Future Cities


3 x 4 exploring metaspace platforms for inclusive future cities

In megacities such as Delhi and Mumbai – and within one of the fastest growing cities within the world, Ahmedabad – more than 50% of the population live in informal urban settlements. 3×4 metres is the plot size seen to be provided in resettlement colonies, a government initiative which relocates people within informal inner-city settlements to vacant land on the periphery. 3×4 looks at informal settlements differently where informality is not viewed as a problem, but a promising new model of urbanism for the global south. Building upon the practice-based research conducted as UnBox LABS 2014 Fellows, this project uses an immersive telematic networked environment to provide a playful, sensorial exploration of new hybrids of digital space. Merging two 3×4 metre room installations in New Delhi and London through mixed-reality, this transnational dialogue intends to set an aspiration for developing metaspace platforms in megacities of the global south.

Featured at UnBox Festival 2014, 3×4 was hosted by the Southbank Centre in London and Khōj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi. The reflective accounts that follow, critically consider the function of play in defining experiences and interactions:

Play is in the eye of the beholder

3×4 is a temporal and spatial timecode; reduced to its ephemeral elements it consists of 18 hours of memories and reflections in the minds and collective recollections of those who participated in it, played out over three days on 12, 13 and 14 December 2014 from 10:00-16:00 GMT / 15:30-21:30 IST daily. Ultimately what remains as its legacy is a story told in and between two cities consisting of human encounters and events that unfolded in a state of flux between London and Delhi. Whilst every effort was made to document this transitory happening through photographs and video footage the single most important recording was from the line out video feed; the final composited or chroma-keyed image of the audience participants displayed within the installation itself. When watching this recording we are taking up the position of the persons within it; we are looking directly at the very same image that caused the effect we are now contemplating for ourselves.

From beginning to end, the entire recording represents a 1080-minute data stream upon which we can now study and apply our own minute-by-minute layer of metadata based on observations, reflections and analysis, as we look the participant in the eye through this ‘two-way mirror’ recording. Whilst this work is ongoing, 45 minutes from each day has already been compiled and made available for public viewing https://vimeo.com/paulsermon/3×4-line-out-video. This video contains memorable moments upon which we can now reflect, such as when a young boy in Delhi wearing a white shirt and hat enters the space (53:30) and initially waves to participants in London, staying for over an hour perfecting his interactions and gestures as he invents and plays new games. Or when three ladies in Delhi enter (1:38:00) with two babies greeted by participants in London eager to hold and play with them, who appear to be memorized by this lacanian moment of realization as the babies stare into the screen [mirror]. — Paul Sermon

Playing with the future. Time / space inversions in metaspace

In Space Time Play (2007) von Borries, Walz and Böttger advocate the potential of gamespaces to not only create new notions of the city, but to permanently change their future composition. They speculate on how “the ludic conquest of real and imagined gamespace [can] become an instrument for the design of space-time” (von Borries, Walz and Böttger, 2007, p.13). This comes at a moment when new forms of urbanism are said to be abolishing temporal narratives of progress and shifting the spatial distribution of power from the global north to the south (see for example, Zeiderman’s (2008) paper Cities of the future? Megacities and the space/time of urban modernity). How can this future inversion of time and space be explored and contested through play?

Through the design of 3×4, its methods of connection and representation, the layering of London over New Delhi provided comment on the domination of the global north and rising of the global south. And yet, the co-creation of built and imagined landscapes offered opportunity to redefine collective futures, a critical visual commentary on living spaces, racial segregation, informality, underground culture and contemplative fantasies. Occupying a part-demolished building via 3×4, took the matters of informalising architecture, contested space and merciless destruction to a global audience. Not just imaginings, 3×4 also morphed into a playground of spontaneous and undirected play. Children, for whom the street and the objects it contain form a recreational landscape, shifted their space of play to this metaspace. Using their bodies as an interface, they even shared a digital chair – emblematic perhaps, of this approaching inversion and shared digital future. ‘Playing the city’ it seems, can bring built and imagined spaces closer together, creating new typologies of architectural space that shape lived experience in novel ways. Claire McAndrew

Whose city is it?

The installation brought together people from different backgrounds who might otherwise have never shared a 3×4 metres space before – not just through the physical space but also the hybrid digital room created. The digital interface, being alien to most, seemed to fascinate some while others seemed more apprehensive. But, as soon as someone from the other end of the connection waved or communicated a hug, initial hesitation gave way to fun and amusement. The element of ‘play’ in the installation, further heightened by the absence of sound with only a visual connection, aided the audience in confronting their own reactions, notions and even biases, in some cases.

The installation exposed many prejudices and the inherent inequalities in the city of Delhi. A strong case can be made of people’s reaction to the choice of venue in the city, which was different from a typical art gallery space in that it was based within a community and spilled out onto the street. The urban village, where the installation was located, lies at the confluence of, on one hand – low-income to middle-income residents, a large migrant population comprising students, labourers from rural areas, immigrants from other countries such as Nigeria and Afghanistan – and on the other, the affluent who frequent the high-end mall adjacent to the area. In many ways, this dichotomy is representative of the polarised ends of Indian cities today. Some asked us why we had decided to set up the installation in the village and not a ‘better’ place such as the mall next door. Even a local police officer questioned us on why we had set up the art project in that area. We would like to raise a question of our own – Who has the right to the city? — Swati Janu

3×4 is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of a broader collaboration between UnBox, British Council and Science & Innovation Network, supported by Khoj International Artists’ Association New Delhi and Southbank Centre London. For more info: 3x4m.org

UnBox LABS Projects continue

Seven projects that started at the UnBox LABS have received follow-on funding from the AHRC and the British Council. The teams will continue to further evolve their projects in the coming months and some of them will be at the UnBox Festival in December 2014 to showcase their work and further build on their ideas.


Unbox Labs 2014: Exploring Urban Futures

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city.  This proportion continues to grow.   Experts estimate that by 2030, 60% of people will live in cities,  and this will increase to 70% by 2050. In India alone, the urban population increased from 100 million to 200 million from 1991-2011.  How do we make our cities liveable whilst accommodating this huge  influx of people?

Early in 2014,  UnBox Labs brought together a group of 35 highly talented and diverse creative practitioners, researchers and experts from the UK and India to explore, innovate and create around the theme of Future Cities.   One of the project’s core objectives was enabling people from different countries to work together to share knowledge and ideas: a cross-cultural collaboration.

The focus of UnBox Labs2014 was a departure from the usual debate around Future Cities, which has been dominated by discussions around large scale policy and technology.  Instead, this was about exploring more grass roots, people-centred solutions.  Based in Ahmedabad, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, the group had a chance to get out of their normal way of working, get inspired by different creative and academic practices and explore problems and solutions that were relevant to both India and the UK.

Over the 12 days, nine innovative projects were developed.  They included developing a more people-centred census, highlighting the dangers of noise pollution and imagining future doom scenarios,  such as what happens when antibiotics are no longer effective  - an issue which becomes more and more globally relevant each day. You can find out more about the projects here.

We never envisioned this as simply a 12 day project.  We know that some amazing relationships have been formed that will last for years to come and may result in some really game changing collaborations.  So we offered small seed grants to participants to allow them to carry on exploring project ideas that spawned from the Lab.  These projects will be showcased at the UnBox Festival in late November 2014.

-Rebecca Shoesmith,

Creative Economy team,

British Council UK

See the full article here

A Lab Built From Values: Reflections on UnBox Labs

In this follow up post as my experience of mentor, I wanted to provide some reflections on what made it work quite so well and some of the things I took away that I hope will be relevant to our research communities in the UK and India.

A Vision For The Unknown: The Unbox Team.
The Unbox Team is without a doubt a powerful force for collaboration and original thinking at the interface between creative practice and the cultural economy. As a research asset and model for best practice I recommend that we understand more about how they work and how we could apply their thinking in new projects. Their vision for understanding that collaboration for exploring unknown territories is something we should learn more about. I have no doubt that if Unbox were not involved, we would have had a very different and inferior event and experience.

The manifesto

The manifesto

The right hosts: NID, Praveen and Tanishka
Situating the lab in the super connected, design led, institution of NID enabled a safe place to take risks and push barriers of thinking. The support of two senior and highly supportive members of staff, Praveen Nahar and Tanishka Kachru (and their wonderful studnets), enabled several projects to happen that simply wouldn’t have been possible without their drive. Loraine Gammon working with the Ahmedabad prison is an example of this in practice. Given that NID is a unique institution (we don’t have anything quite like it within the UK), it would be worth exploring and understanding how we can deepen our relationship with NID. And also if we were to take this process to different countries, we should look at what other international locations would work in a similar way. In particular NID’s connection within the city to the makers, NGOs, industry, government, and community groups, enabled projects to quickly locate with people and places within the city.
What processes are needed?

Open Vs Closed facilitation.
It is fair to say that there was some anxiety from the lab participants on the processes that the Lab went through. The highly open, emergent and unstructured process was difficult for some of the participants. However, is the future not highly unstructured and open, and that in order to navigate this we require disruptive challenging processes that enable unexpected collaborations to emerge. I think that as a research community we need to evolve our processes for collaboration beyond sandpit-style funding-focussed facilitation into something more sophisticated that embraces the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with open discovery.

Values over goals
To continue a bit more, if I may, with the theme of open exploration, the Unbox Labs approach based on values meant that people were able to collaborate based on a shared ethos than on a direct end goal. This approach feels highly appropriate in early stage collaborations in highly contrasting experiences and environments. It would be a useful exercise to think about how we can enable lab participants to better articulate their values and to know how to use their values as a process of guiding activity. This might be something we do prior to a lab, as a form of pre-heating a value-based culture of discovery.
As an art, design and humanities research community we need to find new ways to grow our research in relation to international understanding. The global world we live in requires us to nurture and develop highly sophisticated internationally connected researchers that are able to respond to multi-national and highly diverse challenges. Art, Design and the Humanities have the capacity to lead human-facing research that will unlock opportunities and discovery that can respond to these challenges. To do this with thirty-five diverse thinkers for two weeks in India exploring the future of the city was an exciting step towards a future of research that I for one am looking forward to. Next up, Unbox Festival in November!

-Jon Rogers

Read the full article here

Future thinking

The national institute for design is in Ahmedabad, a city in the Gujarat region of India. As cities go, on the surface it isn’t particularly remarkable. This isn’t a particularly unfair assessment; it rarely sees any tourists and doesn’t have many monuments like some of the country’s other great cities. But it is my first experience of India and, like all cities, the more you unpeel it the more you discover. I have just returned from a two-week-long “lab” as a fellow of UnboxFestival, an international festival of design that takes place in Delhi. I, alongside 34 other creatives and academics from both England and India, spent a full-on two weeks working on the concept of Future Cities, an open and challenging brief delivered against the backdrop of Ahmedabad’s growing and sprawling city, with its politics of contested slum spaces, resettlements and new developments.

“…like all cities, the more you unpeel it the more you discover…”

A lot of our work as Invisible Flock stems from cities, or if not cities specifically then the environment by which we are surrounded, whether that be the sea or inner city Coventry, or Yorkshire where we are based. We began the company with the express intention of working in a cross-disciplinary manner, to work across sectors and genres, working equally with theatres, galleries, councils and music festivals. Unbox has been a timely reminder of that for me. In a context that focuses primarily on design, as a practice, a way of thinking and an aesthetic, the Unbox Labs have allowed me to re-contextualise a lot of our work as a company as well as my own practice, and to explore our own work through a slightly different lens.

Bring the Happy, our largest project to date and the one that was featured in last year’s British Council Edinburgh Showcase, is a work that is entirely built by the people of the cities it visits, made up of the happy memories they donate to us put onto giant maps. It is a project that looks back and asks people to conjure up memories, but recently we have been using it to look forward, to think of the landscape it creates as an imagined architecture built on emotion and empathy, to try and find a way for the memories we collect to speak to our future and a use them to conceive of what our cities might become.

“We began the company with the express intention of working in a cross-disciplinary manner, to work across sectors and genres, working equally with theatres, galleries, councils and music festivals.”

It turns out that this is bang on the money of contemporary architectural critical practice in places like India. Architecture professors and town planners talked to us with great beauty about how cities should develop, and how you can create a shared vision of a city that is something other than stainless steel and glass and slums swept under the carpet. How can people living in slums be allowed to iterate, to maintain their culture and still be part of a city’s growth and story? All of this became wrapped up in all of the conversations that were held over the weeks, and in it I found echoes of Stockton, of Leeds, of all of the places that we had been to date with Bring the Happy.

And it made me wonder what does Bring the Happy India look like? How do the cities and their stories flow through our maps? In the UK, the relatively similar structure of our different cities means the stories we are given tend to cluster and appear in clumps: city centres, residential areas, parks and hospitals, you can make them out based on the patterns that the memories make on the maps alone. But looking at it through Ahmedabad, which sprawls and blurs in an organic and chaotic way, I wanted to try and imagine how the memories would appear, what would they be and what would they tell us about this place I only began to scratch the surface of during my visit.

“In Ahmedabad I found echoes of Stockton, of Leeds, of all of the places that we had been to date…”

Ultimately, an intense two weeks led to a series of projects and collaborations with the Indian and other UK creatives, all imagining what the future of our cities might be. Some built things, others took stuff out onto the streets. We, in a small group, imagined far futures, worlds where antibiotics no longer work (although this one is potentially not that far away), where new cities emerge around data hubs like they used to emerge around rivers and natural resources, and where only land that has been untouched because of natural disasters like Chernobyl remains as our natural reserves. We imagined how we would live in these worlds, how would we interact as humans. We built artefacts, imagined designs and thought about how we as humans will live in these places as a society. Hopefully these projects will have a future life.

As makers of interactive work, that is about how we participate in the world around us. Transferring our process and work to a context such as Ahmedabad forced is to consider its applications back home. It can’t but change your approach to what you do, recontextualising some of those core mechanics and ideas central to our practice.

- Ben Eaton

Read the full article here

The Many Future Cities

Photo Credit: Ben Barker

The future has a lot in store for cities. Before the end of the century planners and architects will have seen some weird briefs land on their desks as we make settlements on the moon, in digital space and roaming settlements that graze the landscape for resources. Imagine the cities built around the lunar transportation hubs in Cape Kenday and Xichang, my Wacom quivers. Opportunities will shape our urban futures in exciting ways, whilst impending challenges will redefine how we understand the city space. The decline in the efficacy of antibiotics will affect how we live together and rising water levels will terraform cities from London to the Ganges Delta. Designers and makers will have a responsibility to explore what those futures are, and understand how we’ll live when they get here.

Bruce Sterlings assertion, in his closing notes at SxSW that the future will be old people in cities, frightened of the sky is an extrapolation of the challenges of climate change, urban migration and an ageing population. What it gives us is the clear image of a possible future that we hadn’t rendered in such folk terms before. His decision in that talk to move from thought to action shows his understanding of the power of design, it puts the thing in your hand and the idea in a form you can discuss.

At the start of March I was part of the British Council’s Unbox Future Cities Lab, a two week programme held at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. 36 researchers, designers and makers from the UK and India came together around theme of Future Cities. The brief was almost impossibly open: collect people working on city based projects using diverse processes and get them thinking about cities together. We know there is a responsibility for practitioners to explore the forces that might split, weave and define the many possible threads of the future, the question is which futures?

First we have to define what the opportunities and trends facing our collective futures are. Most will happen on some scale, somewhere, but which are likely to have the greatest impact? We spent a day creating headlines from futures we both anticipated and hoped for. That cross-cultural record of the future will be one of my enduring records of the trip, a zeitgeist of anticipation from two continents. Importantly, as with Sterlings assertion, closer inspection of those ideas reveals that a lot of them aren’t as far away as they first seem.

We also have to bring these ideas to life. Whether that’s through the design fiction seen in the work of Dunne and Raby or in the alternate realities of games and film. If we don’t imagine and then realise these futures then we are left working under the assumed notion of a shared values of the future. We have to design futures that encapsulate the values we want. We have to be frank about what and only by making them can we defend or avert them.

When Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogota made all his traffic warden dress up as Mimes, he wasn’t saying this is the future, he was saying what if we understood the role of city officials differently. One of our best known working prototype future cities might be Disney Land, Walt Disney created a a testing model for our future urban spaces in the form of a theme park. I want more weird future testing spaces, if Unbox left me thinking one thing, it’s lets bring to life more of these possible future cities. Below are a selection of the spaces we began to describe at Unbox, the document containing more detail can be seen here.

The Data City – Due to it’s climate and proximity to energy resources, a Siberian town becomes home to the worlds largest data centre. The finance industry move in driven by a need for reduced latency in algorithmic trading and briefly make it the banking capital of the Eurasian continent. Who moves in after them?

The City after Antibiotics – LA becomes obsessed with personal hygiene transparency and sterilisation as antibiotics are deemed no longer effective against the vast majority of diseases and bacteria. How do people move around and indicate their good health in disease obsessed city?

The First Settlers at Chernobyl – In the distant future, with uninhabited land at a premium, the first planning permission is received for the irradiated blast zone around Chernobyl after lying uninhabited for nearly 600 years. What does this application look like?

- Ben Barker
Read the full article here

Project Snapshot : The Live Memory Project

Our cities are growing exponentially, and increasingly, aspects of connection to a sense of community within our local environments might be getting hidden or lost. Whilst there is significant diversity within a city, we need newer, more mindful ways to honour and engage with our cities and our communities. In order to build these deeper connections, the project collects voices and their stories that might help us to foster empathy and provide new textures to the landscape of our cities.

Team : Anshul Aggarwal, Badrinarayanan Seetharaman, Dilys Williams, Jo Briggs, Niveditha Menon, Vivek M

Project Snapshot : Seen Unseen

Seen Unseen explores some of the complexities of the future city. An arts / science hybrid, it investigates both the tangible and intangible value – social, economic, cultural and environmental, that biodiversity brings to a city, such as Ahmedabad, in the now, near and far future.

Team : Kavita Singh Kale, Melissa Sterry

Project Snapshot : 3×4

3×4 is the unit of space provided in some resettlement colonies in Delhi. This project explores the qualities and values that are built through self-organised communities that
are lost in the process of resettlement. Using these dimensions as an interface to connect fractured communities, the project aims to explore new hybrids of digital space and how the boundaries of space are shifting as we look toward the future.

Team : Claire McAndrew, Paul Sermon, Swati Janu (supported by Vivek M)

Quicksand 2014

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