Urban resource networks and McCullough’s proposal of ‘ambient commons’
June 17, 2013

The annual Ubi Summer School in Oulu has emerged as a forum for future Ubicomp researchers. In 2013, it was attended by more than 80 doctoral students from 18 countries. That year’s summer school focused on the paradigm shift towards ubiquitous computing technologies applied in public places, i.e. outside of the home or workplace.

At the school, I attended the “urban resource networks” workshop. Lead by Professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, the workshop challenged us to think about the opportunities and risks of applying digital devices (and services) in public settings.

In his recent book (Ambient Commons), McCullough argued that interaction design for urban computing relies on the concept of embodied cognition. Contrary to representational cognition, it says that sense making of the outside world always requires the active engagement with all our senses. To illustrate this point, try to understand the nature of a place just by looking at a map of a place in Mumbai. Without the in-place experience, chances are that the insights gained purely by looking at a map cannot reveal the full picture.

As our experience of urban environments today is increasingly affected by digital technologies, Professor McCullough warned us not to design artificial mirror worlds that discharge most of the ‘natural’ context (its smells, sounds, and textures) already provided by the environment around us. He challenged us to look for “social fictions” as opposed to technology-inspired “science fictions”. Therefore, as we are increasingly augmenting urban spaces digitally, it is necessary to be critical under which circumstances digital technologies become useful and/or are appropriate.

Prof. McCullough speaks at the opening of Ubi Summer School ’13

In our project group, we discussed different kinds of social capital residing in the urban space that could be enhanced by applying digital technology respectfully. For example, we looked into shared bike and car schemes (for sharing mobility); and projects such as the Yellow Arrow project (which is now Neighborland, see neighborland.com) that enabled citizens to ‘mark up’ their immediate environment to identify beneficial changes.

As a result, we worked on our own project proposal. Taking the context of Brazil’s Favelas as inspiration, our project idea proposed a game facilitated by a digital wall that would serve as a portal to a similar wall elsewhere. The proposal sought to overcome the physical and social barriers between children of families from different social status.

A rendering of the interactive wall game proposed in the workshop