Fused Space: Awards for Technology that Energizes Public Space
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Aug 26 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Most of the changes that information and communication technologies brought to city life have emerged spontaneously; few of the biggest changes were planned or even foreseen.

People around the world today use new technologies in cities to socialize, take political action, make art, perform experiments and engage in commerce in new ways and places, and they do it far too fast for R&D when it happened within the walls of places like PARC and Bell Labs. Mobile phones have been changing with increasing speed the unspoken rituals that orchestrate the behavior of strangers in public places, text messaging has enabled urban flocking to emancipate adolescents and smart-mobbing citizens to overthrow governments, location-based services are poised to alter the way people know and discover geographies and lists of "mobile social software" are already available. GPS, RFID and Bluetooth multiply possibilities. To add to the fun, gamers and performance artists already use physical as well as virtual cities for playing fields and sets.

In other words, this is a perfect time to sponsor an international competition for projects that use technologies to enhance the public domain. Who else but the Dutch would come up with a world-class competition with something approaching real money for awards? Co-funded by the by the Mondriaan Foundation, the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation and the city of The Hague, a coalition of Dutch and international organizations sponsored Fused Space. (I heard about it through Doors of Perception, one of the participating organizations). The call for submissions invited "artists, designers and architects to develop innovative ideas that energize the public domain and enable novel and exciting interactions in public space using new technologies."

If you think of the huge R&D and market research expenditures of ICT vendors and operators, the Fused Space competition offers a remarkably cost-effective window onto the ways early adopters are using the virtual powers of communications and computation to probe, influence, and re-invent aspects of the face-to-face world. The first competition offered 17,500-euro total award money. Many commercial sponsors could multiply that by ten and not put a noticeable dent into their research or PR budgets. I found that just reading the descriptions of project submissions suggested activities that are only now becoming possible through the use of the devices most urbanites now carry in their pockets.

The new R&D is not inside laboratories, but out in the streets. Situationist-inspired "probes" mix performance art, social science and R&D through actively experimenting with the way people behave in public spaces by introducing technologies that make new interactions possible. For example, one of my favorite Fused Space entries, "Train Doors: Trust-Based Communities on Trains," proposed making available group-messaging systems for the "familiar strangers" who spend hours together daily but don't know each other. The project is aimed at the train commuters of Italy, who already recognize themselves as a community of interest, represented by many regional commuting associations. The project organizers noted that: "These people often spend over two hours a day commuting between home and work. This creates an interesting microcosm where strangers are thrown together in a small space for a significant period of time."

The Train Doors proposal referred to the "familiar strangers" that Stanley Milgram first noted in the 1970s and which Paulos and Goodman probed with their Familiar Stranger research at Berkeley's Intel lab. Train Doors project organizers proposed testing the hypothesis that "by allowing commuters to tap into their familiar stranger relationships, we can create temporal communities that share an element of trust. In doing so, we combine the success of trading communities such as of localized messaging systems, potentially transforming the social dynamic on the train." They proposed an SMS message service local to the passengers on a train, in which text messages could be broadcast from any passenger's phone, instantly and anonymously, to entire groups such as a "ride-sharing" or "lost and found" channel. Users could subscribe to channels, block messages from individual senders, and use filters to select the people they want to receive messages from.

Although it was my favorite, Train Doors was not among the winners. First prize went to Ulrika Wachtmeister of Sweden, for "Transitions," a "conceptual project exploring the domain in between the private and the public, the virtual and the physical, memories and present, through the development of a fictional company offering alternative spaces for commemoration and mourning." A virtual sacred space for commemorating the dead is linked to a geographic marginal space, Pepperholm, an artificial island between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden, "without a defined identity or urban purpose of its own. It was created to support the transition between the bridge and the tunnel connecting the two cities."

Second prize went to Joes Koppers and Susann Lekås of The Netherlands for "OPTIONALTIME/ public expanse," which "uses new new media to make a non-linear experience tangible in public space. This infuses the public to understand their surroundings in a more dynamic way. It appears as a big mirror that in fact is an interactive movie." Imagine walking down the street, noticing that the window next to you is a mirror, reflecting you as you move, but it also reflects people who aren't really there. What happens to city life when such special effects are not confined to theaters?

Third prize was won by Marcus Kirsch and Jussi Angesleva of the UK and Ireland, who proposed giving people a view of their environment that is not only alternative, but non-human: "Urban Eyes" proposes using pigeons who swallow harmless RFID tags embedded in birdseed and are tracked by RFID readers on the closed circuit television camera networks that already Because traditional forecasting is too slow and unimaginative, I hope Fused Space and other projects continue to reward excellence in imagination and depth of thought for probes into a place we all inhabit, but doesn't have a name yet.