Design Beyond Objects. Affordances for the 21st Century

One of the topics that currently dominates public information is the complexity of technology (in particular the one that learns) and the human capability to keep track of it. Since the origin of the word, technology has been developed in symbiosis with the human species. This is for the capacity to develop and create something capable of fulfilling a particular human need.  Nonetheless such relations is increasingly changing; society is growing fear of what technology can “think” and “do” without any advise from any human peer.  This is not a minor problem for the effects it channels; technological developments are hitting the very basic structure upon which society has been layered upon so far, which is the skills people can offer, learn and share to their communities.

In this complex relationship there is design, which role up to this point has been mediating the dynamics between human and technology through shapes and materials that facilitate/direct interaction and communication. Design is then the process of formal, sensorial and operational actions that mediate human decision-making with objects that deliver a particular technology. In the current scenario, where technology takes on independence from its users, this straightforward relationship has being broken. Objects “shell” tech of which the public has little idea; this tech designs invisible infrastructure that connects and shares information to other peers. Technology is no longer something that takes place locally, it is a networked structure of which objects are the gateways. Whether the public can still appreciate materiality and forms, there is little understanding of the purpose the object has been designed for that keeps people engaged. A kettle is not simply a kettle as well as a hover is not only a hover. As many others their functionality has been “augmented” of parameters that are little known to the majority of people. Even though these objects still perform familiar functions, like boiling water, they don’t provide the public of any knowledge regarding the technology they are designed for.

It then comes the question of what we are designing and what is design in the age of responsive technology. Can we still apply the parameters we used in the past or do we need to create new parameters that manage the relationship people have with today’s technology? What if user-centred design is something that no longer revolves around the object and the use people have of it, but thinks “at a top level” to help people help themselves. This piece of design is supposed to communicate that it is safe to trade cryptocurrency. Is it “safe” delivered through the materiality (steel like)? Does it communicate well what cryptocurrency is? What is the real safety that needs to be communicated? Is, perhaps, the public’s awareness of cryptocurrency? How can this object help people understand what they are facing when logging in? These are some of the questions I believe we should start to address to understand how design can support a new symbiotic relationship between human and technology. The question can be addressed through formal language, which directly engages people to develop a clear understanding of the object’s capabilities. Can design help people dialogue with complex systems to raise awareness and responsibility?

How that communication happens in terms of design, it is a matter research. An investigation in this area can perhaps include parameters designers and people are familiar with to develop a strategy that fosters a better understanding of the key infrastructure that runs our decisions and behaviours. The process of engaging materials, memories and the sensorial relationships people have with objects can be both strategy and form, as both mediate and deliver complexity through communication/experience. Design can foster a code of ethics; this is not for designers but for the extended community that use design.

Moving away from the cloud, design can open a new chapter where the cloud is back to planet Earth and people are more aware of the roles and personal responsibilities they have/play in a society structured upon increasingly complex systems.



Contradiction of Urban Storytelling

During one of my news shuffling over the Internet I ended up collecting two articles which describe a quite similar topic: the controversy of displaying objects in public space to influence communities’ affection to the nation – and the related sense of belonging – through crafted narratives. One article from the BBC describes how the artist Sebastian Errazuriz “vandalised”  the AR Ballon Dog Sculpture virtually displayed in NY Central Park through Snapchat. The other one describes how monuments, and the reason why they are built, are still top topics of public debate.

Both stories revolve around the “value of public displaying” as an action that imposes a specific narrative crafted by the author and represented by the object. In the Snapchat AR Ballon’ case the controversy is subtle: a private company virtually “occupies” public space which is “vital to open up a dialogue” (Sebastian Errazuriz). For the artist this is worrying because, if not stopped – or at least addresses – it could become a potential trend where private companies are allowed to use public space to generate marketing focused engagement. This action is quite different from a traditional billboard, which generally visualises a message that any passersby might engage with or not depending on interests (nonetheless this is something under transformation as Piccadilly Circus new LED screens demonstrate through embedded sensors which track people to generate interactive content); under this light the human presence in public space is a rich source of data which can be used to target anyone’s life, ie the space people inhabit through identity to influence habits and everyday rituals.

Being aware that contemporary social life takes mainly place in the virtual space of social networks, where personal and professional relationships are built, digital interactions do influence people’s lives. Nonetheless digital space is still an unruled (or under-legislated) territory that can target private citizens to shape and direct tangible choices and decisions. Indeed digital actions are not virtual, they do have physical and tangible effects, even though not clearly acknowledged.
How can digital social space achieve the equal level of public understanding currently recognised to physical spaces? How can digital space trigger behaviour that supports public debate?  For its own terms public space is supposed to be the place that keeps dialogue among and across citizens. It is the space of encounter which members are given an equal rule and right. Nonetheless such equality becomes unbalanced when an object representing a narrative directs and clusters opinions that flat and direct the level of debate. A public monument is indeed the tangible visualisation of a commissioned story. Who owns the truth in public space? Are still monuments media of liable common identification? Are they able to describe the plethora of stories community members share? Do they still work as communication media entitled of tell collective narratives? History per se is a controversial topic, which course of events is written by parties and monuments are the tangible visualisation of such biased realities.

Interactive and experience based contemporary society could perhaps introduce new values that would change both the digital and physical space in terms of public debate. Indeed as place designed for communities public space needs to keep its role of teaching new generations the facts of the past. For what the City Lab article describes is the monument still the right media to use? How can public space become a place capable of hosting the plethora of identities that characterise our cities?

Both the AR Snapchat Dog and statues are interfaces that contribute to enforce narratives from those in power. If in our society private corporations like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat become the political authorities that own the space where we interact, share ideas and make social connections, what would be our culture? In the near future will be engaged by “branded” Nelsons (Trafalgar Square monument)? Will Nelson serve the politics of Google, Snapchat, Facebook by transforming his history for their marketing campaign? Will we be passing to future generations values associated to brands and how brands would like us to think? There might be another different route to follow, which works through the engaging aspect under which digital reality has been developed so far which can make a different use of public space as the actual place where different historical events, belonging to different culture, take place across time. Public space could indeed display the plethora of cultural identities that built its own agency across time.

Urban Data for Smart Creative and Participated Thinking

Since “Big Data” became the currency of our society for influencing the process of decisions-making across many fields (from finance, to politics, retail, manufacturing, transportation, etc), a wide range of sensors have been designed to record and display information that substantially influence  the understanding and designing of digital and physical scenarios. In 1854 Dr John Snow demonstrated that cholera was not transmitted by “bad air” but contaminated water. He reached this conclusion by observing the map illustrating the number of deaths and wells in the neighbourhood of Soho in London. Indeed data helped build the case to review the existing scientific knowledge by linking the dynamics of transmission to the related environmental factors. Data played a key role for outlining the connections in the context. Nonetheless in our society data are employed otherwise. In urban planning, for instance, the information data generate doesn’t look at the context but focuses on what data literally display, which only gives a “partial truth”. Quantitative data help place related scenarios in context, but they don’t interpret, understand and evaluate information. It then follows that decision-makers across fields are half-blinded for the trust they put on data-visualiser instruments, which are not able to display the full picture.

To make the most of data in a urban related environments I would ask the following questions: what cities are for? Why do we live in cities? Why do we have cities in first place and not small urban clusters spread across the territory?

These questions shift the perspective of observation and put attention on the opportunities cities offer in terms of work, connections, diversity, entertainment, you name it. Indeed cities are special systems of places, which overlap and clustering make the reason why we want to live close to each other. Under this light why are urban data mainly used to design the most efficient system to produce value and to move, “store” and educate people?  Should the reason why people  move, live, make value and educate be the most relevant question to ask? This article from Citylab nicely analyses the problem by giving voices to the actual citizens, who explain what sensor based-data can’t actually offer.

The formula of engaging urban dwellers in the design of urban strategies through participation reveals a plethora of opportunities. By dinamically switching the lenses of observation participation can design flexible and sustainable ecosystems that include and embody the complexity of everyday life. In the essay “The Methodology of Participatory Design” Clay Spinuzzi describes how participation is a method first tested in the work environment to empower workers and the knowledge they build across time through experience. With participation tacit knowledge gets a pivotal role; the process of design is dynamically updated in relation to it and built across the participants’ engagement. For such value participation in urban design can offer better pictures of the diverse and complex dynamics any urban environment shapes – from mobility to housing – to develop custom solutions, which can be updated in relation to the surrounding context. In this paper I argue that data become a pivotal design strategy when used by the authors. In other words if data become matter of design that empower the general public of creative thinking it is possible to design resilient and sustainable cities that understand both the territory and the related community. The designer’s role is to oversee, understand, interpret, facilitate and create the dynamic tools that interface people, environment and infrastructure via technology. Under this light participation is a design tool that guides the process of shaping the dynamic outcomes by means of collaborative and dynamic processes that build places  through participants’ tacit knowledge and designers’ expertise .










Architecture that builds values

 The Economist 1843 Magazine ‘s  article, ” Versailles in the Valley”, frames quite well the current trend of digital corporations – like Facebook, Google and Apple – in building headquarters which represent the brand values. Versailles was the palace that Louis XIV built to centralise his power through parties and events that entertained Parisian aristocracy; the Versailles in the Valley symbolises a similar status. Facebook, Google and Apple campuses are palaces, which make tangible the politics of the brand. Whether sustainability, sharability, “open source”, etc brand palaces look after the physicality of the images that makes them real (it’s a kind of skeuomorphism). If in the past values were represented by statues carrying specific symbols (snake, flames, mirrors), nowadays building are asked such role. The way the building is experienced from a human perspective, materials and human interactions are factors that represent the company. They are not random; they come from society. However there is nothing new in this methodology; building monuments had been a political strategy that leaders from the past knew very well; if in the V century BCE Pericles gave shape to democracy by building Athens, Mussolini designed Fascisms through Rome urban planning, which extended to the whole Italian peninsula. Apple, Facebook and Google campuses (the word campus is already controversial in this specific context) are media that gather users’ imagination. They are tangible outcomes that shape digital intangible interactions. As drivers of people’s imagination, they enable transferability of something universal (as values are) to something specific to the company. Will community be understood as Facebook? There is also another effect; values can buy people’s trust if the message reaches the audience. If one of those values, which I believe in, becomes the company’s one I trust the company as we share the same values. As consequence I trust what the company does, without questions, which is a risk for my criticism and ability to make choices.

I guess the challenge we need is to keep universal words as universal, and avoid any specific identification that might lead to an even more constrained world of thinking and find our own solution, credo and ability to articulate our thought independently. We need to handle our trust carefully. We design our lives through our choices. Our actions and decisions make a huge difference in society; being responsible of those is our own priority.

I love the human glitch

In our daily life we interact with different “humans” – colleagues, friends, partner(s), family, etc. Our interaction is not at all linear. We get excited (😊), angry (😡 ), annoyed (😒 ). We, humans, react to human to human interactions with emotions, which is a kind of language that expresses our thinking beyond, and within, our social and cultural background. Human emotions can be unpredictable; they constitute the glitch of human interaction, and require some planning and exercise to understand, and possible, predict human reactions.

In our social interaction everyday we are quite often catalogued by data. Our behaviour becomes a cluster of information, which informs patterns that put us in a box. Such system is increasingly becoming the way to get a job, a relationship, a morgage. According to data we are patterns of behaviour that encode the possibility of an event. In her book “Weapons of Math Destruction” Cathy O’Neil describes the frustration of such a system applied to humans. She indeed describes how the pattern based social hierarchy discriminates more than a human based judgment. Such a system, indeed, doesn’t take into account the unpredictable factor of human reactions, the human glitch that makes us diverse, unique and odd, which is the beauty of being human.

Here I am not suggesting any better system, which is capable of encoding the human glitch. Human beings are special animals, which life is made of productive and less productive moments. In this blog I quite often come back to the Roman concept of otium and negotium: enjoy your laziness as much your productive time; otium and negotium are complementary aspects of our being that make us a better humans in society. IN this specific case otium is the glitch. Data are a great system to cluster information that reveals patterns that tell us a different truth. Such truth is not the absolute system of reference, but one of the many that any of us should look at to evaluate decisions, whether it is the case to get pissed off, or the journey we like to take or employing a candidate.

Once Upon a Time the Bell Rang

When life didn’t know what Internet was and the most advanced technology was based on horses, the rhythm of the everyday in the western Christian world was marked by the bell in the city tower. You can still experience it in some remote villages lost in the Italian countryside.

From morning odes to vespers time had its phased, organic rhythm that organised the day. The pace of the everyday was perceived as much linear as circular. The linear sequence of events made one look forward towards the future; the circular loop assured the possibility of something better to come because of the sense of continuity; the present was perceived as an extension of the past; the future as projection. The perception of time as linear loop belongs to humanity: it protects from the “unknown” and makes one look forward: “Next year by this time I will be….”

In my PhD I looked at the disruption that in 1920s technology provoked to the rhythm of the everyday. Mechanic production was detached from the reassuring linear loop. Modernist life appeared broken in fragments: there was no sense of beginning and, equally, no end. Just a series of random fragments that can be meaningless arranged in a plethora of different sequences on the conveyor belt. Bucolic time is over. The mechanic rhythm of the everyday upset the relationship humans have with nature.

Globalised humanity is reshaping the way Romanticism shaped the concept of nation, borders and belonging. We live an uninterrupted time, which crosses east to west, north to south. We communicate with people living in any corner of this world, as long as there is a device connected to the internet. There is no day, no night. The dystopian sense of time, as shaped by machines that can operate at any time, is our reality. The value of time, as a sense of dwelling space, is perceived as a network of connected points; space, and the sense of belonging, is a cloud haunting our bodies. Do we feel to be anywhere?

In ancient Roman society leisure was an important moment of the everyday. It was the time to think, to talk, to debate and argue. In other words it was a very social event, although part of private life. For the rule of pausing negotium (the time for business), leisure helped the acknowledgement and understanding of the surrounding. Leisure time can be still experienced in Italy when people sit on the streets and squares and argue about local and global politics, or observe passers-by.

The value of a city and its vitality don’t rely on any aesthetic quality, but on its citizens’ engagement and the power of connection.

Technology is a medium that enables and supports human behaviour. Nonetheless the experience component is currently the main offer we get, which makes us feel always connected. Being always connected is perceived as sense of belonging; we exists, thus we tap, pinch, and so on. To be connected means to dwell space. However when we live the digital space there is no time to think; information takes continuously our attention, with no break. The experience of information, via technology, is an uninterrupted flow of data, which rarely transforms in content. Information is just noise that catches our attention, for the time which is good enough to induce a particular behaviour.

Experience is no longer the notable event of our life, which we remember as memory; experience is a form of entertainment, which contemporary capitalism needs to get people behavior. To step back and think what we really remember is quite difficult, even though we have our Facebook timeline that recalls what happened in the Facebook past. Is it our lived life what social network reflects to us? Is there a life that transcends the photos we post, the information we share and the activity we engage with the internet?

Still don’t think it’s a technological problem, but human.

The Infrastructure of the Urban Cloud and the Dichotomy of Private and Public Space

The intricacy of the city is deployed by the system of streets, cables, people. Similarly the Internet is based on connections, which allow information to circulate and get exchanged. The challenge that private network companies, economists, politicians and policy makers are facing is the concept of “interface”. It is not only a matter of interfacing information, but interfacing people that use information, likewise streets, cables and people do in physical space. If people are happily interfaced – with other humans or machines – it is possible to generate information derivatives, which are more valuable than the original primitives. The interface is then the key. The interface is real, it is not abstract, as “data”. It is something that you can interact with, touch it. Nonetheless the interface is a gateway that facilitates information traveling through it. What is the relationship between the world of interface and the urban space?

If looking at the scale of the city, smart city studies are generally looking at big data and, most importantly, at data consume/production variables. The way people and things consumes information is the contemporary commodity. The consumeristic data society  generates markets and, also, political patters. As “The Economist” describes, data are currently key values to win elections. “Democracy” doesn’t happen any longer in the polls but in Twitter or Facebook.

Similarly Alphabets is investing capital on connecting the city, physically and digitally. The Sidewalk project is a platform that aims to design the infrastructure 2.0. Urban data are the system by which cities render their social section. By combining and interfacing many aspects of the everyday – from commuting, to shopping and meeting friends or family – it is possible to understand new directions, and, most importantly, how to “drive” them.

The ubiquity of data  is possible through the interface and, most importantly, to the personal relationship we have with it, which is scalable. We hold an object in our hands or in our wrists but the scale is just apparent. The object can scale up and down by means of the connection it is enabling, which happens in any time and any space.

The question I would like to ask is, who owns my private space, if any is left? While writing I am in a specific space, physically. Digitally I am in many spaces, which are facilitated by the number of interfaces I am using and help me to organise my day. From the exhibition I would like to see, the trip I would like to make or the food I would like to eat.. Is this “space”? Is this private or public? Is space defined by my interface?

This lecture from the LSE gives a very interesting perspective on the subject. Professor José van Dijck describes what a platform society is by looking at the private and public. I cannot agree more. If we want to talk about cities, the concept of the private V public is one of the most important elements to be analysed. Urban space looks at the dicothomy between private and public space since its origin. The relationship between them renders the quality of society and politics. The way people coexists together is quite pivotal. An unbalanced system might lead towards social decay, that does affect society. To affect what people are allowed to wish, hope and desire for their life affects urban space and, with it, innovation, curiosity and any of the human qualities which has been driving human being towards a better world to live.

Cities are not made of buildings; city are made of people. Urban form is given by the way people interact. Indeed the space of the public and the space of the private need to understand diversities, whether physical or digital.

In this blog post I zoomed in and out, with the intention to look at infrastructure from a different perspective. The cloud infrastructure can enable urban innovation in the specificity of people interactions.