Design of Urban Computing:ambient or foregrounding?

image by Nicolas Nova

While attending The Mobile City, panelist Nicolas Nova wandered through Rotterdam and made some interesting observations:

Beyond “urban computing” notions such as location-based services or touch-interactions, it’s rather when I encounter street signage about “automation” that I feel the digital city.

In film theory there is a term called ‘foregrounding’ – this means that the filmmaker disturbs the narrative illusion of being immersed in a fictional world, by including hints to the audience that he is watching a constructed and mediated reality. This can be done quite explicetly – by a direct address of one of the movie’s main characters. Or it can be done more subtle: a vague reflection of the camera in a shopwindow.

I was wondering wether this in one way could translate to the design of urban computing. As Stephen Graham has pointed out during the Mobile City Conference, we are often unaware of the role that software plays in constructing the reality of our city. Now this is of course an important design question: should we design our technologies to be as ambient and unobstrusive as possible, or is there a certain quality – both politically but also experientally – in the foregrounding of these technologies?

Now signs like you saw in Rotterdam, or warnings like ‘This city is software sorted’ are blunt examples of the foregrounding of urban computing. But could we perhaps think of including more subtle acts of foregrounding of urban computing? One that is unobtrusive, yet does give the ‘user’ a sense of how his reality is being constructed for him through the use of software? More like the reflection of the camera in the shopwindow than a direct address by an actor.

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)