What yellow umbrellas and "mesh networks" tell us about public space

Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators celebrate the one-year anniversary of last year's protests. Image: AFP/Getty.

Last year, I set a research project for my spatial design students. As part of the “Digital Activism” project, they were to design a democratic space based on our experience of digital networks.

One of the reasons for the project was to allow them to critically evaluate our network culture and the way our built environment has been transformed. The other was the Yellow Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest in which protestors in Hong Kong took over several planned spaces and made them their own.

This was a very unusual occurrence in Hong Kong. The whole experience, a powerful means of expressing popular discontent to the government, expanded the imagination of the city’s people.

But what really intrigued me was the use of digital social network to coordinate and organise the whole protest. Facebook was used, but the game changer was FireChat: an app that uses your phone’s WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities to build what’s called a “mesh network” with other phones.

Most phones are connected to each other through a centralised network. Whenever you text, send an email or make a call, you’re doing so through cellular networks first: communication can be remotely intercepted, monitored, or even blocked altogether.

With a mesh network, the actual network is decentralised. Devices just connect to other devices, and anyone can become a node with an anonymous screen name in that network, as long as they’re within 70 meters of just one other node.  

But the real advantages of mesh networks have nothing to do with anonymous communication. While mesh networks are harder to infiltrate than centralised networks, their real strength is holding up, even when someone may not have a reliable internet connection.

That is what drew in the student activists of Hong Kong’s recent protests. The protesters were using it to share messages off-the grid, to avoid any censorship or tracking via their on-location service in their smart phone. This app also enabled the protesters to create a new form of “public space” in a private digital network. The network is open, yet you can protect your anonymity; anyone can come and go from the network; and there’s no option for private communications. Using FireChat is more like tweeting than chatting among trusted confidantes.


With the emerging new form of communication in the digital network, our public space is extending and evolving, adapting itself between our physical and digital worlds. The intensive use of AR (Augmented reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) has already transformed our physical experience, giving us extra layers of information where our physical eye can’t find them.

In the digital world, public space is organic and spontaneous, collective and responsive, sometimes – in the case of the DarkNET – even hidden. People are finding ways to express their ideas though different channels. And these channels – WhatsApp, SnapChat and surespot – are increasingly being designed to become more instant and encrypted.

To make the point, I want to share two projects created by my students who graduated from my digital activism studio last year. The first, “The Embassy – The freedom of expression” by Yuuki Teraoka creates a digital version of an existing physical embassy.

It was inspired by the embassies on London’s Exhibition Road, which in 2011 underwent renovation via a project called “Shared Space” implemented by the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington. Yuuki’s project used the site to challenge ideas of public space, and suggested the digital embassy is the ultimate “access” for the freedom of information.

The second project “The Imprisoned Mind – the Internet in our city” by Sean Koo, is based on the everyday surveillance activities. Rather than repackaging the concept of George Orwell’s 1984, the students adopted Orwell’s concept to explore the privacy in our everyday digital life.  

Sean suggested that, via our extensive digital connectivity – such as data tracking, or the Internet of Things – that surveillance activates were far more extensive than we could imagine. His final design was a museum on Exhibition Road which exhibited our surveillance data via hacker’s channels.

Zhu Tao, an associate professor from Department of Architecture at Hong Kong University, used the title “Regain – the Spatial Revolution” to describe his thoughts of Yellow Umbrella Movement. He said regaining roads and streets in the movement was a form of power negotiation:  negotiating the space and returning it for its people. He added that the nature of public space should be free: free from commercialisation, free from any political expression.  

My students’ projects provoked me to consider how we find that democracy in our “public space” in the digital world. The power negotiation will soon be extended to this digital public space. The question for me is, who has ultimate control?

Cyril Shing is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, a part of the University of Arts London.

He will be taking part in tonight’s Design Salon: On Public Space Now at Somerset House, part of this year’s Inside Out Festival.  To book your free place, click here.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.