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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.