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Digital Placemaking Category

Digital Tools for Imagining Future Places

by Paul Clarke

You can read the full report on my Digital Placemaking Fellowship research here and I will summarise the content in this article.

Digital Spacemaking

‘Digital Tools for Imagining Future Places’ begins by returning to my first blog post for the Pathfinder, ‘Making Digital Space’. I consider definitions of digital placemaking in light of discussions with the Placemaking Fellows and our concluding conversations with Jon Dovey that you can listen to here. If digital placemaking is about making places better and enhancing people’s relationship with them, for whom are they made better and is value added for all? In this general introduction to the report I ask questions around equitable access to the city’s digital layers and wonder whether we could use the term digital spacemaking instead.

Billennium and Placemaking

My Digital Placemaking Fellowship was inspired by Billennium, the Augmented Reality (AR) performance by Uninvited Guests and Duncan Speakman, which was commissioned for Watershed and University of Bristol’s Layered Realities 5G Platform in 2018. You can watch documentation and hear some audience responses to this theatrical guided tour of the future of Millennium Square here:

In the report I introduce a couple of theoretical reflections on Billennium, drawn from a paper presented early in the Fellowship at Theatre, Performance, and Urbanism, in Shanghai, July 2019, which you can read here. These reflections consider whether places can be critiqued through located science fiction storytelling, how the distancing effect of sci-fi relates to AR, and ways in which Billennium models a participatory and democratised approach to urban design.

My Fellowship arose out of an interest in exploring whether these creative approaches could be applied in community visioning. The report introduces this research, which has surveyed innovative methods of futuring, futures as critical lenses, and design science-fiction as a way of prototyping.

Future Places Toolkit

My research has led to developing Future Places Toolkit, a set of live and digital tools for inspiring people to imagine better futures for their places. The toolkit is being designed in collaboration with creative technologists Michele Panegrossi and Luca Biada (Fenyce), along with Jessica Hoffmann of Uninvited Guests and sound artist Duncan Speakman. The team have partnered with architects Stride Treglown and Knowle West Media Centre, with additional support from University of Bristol’s Knowledge Exchange Fund.

Consultation with local residents tends to take place away from the development site, with plans displayed in community centres or town halls. Future Places Toolkit allows drawings to be viewed in context, overlaid onto existing buildings, and for discussions between stakeholders and communities to happen in situ. Using AR, guided conversation and live sketching, people will see their speculative architectures visualised immediately around them. Live spatialised sound will bring their ideas to life, giving their future places atmosphere and supporting their imaginings.

In early July, I gave a Watershed PM Studio Lunchtime Talk with Jess from Uninvited Guests, which focused on the development of Future Places Toolkit out of Billennium, and addressed many of the ideas developed in the report on the Fellowship. You can watch our presentation, ‘Dreaming Future Places’ here:

Iterative Development with Industry Partners and Communities

The report uses Future Places Toolkit as a case study and reflects on the iterative development process to raise issues I hope will be relevant for other digital placemaking projects that are co-produced, made collaboratively by interdisciplinary teams, and with partners from different professions.

Our partners, architects Stride Treglown, have noted that planning can be perceived as dry and the problem of engaging a broad range of people with consultation. Future Places Toolkit seeks to address this industry challenge with creative arts and immersive technology solutions.

Responsible Development, Shared Values, and Co-Creation

Drawing on a workshop and consultation with Alex Mecklenburg, then of Doteveryone, I discuss responsible tech development, the importance of agreeing a shared mission and values, and the influence of consequence scanning on our development. One of the shared values of the Future Places Toolkit project team is ‘to co-create and test ground-up, citizen and community-led approaches, without hierarchy’. In light of this I consider the ethics of co-creating technology solutions and services with and for communities.

Scaling Up and Nonscalability

I note the tendency not to centre users at the start of development processes, when they could input into the concept of a placemaking platform or app, but only to open the testing process to participation when designers need content to be generated or interacted with. The report also reflects critically on the drive to scale-up and turns to Anna Tsing’s concept of ‘nonscalability’. Whilst developing Future Places Toolkit it has been important to consider which aspects are not scalable or transferrable and will need to be changed in relation to the specifics of each new physical and social location.

Tech Development

In terms of app development, Michele and Luca (Fenyce) have moved away from the marker-based approach to AR tracking we used in Billennium in favour of an ‘anchor’ based system: the phones use their built-in cameras to recognise surfaces and create a 3D version of the surroundings that can be synched across multiple devices. So, Future Places Toolkit enables users to turn 360 degrees and see visualisations appear all around them. Participants will also be able to move physically and explore the virtual 3D environment, rather than solely being able to look at the scene from a single perspective and see their drawings at a distance.

Architecting: exchanging expertise with Stride Treglown around design and planning

Over the summer and over Zoom we have continued consulting with Sarah Jenkinson and Paul Seaver, Senior Urban Designers at Stride. They’ve asked us key questions clients would want to know the answers to, addressed the most relevant stage of a building project, and how to set clear boundaries and realistic expectations around the scope of our engagement activity. In light of this we’re putting together promotional materials to explain Future Places Toolkit to architecture and design studios, consultants, and developers.

Engagement Experiments with Knowle West Media Centre on Filwood Broadway

COVID-19 and the March lockdown prevented us from beginning iterative testing in-person as early as we had intended, but we have now been able to carry out our first engagement experiments. The report gives a detailed account of this testing on Filwood Broadway in early August, along with the technical and dramaturgical learnings we will take forward into the next phase.

Future Plans

Although the Digital Placemaking Pathfinder is coming to an end, the prototype is still being developed and the story of my collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Future Places Toolkit is not yet concluded. There’s a plan for the next round of testing to take place in Prewett Street, Redcliffe in October 2020, as part of a series of engagement experiments around the future of the street, organised by Melissa Mean. In this case, the focus of our imagining would be on redesigning the public realm to make it more liveable and reclaiming streets for people rather than cars. The plan is also to return to Filwood to run the activity as part of Bristol City Council’s ongoing consultation around the re-making of the Broadway. We are of course open to trialling our approach in other locations, so do get in touch if you would like to discuss a possible context for collaboration.

The next iteration of testing Future Places Toolkit will be documented, and we’ll share the recording here, on the Digital Placemaking pages. Until this is available, you can get a good sense of the engagement activity from this video of the end of Billennium. It’s of the version presented as a STRP Festival pop-up at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, October 2019.

The aim is also to demonstrate Future Places Toolkit alongside the other prototypes at the Bristol+Bath Creative R+D combined Digital Placemaking and Expanded Performance Showcase in April 2021.

Critical Hope, Social Imagining, and How to Future Equitably

My Digital Placemaking research, which I’ve outlined above, has focused on using digital means to convene people to imagine better futures for their local neighbourhoods. At the beginning of the report I interrogate the aspiration to improve or ‘make places better’ with digital placemaking. The same issues come up with imagining ‘better futures’ and we need to keep asking, better for whom? Just as we must be responsible when coming up with possible future directions for placemaking, in order that we don’t create barriers to access, we should develop inclusive ways of futuring; and envision equitable futures. Who is involved and who gets excluded from processes of visioning, and the futures that are imagined? Who has the time and space to imagine, to imagine a future and imagine themselves in it? My report concludes by suggesting that, as we take Future Places Toolkit forward in new neighbourhoods and communities, we need to be attentive to who is included in each future and to issues of inclusion.

On 19 February 2020, Duncan Speakman and I presented as part of the Knowledge Exchange and the Creative Industries Seminar series curated by University of Bristol’s Emma Cole. In 2021, a special feature issue of the journal Research for All (UCL Press) will be published in association with this series, in which a version of my Digital Placemaking report will be published.

You can read the full report here.