On spatiality in urban media research

The following post investigates the question, why urban space and spatiality is important in urban media prototyping. It argues that spatiality and public urban space are almost forgotten entities in research up to date. Even though different disciplines, such as urban planning, architecture, but also philosophy and nowadays computer science, are in one way or another concerned with public space, very few attempts have been made to understand the actual influence new media have onto public space. This blog post investigates some of the reasons for this fact and ends with arguments why spatiality should be considered more in urban media research.

The importance of spatiality could be argued for in a few very obvious, almost banal statements:
We live in space.
Our bodies are space.
We are space.
These statements emphasize that we can only exist in space. That is why space is important.

But going deeper into the analysis of spatiality we can find many more reasons why spatiality should be considered more, especially also in urban media prototyping:
Nowadays we can find many articles stating that mobile technologies make us lonely (see e.g., Luscombe 2010) and looking around us during our everyday public transport rides, at times we might start to believe they are true (e.g., Ito, Okabe, and Anderson 2007 argue for the term “cocooning”, meaning users disconnect from their physical surroundings through smartphones). The urbanist Paul Virilio argued in 1997 that through computers spatial distances loose their importance. He even states the “distinction of here and there no longer mean anything” (Virilio 1997, 383). Similarly Manuel Castells in his book “The Rise of the Network Society” develops the concept of Spaces of Flows, which refers to the dominant spatial organization in the network society. Spatial distances also seem to be overcome. However, Castells differentiates also the system of Spaces of Places that are the traditional physical spaces between which the physical distances can only be overcome in a longer timespan. It can be said that the denial of the importance of spatiality has been overcome in urban planning and urban design research, but it still seems to be forgotten in urban media research:

Reading through several articles from the last years of urban prototyping and related literature no articles that deal with spatiality could be found:

Most research projects concentrate on community networks (see e.g., Foth 2010; Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006; Bilandzic, Foth, and De Luca 2008) or networks for communication between citizens and city governments (see Nash 2013). Furthermore participation as a form of citizenship is explored (see e.g., Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006). Also new ways to enhance collaborative planning are a topic in different articles (Foth, Hearn, and Klaebe 2007; Foth, Klaebe, and Hearn 2008 focus on narratives as a collaborative planning method).

Another research focuses on the results of an urban media application: functional photos taken with smartphone cameras. The authors argue that users mostly take functional photos simply because they are able to (see Häkkilä et al. 2012).

The paper that comes closest to dealing with spatiality in urban media prototyping is Jan Seeburger’s writing about a media intervention called PlaceTagz, conducted in Brisbane/Australia (see Seeburger 2012). The project uses QR tags to enable users to interact with a place and with each other in that place. Seeburger states his goal is to “facilitate interactions with people in the same public space” (Seeburger 2012, 247), in other words the project tries to create more social and enjoyable experiences in public space. However, even though the researchers conducted interviews their analysis of this project remains on the level of sustainability of the used technologies and does not take the step towards perceived and acted spatiality.

As explained, the current research on urban media prototyping deals mostly with urban media as communication or participation tools (see Nash 2013; Foth 2010; Foth, Klaebe, and Hearn 2008; Foth, Hearn, and Klaebe 2007; Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006; Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006) or even stays on the level of technologies (e.g., Madan et al. 2010 remains on the level of sensing technologies). Some also concentrate on the outcomes of urban media applications (see Häkkilä et al. 2012). However, the focus on spatiality is almost entirely missing in these articles.

Many different disciplines have been concerned with public space: Traditionally architecture is the most obvious one. Much later urban planning evolved in many countries, and took over the planning and design of public spaces, which until then had often just been the leftover places from architectural development (I think of the central-European cities in the middle ages here). Over time a political interest in public urban spaces evolved: Public space was the space for the citizens to participate in the state affairs (e.g., through demonstrations) or for the state to demonstrate it’s power (e.g., military parades). In the 20th century a larger interest in everyday life evolved (see e.g., Highmore 2002 for an investigation of everyday life studies) and some philosophers and urban theorists became interested in public space as a manifestation of everyday life practices (for example Henri Lefebvre).


It is only recent that digital technologies for the masses have evolved and that these digital media became transportable and therefore used in public spaces. However, through the use of New Media in public spaces, public space’s nature changes.

A spatial interest in media research in the last years is undeniable, but the focus in for example the Ubicomp conference has always been either on the technological side or on indoor environments (see e.g., Jiang et al. 2011). Lately different sub-areas of architectural, sociological, media-theoretical and other practices, such as urban informatics and urban interaction design, evolved. Here the same fact is still mostly true: The spatial interest is largely pointed towards indoor environments and community building (see e.g., Foth, Gonzalez, and Taylor 2006; Foth 2010) and the focus on people’s experience of space is missing.

I want to underline that spatiality is a versatile phenomenon, which is not easily graspable by listing some of the challenges spatiality poses for researchers:

Firstly, space has an individual character. As Hanna Arendt argued space is always a mixture of many aspects perceived from a certain standpoint (see Arendt 2002, 71–72). Merleau-Ponty even claims that “there are as many spaces as there are distinct spatially lived experiences” (quoted in Lehtovuori 2005, 121). This of course leaves us with the dilemma to develop good frameworks to analyze spatiality, which by default is not an easy task.

Secondly, as Löw, Lefebvre and others have argued we cannot analyze space without influencing it at the same time (see e.g., Lefebvre 2011; Lehtovuori 2005, 74; Löw 2007, 82; Klamt 2007, 29). This might seem to suggest that research cannot be accurate if the researcher is by definition influencing the experiment. However, if one is aware of this influence and analyzes carefully how one might have influenced the situation research on spatiality can be fruitful.

Thirdly, most researches in the field of spatiality admit that public space is always in flux (see e.g., Lehtovuori 2005, 75; Klamt 2007, 75; Löw 2007). It is always changing and will never be the same again. Two different conclusions might be drawn: Firstly, it might seem even more impossible to analyze space (see above). Secondly, one might suggest that if the space is always changing there is no value in analyzing it in a certain point in time.
But the opposite is the case. Public urban space is the area that connects people on different levels (see e.g., Arendt 2002, 65–66; Lehtovuori 2005, 15). These connections might be geographical, political, social or of many other kinds. From my perspective this alone is a good enough reason to encourage research in spatiality.


However, why is urban space and spatiality important to urban prototyping? Urban media prototyping is research conducted within and about public space. It should therefore be interested in all the aspects it is dealing with. Without becoming technology-deterministic urban media research should consider how people use technology to “cocoon” (see Ito, Okabe, and Anderson 2007) or to explore space in a new way (e.g., geocaching as a new form of entertainment facilitated by mobile technology). Only when we understand the influences that technology has on people’s behavior in public spaces we can start to design projects that bring people together, instead of making them “cocoon” and that empower them to take part in the emerging forms of societal and political life.


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From CoMeUp to UMPro!

CoMeUp officially ended in April 2013. A big thanks to Aapo and Sara for seeing it through! As outcomes we have a working mobile app, the CoMeUp app and two new projects, the Citizen Toolkit one, and UMPro (Urban Media Prototyping). We will continue using this blog for reporting the UMPro activities.

UMPro has started nicely with the New Media for the Third Sector (NMTS) course case for Spring 2013: Cleaning Day! Cleaning Day (Siivouspäivä) is a citizen-driven initiative for turning public space in cities into a carnival-like flea market and recycling extravaganza twice per year. We had already collaborated with the Cleaning Day activists during CoMeUp and decided to continue with UMPro.

We assisted our NMTS students in organizing a hackathon / digitalkoot day on the 16th of March, when a series of digital media outcomes were generated, such as a How To guide for Cleaning Day, Price tags with stories, promotional videos, and the foundation of a mobile app. The mobile app is currently being prepared for launch (for iOS and Android)! Suse Miessner, a Media Lab MA student and newest member of our UMPro team is coordinating the developments.

The next Cleaning Day is taking place on the 25th of May. The NMTS students are preparing a series of urban prototypes and in-situ interventions for that day. Stay tuned :)