Report of the Sentient Rotterdam Workshop (Nov 6th 2009)

On November 6th 2009 The Mobile City organized the Sentient Rotterdam Workshop in collaboration with Mark Shepard. About 20 participants from varying disciplines came together to discuss the role of sentient technology in urban culture. Participants were divided in small groups of 4-5 people to work on a possible intervention in the city of Rotterdam that would make use of a sentient technology, and evoke discussions about its workings.

These projects did not have to be executable. Rather, the goal was to ‘design for debate’. The proposed interventions should be seen as ‘conversation pieces’. They should bring up important design issues with regard to urban media and urban culture in playful ways.

Designs for ubiquitous computing aims to make technologies disappear in the background of our daily lives, to become seamlessly integrated and invisible. With this approach on the other hand the purpose was to make visible the ideological and cultural ideas at work in the construction and appropriation of these technologies. What urban ideals and ideas about society are used as a point of departure in the design of urban media? And what alternatives could we imagine? (The original workshop brief can be found here )

The workshop took place at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, and was part of the International Architecure Biennale Rotterdam.

Below an overview of the four projects that were developed during the workshop.

Proposal: Goeie Reis (‘Enjoy your trip’)
Group leader: Stefan van der Spek
Other members: Tina Bastajian, Lotte Meijer, Simona Sofronie

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The project “Goede Reis” took the OV-chipkaart system (a public transport card based on RFID recently introduced in the Netherlands) as their starting point. The team had three interrelated goals with this project: to raise awareness about OV chip card data collection and privacy issues, to improve social interaction between disparate groups (location/culture), and to increase serendipity. The medium and location for the proposed intervention are the turnstiles/ticket control machines in the public transport system.

The idea of the project is that when you scan your OV chip card, the machine – via the built in screen and/or sound –  broadcasts information about the traveler. This is both based on his/her actual travel behavior but also on imagined personal characteristics which are made up. For instance, the machine may say “she is late today!” or “he is always home by 6!”. Through this semi-public exposure of some private information (which is not necessarily true), a conversation may start between bystanders. The project further proposes a game-like element, in which people can get higher scores by going to areas in the city they haven’t been to before. The OV card keeps a record of the urban areas that are familiar and unfamiliar to the individual. It recommends exploring unknown areas and awards points if the person goes there.

Proposal: What clicks on the street
Group leader: James Burke
Other members: Kristina Andersen, Niels Hendriks, Liesbeth Huybrechts

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This intervention takes the notion of the Dutch “probleembuurt” (‘problematic neighborhood’) as the point of departure, and rephrases it into a “space of negotiation”.

These neighbourhoods are thus perceived by government and citizens as a problem. Since we found it a bit of a strange definition, we started to think about what could be defined as a ‘problem’. We realized that finding something to be a problem is often a result of not knowing the cause of for example loud noise, disturbing behaviour and so on. When there is a lot of noise in a square, people might find it irritating. But if they would know that this noise is produced by two love birds kissing for the first time, this would maybe perceived as less of problem and rather cute.

We therefore thought that we should design a system that could ‘leak’ this kind of intimate information into the neighbourhood. We made a choice for the term leakage, because this answers to an important principle of critical design, namely that the design artefact or experience enters your familiar world as a strange element, to grasp your attention. Via this leakage qualitative information about neighbourhood events can be provided. Just like a company does not receive any qualitative information about his website by measuring clicks, ‘clicks in the street’ can’t be measured by just registering noise, complaints,… So our question is: ‘what are clicks in the street?’ Our designed leakage system would want to do more than measure clicks in the street via detector systems. It would collect intimate stories via central figures in the neighbourhood, like shop owners or kids, and spread/leak this via unexpected media.

Take the example of the shop owners. They could collect personal stories in their shop – since they do this daily anyway – and leak them randomly via their printed receipts to the visitors of the shop. Receipts always contain a little note about the shopowner (contact information, a logo,…). This note could be replaced by some intimate information about people in the neighbourhood. Clients in the shop could accidentally read the anonymous story of a person in his/her neighbourhood, like “yesterday my boyfriend organized a surprise party for my birthday. It was amazing, we danced until the morning”.

Via a game (in a newspaper for example) we would stimulate neighbourhoods to invent new unexpected ways via which people can leak their intimate information. This to engage people in the neighbourhood, to create an increased local awareness about the personal stories of people and maybe to increase tolerance.

Proposal: Landmarks
Group leader: Levien Nordeman
Other members: Arthur Clemens, Ohyoon Kwon, Davide Dulcetti

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The “Landmarks” team wanted to enrich events taking place in Rotterdam. ‘Landmarks’ are immaterial bits of information about events created by organizers. These landmarks can be revealed at physical locations in the city with the use of augmented reality software on mobile phones. Landmarks thus augment events by disseminating information via mobile devices as a way to elicit experiences. Such landmarks should become mandatory for biennales and festivals.

The timeline for a landmark is as follows: first, there is the initial idea for an event; second, organizers go to the local government to get the event permit, and are required to add landmarks; third, the event organizers make an augmented reality landmark. Participants themselves can add information and experiences to these landmarks in pictures, sounds and texts capturing the experience in pictures, memories, text and sound in order to make the event visible after it has finished, as a kind of ‘living monument’.

Proposal: Nuggit
Group leader: Klaas Kuitenbrouwer.
Other members: Monika Codourey, Edward van der Veen, Juan Esteban Rios

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In this project called “Nuggit” people can share something they have to offer without a monetary exchange involved. This can be some free time, a certain skill, a situation, and so on. One can become a ‘nuggeteer’ by offering a ‘nuggit’, whatever it is one is offering to someone else. A nuggit can be walking someone’s dog for twenty minutes while waiting for the bus. The supply and demand of nuggits are managed through a mobile phone platform. Proximity of nuggeteers is indicated on a radar-like interface. A rating system is used to separate the good nuggeteers from the bad ones, and establish one’s ‘nuggitude’.

Nuggit thus addresses issues with regard to social networking in urban space and the idea of reciprocity and reputation systems in urban culture vis-a-vis the advent of exchange systems like eBay that are based on commercial transactions.

Michiel de Lange
Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project (www.nomadicmilk.net). He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds. Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.