‘Digital placemaking for more inclusive and accessible cities’ by Dr Jo Morrison, Calvium
Article 5 of 7 in the Smart Places illustrated blog series featuring thought pieces from a diverse line up of thinkers, practitioners and leaders in this field. View the other articles, or find out about the full programme of events including Jo’s live Twitter Q&A on Friday 19 June 3–4pm.
At the time of writing the UK is in lockdown, an NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app is being tested on the Isle of Wight, Sidewalk Labs (Google affiliate) has announced that it is pulling out of its Toronto ‘smart city’ project and Naomi Klein has published an article highlighting the potential for a rapidly accelerating technical future absent from democratic engagement or public oversight. Together, these act as a kind of contextual time stamp for this article, they also serve to direct attention to the rapidly evolving relationships between people, places, technology and data.
Drawing on Churchill’s words when approving the reinstatement of the Commons Chamber, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”, Sherry Turkle said “We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us”. When these technologies dovetail with the built environment in ways that can influence our behaviours, shift our identities and provide structures through which we understand the world and one other, it is important that public debate and oversight help to shape our future smart places. However, to date, there has been a paucity of such democratic engagement — but it doesn’t have to be this way. By taking creative collective action we can establish approaches and methods that encourage all citizens to participate in the design of our future ‘physical+digital’ neighbourhoods.
How can we do this?
Through the lenses of climate change and biodiversity loss, we use the inclusive practice of digital placemaking to explore how the integration of people, place, technology and data can help communities to prosper, and identify the kinds of technology and society citizens want.
We connect with and through our local city farms, such as the fabulous Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol. Why? Because these established places of mutuality are often deeply rooted in their neighbourhood communities. They provide sanctuary for some and education for others, they are trusted places to experience nature, socialise and eat cake, and they attract a wide range of people with different experiences and voices. Plus, we are gifted the project name ‘Smart City Farm’!
At the same time we nourish our curious natures. We ask questions about the technology-driven transformations that society has experienced already and the ways in which citizens may have had agency in such changes, or been supported to influence or assess such changes. We gather examples of the ways in which digital technologies are enabling us to connect with nature and access our cities — and we plunder the imaginations of futurists. This will allow us to gather a shared sense of the initiatives that have gone before, and be inspired by and build upon stellar ideas and practices.
Whilst philosopher Toby Ord recommends that the pace of technological development should slow to allow our understanding of it to catch-up, this is unlikely to happen. We have powerful new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and big data; how might they be integrated into our public realm in ways that mitigate climate change and support biodiversity? How do we ensure that these same technologies do not cause social harm, exacerbate discrimination or reinforce inequalities? How might we bring biological systems into our future smart places?
It’s a no-brainer that public spaces are places where all members of society should feel welcome. At the moment, regrettably, many places have designed people out, sometimes intentionally but often unintentionally. ‘Smart City Farm’ offers us the chance to bring together diverse communities to start to address some of the questions above — and many more. The model can be rolled out across the country and beyond to form a powerful network of communities who are adopting digital placemaking practices to provide insight and stewardship for their smart neighbourhoods.
Illustrator’s response to Jo’s article and future vision, by Laura Sayers
On first reading Jo’s brilliant article, regrettably, my ignorant impression was somewhat lacking in inspiration for the concept of a “Smart City Farm”. I struggled to imagine how tech could engage with a place so steeped in history, labour and earthiness. But, after re-reading the article several times over, there was one bit that stood out to me: Cake. Call it what you want, lockdown brain, lockdown stomach, but reading the line “they (farms) are trusted places to experience nature, socialise and eat cake” made me pine for the community we’ve all been missing and reminded me of a fond memory from a month prior to the lockdown. Yes, it involved eating cake on a farm… This past Valentine’s Day in the practically deserted National Museum of Rural Life in East Kilbride. Remembering that day out at the fairly modern museum and looking further into the aforementioned Windmill Hill Farm in Bristol, I realised that when I think of the word ‘farm’ the image in my head is incredibly dated. More on the Old McDonald side of things than the spirited place of sanctuary that Jo describes. Joining the dots; if my city dweller view is a common one, possibly proven by the lack of visitors at the museum that day, then there is a definite need for these spaces to be updated. I came round to the idea that technology is at hand to creatively enhance the resources and experiences the humble farm is built upon.
Putting scissors to paper, I designed a scene based on the Bristol farm shop centering around the idea that a visit to this ‘Smart City Farm’ would educate a family on where the fresh, local ingredients that come together to make a good slice of carrot cake come from. Through using our five senses to bring the joy of farming alive and amplifying this with projections, child-friendly apps and further infusions of tech inspired by Calvium’s portfolio of projects, the farm becomes a place to educate children on the origins of their dairy, fruit and vegetables. Through hand cutting all the different elements of this illustration and carefully piecing them together, the result is a concept for a vibrant Smart Space with community (and cake) at its heart.
Dr Jo Morrison — bio
I operate at the intersection of research, design and enterprise. Improving the social, cultural, economic and environmental prosperity of towns and cities through digital innovation is a core area of my work. In particular, discovering the opportunities and value that bespoke digital placemaking affords clients involved in place management, urban developments and regeneration — with the aim of creating more pleasurable, sustainable and citizen-centred future urban spaces.