Digital Technology in Parks and Open Spaces

#Nesta #RethinkingParks

July 30th, London

Digital Technology in Parks and Open Spaces: Busting Myths and Exploring Opportunities

‘The potential of digital technology for parks, open spaces and heritage sites is hotly debated. In the right circumstances digital technology can help reach new audiences, better understand site use and user preferences and raise income. Though digital technology is not a panacea, and there are circumstances in which these interventions can be costly distractions. This Nesta event explored the benefits as well as caveats around using digital technologies and approaches across parks, open space and heritage sites.

Following my enthusiasm for parks and art, as well as my work in supporting Friends of Parks Groups across Richmond Borough through the environmental charity South West London Environment Network, I went along to this Nesta event in London which hosted digital innovators speaking about a range of digital technology application: artistic engagement, design and information, and fundraising in relation to parks and other ‘heritage’ green spaces.

net_part_high_resNesta’s Rethinking Parks programme ‘explores new ways to use, manage and make the most of the UK’s public parks’. Given that parks have no statutory protection – local authorities have no legal duty to provide or look after public green spaces – along with the crisis in funding (up to 60% cuts in green space budgets for some councils), Nesta is working with 11 teams across the UK to come up with innovative and experimental solutions around increasing public involvement and online fundraising platforms, “a positive antidote to that of decline and atrophy” as Helen Goulden, Executive Director of Nesta, said in her introduction.

Here are some of the projects and contributions that took my attention:

Ruth McCullough, Senior Producer at Abandon Normal Devices, a commissioning company that is ‘a catalyst for new approaches to art-making and digital invention … which challenge the definitions of art and moving image‘.  AND is based in Manchester, working across many places and contexts and Ruth focused on the importance of partners in making successful work in the public space.  The upcoming AND festival in September 2015 at Grizedale Forestwill turn the forest into a laboratory and become a temporary haven for filmmakers, artists, creative technologists, philosophers and scientists’. Ruth spoke about selected projects:

Rough Fish, a mobile pervasive game: AND partnered with The Canal and Rivers Trust to address trash in the waterways, commissioning Tres Art Collective, ‘a Mexican collective whose research looks at the political and material implications of waste as residue of contemporary civilization’ for the project.

Jon-Rochdale-TRES1-1024x683‘Over two weeks in April 2015 over 100 ‘Fishers and Spotters’ (members of the public participating could choose which to be) participated in Rough Fish, a pervasive game taking place along the canals in Manchester and Rochdale.  Players observed, spotted and fished rubbish, scoring points using the mobile game app which used GPS tracking to record and follow litter.

Manchester-Oct-2014_1534-1024x683The records began to create a narrative about what we discard and how it can be used to tell stories and uncover social behaviour. ‘Fishers’ earned points for the pieces of rubbish they collected, and for writing creative stories about the collected items and the places around the canal. At the end of the game, the player with the greatest number of points had the honour of bestowing their name to a canal lock in Manchester’.

The game activity, litter, data and stories were all collected together in a final day long exhibition. Rough Fish is such an intruiging project, and one that makes participation straightforward. For me, this is often the key to proper social art projects that work with people and place: the ‘ask’ of the event is easy and simple – what you need to do is laid out clearly with no hidden agenda – and all the adventure, the complexity, arises and unfolds from the activity, and as a participant you are free to continue as far, for as long as you like.

_MG_6053wRuth also talked about other AND projects in the public realm, all thick with imaginative play and design including Strange Attractors, a playful study of complex relationships between real and virtual bodies using light projected onto the ground, Watch The Skies which turned the park around Jodrell Bank into an open air public cinema as part of the BFI national season, and M:Blem in 2012, a personalised 2 person solar powered vehicle designed by artist duo HeHe for operation on the historic track of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first passenger rail service dating to 1830, now part of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Exploration of digital technology in relation to a public space and participation, and funding, was a focus of the event. The question at hand: develop apps or create website driven (mobile accessible) digital media?

Simon Poulter talked very accurately about the importance of preserving high resolution assets over the long term and beyond software. Apps expire and the technology which enables access to them becomes obsolete very quickly, wasting resources and content. This distinction between technology itself as a tool to communicate and its application to a project, to an audience or participants is vital.  As Scott Sullivan later reflected: “Technology can be seductive, meaning that its purpose as a tool can sometimes be overlooked.  In particular, digital technology is usually about accessing relevant content – the information required by people for a useful purpose… Rather than thinking ‘we need an app’, think about the content that such technology is meant to deliver and to whom.”

Ian Goodman, Programme Manager, MyParkScotland talked in detail about Crowdfunding for specific park development in Glasgow and Edinburgh, developing a new website bringing news and information together with an accessible and immediate ability for the public to donate to park projects, emphasizing the important of a site being mobile enabled, and to balance the content between what the organisation wants and the audience wants.

William Makower, Founding Trustee, The National Funding Scheme: £1.5Bn in UK donations are under £100 but most are using less cash for transactions, with online and mobile device enabled donations growing. William also talked about the importance of emotional intensity and the relationship to giving, for people feeling part of something, using the Battersea Arts Centre fire as an example. He also referenced the Statue of Liberty as being crowdfunded! – and invited us to ‘grapple with the dilemma of begging to keep great assets that have inadequate public funding‘ as one tweet said.

Theresa McManus, Trustee, Bournemouth Parks Foundation discussed the experimental ways of attracting donations from the public that they have designed, through experimental installation: a talking parrot, and a speaking bench.

One of the most interesting talks of the morning was from Simon Poulter, Associate Curator for Metal. Metal are based in 3 different locations in the UK, and work internationally. Metal: Southend on Sea is based in the centre of Chalkwell Park there.


For the project NetPark, digital space meets public space. Metal have worked with five local schools to develop new story apps that will work on mobile devices as well as an accompanying website. They have brought wifi into the park, artists in to work with children, signage and sound pieces.



claire-softley-westborough-school-netpark1-550x487Simon stressed the importance of creating a web portal for the whole project in order to preserve the high resolution creative assets generated, and to keep the content open for different devices long-term – “software becomes history”. He also spoke about the essential creative relationship between traditional artistic tools – pens and crayons – and designing on iPads; play and creativity across media are key processes for the ‘storification’ of the park.

I made handwritten notes in my paper notebook over the morning for this digital post, others tweeted – you can read the collective digital narrative here on Nesta’s storify account.

Credit: The featured image on this post is by Simon Poulter, Metal, NetPark.

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