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.


  1. Posted September 15, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Both “urban interactions” and “technological interventions” sound intriguing. Good luck!

  2. Posted September 16, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Can I haz this one on my calendar now plz?

    I would also like to see the topic connected to the work on Design with Intent that Dan Lockton is doing.

  3. Posted September 19, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Dan- Thanks! I was worried I’d gotten a bit buzzwordy; I’m glad the spirit of my proposal still got across. :)

    Elizabeth- Thank you! I hope you can; we’ll see, eh?

    Funny, I use to love reading Dan Lockton’s stuff some years ago (I think maybe his blog used to be called Architectures of Control then?) – but he’d totally slipped off my radar until you mentioned his name. He was one of the people who kick-started my fascination with Las Vegas. I’m happy to have him in my bookmarks again. But I digress. :)

    I had been thinking of things less in terms of “controlling” public space and more in terms of agencies being “charged with” or “entrusted with” space (since in most cases, the public gives up no legal control – and can, with much political will, dissolve the agency at their whim). I’d done that in part consciously, because “entrusting” acknowledges the fact that these committees were originally created out of some necessity – and in part subconsciously, because to me “control” is an uncomfortably loaded term that implies giving “Control” of “Our” stuff to “The Man.” ;) Seriously though, part of volunteerism to me is a sense of optimism, and a lot of very fiercely “anti-establishment” urban technology seems to discuss government’s “control over” public space at the expense of exploring government’s “role in” public space (and how technology, both ours and that of the government, will change that role over time).

    That said, there is definitely a real sense of control that gets projected into a space – for reasons both benign (like limiting public liability and ensuring public safety) and malicious (like ensuring one’s job safety). Some specific opportunities might lie where different levels of control in a space can achieve the same means – or even where the public can be trusted to “override” some of that control temporarily?

    Well, now you’ve got me pondering. I’m excited to have an excuse to re-read his stuff and see how it all might tie together. Do let me know what you think (and if my ramblings are on cue with the sort of thoughts you were having.) Does anyone know if Lockton frequents Interaction or the IXDA scene?