Digital Placemaking

Event Round-Up: Exploring digital practice and social purpose at Let’s Get Real 2019

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A woman writes on a chalkboard stand outside, in the dusk at Idescape: Porth Teigr, with festoon lights in the background

January’s Let’s Get Real 2019 Conference saw speakers from across the arts and cultural heritage sector converge to discuss the intersection of digital practice and social purpose at London’s Wellcome Trust. The event demonstrated the power of digital practice for driving social change – including ‘changes to our identity, our wellbeing, the information we consume, the democracy we participate in and the networks and communities with which we connect’.

Calvium’s Jo Morrison was in attendance, presenting her view on digital placemaking for community-building. In this article, Jo offers a recap of her talk and her pick of thought-provoking digital practices from the day.

The Let’s Get Real Conference 2019 was a stellar event curated by Culture24, hosted by the Wellcome Trust and funded by the Arts Council England. So far, so fab.

I was pleased to share my insights around ‘digital placemaking for community building’ at the conference, which stem from around 20 years in the field. That’s a useful place to start, for while the past decade has seen smartphone technologies become instrumental in how many people navigate and understand the world around them, it’s important to remind ourselves that research into the possibilities that such devices and technologies might afford was underway for many years before the iPhone’s launch. I’ve written about Calvium’s deep experience in this area in a previous article.

As such, it’s worth keeping an eye on the research underway today in order to get a sense of our possible socio-technological futures and the opportunities for communities to shape what these might be. Bristol’s 5G Smart Tourism Showcase is one such research activity.

Citizen voice, citizen agency, supporting critique and connecting citizens were themes that underpinned my presentation, and I turned to our Ideascape research in Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay to illustrate the thrust of my argument.

Ideascape was an innovative project that demonstrated the value of engaging multiple stakeholder communities to envision how digital technologies can be used to support urban regeneration projects to become more sustainable and more liveable.

In my presentation, I showed how Calvium’s Ideascape research delivered insight into four areas of digital practice and social purpose:

1.  Attitudes to the digital in digital placemaking

Ideascape contributed to expanding people’s conceptual understanding of the range of ways, and applications, in which they could experience location-specific digital tech and content in urban public space.

What we learned via Ideascape:

  • Digital placemaking increases citizens’ willingness to explore areas
  • Digital placemaking should be an open and inclusive practice that is sensitive to the existing environment and accountable to the public.
  • Ideascape offered a greater sense of the scope of digital placemaking.

2.   Community engagement and sharing

Our Ideascape digital practices encouraged residents to think about how they could local resources to connect meaningfully with others. Of our ‘Book this space’ digital practice, one resident commented: “I love this idea. We run a community choir in the Bay and would be able to perform here.”

What we learned via Ideascape:

  • By supporting communities to actively and meaningfully participate, digital placemaking has the potential to enhance people’s experience of a place
  • Our Ideascape concepts encouraged some participants to become more locally aware and inspired others to become engaged in stakeholder groups.

3.  Transforming relationships with social spaces

Ideascape enabled us to better understand and challenge residents’ relationship with the local environment. One commented that: “Even though I felt familiar with the area I wasn’t able to understand how it was used before… [now I] understand the historic reasoning for the form of the built environment.”

What we learned via Ideascape:

  • Digital placemaking offers people deeper connections to a place by providing alternative views of the area that challenge existing perceptions.
  • Residents often displayed a strong desire to maintain a connection to the natural world.
  • All respondents desired a welcoming social space.

4.  Heritage: interwoven layers of meaning

The varied nature of our digitally enabled stories at Ideascape – both in terms of the content and mechanisms for delivery – show how digital placemaking has the potential to offer dynamic, multi-layered and evolving experience to local communities.

What we learned via Ideascape:

  • Ideascape illustrated the value of enabling a diverse and evolving range of historical accounts of the area to be present, through the application of digital placemaking.
  • The rich history of the area was a compelling subject for a significant cross-section of attendees.

Five favourite digital practices at #LGR2019

Sharing the conference stage across the day were arts and cultural heritage professionals who brought a tremendous range and dynamism to the conference. I was particularly struck by the following work:

Hyphen Labs: NASF

A collective of international women of colour, Hyphen Labs’ work pivots around the intersection of technology, art, science and the future. Their digital concepts seek to promote and enhance the idea of collective needs and experiences.

NSAF (NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism) is an award-winning cross-platform project comprising VR, product design and social and cognitive research which explores visibility, empowerment and how we can change social narratives. Inspired by the lack of representation of black women in technology, the concept offers a VR experience which challenges the status quo by imagining an alternate reality.

Set in a ‘Neurocosmetology’ lab which places black women at the forefront of brain optimisation techniques and cognitive enhancement, users can inhabit this speculative future (one in which they can wear earrings embedded with cameras for protection and visibility, or use sunblock that allows them to traverse the multiverse) – to experience a new perspective.

This practice also explored the physiological and neurological impact of viewing images of empowered black women. The research looks at how this digital content, made by women of colour for women of colour makes users feel, and asks whether a change in narrative could help to break down barriers and shift perception.

Doink Moodstrings

With a mission to ‘humanise data to tell extraordinary stories and facilitate better decisions’, Doink’s digital practice demonstrated how art and data can work symbiotically to create change.

Designed to look like a dreamcatcher, Moodstrings is a live art installation and tool for capturing audience insight and data. Its interactive nature means people feel engaged and actually want to participate in a way that wouldn’t be possible with filling in forms.

Participants are invited to communicate their mood by attaching different coloured strings (blue for chilled, green for excited etc.) to various demographic posts. As each string is added, a string sculpture is created; the host captures meaningful data, and the audience feels a sense of connection and involvement.

Hemera Collective Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

A collective which curates photography and lens-based media, Hemera collaborates with curators and artists in their quest for sharing knowledge and challenging convention.

With less than 10% contributed by women, Wikipedia’s content is written largely from a male perspective. This lack of gender diversity contributes to a narrow, one-dimensional narrative, one which does not accurately reflect our society.

Hemera therefore set out to highlight the need for change. Edit-a-thon was designed to challenge the gender imbalance by bringing people together for an afternoon of communal digital re-landscaping. Attendees were invited to bring their laptops so they could update Wikipedia entries on subjects including art, gender and feminism. Tutorials were given for anyone who wanted them, refreshments were provided and childcare was available to encourage parents to attend.

Livity’s Zipit App

With teenage sexting and the exchange of explicit images on the rise, Livity’s ‘Zipit’ app has been created to combat the problem by offering an alternative. The concept pivots on the idea that refusing to engage in this activity is, as a teenager, difficult.

So, rather than send images of themselves in response to requests, young people can instead choose from the app’s gallery of humorous images and gifs; allowing them an easy ‘get out’ in situations where they may feel coerced or pressurised.

In addition to the GIFS (created with the help of 11-17-year-olds), the app also provides online safety tips and tells youngsters what they can do if they are under threat after sharing images – this was a hugely impressive presentation all round.

64 Million Artists

Arts Council England’s Cultural Democracy programme does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s objective is to make art and culture accessible to everyone by engaging and involving people from all walks of life in all kinds of cultural activities ‘from grime to opera, knitting to line-dancing, the West End to fringe’.

As part of their ongoing programme, in 2014, the Arts Council commissioned ‘64 Million Artists’ to find out how the voluntary and amateur sectors help local communities access art and culture.

Challenging the idea that art is only something that artists do, 64 Million Artists offers a practical guide for how arts organisations can broaden their reach and bring true diversity to the cultural sector.

At the heart of the guide is the ethos of grassroots involvement; rather than presenting people with a programme or product, let them co-create the product; instead of leaders who share ideas with others, employ leaders who encourage others to come up with their own ideas. By making these changes, arts organisations help to engage people as participants, not as passive viewers.

Final thoughts

This is only a snapshot of the digital practices on show at the conference. I also loved Wellcome Trust’s Stories, which you can access here, and Furtherfield’s participatory approach – a cornerstone for the long-established arts collective.

The number and variety of digital practices on show at #LGR2019 didn’t only demonstrate how versatile digital technology can be for cultural organisations, it also showed how powerful and important the connection between digital practice and social purpose can be for helping them meet their objectives.

As creative technologists, Calvium has been helping arts and cultural heritage organisations use digital technology to respond to change in communities and society for some years. Let’s Get Real 2019 showed that our work has only just begun!

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