Soft hack in public space
Transforming between the parallel public space
The norms about public space are designed for order, rules, adults, and traffic, but not for play. Although there are kinds of creative culture that are becoming more popular, such as spontaneous sports and parkour, how the built environment is formed is still mostly controlled by the authorities. Meanwhile, most of the children will by any means spontaneously interact with the urban space with their bodies, climbing fences or sliding on rails. However, such play is often seen as dangerous and/or inappropriate behaviour. This significantly indicates the social norms are framing play activities within limited planned areas (playground and schoolyards) and for specific kind of users, or/and the other way around that the physical space are constructing such norms.
On top of that, public facilities and objects in the public space are designed for the limited industries who have the power to judge, namely the public authorities and conventional production companies. The choice for public space objects are based on their world view, regulations, and how the world already is now.
Sometime in my practice I follow the more classic ways of participatory design or inclusive design to find design solutions with help of child perspective. Without doubt, the process and result is better than when purely formed by a small number of professionals who sit in an office. Some might even embrace the positive effect of child empowerment or let the children’s voice be heard. However the design is still systematically developed under the conventional rules, priority and in the benefits for those who have power. From a more holistic perspective, play is essential for social interaction, and we should enable this fundamental human activities in a wider urban context.
As we understood conventional thoughts are difficult to overcome, they are as hard as the concrete block on the street, or as stiff as the urban grids.
Rather than “crashing” the system (or myself), I would like to emphasis the "soft hacking” approach to temporarily disturb/adjust the system of play culture in public space, and how can I by “doing it anyway” to create a space to enquire the norms and extend the boundaries of play in public space, without permission from those who have power.
If public space is really meant to be for the public, what if we designers could display and even realise the manifesto ourselves without the formal permission or procedure?
How can we rethink the unseen potentiality of the playable public space, instead of design solutions that fits the industries expectations? How can we do it responsibly?
I try to redefine the centre of the issues and approaches, with an intention to make design as a tool for social experiments or enquiries, rather than “ready commercial item in the catalog”. At the same time, to create artefacts which are playable or stable enough to use by the public could be tricky, and do require stable structural implementations. Based on observations, mapping and the knowledge of common public space objects, I came up with this approach which I found not so easy to name or categorise it under the many kinds of professional design practices, so I call it “soft hacking and design by doing it anyway, even without permission”.
The key idea of this practice is to make use of the urban objects already in place as part of the structure of the artefacts without making any damage or destroying physical thing, while simultaneously creating new functions and meanings to the public space.
In this approach I design artefacts that does not have any (completed) function without attaching on the already in place urban objects. Once it is attached, it performs a dynamic change of use of public space and power relations temporarily. The artefacts in this way redefine play through delivering play signals in the “non playground” space. This change also encourages active enquiry as the artefact blur the boundaries between rules and play . People try it, wonder what is it, and even have a discussion around it. With the soft hacking approach, when the artefacts are detached, the original ordered public space is returned, while the physical space remain the same as before, which indicates that the idea is not about to replace the existing object and order, but to show the capacity of having a more diverse usage or cultural dimensions of a public space.
Either public space or play culture should not be homeostatic, yet as a designer and citizen I understand the needs for “safety” and order. Thats why the design is formulated in a temporary and flexible way, and hopefully it could flux the in between space, and create space for other needs on play and social enquiry in the public realm. Perhaps this soft hacking and design by doing anyway is not the one who has power in the field, but I believe thats a kind of powerful ways to surprise our pre-understanding of play and the possibilities of a parallel public space.
Photo by Angelica Hvass