A kind of magic: interaction design for participatory and civic innovation

Kenya 2008, Arab Spring, Stuttgart 21, Fukushima, Istanbul… we believe that design research across people, place and technology is a significant and timely topic to help bring about innovation for local communities and civic issues.

First, place – the feared ‘death of distance’ that had been heralded when the internet first became commercially successful, never happened. In the contrary, the bold rhetorics that predicted face-to-face to make way for a proliferation of e-commerce, distant education, telework, and other remote online transaction capabilities, never became entirely true as predicted. Local place thrives, and does so in ways ameliorated by new forms of situated engagement, locative media, and location-based services.

Second, technology – ubiquitous computing has spilled outside the traditional HCI bastions of ‘work’ and ‘home’ into every aspect of human endeavour. This trend brought about not just new technology and interface innovations but also new technical user practices that bridge the physical and the digital city: mobility, situated technology, embodied interaction, augmented reality, urban screens, big data, etc.

Third, people – they must no longer be understood as passive users or consumers placed by designers, developers and marketeers at the receiving end of products and services, since they are increasingly able and empowered to also be producers and active agents of change. Civic participation and engagement is thus a useful theme begging further exploration in light of cities turning more and more interactive and responsive, technology opening up new platforms and channels for citizens to be heard, and people no longer being limited to conventional modes of citizenship – or are they…?

What will the next generation of civic innovation look like? We aim not only for new ‘digital soapboxes’ that urban citizens can use to have a voice and make themselves heard, but also for new strategies and approaches to close the gap between community activism that ‘only’ raises awareness of a particular civic issue on the one hand, and on the other hand traditional forms of top-down governance, polity, and decision making that brings about societal change. It strikes us that currently, there appears to be not just a disconnect, but also an increasingly widening discrepancy in the level of interest and the pace of innovation on each side.

We want to find new ways to expand the toolbox that is available to citizens to take action and bring about change. Can we offer more options than the usual array of petitioning, protesting, volunteering, and donating? Or, how can we improve the way that they are performed? Is clicking a ‘Like’ button or sending a petition email sufficient to solve today’s societal problems?

How can interaction designers use their expertise, skills and craft to make a contribution to better the connection, the exchange, and the dialogue between community advocacy and activism on the one hand, and polity, governance, politics, and decision making instruments on the other hand? How do we exploit and influence the role that new technology plays in this context, such as mobile devices, next generation screens, gestural and human-brain interfaces, and augmented reality glasses?

Interaction designers collectively created the tools that helped consumers turn into ‘produsers.’ Let’s apply our kind of magic to do the same for citizens and citizenship.

This blog post is based on a condensed version of:

Foth, M., Parra Agudelo, L., & Palleis, R. (2013, Sep 8). Digital Soapboxes: Towards an Interaction Design Agenda for Situated Civic Innovation. In HiCUE 2013: Human Interfaces for Civic and Urban Engagement, UbiComp Adjunct Proceedings, Zürich, Switzerland. New York: ACM. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/60748/

Go to www.urbaninformatics.net to find out more about our research.

Associate Professor Marcus Foth

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