Killer Business Apps: Identity and Trust

Several years ago I was the victim of a fairly vicious case of identity theft. Vicious may be a strong word to use in connection with identity theft, but I feel it fits here, as the perpetrator went the extra mile: as bizarre as it sounds, he legally changed his name to Scott Burnham, and then began to absorb my personal data and identity as his own.

If you think it’s difficult when someone gets ahold of your bank statement from your trash or copies your passport information at a hotel, try having someone claim to be you, armed with legal documents showing that, actually, he is you… but he’s not. It’s not a lot of fun.

I don’t talk about that experience much, but the steadily eroding data privacy policy of Facebook and my own brushes with it have brought identity issues – specifically the relationship between trust and identity – back to mind.

As online privacy issues appear in the news daily, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a huge opportunity for an online service which anchors our identities securely within a trusted framework. Facebook had that chance, but its callous drive towards the commercialisation of our personal information and identities quickly kicks the supports out from beneath an allusion of trust. In other words:

When hundreds of millions of people hand you their personal data, the business opportunity is to protect it, not pimp it.

The latest episode of the podcast This Week In Google nailed it when co-host Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine identified a fundamental problem when our identity becomes more of a commercial resource for another company than our own property. In order to maintain privacy over aspects of our identity we don’t want commercialised, we have to exclude or obfuscate our personal information, which in turn erodes the larger framework of our online identity, lowering trust and truth. As Jarvis says:

“The more our identity becomes Facebook’s property, the more we feel free to lie about it. The more that the canonical ‘me’ becomes my property, the more truthful I’m going to be about it. We have to own our own identities, and when we do, that will maintain the highest value possible … [the opportunity] starts with services that help you maintain your own identity. That give you control. The reality of where we are right now is that our identities are what you find online about us. So how can I manage that?”

The seasoned netizen will respond that there are an array of services out there that allow you to manage your online identity. There are, and I use most of them daily. But they are reactive by nature, with most offering you the chance to track what is being said about you elsewhere on web. We need more services to control what is, as Jarvis says, canonical information about ourselves, and what is not, without having to worry about how our identity is being monetised.

Google Profiles has a foot in the door there, but they’re not leveraging it actively, at least not yet. And while many give Google a higher trust index than other online services (due largely to their embrace of The Data Liberation Front and open standards), the recent uproar over Google Buzz privacy holes show just how fragile trust can be when dealing with our online identities.

Regardless of the media or the medium, one thing never changes: the killer app is always trust. It is only recently that we have had to debate the exchange of our trust and identity for the sake of connecting with other people, which is a perverse exchange. Identity should never be treated as a monetised platform, and trust is a commodity that holds limitless value. And there’s the window of opportunity.

For those who want to dig further into the issue, Jeff Jarvis goes deeper into some of these ideas on his blog here.

Site-Specific Urban Design: The Call and Response of Street Art and the City

RI >>>CHPOOR by Above

I think we’re missing the boat on street-level design R&D.

That’s pretty much the summary of my latest essay and photo gallery exploring the visual and physical interplay which is taking place between urban intervention, street art and the urban landscape which was just published in the journal CITY: Analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. When they asked me to do a piece for them on a trend in urban aesthetics that I felt needed more attention, I gave them the above sentence, but they said that they usually like pieces longer than 11 word statements. Fine, I thought. I’ll flesh it out some more. So here’s some more of what I’ve been thinking.

As many people know, I’ve long been fascinated by the resonance between objects in the city and its inhabitants. My Urban Play project looked into this in great deal in both the exhibition and the city-wide design intervention project I did with Droog Design in Amsterdam in 2008. What continues to inspire me is the ongoing relational design that is taking place at the margins of urban culture – the interventions which form intrinsic relationships between individual creativity and the physical city.

Most dismiss these non-sanctioned urban interventions as playful tokens of creativity at best, and vandalism at worst. But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this activity. As I say in the essay:

If we were to consider the dialogue of design in the same way we do the linguistic development of a culture’s language, then just as informal street-level vernacular has innovated and filled in the gaps of a culture’s formal language, the street has as well developed its own vernacular to fill the gaps in the city’s formal design. This new street-level language of design – non-commissioned, non-invited interventions in the urban landscape – transforms the fixed landscape of the city into a platform for a design dialogue.

Take, for example, the work of Gualicho:

San Jose bridge support by Gualicho
San Jose bridge support by Gualicho

Interventions such as these, at their core, are more than simply creative play in the streets – they signal a new aesthetic correspondence between the individual and the physical city; a step-change in not only the street art scene but in the relationship between the power of the individual and the aesthetics of the city.

Of note are those works which not only reflect a specific relationship with space, but also with time. For example, the shadow skaters by Singapore’s TR853-1, which only have a terrain to skate on at night:


And of course, Montreal’s Roadsworth:

Bible Bench by Roadsworth
Bible Bench by Roadsworth

Some of the great victories in this genre are those works inspired by the cast-off, degraded objects and areas of the city. The objects kicked to the side of daily life in the city. It is from these areas of urban compost that new crops of work grow. DIY up-cycling? Creative urban re-use? For people like Jim Darling, the cast-offs you might find in an alley – old mattresses, discarded tires – become source material, returned to the alley in a new form:

Trash Dude Beacon by Jim Darling
Trash Dude Beacon by Jim Darling

Artist Mark Jenkins is in a category of his own in this field. For Jenkins, there is a dramatic tension in the objects and detritus of the city waiting to be revealed.

“Sometimes I’ll come across something in the city that will give me the idea to do something site specific. But other pieces aren’t so much about a particular site but more about affecting city objects and structures [and] exposing the vulnerabilities of these structures to be extended into the surreal.” – Mark Jenkins

At times, all that is needed is a discarded bed frame and an exposed lamp box for his characters to get up to mischief in the city:

storker play mark jenkins
Storkers at Play by Mark Jenkins

Or an overlooked trash can in Moscow to add a twist to people’s daily experience:

Trash Sperm by Mark Jenkins
Trash Sperm by Mark Jenkins

Echoing Guy Debord’s belief that “what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting”, there is an opportunity for contemporary urbanism itself to pay attention to the energy and innovation that can be found in the streets today and learn from the relationships it creates between people and their physical city. Just as online and digital media has been transformed by remix culture and open source methodologies, the same metamorphosis is occurring in the creative relationship of the individual and the physical city. We should be paying attention to this as an equally transformative movement.

The full text is published in the current issue of CITY, featuring Above’s signature work from Lisbon on the cover.

If you would like to read the essay in full, you can find it online here.

A PDF is also available on the site featuring an extended image gallery of some of the artists and works shown here.

If you’d like to keep in touch with my upcoming projects or publications, please subscribe or get in touch directly via the email address in the header.

Paris Report: Pixel Advertising Design

I was in Paris the other day and came across the latest campaign from French online clothing retailer La Redoute. The first thing that caught my eye was of course the pixelated trails that were coming off of the images of the models. At first, I thought I had stumbled across an always pleasing moment of unintentional design, the billboard print escaping some quality control, as celebrated perfectly in the book Glitch: Designing Imperfection. But then I realised it the pixel motif was intentional, and it then became even more interesting to me.

Though it is most likely an abstract of the intention of the design, the pixels provide a rare moment of authenticity in the design itself; transparency in a sense – admitting that for all the beauty and style being communicated, the poster is indeed a digital creation. There is an honesty in the pixelated traces coming from the models – the painter’s brushstrokes still evident in the final work. (OK, more like the Photoshop Jockey’s mouse strokes… but ‘painter’s brushstrokes’ sounds better.)

Of course, the actual intention is most likely less poetic and far more pragmatic in communicating the digital origin in the campaign. And that is obviously connecting the imagery directly to the store’s website. It is impossible to look at the adverts and not think one thing: digital. You see the clothes, and understand that the digital experience is directly tied to them. That the fashion and the lifestyle is accessible, but there is something in the way of it becoming real, and that thing is the digital world. So just visit the website, and you can remove this barrier.

Notably, when you do visit the La Redoute website, the pixelated motif doesn’t follow through online. It has already done its job, intrinsically linking the advertised imagery to its digital origins. And now you’re at the website, so the once digital images begin to become real. A great campaign that reaches a bit deeper than I suspect the agency realised. Analogue delivery of digital realities, which are all available…

SHIFTboston: Ideas Competition Winner

The winner of the SHIFTboston competition for new ideas for Boston has been announced. Congratulations to Andrzej Zarzycki and Sapir Ng of Arlington, Mass for their proposal for “The TUTS: Tremont Underground Theater Space”. As the TUT submission asks:

“WHAT IF the abandoned TREMONT STREET SUBWAY TUNNEL became an interactive social environment? What if we shifted these contemporary urban ruins into a network of underground, interactive social environments–experiential theatres and immersive digital (art) galleries—while celebrating the past through a media-infused trolley museum inside North America’s oldest subway system?”

As I posted a few weeks ago, I was on the jury for the competition, and for full disclosure, The TUTS received my vote. I loved the use of existing and overlooked infrastructure – in this case, an abandoned subway tunnel – and its benefits to the urban fabric of downtown Boston, linking the Green Line and the Orange Line of The T in an imaginative way.

SHIFTboston is gearing up for another competition for new ideas for my beloved Boston, so watch this space, as I’ll be sharing their future plans soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the competition site to check out the other competitions entries that won Runner-Up and Honorable Mention. It’s always a pleasure to be on a jury for new urban ideas, and SHIFTboston held a bounty of them. I’m looking forward to the next iteration already.

Urban Hacks and Re-Use for 2010: The Urban Guide for Alternate Use

UPDATE: The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is now live!

I was recently asked by Die Fabrikanten in Linz, Austria for ideas for their upcoming Exchange Radical Moments Europe-Wide Festival. The result is The Urban Guide for Alternate Use – an open source city-specific ‘field guide’ for alternate uses for existing urban infrastructure.
It was a wide brief, but as I’m far more interested in exploring hacks and re-use of the existing urban infrastructure than air-lifting new creations into a space, I wanted to create a platform for exchange of ideas for alternate urban solutions based on existing structures and systems. The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is meant to be a platform for urban hacks, interventions, innovation and play with and in the city’s objects and areas. Projects such as Nina Mrsnik’s Open Chairs (pictured below) perfectly capture what the Guide is about – most people see a drab cement corner. Nina sees a chair.

Open Chairs by Nina Mrsnik

As the folks at the Exchange Radical Moments Festival explain in the festival catalogue:

Resourcefulness has become one of the most important skills for people to develop today. What resources do you see being treated as waste in your city that could be used to benefit others? The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is a catalogue of city-specific opportunities for resourcefulness  within existing urban environments, compiled simply by asking the city’s residents to devise alternate uses for things already present in the city. It is a guide that acts as a catalyst for a new form of resourcefulness in the city, and as a communicative vehicle for exchange among residents.

For the festival Exchange Radical Moments, a guide will be created for one of the participating cities, filled with the ideas submitted by the city’s residents, as gestures of donation to their fellow citizens. The city guide will be written by the imagination and resourceful thinking of its residents,  and can serve as an alternate guide to the city.  Together the different submissions will form a powerful collection of insights into how people mentally and physically play with the urban landscape  as a conglomeration of readymade objects ripe for intervention.

From hacks such as using traffic bollards as ladders to gain a better view of a football training session (top image), to re-imagining Amsterdam street sweepers as bird baths between shifts (as seen below), the Urban Guide for Alternate Use is an open platform for people to explore and re-imagine the uses of their existing city’s objects and areas. It’s early days, so release date, call for contributions, etc., still to come, but thought I’d share one of many things to come in 2010. Stay tuned.

Improvised Amsterdam Bird Bath

In Discussion with Jaime Lerner

For most people with even a passing interest in innovative urban problem-solving, the words Jaime Lerner and Curitiba, Brazil will hold special reverence. Lerner is the urban planner and three-times mayor of Curitiba who transformed the once traffic-congested, economically and environmentally challenged city into one of the world’s most livable urban spaces. This Wednesday at the British Film Institute, London, a documentary exploring his innovative approaches for “transforming problems into solutions” in the city will be shown, and following the screening I will be joining Jaime Lerner on stage to discuss his approach and visionary techniques.

The talk will be hosted by Peter Jenkinson OBE, an exceptional individual himself for his work with creative solutions in the face of limited resources. For those of you in London Wednesday 4 November, please come join us at the BFI for this exceptional opportunity. More information on the evening can be found here. For those unable to attend, please watch the trailer above and go see the film as soon as you can. It is a game-changer for urban strategies.

Design Hacking available for download

From Left: Paul Thompson, David Godber, Scott Burnham, Colin McDowell, Otto von Busch

For those who weren’t able to attend the launch of my publication and the related debate on design hacking at the RSA on Wednesday (and for those who weren’t even close but still want a copy) I’m pleased to say that “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking” is now available for download here (PDF, 291KB).

It was a fantastic night – the panel was sharp and the audience was on form with questions and debate afterwards. One of the great pleasures when chairing an event is opening questions to the floor and having a sea of hands spring up in front of you. And for that to happen with a packed house in the hallowed Great Room of the RSA is a special pleasure indeed.

Winding down later that eve I was glad to see that some live tweets were taking place during the session. From joannejacobs:


With some dialogue carrying on into the next day. From jasecoop:


Thanks to all who came, and for those of you who are just downloading “Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking” now, let me know what you think.