world where I can play an active role and articulate freely my thoughts related to our shared spaces. I hope that the future of public spaces proceeds towards a more inclusive set of practices exemplified by open forums and that everyday men and women have a place among the urban fabric to share in leisure, democracy and social engagement.

Thanks again to Balmori Associates, Inc. for hosing such a great dialogue. Please visit their site for more information related to the topic of their discussion, Making Public Places.


Balmori Associates, Inc.
Twitter : Balmori : #mpplaces
Ustream video:

1 comment:

Mhernand77- Balmori said...

David Bruce,
Your assessments are right on the mark, thank you for them. It was our first try in what we think shows great promise in bringing in views from a variety of sources.
There were some clinical mishaps: Tiny Chat booted us out of their site, with no explanation, though we had paid for it, and in spite of e mails to them as to the why, they have not answered us. Ustream worked better, we heard from several tweeters, better sound, better image, but it does not allow for more than one web-cam. Originally we had 3 cameras pointing to different sites for speakers, so when this fell we ended up with a fixed image with no one managing it .

The seam between inside tweets /outside tweets was incredible difficult, we will have to think of a different format next time. I am currently putting together a summary of the subjects that seemed of greater interests for both inside and outside tweeters, and it was fun.
Thanks again.

Diana Balmori
Principal Balmori Associates