Digital Placemaking : Designing Public Spaces for Connection

How do we make it less weird to interact with strangers on the street? It is a question I ask myself constantly. I believe the answers exist in the interplay between place, design, technology, art and culture. And it is something that all communities, no matter the size, need to be thinking about.

Age five is when I officially started exploring how placemaking enhances our shared experience. The project involved wrapping multicolored lights around my porch’s railing for Christmas. I remembering begging my parents to take me on a drive every night just so I could look at it from the street. To me, it was a demonstration of the magic that can transform spaces into places.

My first successful placemaking project within a civic institution was in the sixth grade. I convinced my teacher, Mrs. Boyce, to let me wrap my desk in lights. This simple act made me excited to wake up in the morning and go to school to learn. It made school fun.

With this background, it makes sense that for the last two years I have been working with both public and private partners to reimagine spaces in our communities. Specifically, my team and I have been working on a project called OhHeckYeah; a first-of-its-kind interactive street arcade. The arcade features custom built video games that use the power of art, culture and play to build connections between strangers on the street.

The project was seed funded by ArtPlace America and brought together artists, technologists, city agencies, foundations, business leaders, business improvement districts and musicians in its construction. In fact, the Colorado Symphony scored and recorded an original soundtrack for the games.

In its first showing, the video games were displayed on three larger-than-life LED screens in the Denver Theatre District. The games were played on the adjacent sidewalks by having the players move their body, side-to-side or forward-backward, to control the characters on the screens.

In the first two months, over 40,000 plays happened on the street; connecting people of all different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. It confirmed the research that play builds trust between strangers. It also exposed an opportunity to rethink how technology can build connection in the physical world.

After watching thousands of strangers play together on the street, I believe in the potential of this work to develop and strengthen the social glue that binds our communities together. Thought-leader, Seth Godin, in his article for TED points out that our new economy, “the connection economy,” is stepping in as the days of the industrial age begin to fade. He argues that the new productivity is the productivity of connection and this economy rewards coordination, sharing and trust.

I would argue that connection has always been an important ingredient in powering all our economies. And trust is what enables the connection to happen. But why is it so difficult to connect with strangers if it is so important to moving our communities forward?

I believe the answer to this can be found in the simple experiments of my early days. We need to design places that make people feel comfortable; where all types of people feel they belong; and by adding some magic—something they simply can’t get at home—to make it less weird and more fun for people to interact. If we can do this, then we will have built successful public spaces where people, from all backgrounds, come together.

Author: Brian Corrigan, Founder + Director of OhHeckYeah: An Immersive Street Arcade

OhHeckYeah: This Is How We Do It from OhHeckYeah on Vimeo.

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