ambient accountability goes paperback
a summary write-up now available as chapter in this edited volume by Offenhuber and Schechtner that comes with lots of really interesting thinking and inspiration on accountability technologies
Pure-play online feedback mechanism powered by social media might be alive and thriving in many areas (although many also have a rather hard time to gain traction). But don’t they all look a bit lame and so noughties compared to the return of retro feedback 1.0 and the arrival of creative, situated feedback 3.0?
No snapshots today, but a quick look at some inspirational empirics - new studies, discussion papers that from very different perspectives show why ambient accountability might actually be a pretty neat idea.
First up, ever heard about the submerged state?
Medellin is not only big on traffic accountability, it also excels when it comes to invitations in the built environment to citizens to register their opinion, file suggestions or complaints. Here some examples from public libraries which play a pivotal role in Medellin’s civic renewal strategies seeking to foster a sense of citizenship, community and public-service orientation. (and no matter, if you like what follows or not, you MUST check out the fun video at the end).
Great pictograms for corruption issues, designed in China, discovered by our friends at sensing tech
Once it was the murder capital of the world and the home-base of the king of cocaine who at the height of his success in the 80s allegedly spent more than 2000 dollars a month just on all the rubber bands to hold together the wads of cash that kept piling up in his warehouses. Now it is a widely admired poster-child of urban renewal and creative urbanism with cable cars, public libraries and lavish public spaces: Medellin, Colombia has come an incredibly long way. And it just hosted the World Urban Forum, a mega UN event of more than 20,000 participants. Fortunate enough to participate and speak about urbanisation and corruption on a panel organised by a really interesting group of architects, I also took the opportunity to explore serendipitously the state of ambient accountability in the city. And yes, the capital of creative urbanism also has some really quite fascinating examples on offer in this category.
Big-ticket infrastructure and construction projects are not only big on corruption risks, but also potentially big on public spectacle, when unfolding in the middle of cities. Why not combine these two features? Make it easy for thousands of passer-bys to take a look at what is going on, marvel about the prowess of engineering (and the often overlooked tangibles that tax money actually buys) and at the same time add what we could literally call an extra layer of citizen in- and oversight.
As I have noted in several previous posts, the range of possible ambient interventions to make this possible is immense - from the simple peephole in the construction fence to elaborate viewing platforms. Here a few more example both from my hometown Berlin and my current host town Boston. Which one does the better job in enabling construction site stalking? First up peepholes in Boston at the building site of a huge new pharmaceutical research center:
And here the Berlin entry: peepholes for a subway extension project project.
Both try to make the viewing rather entertaining and provide contextual information. A tie. Boston 1 - Berlin 1.
Next up: viewing platforms: here a big new Condo development project at Boston’s waterfront.
And for Berlin another large subway project and the related viewing platform.
The clear winner in this category: Berlin, providing loads of accountability information on timelines, budgets etc. and above all making it fun to watch. There was actually at some point a queue to get up on the little watchtower.
So Berlin 2 - Boston 1 it is in this wholly unscientific, anecdotal competition. And still so much to improve on: where are the feedback interfaces, where is the sincere reporting on experienced cost overruns and time delays..?
(all pictures cc Dieter Zinnbauer)
2014, 15 or 20? When will we see more futuristic high-tech ambient accountability taking off?
Low-tech ways of bringing digital information into the built environment may be the most feasible and effective of approaches - for most contexts - for now. So it is certainly worthwhile keeping an eye on the rapidly growing array of high-tech approaches that seek to weave digital information into public space. Artists and geeks are experimenting at the bleeding edge with the boldest and most visionary ideas. Yet,lots of inspiration can also be gleaned from a growing segment of more conventional commercial start-ups that seek to swiftly move from proto-type to mass-market.
What many of these commercial ventures typically have in common is that they mimic or upgrade some familiar ambient information devices. Media façades, urban screens and digital billboards are some examples and already include in their names the conventional ambient information surfaces that they seek to piggyback on and augment. And now here another interesting start-up that is part of this wave, in this case betting on signposts as the conventional medium of choice for a digital make-over. Commercial success, scale and informational sophistication may still be a bit of a distant prospect, particularly amidst the current backlash against all-too-crude and techno-centric visions of smart cities and smart futures. But technological capacities and creative explorations continue to expand steadily and are waiting to be appropriated for ambient accountability interventions. As we have come to know: the future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed.
For designers looking to incorporate the virtual realm into public space, the dominant approach in recent years has also been the simplest: add a touchscreen.
For the team at BREAKFAST, a Brooklyn-based firm on the hunt for better ways to connect the real and online worlds, the prevalence of screens represents a missed opportunity. “Everyone has learned to ignore them,” says Andrew Zolty, BREAKFAST’s creative director. The screen’s versatility is unparalleled (and sometimes intimidating), but its novelty has faded, he argues.
Points, BREAKFAST’s latest creation, embeds digital way-finding technology in the familiar shape of a signpost. In action, though, the sleek black aluminum body and rotating arms encrusted with 16,000 LEDs are anything but old-fashioned. With its location technology and scrolling text, Points is what a signpost might look like at Hogwarts.
A new emergency room design intervention tested at London and Southampton hospitals over the past year has been a miracle cure for the outbreaks of aggressive patient behavior that often erupt in that unpredictable, high-stress environment. Called A Better A&E (or accident & emergency, which is what ERs are called…
One major concern about putting people’s rights or a public service providers’ promises right outside that institution is that such initiatives are just window-dressing, shrewd public relation stunts without much effect. Below is an excerpt from a US public radio show in which people describe the utterly humiliating treatment they have been subjected to by US border officers (CBP), an institution that has put up large signs that read like this
Now the stories that emerge during the interviews make clear that the institution in those instances rides roughshod over these promises and commitments. But then again, the very fact that these signs are there and are being noticed help expose this glaring discrepancy in the starkest terms possible. Having such ambient promises saliently displayed makes it possible to not only contrast deplorable actual practice with some abstract ideal ordesirable benchmark but with the very concrete and direct commitments and promises that theinstitution has set for itself. Here excerpts from the transcript that ilustrate this very well:
MUNIA JABBAR: CBP apparently has essentially a kind of customer service notice up in their facilities, but they’re definitely not following through on that kind of customer service.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I saw that customer service notice when I was being detained. It was a list of CBP’s pledges to travelers entering the US. I read some of those out to my friends and family to see how well they thought CBP did.
We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States.
ABDULLA DARRAT: Well, it was anything but cordial. It was definitely not a welcome. It was more like a “You are not welcome.”
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity and respect.
SOFYAN AMRY: There was not a single courtesy given. Even the bathroom was an ordeal. It was an uphill battle. Absolutely no dignity, at all. We were antagonized from the start, from the cold air to the terrible seats, to the heightened tension and the fact that we – they were kind of laughing on the other end of the room, kind of looking over at us like we were huddled sheep for the slaughter.
KHALED AHMEDMAN: It was one of the lowest - moments of dignity in my life.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: We pledge to explain the CBP process to you.
ABDULLA DARRAT: Never. Not once did anybody explain to us what was happening or what procedures were to be followed, or anything.
SOFYAN AMRY: It was almost like a joke, like a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Like saying, “We pledge to put you in a black room,” and they put us in a white room, for example. They, they would just do literally the opposite of everything that they said.”
I have written enthusiastically about the emerging ideas of data murals and streets of stats, approaches to bring vital community data, the local budget, the energy consumption of your neighborhood right into the streets and public spaces. Here is another super-interesting approach:
Pluralistic ignorance, the problem that silent majorities often totally underestimate how many of their fellow citizens share their grievances and would be prepared to take action - is one of the big bugbears in the fight against corruption. Demonstrations against corrupt leaders that produce surprisingly high turn-outs are one way to shake people out of this paralysing state of mind. Yet, such protests tend to be rather short-lived outpourings, often tied to big symblic places far away from people’s day-to-day lives. Here another interesting idea on how to tackle pluralistic ignorance head on through a more subtle, yet also much more enduring, spatially targetted and thus potentially more impactful approach: The INSIDE OUT Project has for several years now been working with community groups to offer individuals a very simple, yet powerful way to make public statements: by printing gigantic portraits of them and posting them across neighborhoods or public spaces in relation to a specific campaign. The result is a powerful landscape of personal courage and agency moulded into collective messages and physical presence. Check out some of the stunning projects.
Now think about how such a simple approach could be used to showcase the commitment of the many people that said “enough and refused to pay a bribe”. Or it could be deployed for citizens that wish to declare their neighborhood corruption free, surrounding the offices of corrupt institutions with hundreds of eyes and faces that showcase community reslove to say enough, right where and when it matters.
Transparency is popular, very popular. No surprise then that it also finds its way into an increasing number of witty marketing campaigns, yet in very disappointing ways that squander fantastic opportunities for business to really connect to their customers in credible ways.