Urban Prototyping, San Francisco

San Francisco played host to the first annual Urban Prototyping festival this past weekend, organized by the Grey Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFTA). The festival was a celebration of experimentation and an explicit nudge for civic residents to get involved in changing their city’s infrastructure for the better. The turnout was great, with the back alleys of San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood flowing with a steady stream of people inspecting and testing project installations, listening to music, getting to know each other, and enjoying the city on an otherwise beautiful fall San Francisco afternoon.

The panel sessions played host to packed audiences listening and engaging in conversations around Art as Placemaking Tool, Design Thinking and Prototyping in Cities, From Prototypes to Infrastructures, and Learning about Cities from Data & Citizen Sensors. The progression of the panels was well-conceived, introducing attendees to design thinking and prototyping, building on the role of temporary experiments with infrastructure as a way to achieve lasting change, highlighting some of the obstacles and challenges to overcome, and finally linking exploring how data and visualization can make cities more vibrant, accessible, and usable.

Like cities themselves, the texture of UP Festival changed as day turned to night. Music and performances unfolded while additional prototypes popped up to illuminate spaces, light new passageways, and project images and experiences onto the surfaces of the city.

Some highlights from speakers, panelists, projects, and attendees:

GAFTA co-founder Peter Hirshberg astutely compared the level of engagement around this wave of urban prototyping to the 2010-ish wave of social media and tagging. More Urban Prototyping festivals are being planned with the next one slated for London in 2013.

Tom Kelly in his keynote talked about prototyping in design and the urban space, relating the often-told creation story of the first mouse for Apple from a butter dish and a roll-on deodorant ball. His call to action noted the plethora of in-process projects at the festival, and he promoted the value of people who can squint to see new possibilities rather than critical, limiting reactions to design and prototyping that get stuck on how it looks, its messiness, or its unfinished qualities.

Stamen’s research on private bus routes operated by Google, Facebook, Apple, and others estimates roughly 30% of the ridership that would otherwise use Caltrain.

Smart Bus Stops Done Dirt Cheap (github source here) makes it possible to link any piece of infrastructure with a text-based identifier and other data objects to provide answers about that region of the city. It’s a great example of a cross-platform solution that uses a common technology denominator (sms) to provide information services for diverse users.

Deputy Innovation Officer for the City of San Francisco, Shannon Spanhake spoke a bit about Green and Blue Button initiatives and how they can be a boon to open city data and civic innovation.

I left the festival curious about the platforms for civic innovation. Most of the discussions centered around the widespread availability of smartphones, but this leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Half of US citizens own a smartphone, according to comScore, and that leaves half that do not. Smartphones are complicated to use, expensive to maintain (cognitively and financially), and the information doesn’t exist easily at the location and in the format where it’s most used. So what are the nodes, the places, or the infrastructure within the city that carry the ambient commons? Maps and aggregated data aid decision making about populations and processes, but what about the need for user-centric information? Bus stop information is likely the most used civic data feed. It exists where it’s needed, it’s timely, and it’s relevant for users. Bus stops are the nodes. Where else can we support the information and decision making needs of everyday people and processes? Streetlights? Fire hydrants? Curbs? Parking meters? How can pieces of urban infrastructure become more open and more extensible for the needs of everyday people?

Update: This great piece of public touchscreen developed by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium definitely provides a window in what possibilities are likely to happen in the near future. In a way, it reminds me of all the iPads at JFK international airport in New York City.

 

 

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