Spaces of possibility

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Society of Chief Librarians annual conference and I spoke about digital leadership and the need to create digital civic space. It was an excellent conference with a really interesting group of people and the session has stayed with me so I wanted to reflect on some of the ideas that were talked about.

Libraries are a brilliant example of civic spaces based on the criteria that I use – they are open, information rich, networked, and public. Identity is known within the space and they are increasingly coproduced in some way. Speaking with the librarians and hearing about some of the creative projects that are underway to redesign library spaces I have been thinking about how useful it would be to use this as an opportunity to build online and offline spaces in parallel and look at how they can reinforce and support each other. There was a lot of discussion of libraries as being community hubs and this could be as true virtually as it is physically. Many of the physical build projects that I have been coming across (for example the Hive in Worcestershire or the new community campuses in Wiltshire) use co-design approaches to develop their plans for the building – there is every reason to echo that approach with the online space.

What then would a blended physical/digital civic space feel like?

  • I’d like it to be welcoming – physically you want it to invite you in and show you an open space that you will feel comfortable in. Digitally this is probably about the moment when you try and connect to the wifi or when you first search for the website. That first contact can’t be about just trying to get your details off you – it should be about showing you who else is there and why you might want to be part of that community.
  • I’d like it to feel playful – and not just for children – it should be a chance to explore and be surprised and delighted by what you find. I want it to be information rich but not overwhelming – you shouldn’t have to be able to use the dewy decimal system to find something.
  • It should feel as if there are people there – online and offline. Discussions, opinion polls, voxpops or just an instagram feed of people with their favourite book – there are loads of ways you could connect online and offline. I’d love there to be a sense of community story telling – people talking about their place or even acting as human books. Doreen Massey’s lovely quote “space becomes place through narrative” is so resonant as to how community hubs can provide this kind of space for their community.
  • It should be useful and valued – and this is where the importance of co-design process comes in – communities are unique and their spaces should have chance to reflect this. I think this is something which is often taken into consideration with physical spaces but we are less accustomed to the idea that digital spaces should reflect their communities – despite the fact that so many online spaces are shaped by the content and the interactions which are created there.  I also believe that these approaches maximise your chances of building or extending volunteering strategies around a library or any other public space.

Perhaps one of the best tests of civic space is whether or not you are likely to meet people who are different to yourself – and most libraries pass this with flying colours. Commercial space tends to carefully segmented based on brand and demographics – just try walking round Bluewater and seeing the clustering of shops they use to keep people in their own enclaves. Civic space creates opportunities to encounter your community in its widest sense and is successful when it is at its most open and eclectic. Digitally this is hugely valuable as our online spaces are even more segmented than our offline ones. If the digital library space can address this through design then there is a direct link between the community space and its contribution to civic life and local democracy.

What I am describing feels a long way from library websites which I have come across (would be delighted to be corrected on this point if you have examples) but then I don’t think that digital civic space as I imagine it exists anywhere which is why I bang on about it so much.

The thought I want to end with is that the redesign of physical spaces provides an opportunity to reimagine their surrounding digital space. I have been talking here of libraries but this is true of housing, or parks of any other kind of regeneration. My worry is that is if we don’t think about it then we risk ending up with a mish mash of smart vending machines, intelligent lampposts and clever video walls with generic content. These are all marvels in their own right but they don’t create a space for the community which they are designed to serve.

As ever I am now off hunting in the world to try and find opportunities to try out some of these ideas.

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