People require feedback in order to participate in dynamic social systems. This project addresses such feedback and how it is manifest on both urban and individual scales in the context of public transportation. Technology that is typically used as an instrument of control is repurposed to provide people with insight into how their movements through architectural space are related to those of others — a form of feedback that can provide the basis for meaningful new social interaction.
The project is part of an ongoing investigation into the possibilities that arise when design is conceptualized as a process that unfolds in social contexts. The immediate goal is to help people address difficulties that they encounter when using a major metropolitan railway station. The larger agenda is to develop a better understanding of how plastic infrastructures can be used to sustain broadly distributed forms of innovation. To this end,the project can best be described as a prototype.
Social dynamics are often difficult to comprehend. So it is fitting that Penn Station, the busiest hub in New York's vast network of public transportation, is hidden from view beneath a non-descript building. But the imperceptibility of this space serves as more than a metaphor for the conceptual difficulty of understanding public activity. The architecture of Penn Station affords few tangible opportunities for people to observe how their movement affects others. And without such a perspective, it is difficult to appreciate the value of public space, much less contribute to its development in any meaningful way.
Congestion is among the many systemic problems that occur at Penn Station as a result of people's inability to grasp the relationship between their movement and the dynamics others. And neither the signage that is intended to direct movement nor the spatial design of the station provide the type of information that people require in order to deal with congestion and similar systemic problems. The periodic arrival and departure updates that punctuate the station's static signage do not adequately address people's needs as they arise. And the compartmentalization of architectural space offers no perspective on the interrelationships of the different systems of transportation that converge at the station. Lack of attention to these dynamics fosters confusion and frustration among many who use Penn Station, reactions that are all too often associated with public space.
Technology is already in place, however, that could be repurposed to provide people with the maps that they require in order to make efficient use of Penn Station. And perhaps more important, this technology could enable new systems of social interaction to emerge in response to people's future needs. All that is required to repurpose this technology is an interface that allows people to interact with a stream of information to which they currently have no access: surveillance video.
Movement throughout Penn Station is already mapped dynamically on an ongoing basis by hundreds of video cameras. This information is used to provide insight into the activities of those who use the space. But the public currently has no access to this insight. Feedback that could give people a perspective on how their personal behavior affects that of others is restricted. This project makes such feedback widely available. Information that is captured by surveillance cameras is provided to people where and when it is needed. Moreover, the interface that is used to convey such information also enables people to use personal SMS-based technology, such as cell phones, to build a second level of feedback on top of that which has already been extracted from the surveillance video.
When used for tasks such as communicating one's location to a friend whom one is trying to meet, or for entertaining oneself and others by creating and playing location-oriented games, this project provides a useful new dimension to Penn Station. The feedback loops that are created address more, however, than just the practical concerns of those who use the space. Such feedback facilitates emergent behavior. By providing access to information that is currently restricted to those in positions of authority, the project gives people a framework with which to develop new solutions to the problems they face. And because this framework is premised on open communication, it affords the high level of participation that robust public activity demands.
Public space is often compromised when informational dimensions receive less attention than their spatial counterparts. Penn Station is emblematic of such neglect. This project addresses the issue by providing feedback. And in so doing, it creates an opportunity for the public to map their space in a new way.
This project addresses design as a form of research and, conversely, it positions research as an approach to design. Providing people with tangible feedback on public dimensions of their behavior creates a framework for ongoing innovation. Providing such feedback in the context of a busy metropolitan railway station illustrates how system dynamics and processes of emergent behavior can be used to efficiently address complex problems by distributing the responsibility of design to those whose activity it directly impacts. Transitional spaces are inherently dynamic. When feedback is used to blur the distinction between research and design, important social dimensions of these spatial dynamics are brought into focus.
There are many ways to integrate research and design. This project has evolved over many months and it has taken various forms along the way (including that of a graduate design studio that I recently taught). The concept of participatory design has, however, persistently guided the project's evolution. People who use Penn Station have played an important role in shaping the project from the very beginning. In fact, the idea of providing location-oriented feedback sprung from research indicating that the primary source of frustration that people experience when using Penn Station is the congestion that develops in areas of the architectural space that are too compartmentalized to provide a perspective on the ever-changing ebbs and flows of foot traffic. This frustration was voiced again and again over the course of many interviews and it was observed on an ongoing basis throughout several months of ethnographic field work. It is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. But participatory design is more than a means of defining problems. It is also a way of involving people in efforts to solve problems. People who use Penn Station — travelers and commuters alike — have been involved at every stage in the development of this project. The feedback that they have provided has guided each iteration of the design as it has evolved from a series of conceptual sketches to functional prototypes. People who use the station on a regular basis have even been asked to prepare story-boards, renderings, and other forms of documentation to ensure that their perspectives inform the design effort.
The development of this project is not yet complete. More research and design will be needed if it is to become a viable means of addressing the tangible problems that people face when traveling through Penn Station. But as should be clear by now, the goal of this project is not only to solve tangible problems. It is also to experiment with different approaches to the socio-technical processes of research and design. This being the case, it is extremely unlikely that the development of this project will ever be regarded as fully complete.