Ever find yourself wandering around a new city (or even one you’re familiar with), and approach one of those handy urban info-kiosks only to find that it’s completely inadequate to the task of telling you where you are, where you might want to go, and what is going on around you? Urbanscale has the same frustration, which is why they teamed up with designers at Nordkapp to design a set of updated public signage called Urbanflow that’s as connected and interactive as the smartphone in your pocket. Here’s their concept video:
God knows it’s tempting, in this day and age, to slather touchscreen awesomesauce over every physical object we possibly can. And Urbanscale’s vision of an "operating system for cities" is compelling. As they astutely write: "The challenge is that while cities are fast, municipal decision making is slow by nature. The heavy and invisible decision-making process within cities causes disconnect with citizens, and despite an abundance of commercial messaging platforms, there is yet to be a dedicated platform where the city and its citizens can meet."
Urbanflow would basically add a layer of personalized interactivity to common public signage, so that tourists could finding a specific route on a local map, seek out the closest subway station, or simply find a cool place to hang out for a few hours. It would do this by leveraging what Urbanscale calls the "ambient data" generated by the interaction of people and infrastructure, "such as energy consumption, traffic density, air quality and municipal works." The idea is that you can see what’s going on, but also communicate back to the city with your own updates.
Sounds awesome. One thing I’m hazy on, though, is how turning public signage into enormous touchscreen slabs would work in practice without causing long lines or fistfights in front of them. Think about it: The personalized connectivity—and interactivity—of your phone’s touchscreen is intuitive and useful because you’re the only one using the screen at any given time. Public signage and maps, however, are meant to be used by more than one person at a time. If I’m standing in front of a static map of Helsinki with three other tourists, we can all use the map at the same time just by looking at it. Add personalized interactivity, though, and we’ll all have to get in line and tap our toes while each person taps, swipes, hems, and haws in front of the thing like an ATM machine.
Maybe such a scenario could be avoided if the screen were large enough and had multitouch capabilities. But it’s still unclear to me how Urbanflow can display personalized, two-way information in meaningful way to multiple people at a time without becoming a cluttered visual mess. The video shows an Urbanflow sign greeting "Ming" by name. But if I’m not Ming, I guess I’d better find a different Urbanflow to monopolize. After all, what do I care about Ming’s urgent need to scrutinize the schedule of a nearby train station and compare it to a walking route so he can decide the fastest way to get to his next appointment? I could just call up the onscreen keyboard to perform a search of my own—but the keyboard takes up the whole damned screen. Sorry, Ming, but I really wanted to query the "urban operating system" about where to get some good sushi—hope that didn’t completely mess up what you were looking at!
My point is that one person’s useful information is another person’s noise, and any interactive, networked public signage has to be able to provide value to more than one person at a time. That’s why it’s "public." Urbanflow looks amazing, but some of its snazzier functionality seems like it’d work better on a phone, where you can get as personal as you want without getting in anyone else’s way at the same time.