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Democracy version 2.0

Aarhus will be in focus this weekend when the international worlds of architecture and art join forces with world-leading scientists and top names in the technology industry. The aim is to push democracy into the next century.

2012.11.13 | Rasmus Rørbæk Christensen

Martin Brynskov, Aarhus University, is the general chair of the organising committee for the international biennale, which has invited the world’s leading forces in media architecture to come to Aarhus in the near future. Two researchers can be glimpsed in the background as they set up the 5000 LED lights that will transform the Aarhus landmark – the City Hall Tower – into one of the tangible visions of the democracy of the future. (photo: Rasmus Rørbæk)

There is more to media architecture than the decoration of buildings. The fusion of architecture and digital media can change the urban landscape and society – and provide citizens with new opportunities and influence. This is what the biennale is focusing on. (photo: Wolfgang Leeb)

In the near future, Aarhus will be the place in the world where citizens can experience and take part in the public spaces of the future. This begins on 15 November, when the Media Architecture Biennale 2012 brings together the absolute leaders in media architecture from all over the world – and invites the public to experience that the city is literally capable of communicating with the individual.

The urban landscape will feature a considerable number of technological innovations and novel ideas. One of the most eye-catching of these for the citizens of Aarhus is the sixty-metre-high City Hall Tower, where 5000 LED bulbs will transform the tower into a digital image of local residents attending the municipal offices. The visualisation on the tower is based on the problems and proposals for improvements received by the municipality since 2008, and this should send a clear message that everyone in the city has an opportunity to make Aarhus a better place in which to live.

The project transforming the Aarhus landmark is called the City Bug Report. It was devised by a group of researchers at the interdisciplinary PIT centre, which recently opened at Aarhus University. PIT stands for Participatory Information Technology, and the centre focuses on how people experience, understand and shape technology. The City Hall Tower is one of the tangible visions of the future dialogue between system and citizen, based on digital solutions.

“The City Bug Report is intended to break with the model where citizens write nasty letters to the editor in order to be heard, and where the public sector has a processing system that’s unclear and doesn’t necessarily make sense to the people involved. An interesting element of the media architecture of the future is to provide users with ownership of the content that can be found and used digitally.

The overall aim of MAB 2012 is to bring together the strongest forces in media architecture and ask a number of questions. What is technologically possible today? How do consumers use technology? What options are available for scientists, architects, artists, decision-makers and innovators to help further develop things in a positive direction?” explains Associate Professor Martin Brynskov, who is part of PIT and general chair of the organising committee for the biennale, where Aarhus University is one of the main organisers.

Media architecture?!

Media architecture is a fusion of architecture and media, when the facade of a house is also a screen, for example. It is the interface on a smartphone, or the temporary transformation of a building’s appearance by means of lights and projections.

City planners and architects can incorporate buildings as a natural channel for citizen communication, or design houses that react in different ways to resident actions. A completely third option is to use urban facades as city dressing – to support events or communicate specific messages. More and more examples of this type of media architecture are appearing, and it is making rapid progress.

“This is obvious at the City Hall, for example. It’s basically a proposal for a communication tool between citizens and the system, and a way to provide residents with an opportunity to solve some of the challenges they otherwise find annoying. We’re focusing on the municipality because that’s where citizens experience everyday activities – democracy is put into practice in the community.

The biennale would like to show what’s available right now. In addition to public exhibitions, there’ll be a number of top meetings where the world’s leading forces in media architecture can investigate and develop the solutions of the future,” says Associate Professor Brynskov.

Perfect timing

For Associate Professor Brynskov and the other Aarhus researchers at PIT, the task for the coming years is to develop technological options. While digitisation will come to play a more and more significant role in most aspects of our lives, there are still a number of challenges when it comes to understanding why each individual is not a more active participant in the digital life.

“Digitisation should be used as an opportunity to rethink societal norms. Pure and simple,” he says.

There is actually more to media architecture than the artistic or commercial decoration of buildings. The fusion of architecture and digital media can change the urban landscape and society – and provide citizens with new opportunities and influence. The work undertaken by Associate Professor Brynskov and the other PIT researchers at Aarhus University is therefore important.

“With the digitisation strategy, the government, the regions and the National Association of Local Authorities in Denmark have set an ambitious target that eighty per cent of communication between citizens and the public sector should take place digitally by 2015. We’re in a unique situation, where the timing is perfect for focusing on precisely this field of research.

The public sector is facing radical changes regarding digitisation. There’ll be a massive reorganisation of public sector administration in the next decade, and the presence of Aarhus University means that the city of Aarhus is the place in Denmark where people are most familiar with digital applications. Relatively speaking, this is actually where most twenty to thirty-year-olds are demographically located – which means that this is where the talent mass is found.

For me as a tenured researcher at Aarhus University, I’ll regard it as virtually a civic duty to get involved in research and development of the technology that will create a basis for a new form of democracy, because it’s essential to develop systems that can include the citizens.

PIT is extremely privileged to have a base in Denmark’s second-largest city – and to have an opportunity to use this framework in a scientific way via strong collaboration with the municipality, especially in partnership with the Smart Aarhus initiative. You could say that where physicists have CERN, PIT now has Aarhus,” says Associate Professor Brynskov.

The Media Architecture Biennale 2012 will be held in Aarhus on 15–17 November. Throughout the next month, however, Aarhus would like to invite everyone to experience the latest technology and see interesting installations and exhibitions at venues such as the railway goods yard. Read much more about the biennale here and see where you can attend the lectures, exhibitions and installations. In addition to the weekend activities, there will be a considerable number of events for the public during the course of November. You can also read more about Aarhus University’s new PIT centre – Participatory Information Technology – here.

Conference, IT, computer science and mathematics, People and cultures, Arts, Science and Technology, Public / media
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Revised 2015.08.26

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