Who’s top dog now? During past months, true power structures have been revealed and their resilience tested. At the same time, we’ve glimpsed different ways to live, forcing us to re-evaluate what matters. Seen in this new light, the value of our homes, our streets, our cities is being redefined.
In this LabCast, we explore how a shift in power will affect place-making and places in the future. How will our cities be reimagined? Who will reinvent them? What new lines of power will be drawn or shared?
Due to Covid-restrictions, our June 2020 PlaceLabs was in the format of an online LabCast.
Recorded on 3 June 2020, our speakers were:
Meredith Bossin– Director of Engagement at the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, a wondrous cultural parkland in the heart of Austin, Texas.
Hanna Benihoud – Artist, architect and activist based in London, whose work explores gender and youth.
Ayaz Basrai – Designer, architect and founder of the BusRide studio in Mumbai, who focuses on design that is both speculative and social.
This event was part of the London Festival of Architecture.
A newly converted warehouse in Wapping, from where JTP’s architects and master-planners design places of the future. According to some forecasts, the area will be submerged by rising sea levels, if the climate continues to warm at our current rate. Relentless rain is flooding parts of Britain. Wildfires have burnt large areas of Australia and the Amazon. Coronavirus, more than causing the biggest-ever drop in stock markets, constrains personal and communal behaviour in public spaces. Forced migration already piles huge pressure on societies that react with lockdown. You’ve guessed it. Our theme for this quarter’s PlaceLabs was “Disaster?”. Ever the optimists, we added a question mark: is this a time of disaster we are living through, and if so what does it mean for us now and for our places in the future?
Our first speaker was Gemma Jones, a cultural strategist, speculative designer and co-founder of the School of Critical Design. Coming from a semiotician’s point of view that stories shape people, their behaviour and their responses to the world, Gemma talked about how meanings of “disaster” have moved from being seen as unpredictable “acts of god” to being man-made. “Hiroshima was a disaster,” she said, “but to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, so was the arrival of Europeans.”
While, to Gemma, “disaster” is the right word to use for the times we are living, our notion of “disaster-ness” needs to be adapted. Climate change is different in that it is a disaster that unfolds on a temporal scale we can’t see. Our usual fight-or-flight response, Gemma argued, wasn’t triggered because we didn’t have anyone or anything to fight, nor anywhere to run to—which left us in a paralysed state.
Noel Moka was our second speaker. A geographer studying anthropogenic change and a trustee at Participatory City, Noel also felt that our attitudes to disaster had changed over the course of history. From the age of Rationalism, he argued, natural catastrophes were no longer mysterious “acts of gods” but the understandable consequences of an event: a volcanic eruption was the result of geological movements; a flood, the result of an imbalance of in vs. outflow. The risk of disaster became calculable, could be observed and predicted to a large extent—and with this grew a belief that technology could prevent disaster. This had led to (Western) societies organising themselves around risk-response, in a process Noel called “reflexive modernisation”: technology and society would react to expected sporadic catastrophes.
However, Noel continued, “many of the current environmental risks are hardly calculable because we do not understand the consequences of our technological progress.” Rather than prevent disaster, this attitude had perpetuated it and created unforeseen events. Problem-solving kept creating new problems, Noel argued, and he traced this faith in technology back to an anthropocentric attitude, an Icarian hubris, that had disconnected us from our environment.
Paddy Loughman, a strategy director who is involved in Extinction Rebellion, added to this diagnosis by giving us facts and predictions that even at a conservative estimate were terrifying. He quoted James Baldwin to invoke courage and responsibility: “not everything that we face can be changed; but nothing can be changed without facing it.” XR’s fire alarm has been ringing long enough, the necessity to limit global warming to +1.5ºC vs. pre-industrial levels is known well enough for us not to reiterate it here. Nevertheless, a number that may have shocked many in a room full of place-makers, was that China had poured more concrete (one of the biggest sources of CO2) in the last three years than the US did throughout the twentieth century. This revealed deep flaws in a growth economy based on construction, but it also gave us an easy place-related solution: to rethink the materials we use. As Paddy said, the ecological crisis is not an incurable disease. “We know what to do, we just have to do it.”
“Treatment” — Mentality Shift
Our three speakers all agreed, a crucial step was to change our relationship to our environment. Paddy reminded us that “we are nature,” that we shared 25% of our genes with trees, that 50% of our genes weren’t human. Ecology, in his words, is not a commodity but our community. Noel similarly suggested adopting a nodal model of place in which the human and the non-human are connected in intricate ways, recognising the agency of all elements.
Changing our response to the “slow apocalypse,” according to Gemma, required us to promote narratives that made people “feel” the current disaster on a sensory, emotional level. This would allow us to tap into the mentality of mutual assistance, of creativity—of humanity—that is seen when large-scale catastrophes occur (like the 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia). To Paddy, this also meant understanding that climate change wasn’t the narrative itself but a setting for all other narratives, always present.
In this respect, we were encouraged to use narratives of the future as speculative design. While Paddy called for us to remember the power of hope and of promise, Gemma quoted Björk and her Cornucopia: “imagine a future … be in it.” In our fight-or-flight response, we need to give ourselves something to run towards. This future, echoing Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, must fundamentally rethink our economy away from pure growth towards a model that factors in ecological ceilings. This, the room agreed, required us to look at value in a different way (“the financial value of ecology would be double global GDP”); to change the metrics we use to measure success in general, and in planning places specifically.
Actions In Place
Gemma’s wish, for instance, was that we thought of “places as spaces to prototype adaptive behaviour—as spaces for us to feel the new ways that we need to live in.” She went on, “what places can do is to create space for people to be that doesn’t require consumption, productivity, growth: that are just about dwelling, communicating.” Noel echoed this: “Places are not products, they are systems. Place-making’s role is to design community.” This is something Participatory City seeks to achieve through the involvement of residents—and we need more of that, to foster both responsibility and, perhaps, accountability.
In many ways, in spite of the gloomy nature of the theme, there was also a sense of optimism in the room; that it was possible to do something about the looming disaster; that “we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” as Paddy ended his talk: we have to go beyond pledges and commitments. It is in our hands to make plans for action.
Actions and plans were what we asked of everyone in the audience. One such could be to re-wild the city, which, numbers show, would be 40% more effective at absorbing CO2 than monocultures and lawns. Space for wildness in the city abounds, and residents could take more into their own hands—from rooftops to gardens to public squares.
Many of the plans our audience made centered around professional responsibility and agency. Specifically, they were plans to “Try to hold my boss accountable to his pledge — architects declare” and to “Challenge my own small business to lead by setting an example, challenging our clients and manufacturers.” One participant planned to “Devise new decision filters that at least manifest a fresh awareness,” while another wanted to “Be evidence-based and (…) to push developers and show them that innovation = value.” Such plans will require courage – and we wish them all the strength they need.
Still, many participants also made plans for individual action in their personal lives. These ranged from tangible things like “Invest in a good bike and use it”, “Fly less”, “Holiday at home” and “Create rituals and journeys that don’t involve consuming” to more ambitious mind-shifts: “Think, act and consume more locally (…) and give back to place – place is built by us committing to space.” As several people in the audience wrote, change will require us all to “Speak up, act up, act out of love not fear” but, most of all, “Show up”. We hope this will inspire you, too.
It felt fitting to gather at a repurposed building in central London to discuss the (not always happy) marriage of investment and place. This PlaceLabs event was hosted by Iceni Projects, a multi-skilled consultancy that helps to deliver better places, and whose Farringdon offices are in the lower level of a former car park: the existing architectural fabric worked into the redesign, exposed pipes mixed with sleek furniture, and a lovely colour scheme focused on a spring-leaf green fridge to breathe new life into a forgotten space.
Investment, then. Nothing less. Our tacitly agreed starting point was that capital investment was necessary to drive development, hence social value also needed to be commercially viable. This, of course, opened up questions like what is social value, whose social value do we mean and indeed who defines it?
Defining social value
Our first two speakers, using different examples from their own practice, gave their view on this. Michael Cowdy of McGregor Coxall suggested that, as opposed to other industries, “historically, the urban world hasn’t used usage statistics as a platform for delivering social benefit.” He exemplified this with a pedestrian shopping mall in Sydney that had fallen out of use, was no longer fit for the demographic and behavioural shift that had occurred. More important to Michael, however, was the requirement to consider places’ impact more holistically: that is, considering the city-wide context, include (and use) forgotten spaces such as alleyways, and understand the interconnectedness of all elements (say, how the redevelopment of an urban marshland can affect the habitat of migratory birds).
Smart cities and data, gathered through new technologies, can give a sense of social value, but Stephanie Edwards’s practice, Urban Symbiotics, adopted a more research-and-interview based approach to understand what the social value of a particular place might be. “As designers and architects,” she said, “we thought we knew what users needed … but we didn’t.” In dialogue with “users,” (for example, in Kensington & Chelsea where they were tasked to design a 21st century estate) she found that young people felt ignored from considerations and powerless to effect change. “These places that had been designed,” Stephanie said, “were actually threatening to them; people described the places as ‘dangerous’.” Stephanie wondered whether “we were designing out the people we were supposed to design for.” She urged us all to become more self-reflective, aware of possible (unconscious) bias, and to put the users and their real needs at the core of every decision – from design to investment – which is how a place gains its social value.
From social to commercial value
Stephanie also showed how a user-centric approach could increase commercial value. In her example, the developers of a student accommodation building she worked on had one goal: to maximise occupancy. Stephanie suggested on-going participation by having students sit on a kind of board, empowering them to have an impact on the design and continuous re-design. It must be remembered that, as Stephanie said, “current needs aren’t future needs.” The social value of a place depends on its flexibility and ability to adapt to its community, which in turn leads to long-term commercial value.
Quantifying social value
The inherent problem is that social value is alwaZahoor Rahimtoolays a risk factor, which is at odds with capital investment — at least in current models. As Zahoor Rahimtoola, an impact entrepreneur at Barclays, pointed out, “anything we do has to make commercial sense. We have to make senior executives understand the [commercial] value of helping people live better lives.” This would, in the long term, require a fundamental shift in mindset (like mortgage lenders understanding that they are really in the business of helping people to start families build a home for their family), as well as a new set of metrics by which we measure success (such as including Quality of Life in indexes). In the short term, however, this means driving impact through business. First, it involves quantifying social value, as Michael Cowdy did, for example, using big data and statistics to measure how green spaces per capita reduce health costs. Second, Zahoor said, experimentation had to be conducted on a small scale so as to de-risk it financially, making it “very hard for decision makers to say no to trying it.”
Bethan Harris, of Collectively, observed that “corporates [developers] are good at spending a lot of money on an agency’s idea and pushing it through, […] then they find out it doesn’t actually work.” In her view, small-scale, piecemeal projects and labs offered an alternative. In cooperation with Lendlease, she runs the Loneliness Lab to test ideas for tackling loneliness in London. They are individual projects whose impact can be observed more directly. The arguably greater advantage of this method: labs are cheap, there is hardly any financial risk involved: a strong argument to spark the necessary mindset shift.
Delivering socially valuable places
All this pointed at another question: to whom do we look for investment? Perhaps small-scale experimentation and community-based projects are more easily driven by entrepreneurs, rather than the real estate industry. Here, David Barrie gave us ideas for alternative sources of funds and investment models. From the combination of public and private money, via sequential investment (where several bodies build on work sequentially), to local crowdfunding and Angel Investors’ clubs that screen for local benefit. More importantly, David felt it was possible to harness skills and talent more effectively. This could take the form of “sweat equity,” where people give time and effort in exchange for goods (like the People’s Supermarket), to looking at “franchise equity,” that is tapping into the skills of otherwise hidden communities like video game players.
As so often at the PlaceLabs, the engaging roundtable conversation that followed the talks raised more questions than it gave answers – and rightly so. This was where ideas and examples flowed freely, where thinking was done aloud, where the diversity of perspectives on the subject led to insight, where controversy could be fruitful. For instance, when the PlaceLabs’ Payal Wadhwa suggested that “gentrification is a good thing […] but it depends who delivers it.”
Perhaps, if it were possible to sum up, we might also consider the dangers of “fetishising” social value, turn away from ideas of “fully designed” (even with the best intentions) and remember that what drives place is often immaterial: it is the people. The goal of placemaking might be working towards a more empowering culture. Investment, then, comes down to each and every one of us: from businesses showing their “social licence to operate,” as Jake Heitland from Lendlease suggested during our roundtable conversation — “we have to make a profit, of course, but we must show that we’re here to do good” — via small entrepreneurs, lab runners and non-profits, all the way down to ourselves, as individuals, as residents, as users of place.
Walking across British Land’s Paddington Central takes you from the train station, along the canal, past the amphitheatre, through a relaxing greenway amidst the growing campus development and, eventually, to the newly-opened Storey Club. Those with a better sense of direction than this writer may have suspected they’d be beside the Westway Flyover. Still, many will have been surprised at the empty view, the eerie quiet: the thoroughfare, normally draining London of cars at this hour, were closed. This unexpected juxtaposition of a Rut Blees Luxemburg urbanscape with active placemaking was where our nomadic PlaceLabs forum pitched up, and whither we beckoned the talented and the curious.
The theme was Curiosity. The question: how can we design places that keep curiosity alive? The speakers, a curious cast of characters — or should that be a cast of curious characters? — eluded clear categorisation but certainly stimulated the mind.
Kickstarting the familiar format of three PechaKucha-inspired presentations followed by an open discussion was architect Jenny Jones. For Jenny, curiosity equals questions and questions form the core of what she calls her “socratic approach to innovation.” No presupposition remains unchallenged by her why-how-what: going as far as ignoring the brief for a sports centre because her team’s analysis concluded an open park best fitted the needs of that particular project for that particular community. This idea of feeding intuition with analysis formed the core of Jenny’s talk.
Next up was Hideki Yoshimoto of Tangent. A background in aero-astro engineering and behavioural AI is not what you’d expect of a designer and installation artist. While Hideki’s approach to design is steeped in technology and motion, his ideas come from a place of curiosity. “Hideki, you must stop thinking and feel,” his professor advised him when he tried to break a creative block. It prompted Hideki to do “literally a hundred experiments” in his studio. However, it is perhaps his company’s name that holds the key to Hideki’s curiosity: allowing himself to go off on tangents, to let stories and folk tales penetrate his thoughts, to leave space for silliness. Looking at swaying rice plants and seeing a design for lights; watching the morning’s first gondola stir up mud in Venice’s Grand Canal and capturing the movement in glass; blowing air through a straw into a jar of honey and converting the viscose bubbles into a coffee table design.
Here Hideki seemed to echo Jenny Jones’s mantra that placemaking should capture “that feeling we have from really looking,” consider the sensory impact of a space, and “choreograph the unedited,” which we took to mean something akin to guiding the senses loosely so as to foster imagination with subtle prompts. Allow people to roam physically and mentally. Our third speaker would take this idea even further.
Cat Le Huy was introduced as the “wild card speaker, a technologist, lay-buddhist priest and catholic priest-in-training,” and he chose to look at the design of sacred places. Acknowledging that, historically, places of worship had also been built with dogmatic control and power politics in mind, Cat urged us to “draw the positive out of spiritualism.” Gothic cathedrals, rococo churches, Hindu palaces, he said, were designed to be uplifting, to provoke awe and to feel the divinity in and around us. Nowadays, in a time of widespread literacy and democracy, the aim of such places — here he showed us an image of the light, warmth and openness of Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas — was to elicit engagement with the self, playful contemplation, bring us to embrace “the divine aspects within ourselves.”
What seemed to unite our speakers was the idea that places which keep curiosity alive make the gift of space (as opposed to shaping it). The move must be away from top-down and towards bottom-up: in short, nothing new but worthy of repeating, putting humans (the people, the inhabitants, the users) at the centre of our design process. As Cat said, “community defines the needs of the built environment.”
One of the needs that emerged in discussion was to have space for ennui (the mother of inventiveness) or idleness, for child-like silliness; and PlaceLabs’s Payal Wadhwa reminded us of so-called “evolving spaces” such as Assemble’s Brutalist playground and New Addington Sq in Croydon, that took their final shape from observing how children used the space: bottom-up design in action!
Further thoughts, briefly mentioned but left quivering for lack of time, included taking ‘curious’ in its other sense of ‘strange, unfamiliar,’ and incorporating surprise. Another one was to adopt a literary editor’s approach of ‘killing your darlings’ — which echoed a previous PlaceLab theme, “Trust”: trust in the users and trust in the clients.
For, as always when idealism is confronted with pragmatism, the two inevitable questions arose: firstly, how much can one really design for curiosity? How much of it is down to the user? In Jenny Jones’s words, who also reminded us of New Town Utopia and failed design dreams, “we can only design so much, if people don’t use it as such…” Or, in other words, even Wifi itself can destroy curiosity, if people feel bored rather than idle. One remedy might be to include the user from the beginning and to accompany places long-term with reiteration, feedback and observation: all to nurture potential rather than limit or impose.
Secondly, from a commercial point of view, “how can we sell the idea of ‘undesigned design’? How do we educate our clients?” It was suggested that analysis, data, new psychological research, substance might help convince developers — previous PlaceLabs speaker Josh Artus of Centric Lab came to mind. Yet, isn’t it perhaps also our responsibility to choose clients based on such criteria? To trust ourselves, our own ideas, and to defend them? Or, as Jenny and her team did, even to ignore the brief? Clients may not know what they want and may be curious, too. (On a side note: Investment, incidentally, was the theme of the following PlaceLabs on 19 November, where we discussed such questions and issues.)
So we return to curiosity in all its forms as the starting point of the design journey: open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, “faith in human awesomeness” (Cat), exploring an approach which is not solely goal-oriented (flâneurs know that nothing creates tunnel-vision like having a destination) but which, as Hideki Yoshimoto’s, goes off on tangents at the risk of getting lost.
What amplifies the potential of a place? Be it a neighbourhood, a city or a nation. How does the amplification of different voices affect how we design our cities? And how can we compose these diverse voices to create cities that sing with richness and symphony?
These were the questions and provocations that formed the discussions at our third PlaceLab in June 2019. Lively debates ensued about neuroscience as a force for good, the anti-Stirling awards, and orchestrating sound in the city as this edition’s PlaceLabs maestros presented new perspectives. From creating platforms for the underrepresented voices of a city’s unheard innovators, to tuning places for curiosity and health, and into the realms of neuroscience.
The Provocateurs – Calls For The ANTI Of All Architectural Prizes
Nile Bridgeman & Samson Famusan of Afterparti are independent agitators challenging mainstream adulation of aesthetic architecture that’s propagated by the Stirling Awards. An award that amplifies the egos of figurehead architects, rather than award an ethos that’s more collective and all encompassing of community, education and housing.
Calling out loud recent Stirling prize winner, the much fawned upon Bloomberg building as a case in point. Undoubtedly a bravura piece of architecture, and also one of the most capitalist buildings one could have chosen in a time of austerity.
By contrast how are we celebrating and amplifying buildings created with an intention for good but without a budget? Where a high functioning integrated sustainable development is delivered?
One such groundbreaking development – LILAC in Leeds – began with five residents wanting to live and raise their children in a different way. And resulted in low impact, affordable homes, becoming an exemplar of sustainable development using local tradespeople and materials sourced within 25 miles.
In a time when aesthetic value still trumps social value Nile and Samson are challenging the overemphasis on aesthetic, perpetuated by the old-guard architects and have developed Afterparti // @afterpartizine, a platform for the un-heard radical disrupters. At the PlaceLab they emerged as champions of an award that celebrates responsible design, replicable product and radical approaches. An approach that moves beyond the self-perpetuating norms of architecture and is recognised as part of the UN’s drive for a better and more sustainable future for all.
About: Nile and Samson are both architecture graduates and two of the founding members of Afterparti. Afterparti unpack big ideas on contemporary urban space through the lenses of identity and race. Their inaugural event at the Royal College of Art and recently-published zine, ‘The Time for Failure is Now’ provided platforms for underrepresented voices in the culture and criticism of architecture and design. Themes explored during the series included diversity, accountability, design colonialism, education and spatial equality, and form the basis of their upcoming articles and events.
Neuroscience & The City – Reveals The Beauty Of Our Biology Is Our Similarities
Josh Artus is co-founder of Centric Lab and self confessed “dork working with nerds”. But underneath his upbeat self-deprecating style is a critical mind, and a practice that measures its success as the reduction in mental and physical health outbreaks; or less cases of depression, dementia, anxiety disorders. In Josh’s words, the Centric Lab is “working towards lowering bad health”.
Being human is getting harder and harder. The macro trends of climate change, automation and urbanisation are putting stresses upon people, and the micro stressors of air pollution, light and noise pollution are underlying factors impacting our wellbeing.
Neuroscientists at the Centric Lab team are discovering important insights and compelling evidence in support of interventions to tackle the negative health impacts of city living, and support human performance. The seismic changes in climate are shifting our perceptions of how the places we inhabit – our homes, our workplace, our city – and affecting our biological systems and cognitive function.
Neuroscience is multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body. It’s value out of the confines of the lab is to understand what in our world impacts our biological stress response system and the links through to cognition. So for example, research has shown that an increase of 10db in noise (from the noise level of a dishwasher to a vacuum cleaner) decreases worker productivity by approximately 5%. Long-term exposure to PM2.5-10 and PM2.5 avt levels typically experienced by many individuals in the United States is associated with significantly worse cognitive decline in older women.
Using metrics from neuroscience to inform urban innovation and increase quality of life in cities looks at the relationship between the environment and our biology to understand the factors that affect stress and endocrine systems. Knowing the underlying factors that are impacting our bodily systems in subtle ways means we can be more effective with our mitigations and action plans. We can have more targeted approaches to enhancing human performance.
While different demographics have different thresholds, Josh says “the beautiful thing about our biology is the similarities in how we all breath, digest and sleep” which means the spectrum of bias on data collection becomes less of an issue.
Now with technology and data making it possible to analyse data, Centric Lab is on a mission to put neuroscientific research firmly into the practices around urban life of real estate, technology and workplace management. In collaboration with Future Cities Catapult and the University College London they have produced the ‘Neuroscience for Cities Playbook’. It proposes a framework for identifying new opportunities for innovation and improved experiences, leading in turn to greater productivity, wellbeing and attraction. They’re now focused on creating a worldwide digital tool to help isolate the underlying stress factors in our urban environments and push these insights into the hands of the next generation of change makers.
Neuroscience has come to the fore offering industries a lens to close the gap between the planned and the actual. And these scientifically proven insights will have obvious immediate applications for those developing and managing public or private real estate.
About Josh Artus is the co-founder of Centric Lab, a London based company combining urban and neuroscience data to help make healthier and more resilient habitats. He established the business with a neuroscientist with the aim to close the knowledge gaps occurring between a person and place. Josh has been working at the intersection of creative industries, technology and real estate for over 10 years and co-leads Centric’s mission to ensure the built environment is an enabler of great ideas and not a detractor.
The Composer – Opens Our Ears To Ideas
Jonathan Goldstein, Founder of Goldstein Music, is a composer and a sought after leading-light on the ‘musification’ of brands and cities. Like it or not you ‘can’t switch your ears off”, says Jonathan, “it takes only .146 secs for the brain to respond to an audio signal”.
Brands are exploiting this as a marketing device, with the advertising world abuzz with the sensory phenomenon of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridien Response). This has been rerecreated in BBDO Beijing’s erotic ad for Dove chocolate, and Zoe Kravitz’s gentle whispering for Michelob at this year’s Superbowl, leaving fans distracted with her every whisper, fizz and tap of the bottle.
But in this noisy world, how serious are cities and destinations about sound? As we shift towards a sound-dominated world, cities of the future will start to sing with richness and meaning. In the next decade, Jonathan sees sound as becoming an unbelievably crucial part of creating a vibrant and normalised experience of how we live. Today 40% of households own a smart speaker, by 2022 Gartner Research predicts this will increase to 60% with 30% of internet browsing conducted off screen. The youth of this generation will no longer be tethered to a device to search using keyboards and will be using their voices instead, making the connection between sound a fundamental part of life.
We are reaching the tipping point of sound as a service that explores the spectrum of quiet and noise, smooths the flow of crowds and soothes the senses, and serves us everyday.
In a noisy world Silentium’s Quiet Bubble software has taken noise reduction out of the headset and into the headrest in a car, on a plane and even silence at home reducing disturbing noise no matter what the sources are. For architects this means exploring ways to reduce sound without the need for physical barriers.
Sound management has traditionally focused on reducing noise levels, however, a quiet city is not necessarily an interesting or better one. The soundscape approach encourages positive sounds in urban environments while mitigating unwanted sound. Take the Bankside Project as an example, when Goldstein Music remastered the sounds of its history using William Blake’s poetry, and Idris Elba’s voice to create a sonic landscape that hummed with possibility encouraging people to slow down and explore this place.
Dubai airport is tacking dawdling travellers without frenetic announcements, opting instead for a six minute soundtrack that acts like a watch mechanism that pulses and shifts momentum to encourage movement of travellers through the terminal’s zones; making the airport a calmer sensory experience.
And in response to the gender bias debate, comes a breakthrough in voice-controlled personal assistants – The Q genderless voice experiment. Think of Q like Siri and Alexa, only neutral. A voice recording of two dozen people identifying as male, female, transgender, or non-binary defined a frequency range that was gender neutral. Ushering in a world no longer defined by gender.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, with 5G soon to become mainstream and 75 billion devices by 2025 Jonathan says “the opportunity to amplify connections between people and places is immense”. Ask the bus stop when the next bus is due? That’s not as crazy as it seems – it’s real and exciting.
So next time you’re in a public space, close your eyes and listen to the world around you. You will likely discover a whole new aspect of the urban experience.
About: Jonathan Goldstein Jonathan Goldstein is the Founder and Creative Director of Goldstein Music, an award-winning London music production agency with an outstanding reputation in music for advertising, branding and experiential marketing. The company has scooped up numerous awards including D&AD, British Arrows, London International Advertising Awards and Kinsale Shark and Music and Sound Awards. Jonathan is also Founder of ANVIL, a sound branding agency devoted to creating unique sound brand identities that unlock the true potential of sound and liberate brands from silence.
With participants from the RCA, ICA, British Council, Craft Council, Central St Martins, as well as Accenture, Westminster Council and of course Produce UK and the London Communication Agency, our hosts for the evening, the theme of the third PlaceLabs get-together was Trust.
The setting was LCA’s eighth-floor offices in Berkshire House, overlooking London landmarks such as the Eye, the Southbank, and the outdoor swimming pool of the Oasis Sports Centre. The kind of large-scale public spaces that have come to define London and create that elusive but essential adhesive that binds us together, trust. Between place-makers and communities, between the interested parties that are tasked with place-making, and between the designers and developers and the end users of the shared real-life and digital spaces that is 21st century humanity’s habitat.
The first of three contrasting presentations was from our LCA hosts, Founder and Managing Director Jonny Popper and account director Helena Carrie, taking us through the challenges and achievements of working with Argent and the King’s Cross development. Then Fjord senior designer Giulio Fagiolini talked about the complex issues of trust that fed into designing an innovative new website, for the West Midlands police and the people of Birmingham, who would use it to log concerns and report crime in an unprecedented new digital public space. Finally, research fellow Marcus Willcocks from Central Saint Martin’s and place-maker and designer Rosanna Vitiello discussed the “Urban Lexicons of Trust”, taking us into the very heart of city living, from the instructional to the subliminal, with a dusting of fear on top.
Each showed how trust can be embedded and developed as surely as foundations, bricks and mortar – for without the trust of communities it’s possible that no foundations will even get laid. Trust is the cornerstone, the first brick, the central pillar. It takes work.
Jonny Popper breezed through a whirlwind account of LCA’s history, from start-up (“we trusted that it was going to be a good idea and that we could pull it off”) to the company’s first big campaign – the Millennium Dome (“Oh sh*t, how are we going to deliver?”) – through to more recent work with major city projects such as the rejuvenation of Kings Cross and St Pancras, and the rebranding and redevelopment of Wembley Park. Trust – between clients, with staff, with communities, in one’s own capabilities – is the most valuable coinage there is, said Jonny. “Trust gets repaid. It’s a powerful form of currency.”
Transforming King’s Cross and St Pancras into the all-round family destination it now meant creating trust by producing large-scale events and installations as sensory agents of change – throwing a Mad Hatter’s tea party at ‘King’s Cross, or creating the King’s Cross Pond Club for dedicated free swimmers – and then installing an outdoor sauna to go with it, to show how things had changed since the saunas of King’s Cross’s sex industry had closed their doors. As Helena Carrie explained, events and installations are there to drive that change in perception, however crazy the idea might sound at first hearing. And as Jonny said in conclusion, “Know what you do and trust it to work.”
Fjord’s senior designer Giulio Fagiolini presented his work with the West Midlands police with some dramatic-looking data sets. Working in a digital rather than physical space, he was tasked with turning a sluggish, inefficient police website into a trusted, inclusive and effective communication and crime-reporting tool. There were issues of trust to handle with great care.
Between police and public, for one, and two, the conflicting first impressions a bunch of London designers armed with Macbooks might have on a bunch of coppers. To earn mutual trust and esteem, the two teams had to get to know each other. “We needed to understand their job, and they needed to understand ours,” said Fagiolini. It was about finding out exactly what they did, how they did it, and then revisualising the flow of data – how different kinds of crimes are reported and acted upon – to improve and expand that vital public space between police and public. Trust between the two is an open space in itself, one that can too easily be scarred by conflict.
Revisualising the data that flows between public and police in the landscaping of their website meant Fagiolini and his team could clear that public space of obstructions. While it was wholly digital, the work was as detailed and complex as any bricks and mortar build.
Central St Martin’s Marcus Willcocks began the third presentation with a handy explanation. “The urban lexicon is how the city talks to us,” he explained, and that talk, he believes, is with forked tongue. We need a different conversation. The ‘lexicons of distrust’ are all over our urban environments, he said, the legacy of four decades of fear and security-based urban planning.
Quoting Richard Nixon’s pocket maxim that ‘people react to fear, not love’, he pointed to the ubiquitous security-led features of city life,– right down to the spikes to stop homeless people sleeping in front of an office’s shiny new atrium – and the CCTV cameras looking down on them from on high. These were metaphors and dystopian enrichers of mistrust. In terms of public spaces, design had become overly problem-oriented. As he says, “secure-by-design streets are empty and characterless.” No one wants to be there, and they’re filled with signs telling what you can and can’t do.
Quoting from Deb Krizmanich’s work, Rosanna Vitiello touched on trust in communities and how to build real lasting relationships between people – by drawing on shared vision and goals.
“Shared visions are about understanding mutual outcomes,” she said, “but it’s not a homogeneous decision.” That is, there has to be the space for disagreement – and a shared vision to resolve it.
The closing discussion led on the theme of the spaces we inhabit – digital and physical – and “what underpins trust for citizens”. Well, it’s daily life, it seems. There’s trust everywhere you go – from crossing a road to ordering a meal – but engagement and communication are the crux of the matter when it comes to building trust, one that you can really work with. That, and being able to play. “Playfulness is about the space to try things out,” says Marcus Willcocks. “It doesn’t have to be child’s play. It can be playfulness with your local neighbourhood.” Playfulness engenders trust.
“Playfulness is putting a frame a round a space that’s risky but safe enough to get it wrong if you need to.”
It was the kind of concept that encompassed the playful nature of the conversation at this third PlaceLabs event, embracing creative thought and the experience required to illuminate it. You could feel the trust blossoming in the room.