Beyond Parklets: A DIY City for the Digital Age

© Urban Prototyping Festival. A prototype of CitiPlay, a kit that turns a sidewalk into a digital hopscotch board.

Imagine a city whose sidewalks and stairs can be quickly turned into temporary play spaces, whose public urinals keep urban plants green, and whose lampposts detect and report on the pollution around them. Those are just a few of the ideas generated as part of the Urban Prototyping Festival held recently in San Francisco.

Working in partnership with the mayor's office, local arts organizations, Park(ing) Day founders Rebar Art & Design Studio, and design heavy-hitter IDEO, festival organizers put out a call for open-source, replicable concepts that combine digital technology and a physical presence to improve public spaces.

DIY Tech + DIY Civic Engagement
Projects selected to be featured in a street exposition last weekend -- described as a "one-day explosion of DIY tech meets DIY civic engagement meets SF art scene" -- ranged from Clip + Slide, a kit that converts stairs into musical slides, to the DIY Traffic Counter, a simple device that allows individuals or community groups to measure automobile or bicycle traffic on a given street.

© Urban Prototyping Festival. A mock-up of Street Sensing, a lamppost that displays pollution levels using colored LED lights.

Whether the ideas were whimsical or practical, their makers had to demonstrate that they could actually be put into use by documenting how the devices would be assembled and installed and by allowing their work to be shared worldwide.

Open Source Design
"By opening up the designs, source code, materials, instructions, and other resources necessary to recreate each project, UP [Urban Prototyping] aims to catalyze a new global community for sharing and scaling citizen-driven urban design and technology work," the organizers write on their website. "Lessons learned from applying the projects around the world will be cataloged to help cities find and implement those that are most suitable for their local needs."

© Urban Prototyping Festival. A prototype of the DIY Traffic Counter.

The partnerships with local government -- in this case the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and the San Francisco Planning Department -- also aim to ensure that at least some of the prototypes become reality, rather than simply pie-in-the-sky ideas. Following the festival, city officials will be "looking closely at opportunities to implement select UP projects across the city," as they have with the parklets pioneered by Rebar back in 2005.

Creating New Pieces of Infrastructure
“Ultimately, our goal is to create new pieces of infrastructure,” Jake Levitas, research director at host organization the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, told Wired Design.

The San Francisco Urban Prototyping Festival follows the inaugural event held in Singapore in June; the next iteration will take place in April 2013 in London.

Tags: Cities | San Francisco | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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