A place-centric view on rehearsing future use of public spaces

Per Linde is associate professor and Ph.D. in Interaction Design. In this article, Linde talks about place-centric computing and why a place is very different from a location.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

You have been working a lot with the concept of place-centric computing and media. What is it and why do you think it’s a fruitful concept to work with?

At first, it might seem rhetorical to take place-centric as something foundational for working with Interaction Design and computing technologies. But place-centric computing argues for a place-centric perspective on digital design, where the digital technology is regarded as but one element of the on-going social construction of place. Often we talk about ‘communities of interest’ and ‘communities of practice’ while designing social technologies, but we can also talk about ‘communities of place’ or ‘place-based communities’, which are communities where people are bound together because of the physical and material spaces they inhabit and live in. Fundamental for my design experiments is how the everyday man can temporarily, or more permanently, appropriate public urban spaces. These spaces might originally be designed for something else; traditionally, public spaces are governed by instances such as the municipalities. The appropriation of public spaces by the everyday man can only partially be imagined mentally, and I think it’s crucial to perform public experiments in the actual places we work with.

The notion of place has been a driving force in many projects, not only my own. It becomes necessary to address the actual place and the actual use of public urban spaces as something lived and experienced, not something that is only programmed for certain functions. It must be possible to rehearse alternative future use of public spaces. We have, in the recent years, seen a huge variety of design projects specifically addressing public urban spaces. Most often they deal with combinations of geographical coordinates, connecting mobile phone applications and digital media to the coordinates, for example location-based services. But, a place is not the same thing as a location.

Place and Location
A place is not the same thing as a location.

In many cases, this is because of the fact that augmented maps provide such a strong potential in itself, and places relate to the more abstract idea of maps. I think we need a perspective that treats place not as mathematical coordinates or something that is pre-programmed once and for all, but something lived and experienced that can be appropriated. Place-centric computing tries to shift the focus from the urban form to the urban experience. We can view the contemporary city as a dense ecology of impersonal social interaction occurring within recognisably public spaces. Thus we look upon our own environment as an appealing design resource.

What is the difference between place-specific and place-centric?

Early on, there was talk about place-specific computing and media that took a strong stance by starting from the extreme side of the spectrum. Place-specific computing was seen as a class of digital designs where both the functions and the media addressed a very specific place: for example, you couldn’t access the media from the Internet but just by being at that specific place. And also that the media should be something that is specific to that place, that it should have been produced there or somehow related to it. The notion of place-centric is actually loosening up the concept a little bit to enable the full potential of a place. Another motivation for moving from place-specific to place-centric is that places are also networks; places are connected to other places, and people.

Could you give an example of a place-centric experiment you have been involved in?

The Bluetooth bus experiment where we distributed locally produced media on a bus. A bus is actually a nomadic mobile place. This experiment says something about the difference between spaces and places; something that architects and urban planners have been debating for years. Often we see a bus not as a place, but as a space for transportation, but that is not true. You get to travel on the same bus every day, you have your habitual patterns of movement, you get to recognize your fellow commuters and the graffiti on the seat in front of you.

By having a place-centric perspective, you can achieve an understanding of a place that we normally don’t address as a place. Another important aspect of this experiment is that traditionally, the bus company owns the bus as a space. But actually, the people travelling on the bus have a potential of providing rich and meaningful media that can be accessed through riding on the bus. What the experiment did was not only to explore what kind of a space it is, but the clash between perspectives of ownership, which is a fruitful starting point of innovation.

Read more about place-centric computing in the 2010 paper Media Places – Digital Flows in Urban Modernity.

Image credit Flickr user micamonkey CC:BY-NC-SA