Beyond the smartphone: Innovation in material technology for digital placemaking


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Image by Tobias Trubenbacher

Strolling down the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street can be a frenetic experience at the best of times. In 2017, however, you could have peeled off for a break on Bird Street – a tiny backstreet tucked between Gap and the Doc Martens store – where birds were tweeting and the air of calm was palpable.

But there was something special about those bird calls. They were powered by footfall. Every single step taken by every single person on Bird Street’s smart pavement was harnessed to generate a few joules of energy – enough to light an LED streetlamp for thirty seconds, or play recorded birdsong.

It doesn’t sound like much, but consider what might happen if Pavegen’s kinetic tiles became more widespread. The average person takes five to seven thousand steps per day: that’s enough force to generate 1250 hours of LED light. That same energy could power all sorts of things: integrated kiosks, AR beacons, and flexible displays on a self-sustaining smart street.

Smart pavements are just one in a long line of material innovations that promise to change the way people live with technology. As these become more sophisticated, people, place and technology will be more connected than ever. We’ll be moving through an environment that seamlessly blends our digital and physical lives. If we design thoughtfully and ethically, we can create powerful, self-sustaining environments – and the latest developments in material technology bodes well for the future of placemaking.

Material tech for connecting people with place

People inherently define themselves by the places they choose to live: whether you’re a ‘city girl’ or a ‘country boy’, our relationship with these areas goes deeper than just somewhere to hang our hats. This relationship extends to the city we live in, the places we visit, our neighbourhoods and our homes.

Digital placemaking melds physical spaces with the digital to deepen the relationships further. While the ubiquity of mobile devices currently makes them the prime vehicle for creating these connections, material technology means placemaking efforts can be more subtly integrated into people’s everyday lives.

Our research project, ‘Ideascape’, addressed the opportunities that different types of material-digital synthesis might afford communities in Cardiff Bay.  We created an array of prototypes, such as connected objects for local businesses, embedded sensor technologies that provided reactive environments in public space and augmented reality (accessed through sightseeing binoculars) to show the past and suggest the future of Cardiff Bay. These interactive prototypes were designed for a public engagement event, to stimulate thought about the types of future built environments that local citizens want and need.

In other cities, placemaking practitioners are exploring alternative ways to create connections. Digital kiosks and digital totems take an old idea (the information board) and bring them up-to-date with touchscreens that allow users to explore not just maps, but also local events, restaurant specials, city information – just about anything that city authorities, businesses and advertisers want visitors to see.

While these totems can be 15 feet or more, durable flexible screens are an ergonomic breakthrough meaning any part of a space has potential to become a point for learning, sharing and connecting. Imagine handrails which double as screens for instance: looking over a spectacular view, you could glance down at interactive, unobtrusive guides that share landmarks, facts and stories shared by people who’d stood in that same spot before.

This experience doesn’t have to be bound to the place, however. Augmented reality is set to become less limited – moving out of the mobile phone and the computer-tethered headset into a less intrusive, more adaptable form. Google, Microsoft, and Magic Leap are all working on subtle, comfortable AR glasses. Wearable AR opens up a route for businesses and institutions to send information and invitations to wearers in real time, directly layered onto their surroundings and guiding their attention.

And it’s not simply about translating information, digital placemaking and new materials can imbue a place with a sense of fun and wonder. Take Playable City – a project that puts people and play at the heart of exploring the future city, re-using city infrastructure and re-appropriating smart city technologies to create new connections between the citizens and their cities.

Material tech for building places

Reducing cost and improving accessibility to housing for lower income people is essential, and 3D printing can potentially help as it reduces construction waste by up to 60%, construction time by up to 70%, and labour costs by close to 80%.  

It’s also flexible, capable of producing curved or non-linear shapes that can make buildings either more striking or more subtle. Structures that need to stand out and define their surroundings can do so – structures that need to blend in and show respect will be able to.

Much research is underway to push the boundaries of construction even further. At UWE Bristol, the Living Architecture project explores energy-absorbing precast building elements. Formed with two chambers, these building elements absorb light and produce oxygen in their outer layer, and combine that oxygen with hydrogen further in, producing water.

To what end? The precast materials have sensing and computing capability. This means that the materials that make up some of the walls of a house will remove pollutants (CO2, N2O, organic matter) from domestic waste products and purify its air and water as well as create electricity for the house.

Material tech for maintenance and management

The Living Architecture project addresses waste and sustainability, and in so doing it highlights a crucial issue for those working in digital placemaking/IoT/smart cities and so forth. E-waste – discarded laptops, mobile phones and other devices – is the world’s fastest growing waste problem, and it’s important that placemaking innovation that embraces digital technologies don’t make this situation worse. In the UK, governmental priorities have historically centred around preventing waste, but recent efforts have focused on driving up the quality of recycled materials.

We’re now close to achieving fully recyclable devices, made of dissolvable and biodegradable plastic components that allow us to recover and re-use the gold, silver and platinum in the chips themselves. This dramatically reduced environmental cost allows us to reduce the waste footprint of devices, and to build them into a greater variety of physical locations, safe in the knowledge that the device won’t just be thrown away at the end of its life cycle.

Waste prevention, meanwhile, can start with a change in mindset. We need to stop wasting waste, and see it in terms of material properties and potentials for aesthetic or practical use. Think along the lines of Eindhoven graduate Billie van Katwijk’s cow-stomach leather, or Tobias Trübenbacher’s offal-based furniture. Until the fairly recent past, says Trübenbacher, almost every part of an animal was processed and used for something. Today, half of every carcass is thrown away, because it’s not edible by humans and we look at the animals merely as ‘food’.

If these endeavours are to take off and become widespread, rather than remaining artistic novelties, a cultural shift has to take place – people have to become as comfortable with the idea of sitting on stomachs as they are with sitting on skins. An emphasis on narrative and rationale, delivered through a digital experience, may well help people acclimatise.

By itself, any technology is merely a potential. As can be seen by some of the illustrations above, there is a wealth of ambitious work being undertaken that explores how physical-digital synthesis can make our experiences of the built environment different and better. Key to ensuring that digital placemaking harnesses all types of technologies to develop self-sustaining and enjoyable environments is that built environment professionals design creatively, thoughtfully and ethically.


Image credit: Tobias Trubenbacher

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