App Insights

Putting the digital in Placemaking Week: Where does technology fit in?

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From the 10th to the 14th of October 2017, placemakers will descend on Amsterdam for a week of learning, networking, evaluating and exploring. Placemaking Week 2017 is run by the Project for Public Spaces, in partnership with Amsterdam organisations Stipo, The City at Eye Level, and Placemaking Plus. It’s home for the week is Pakhuis de Zwijger; a former warehouse, reinvented as a placemaking hub.

It’s all very hands on – collaborating with local stakeholders on evaluations of real spaces, a trip to explore the placemaking efforts in other Dutch cities, and a two-day core conference. The conference has four main tracks – Placemaking & innovation; Equity, health & well-being; Streets as places & transportation; and Place-led development & city-making.

Thinking about each of these areas has had us evaluating our own work; looking at how digital can enable, develop and augment physical placemaking activity.

Placemaking & innovation

This theme is all about democratising places and placemaking projects. The theory is that placemaking has to move innovation out of the isolated campuses where tech and theoretical development ‘normally’ occur, and into a new model of innovation that encourages economic development and opportunity for whole areas and communities.

Implementing infrastructure innovations in the real world often means introducing people to complex systems that need training and monitoring. The app we designed with smart architecture company enModus, following our discovery workshops with them, shows the sort of smart systems which could be rolled out in any large workplace or event venue to cover essentials like placing, controlling and timing the lights for optimal illumination and minimum spend.

It also showcases the process of innovation becoming accessible reality; from the campus workshop to the commercial design and then to the user. During the discovery workshops we helped enModus identify their existing stakeholders, user roles and user stories – finding out how people use the spaces involved. At the bedrock, responsible placemaking accounts for, and builds on, how people already make the places they inhabit; it’s not the developer’s place to set terms purely to suit themselves.

Equity, health & well-being

Many factors determine our physical, mental and social well-being. Those factors converge in the places we live, and all too often they betray a system of inequalities and injustices. Placemaking can address this, driving a better quality of life in communities, building on and improving what’s there without gentrifying and altering the area beyond right, remit or recognition.

It’s not a great leap from a nutritional advice, planning and tracking app such as Enquos to a guidance app that can show where to buy affordable, healthy ingredients. A wayfinding app like UCAN GO, designed by and for visually impaired people, can help users in accessing support and services (and providers can identify areas of their premises that aren’t accessible, which can and should guide genuine improvement).

A developed form of our app for Bristol 24/7 could guide users to open consultations, planning meetings, local elections and organised demonstrations, driving political engagement and inviting residents into participation with local authorities, rather than feeling at their mercy.

Streets as places & transportation

Another transformative theme: turning streets we go through into streets we go to.

In a lot of ways, this is natural territory for the heritage organisations we regularly work with. Making streets into places that work for pedestrians, cyclists and transit alike often involves physically redesigning them, but there’s more to it than grubbing up tarmac and widening pavements.

There has to be a reason for people to hit the streets and stay there, something to make them a destination rather than a route. A few weeks ago, our event Ideascape: Porth Teigr presented a multitude of placemaking experiences combining the physical and digital world. From helping residents find, book and access public spaces, to a digital town crier to announce limited-quantity offers from local businesses, to AR binoculars for viewing the streets the way they used to be, the Porth Teigr experience was all about integrating visitors with their surroundings in new and interesting ways. It repositioned the area from a thoroughfare to an interactive, living and breathing space. In short, bringing out the happenings that are already there, but often overlooked.

Place-led development & city-making

The next step from projects like Ideascape is systemic change; engaging with the whole machinery of building and developing cities, with every agency and every stakeholder at work in creating these networks of places.

Bridging from one kind of placemaking to the next demands more multi-agency projects, like Alight in London. The app leads you from place to place – the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, Parliament Square – and interlocks with other trails and collections, including the fourteen-location Stations of the Cross app trail. Joining up placemaking efforts at individual sites like this creates continuity and community and physical flow, encouraging a sense of the holistic city rather than a series of discrete “places to go in London”.

Likewise, Bristol Parkhive was produced to bring insights from local people in the Bristol Parks Forum to the attention of visitors, but also to researchers at the University of the West of England. The app showcases Bristol’s beautiful parks and green spaces, using GPS to identify the parks nearby and offering visitors key information about them, to encourage people to explore new areas of the city. Apps like this could expand their remits, embracing input from and supplying data to decision makers in councils, trusts and economic developers.

By showing where users need new facilities and where things are fine as they are, digital placemaking feeds into a more responsible and targeted physical placemaking – fewer underused white elephants, and more user-driven projects that are likely to bring real value to communities. Placemaking week does a brilliant job of bringing all of this together.

Placemaking, to us, is more about the physical space, it’s also about the digital and how that can create connections between people and place. Read our eleven key principles of digital placemaking here.