Citizen Volunteerism and Urban Interaction Design

Session Title

Citizen Volunteerism and Urban Interaction Design


Solomon Bisker, Carnegie Mellon/School of Architecture

Session Type: Presentation

It can be intimidating — not to mention dangerous – trying to “tinker” with adding technology to public spaces and services. One risks violating laws and/or stepping on the toes of the various urban planning agencies, planning boards and other government bodies tasked by our communities to manage the world around us. This is particularly true when it comes to projects that require physical interaction and infrastructure — which we will see more and more often as the worlds of bits and atoms collide. How can communities encourage and support positive contributions to urban space by civic-minded individuals, without putting them through miles of red tape?

We will explore a spirit of individual civic engagement and volunteerism that I believe vital to successfully applying physical technology to community spaces. In particular, we will both look at previous work in urban interaction design through this lens, and discuss current attempts at encouraging “bottom-up volunteering” with technology in public space (including my own current attempts at benignly sensing information at my local bus stop to share with my neighbors here at Carnegie Mellon.)

Encouraging high-tech volunteerism amongst individuals in the age of physical computing will require communities seriously rethink who “owns” public space, and how both responsibility and liability can be redistributed. That said, I hypothesize that letting tinkerers design and prototype new urban interactions will lead to better results than centralized planning and government intervention alone. As volunteers in a community quickly create “urban sketches” of potential technological interventions in their own neighborhoods, the discussion around these sketches can be filtered and ultimately makes its way to centralized planning bodies and agencies for necessary structured government support. Interaction design has a valuable opportunity to both learn from and deeply influence the nature of urban and community planning.


Solomon Bisker is a student at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA), where he is pursuing a Masters of Tangible of Interaction Design focusing on design for the built environment. Before that, he worked as an interaction designer at Cambridge Systematics, consulting with federal and state transportation agencies to explore how their processes and public interactions could be improved by technology. Before THAT, he conducted research into mobile barcode interaction design in crowds and public spaces with MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab, part of the MIT Design Lab. He has a BS and M.Eng in Computer Science from MIT.