SURFACED, a collaborative urban installation

SURFACED is the concept of an installation that enables citizens to appropriate of urban space in a new way. The installation transform walls around the city in places where people can disclose their inner-self and recognize themselves in other people’s experience. The installation uses light-transmitting concrete to display messages that passerby submit by an app. Citizens participation is triggered by showing a different prompt every week, such as “When you told me…”, “I never asked you…”, “Goodbye Malmö…”. The installation aims to nourish empathy between people, to question the role of public space and to create a feeling of ownership over the space people inhabits.

Project by Ana Barbosa, Dennis Bucker, Emma Rugg, Erica Coria, Laura Potenti and Marjo Tikkanen, from the Master’s Programme in Interaction Design at Malmö University,  2016.

Design process

The project begun with a brief from PLADS, a collective of artists that work in the field of urban art and technology. The task proposed was the design of a urban installation that would invite citizens in a process of co-creation and appropriation of public space.

Research and insight

The design process started by defining few key research questions: Can the city become a canvas? What people would like to share in public space? Should the public space be a “seat” or a “stage”? What are interesting examples of interactive urban installations? Which dynamics emerge around them? What are the qualities of those installations?
To answer these questions, different tools have been used: interviews, cultural probes, interventions and desktop research.

cultural probe kit was designed to explore how people would intervene in the space they inhabit. The kit contained stickers with words (nouns, verbs and adjectives), emoji, hashtags and some blank labels. Few people were recruited and asked to freely use the content of the kit in the city. Each kit was paired with a Instagram account, for the participant to upload pictures of their interventions. The results provided inspiration and examples of how people relate with their surrounding. One of the main insights was the discovery that certain people felt uncomfortable about engaging in a creative task. This revealed the assumption that people would enjoy to engage in a creative task.

Interventions were carried out with the use of a black board placed on the street. The goal was to explore what people would like to share in public space and which dynamics would emerge. Everyday, a different prompt written on the back board would invite passerby to contribute in a different way, experimenting with different mechanics and degree of freedom. By observing how people interact, important insights emerged about people dynamics, code of conduct, and the relation between trigger and threshold for participation. An important insight was also about the different roles that people would take, suggesting that the installation should cater both for contributors and observers.

Interviews and desktop research were also carried out. The interviews revealed how interactive installations sometime can be understood as “thing for children” or becoming “dull after you tried once”, underlining the need to balance playfulness with meaning-making. Collecting and grouping examples of collaborative and interactive installations enabled to pinpoint some of the qualities and strategies that artists and designers can use to foster participation.

Ideation and prototype

The research led to the definition of key design qualities. The installation should enables different roles (the viewers and the contributors) and trigger passerby’s curiosity. The call for action should be clear, simple, and open to anyone. The threshold for participation should be low, but at the same time the installation should provide meaningful interactions. It should appeal to a great diverse target group and withstand the pass of time.

Using brainstorming and body-storming many ideas were created. Words emerged as design material, being able to cater for playful and meaningful interactions. Two promising ideas were developed further and evaluated through prototypes iterations: POETRY and SURFACED. Despite the POETRY concept finally resulted in a failure, it has been an important step in the process. The prototype enabled the exploration of key qualities further, such as the relation between creativity and constrains, and the material aspect of the installation.
Finally, the concept of SURFACED was refined, creating use scenario, mock-ups,  and defining material/technologies.