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A Blinking Pixel

By PABLO KOBAYASHI

UNIDAD DE PROTOCOLOS

When I received the invitation to participate in the workshop “Legible Policy: Mobility and the Megalopolis,” I had an initial question that continued to surface throughout the collaboration: What can I bring to the table? I emphatically stated at our first session: I was trained as an architect. But I’m conscious of the many ways that title is deniable—I no longer consider myself an architect. What’s more, considering the similarities of that career to dogmatic religious practices, I consider that I exercise a secular version of architecture: I have my own definition of it, and I follow my own relationship to it.

As such, when faced with a design problem, I confront it as a designer, not as an architect or a sociologist or an anthropologist, even less as a politician. I tackle with it with the design tools I have adopted, both intellectually and practically. I have a special interest in the notion of emergence. This concept is present in many layers of my professional practice and also in the realm of the personal. I endorse the value of accidents, the use of ignorance as a design strategy and the importance of openness to constant discovery.

Material systems and their inherent properties have tremendous potential to be controllable, even programmable. I have keenly embraced technological advancements that enhance, inform and even define design strategies, and I find that the process of otherness in digital generative processes reinforces a constant search for objectivity. This relation has evolved into a structure of a digital design thinking, a systemic approach to design and architecture that derives from the use of digital tools but can prescind from them.

I am skeptical of democracy, especially in design processes, weary of the capital letters too often found in the words Architecture, City, Government, Nature, Public Space, People, Community, Participative Design and Sustainability. The naivety an outsider’s view can have towards exoticised local dynamics often renders its conceptual construction useless for practical intervention purposes, but I value the fresh approach to the same dynamics only someone seeing them from afar can provide. Circumstances have led me, despite my own resistance, to deal with public space and all the implications of intervening, or rather interfering, in it by designing and producing precast concrete urban furniture. This forced me to leave my spectator’s role and take an active position towards topics I normally avoided. It is precisely this sceptic, critical, materialistic, blunt and nearly cynical position that I have brought to the table.

Soon after our workshop, it became clear to me that legible policy is not so much about the enunciation of the policy itself, but rather the communication of the origins of the policy and the awareness of the positive consequences of its implementation on the greater good. Policies imply a top-down imposition. They also imply governmental exercise, thus provoking mistrust. Their generalised adoption requires a personal connection, a fact that triggers an emotional response which gives the implementation of the policy a sense of purpose, of personal gain, one that transcends the resistance created by mere imposition.

As a designer tackling the dynamics of public space, I have heard many times (and this collaboration was no exception) that empathy must be a major factor in creating something that truly responds to people’s needs and creates emotional connection—the imperative that designers should be empathic to the users their design target. Frankly, I find this both naive and ineffective. I cannot experience empathy for hypothetic individuals of whom I know nothing but assumptions of their realities, nor can I be empathic to every individual, with all the complex layers of information and experiences that make up each individual. Even less can I can be empathic to the abstract notion of the People. Who are they? Who is he/she? When the People is everyone, it becomes no one.

However, in a deep but auspicious contradiction, by designing for no one, I can design for everyone.

During the design phase of the first of our modular public furniture system, I was constantly confronted with this argument. On whom should I focus? If I try to develop a public seating system for Mary, a single mother in her late 20s, 1.56m tall, weighing 62kg, who lives in Iztapalapa, commutes for two hours every day, and sees concrete as a material used in unfinished buildings, I will attend to Mary’s needs in every single detail, and I will be constrained by her very specific experiences and preferences. I will also exclude the individual needs and circumstances of the other potential fourteen million users of my system. Individuality excludes, and empathy is mainly focused on the individual.

Instead, if I simplify the understanding of these many individuals to examine shared factors, mere physical characteristics which have behavioural consequences, then I can be more effective for a larger population. I can design a system focused on people between 13 and 100 years old, between 1.30m and 1.85m tall. This will still exclude some to an extent, but the ratio of inclusion vs. exclusion will be inverted, covering a greater number of individuals’ needs.

But I can take this notion even farther by adopting a completely different framework. If I choose to eliminate the individual from the process, even eliminate the idea of a user completely, and instead I focus on the geometric consequences of an action—in this case, seating—I will obtain a much more neutral result. I can then design a set of horizontal solid surfaces elevated 45cm from the ground which, if placed at the correctly at the right time, if they conform to the correct dynamics, will probably fulfill its initial purpose: providing seating.

From there I can work on bringing more variations to the formula, ones that will not interfere with the essential task. I can, for example, focus on grouping individuals by arranging these surfaces in a parallel packing configuration. Such configuration will make it more probable that people sit close to one another, facing each other, which will also increase the probability of them talking to each other. (It will not guarantee it.) I can work on the field of possibilities this particular intervention will open, instead of a narrow set of predefined specificities.

This approach leads to a more open, adaptable and therefore appropriable product. I think this same reasoning can bring us to more open solutions to a major problem that is at root a basic communication issue: How do we make a broad spectrum of a city’s population understand that a lower speed limit will decrease the overall chance of participating in a fatal traffic incident? What means do we use not only to explain the origins of a decision to reduce the speed limit, but also the positive consequences of its adoption at a personal level?

Just as individuality often excludes, anonymity can include. I will expand on this with a specific design proposal: If you see a vertical LED display that arranges a matrix of 20×200 pixels, where each pixel represents a death caused by a traffic incident in the city, a passerby will likely feel shocked by it, but will not feel close to the facts displayed. However, if that display becomes a site-specific beacon integrated with a traffic post, and the pixels are made to represent the deaths that have occurred on the very spot connected to a real-time feed, then you greatly reduce the possibility of spatial or temporary detachment. Passersby must understand that they are where these deaths happened. The anonymity of the information becomes inclusive, and the immediacy of the means of representation provoke a direct, unavoidable connection. The integration with a known code of communication gives it a sense of familiarity, even frugality.

The end message is clear: Someone died there. It could be someone you know—or it could even be you. You could be the offender, or you could be the victim. One small blinking dot could be your son, your friend, your spouse or yourself. Everyone, or in this case no one, is you. Then your decision to accelerate goes beyond a personal urge to defy authority or the quotidian circumstance of being in a hurry; you must face the question of whether, after speeding, that blinking dot might be you.