3: Everybody wants to be a pirate

Han Pham: Pirates in My Hood. In my East London neighborhood, home to the wild and hip, the diverse cacophony of the Ridley Road market where butcher stalls jostle with colorful bolts of Nigerian fabric, a ship has moored – a pirate ship. Unabashedly, right there on the high street – close enough to an organic grocery and within winking distance of a Mexican cantina. The Ship has a single goal: to ransack young minds of cobwebs and fill them with stories of lands unseen. According to the Hackney Pirates, “The Young Pirates come to our Ship of Adventures after school – it is a weird and wonderful out-of-school learning environment complete with secret passageways, an underwater cave and a ship’s cat.”

Context is important – the street is an increasingly expensive one; the mom-and-pop shops that give the neighborhood its character are moving out amidst the rising rents reflective of the general surge in London population. Several stores over the past two months have shuttered, despite the increasing bustle of the streets.

Yet, in some way, a charitable venture aimed at increasingly literacy and filled with those unnecessarily scorned dusty relics of a bygone era – Books – has snuck in under the guise of piracy to reclaim a bit of the high street for children, not as future consumers, but of hope.. and well, bookworms. And, in doing so, they also reimagined the city as not a grid of streets or a network of wifi connectivity, but of secret passageways to explore – not just physically, but in those hidden recesses of the imagination harder to reach. Is the future library or media a pirate ship? If so, where will it take us? And why does everyone want to be a pirate? (I do.)

Design for Bursting Cities

The current global population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by almost one billion people within the next twelve years, according to official United Nations population estimates (medium variant, 2012 Revision); and by the middle of the 21st century, the urban population will almost double. This forthcoming, complex challenge of rapid population growth will compound, constrain, and stretch us in ways we cannot even imagine. 

I can relate to a few things about urban design from a people-centered perspective: I’ve worked on urban disaster management, hidden health care systems, the future of education, the changing face of mobility, sustainable cities, and here I am thinking about pirate ships and how they relate to urban interaction design.

Urban Interaction design – is it hype, is it a philosophy, or is a way of coming to real terms with designing with and for a living city in flux from people to its cultures and technologies? My hope is that the ubiquitous, emerging, and (I hope) surprising nature of urban interaction design can rise above the fray of a single design language or singular solution to the urban challenges we will meet in more creative, playful and thoughtful ways. Yes, even disaster management can be playful.

The Uncharted Nature of Change

A part of what I think about in my daily work thinking about future cities is not just innovation, but its shadows. In championing new technologies, as an anthropologist, I think deeply about what else we might champion in terms of what we want to sustain and nurture (this is a great New York Times article on the power behind the increasingly threatened art of handwriting ).. and I also think about why people challenge the “solutions” designers may bring into the world.

Urban Interaction Design isn’t a seamless experience – perhaps part of emergent nature of this field will be to reveal the seams, not its seamlessness – to call attention through digital technologies the unique possibilities humans bring: Vulnerability. Uniqueness. Security, being seen. Transparency; rebounding.

My focus is often on the changing role and avatar of trust in our hybrid society: the future is not a done deal. We are not impervious or all powerful, despite the promise of ubiquitous computing and analytics. There is a sense of both empowerment and vulberability arising in this brave new world. Beyond the politics of online security, safety is an emotional quantity; a social beast. We need to feel safe, but also be seen – an interesting project from Xuedi Chen & Pedro G. C. Oliveira explore how interaction design will weave itself into the things we wear, not just through laws or end user license agreements.

Designing for the Displaced

It’s harrowing, the role of being a trust broker, and the innate knowledge that I will always enter as an outsider learning the ropes again, and again – and knowing that the understanding will never be complete; the world is always in flux, mine, theirs.

It occurs to me, wryly, that innovation isn’t a pure thing; it does not just leap free from our minds. It may connect or push forward, but it also displaces. The same happens for cities. As cities grow, they displace.

Urban Interaction Design, if it were to be embodied, is not a perfect-skinned being – it’s scarred and knowing, used to hustling and improvising, mediating between digital and analog, hi-fi and lo-fi, making and making do to create something unexpected (for example, taking over a major cultural institution via data ). In a world where certain resources are constrained, sometimes your resources are the inverse of what you might expect: Displacement, Defiance, a breaking down, and a refashioning.

Within the field of Urban Interaction Design, we have to ask, and provoke, what is necessary in the city.

FilmAid International, in its decades-long work in refugee camps across the world, rejected the notion that all refugees needed to survive was the “basic necessities” of food, water, medicine, shelter; through their pop up movie screenings they are redefining necessity – “FilmAid gives people food for the mind.”– Oketayot Hope Sandra, refugee from Uganda

Their intro film, with the strapline Projecting Hope, pushes this notion of “the city” from constructed ones with health and safety checks to the increasing cities of the displaced, the mobile cities, the invisible cities between borders. What would interaction design be for these cities?

I believe we are both at the beginning and at a crossroads. We are all pirates. Welcome to the conversation of what Urban Interaction Design could be.

This post is part of the online conversation about urban interaction design: June 2014