Crafting our Digital Future

As part of V&A Digital Design Weekend 2015

Dundee x Mexico City: A Digital City Cultural Exchange

Gillian Easson and Nick Taylor

Cities around the globe are actively searching for solutions to big societal issues of poverty, growth and sustainability. Large capital cities are often viewed as leaders in developing these technology driven solutions; however increasingly cities/towns of all scales are developing digital experiences which involve and enrich citizens lives culturally, beyond civic apps.

In Dundee we believe that citizens, artists, designers and technologists play a leading role in shaping the future of our city – therefore this was the starting point for this year’s Small Society Lab in Dundee. The Small Society Lab is an open project which explores the development and understanding of the small city of the future. The Lab, now in its fifth year, is a partnership between Dundee Contemporary Arts, the University of Dundee and Creative Dundee.

In June two seemingly unconnected cities, with active maker/digital communities, came together to run simultaneous events to share a crossing of cultures digitally – Mexico City, a megalopolis with 22 million residents and Dundee, with 147,000 residents. From independent shop owners to retirees, people joined the two day lab events in both cities – a chance to share and learn from the cultures, streets, design, food, music, art and lifestyles – exploring the amazing rich tapestry that makes up all aspects of life in our cities, large and small. The groups remixed both cultures to design and create collaborative and experimental projects which considered issues relevant to city life; such as civic engagement, the environment, the high street and food production/waste.

Collaboration across continents

Open digital platforms were used to enable communication between the groups before, during and after the event; and the cities crowdsourced aspects of their culture – videos, photographs and stories – with each other in advance through shared folder access. At the start of both events, each group went on walking tours of their cities. Everyone had the chance to guide people around their own hotspots and least favourite areas – this provided inspiration and a chance to get to know each other. Open tools such as Periscope were used to live stream and video conferencing platforms enabled a good forum for discussion around the similarities and differences between the two countries creative economies. Working around the slight six hour time difference challenge, participants in both cities were keen to connect and share with each other. Digital connectivity provided a valuable, fast and cost-effective way of exchange and collaboration between the two maker communities.

Fusion food and Mexican waves

The Lab conditions were relaxed – the walls were used as giant sketchpads and it was interesting to see how this permission immediately changed the tone of the event, with everyone keen to scribble their thoughts on the white walls. Throughout the Lab, caterers provided amazing Scottish/Mexican fusion food to get everyone in the collaborative spirit. A local storyteller joined us over lunch to tell us some tall tales which were both hilarious and unrepeatable – the perfect combination for keeping energy levels high. Before all groups presented their final ideas to each other across the continents, one of the warmest moments came when our friends in Mexico City started a Mexican Wave. Without much of an advanced notice, the team in Dundee automatically continued the wave across the video conference screen. As most in Dundee were not ‘digital specialists’, in a world obsessed with what new tech comes next, it was a great reminder that technology’s real gift is its ability to enable genuine and accessible shared experiences.

Designing the fabric of the city

Dundee’s cultural identity is strong and its communities of artists, designers, developers and citizen groups have always been very active for a city of its size. The city was recently designated as a UNESCO City of Design, due to its rich design history, current scene and future trajectory. With a huge waterfront redevelopment underway, the V&A Museum of Design Dundee opens in the next few years and there are also a number of other exciting initiatives in progress. It’s perhaps no surprise that the projects developed at Small Society Lab were around making the city more engaging and playful. Coincidentally most groups considered how the city was positioned, communicated and connected.

Projects developed

A Postcard from Dundee – a short film produced from crowdsourced content received by Dundee’s citizens. This film offers an alternative to the usual way cities promote themselves, by harnessing content generated by the people that live there and know it best.

City GIF Wall – creates a new way for a number of citizens to engage with the city playfully, projecting their short form video clips about the city on to city walls, showing the city’s vibrancy and personality in a highly visual and accessible way, as an alternative to advertising.

Follow Me is a digital platform to share and find places, events, tips and tricks that you enjoy. When visiting a new city, Follow Me gives you a virtual tour of the city from the local people who know it best, just like a close friend would do.

Mexi-Dee – a fictitious city was created by overlaying aspects of both cities together and 3D printing prominent landmarks on to a wall map. People were invited to draw their ideal features on to this new city using tag tool technology. The aim? To encourage people to consider the built environment, using accessible street art techniques.

Wordhunters – Initially inspired by a set of images of words from Dundee’s street signage, the group transformed these into a jointly authored 100 word poem which can be reconfigured to create new poetry depending on the individual’s preference.

Project V explored ways of combining technology and local food producers to make the basics available locally and conveniently. Connecting local producers directly with localised and isolated communities for everyone’s benefit, by using vending machine technology on hyper local streets.

Small can be practical

Disruptive and innovative ways of working often come from the fringes – small organisations, start-ups and activist groups who have the agility to be responsive and make things happen quicker, without bureaucracy slowing them down. How smaller cities and towns ‘do’ disruptive well using digital is still possibly too early to tell; however from the south of Italy, to the north east of Scotland, forums and platforms are being created to consider the digital fabric of place, bringing people together to explore issues and opportunities specific to living in smaller communities.

Using technology both as a leveller and an amplifier in this project, reduced the geographic barriers and enabled Dundee to share its ideas and expertise with a megalopolis like Mexico City. It has been a valuable way of developing an understanding of other people’s lives who will probably never meet in person. Small projects like this may not solve cities systemic problems overnight, but they do have the potential to be transformative by creating a sustainable momentum with the community and culture at the core, which feels a small but important step in the right direction.

‘It was wonderful to collaborate with our own creative community in Dundee with thoughts fixed on the amazing Mexico City with its vast scale and rich culture. As a game designer it was good to see how many like-minded people in Mexico were using the medium of games to tackle social issues and that’s something we aim to do more of in Dundee. Playfulness is a great way to address the many issues we face in our society. One of the many ideas that came out of the experience was a way to share interesting parts of our local environment though digital technology and art. Be it short animated GIF animation on a website or an app that customised a visitors experience.’ (Malath Abbas – Game Designer, Dundee)