The relationship between HCI and Digital Civics – Urban HCI & Placemaking as synergies?

This blog post aims to explore how Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research can enhance the tools available to placemaking practises to create a richer and more engaging experience for citizens within the public realm. In turn, it looks at how placemaking can be used within Digital Civics research to create more informed citizens who feel empowered to take ownership of public space and foster a stronger sense of place amongst communities.

Put simply, HCI aims to study how humans interact with computers, where as Digital Civics aims to foster civic participation across all aspects of society including local democracy, health, education, privacy security and trust through digital means [1].

HCI should be harnessed as a catalyst for the creation of innovation within society. It should be questioning, provocative, disruptive and awkward in relation to other disciplines [2]. We should look at HCI not as a stand-alone discipline but as an inter-discipline that can foster new approaches to dealing with issues in our cities. I see placemaking as a potential synergy between HCI and Digital Civics offering the opportunity to use technology within an urban setting that has the potential to foster new experiences and challenge the relationship we have as citizens with public space.

Placemaking helps us to make sense of the built environment around us, it enables us to change how we feel and experience the public realm. Many papers report on user experience in HCI [3], [4] and ask HCI to consider the social, personal and emotive aspects of our interactions with technology. Digital Civics research in the context of placemaking can utilise this theory to take HCI as an experimental sensemaking tool that enables citizens to gain a deeper understanding of the places in which they reside.

Setting the context: The importance of placemaking in improving ‘the civics’

The growing trend of urbanisation across the globe is causing our towns and cities to change rapidly. Leaving local authorities with the headache of juggling a myriad of challenges around how we can build a more inclusive, safe, functional and productive city that meets the needs of its 21stcentury citizens. The answer may lie in our cities already existing assets: public spaces. Public spaces are an essential part of everyday city life and are a vital part of democratic politics. They are the place of citizenship that gives people the opportunity to interactand build a sense of community around a common identity [5]. However, many spaces are underused and have been neglected by both citizens and local authorities alike.

This has led to an increasing trend amongst local authorities and developers who are utilising the concept of placemaking in an attempt to revitalise public spaces and create a sense of place and belonging. However, this top-down approach has often failed to truly engage communities in any meaningful way and has not addressed the range of issues that affect citizens. On the other hand, new forms of DIY/guerrilla activism are beginning to utilise placemaking methods to address societal issues and create the places they want to live in using a bottom-up approach [6], in defiance of traditional models of urban planning.

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT defines placemaking as “the deliberate shaping of an environment to facilitate social interaction and improve a community’s quality of life”, noting that the iterative actions and collaborations inherent in the making of places nourishes communities and can empower citizens [7]. Placemaking has various facets, being either strategic, creative or tactical. A strategic approach aims to make investments in the regeneration or creation of public space in order to attract investment, residents or business to an area. Creative placemaking attempts to engage the arts and cultural strategies in order to enhance under-utilised spaces. Finally, tactical placemaking, aims to make small scale and temporary interventions to influence the redesign or change the use of a space [8].

With the democratisation of digital technologies in recent years, new opportunities are opening for citizens to build further on the concept of placemaking and create meaningful change in their communities. Through human computer interaction, we can develop innovative solutions in an urban context that create environments that foster civic debates around current issues in the city. Whilst at the same time helping to shape the future identity of the places in which we live [6].

Urban HCI and its benefits to placemaking practises

The term ‘Urban HCI’ has been used by numerous studies in recent years [9], [10] to define any situation that is made up of the built environment, the interface, a computer system and the overall social context. The central aim of Urban HCI is to focus on issues within the city rather than the lab, where context is an activity and not just a physical location point [9]. Thus taking a place-based and co-produced approach to research within the city [11]. Much of the research in this area is centred around the use of media and digital technologies that are situated in an urban context in order to understand how new interactions between people and technology can change how we think about and use public space.

Digital Placemaking

The growth in smartphone usage and location enabled devices coupled with the spreading of ubiquitous technologies across our cities are reshaping how we plan and design urban places. Many organisations are now looking towards placemaking as a means to create more engaging experiences in our cities that are increasingly interactive and responsive [12].

This has led to the rise in the term ‘digital placemaking’ which according to Calvium is “the augmentation of physical places with location-specific digital services, products or experiences to create more attractive destinations for all”. Through the use of location-specific technology digital placemaking aims to create stronger relationships between citizens and the physical spaces in which they inhabit whilst at the same time adding cultural, social and economic value to a place [13].

Digital Placemaking opens up a ‘hybrid space’ between the physical and digital world. [13]

Digital Placemaking can play an important role in HCI research. Offering opportunities to understand the boundaries between physical space and digital space. Enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of how the use of digital interventions can affect how we perceive place and change our relationship with the built environment. It offers new possibilities for citizens to interact with the city; from learning about the history of a place through digital storytelling to understanding how future developments could affect the existing fabric of the city.

Ideascape: Examples of Digital Placemaking practises in Cardiff Bay from Calcium showing how human computer interaction can support placemaking practises and foster a sense of place.

Media architectural interfaces

Tangible interactions have been used as a form of bringing HCI into an urban context [14], [15], using tangible artefacts throughout the public realm as a means to interact with digital facades. This has given rise to the term ‘media architectural interfaces’ [16]. These are interactive systems set within an urban environment that aim to entice people to step out of their normal routine and perceive the urban space in which they are situated in a different way [10].

There are a growing number of public information displays that are now being designed with tangible interfaces, affording new opportunities to actively attract and engage users of public space through informative data that promotes the idea of knowledge sharing amongst communities, local authorities and cultural organisations [15].

In my blog post on tangible interfaces in culture and heritage, it was noted that the integration of tangible technologies within museums and cultural attractions offers a world of opportunities to improve and deepen visitor experiences, with the possibility to present information in a fun and novel approach.

The physical interaction with museum artefacts can play an important role in helping visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the information on display. Affording visitors with the possibility to engage with museum pieces in a much more authentic and realistic way [17].

Not only do these new technologies offer a whole new world of possibilities for museums and art galleries but, tangible interactions have great potential to provide a means of bringing performances and participatory activities such as music concerts, cooking classes, dance recitals and street theatre etc., that have a physical presence in the real world into the narrated story world [18].

The use of tangible design within a cultural and heritage setting is opening up new ways of storytelling and enabling cultural and tourist organisations, researchers and historians alike to share knowledge with a wider audience. Embedding tangible interfaces into places within a cultural context enhances the arsenal of tools available to creative placemaking and presents us with new opportunities to increase citizen engagement through telling the story of a place’s past, present and future in an engaging, entertaining and accessible way.

A pilot study at University College London [16] looked at how the use of a media architectural interface could be used as a means to understand how the interaction between humans and computers could act as a platform for placemaking practises.

A view of ‘the pool’ digital installation in London [16].

An urban media installation, named ‘the pool’ was installed in a square at Canary Wharf in London. It aimed to understand human interactions with urban media by exploring how using the entire human body as an agent can engage with the public realm in novel ways, through a range of movements, such as walking, jumping or running across the installation. It was determined that the installation attracted people to the location, where they would linger and use the space for social activities, which had not been observed in this space prior to the implementation of the installation. ‘The pool’also increased social diversity, attracting a wider range of families and businesspeople alike to congregate in the space.

The researchers noted that providing the users engaged with the space in new and playful ways and changed their usual routine in the space, new meanings and relationships with the public realm could develop. As long as the development of these new meanings and relationships were positive, they could change people’s perceptions of a location and create a deeper attachment to a place.

It can be said that media architectural interfaces, whether through tangible design or through an urban media installation, can be used in order to foster social awareness, increase participation in community activities, build a sense of place attachment and create an environment for debate around issues relevant to that community [16].

Participatory design in HCI and the role of ‘the user’ within an urban context

The change in HCI from human factors to human actors and finally to participatory design can be seen to mirror the development of the idea of placemaking and urban planning more generally [19], with the work of influence planners such as Jane Jacobs [20], [21]who challenged the notion of planning as a representative practise and called for a more participatory approach that involved communities through consultations. Placemaking practises should now, with the assistance of HCI build on these advancements in planning to go a step further and co-design and co-produce developments in our towns and cities.

The broad spectrum of urban planning that includes, urban design, urban interaction design and placemaking, has as its central focus, the needs of ‘the user’ within public space. This could be in the form of a resident, a visitor, an explorer, an occupant, an onlooker, or a citizen to name but a few. However, HCI’s focus within the human elements of the discipline have been centred around psychology, cognitive science and human factors engineering. Raising the question as to whether ‘the user’, within the context of urban HCI, needs to be thought of differently, beyond the traditional concerns within HCI that is centred around the usability of technical interfaces [19].

If HCI is to be used as an effective tool within an urban context, it must encapsulate and address the issues of the diverse range of users within the city. The user as a consumer of resources, as a resident, as a participant or as a co-designer of the city [19]. It is therefore important that as a digital civics researcher we ensure that HCI is used in a broader sense within an urban context, one that incorporates not only how the user experiences a place through technology but also how we can utilise technology to leverage a process of co-design and co-production amongst different users of the city. There needs to be a synergy between HCI as an inter-discipline and Digital Civics as an inter-discipline to ensure that research effectively tackles the diverse range of societal issues within the public sphere.

It is important to define what the role of ‘the user’ is within a city, establishing how and why we can appropriate technology to form collective power as citizens that influences the decisions that determine how we interact and develop the urban realm. Harvey (2012, pg. 4) argues this fact, stating:

“the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” [22]

Participatory design practises offer the potential for digital civics researchers to involve people in the process of designing technologies that address these societal issues, situated within an urban context. Participatory design can therefore foster the creation of collaborative partnerships and affords the co-construction of knowledge and co-construction of change within society [23].

It is, however, important to note that the use of technologies is not always the answer to facilitating a participatory approach to designing in an urban context.  As Harvey [22] argued the kinds of technologies we deem appropriate should be carefully considered.

Some have argued that technology can cause exclusion from the design process [24], with the stigmas attached to allowing more and more technology into our everyday lives [25] coupled with people’s self-perceived illiteracy in using a technical system [26]means that technology could act as a barrier to participation rather than a facilitator.  However numerous studies refuted these claims, showing how technology can be used to facilitate participation and empower communities [27].


I believe HCI cannot exist as a stand-alone science, it must act as an interdisciplinary field. With the wide spread use of technology in every aspect of our lives, and the growth of ubiquitous computing, HCI must consider the influence of technology on wider societal issues. In particular, it should explore the effects of technology on the issues that typify digital civics research around citizen empowerment and the ways in which we can improve civic life within an urban context through the use of technology – described in this post as ‘Urban HCI’.

As HCI has gradually moved from researching within professional environments of the office and the domestic environments of the home [19], moving in to the urban realm, it can be said that cities offer great potential to gain a deeper understanding within HCI research. I feel that Digital Civics research is best placed to tackle this phenomenon.  It forces the HCI community to focus on areas such as giving agency to citizens, creating fulfilment within communities and fostering social justice [27].

Urban HCI acknowledges the valuable role an interdisciplinary perspective can have when we incorporate interactive technologies within a public setting. These urban HCI interventions create playful interactions and experiences amongst users of a public space and can foster meaningful connections between people and the build environment [28]. This idea of community placemaking where the user of the space plays a role in the interpretation of, and development of, a space can foster community engagement around the making of a city.

Urban HCI can enrich placemaking practices through the use of tangible interfaces, digital placemaking and public media displays, it can act as a synergy between HCI research and digital civics by offering new ways in which we can understand the relationship between people and place. Enabling us to meet the ultimate aim of digital civics research [29], by empowering citizens to have more influence in the shaping of our societies through the use of technology.


[1]       ‘Digital Civics – What is Digital Civics’ from: accessed: 04/12/18.

[2]       A. F. Blackwell, ‘HCI as an Inter-Discipline’, in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’15, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 2015, pp. 503–516.

[3]       J. McCarthy and P. Wright, ‘Technology as experience’, excerpt, 2004

[4]       J. McCarthy and P. Wright, ‘Technology as experience’, interactions, vol. 11, no. 5, p. 42, Sep. 2004.

[5]       The User Project, ‘Improving the uses of public spaces in European cities’, Contributions from The User Project, n.d.

[6]       J. Fredericks, L. Hespanhol, and M. Tomitsch, ‘Not just pretty lights: using digital technologies to inform city making’, in Proceedings of the 3rd Conference on Media Architecture Biennale – MAB, Sydney, Australia, 2016, pp. 1–9.

[7]       S. Silberberg, K. Lorah, R. Disbrow, A. Muessig, and A. Naparstek, ‘How placemaking builds places and communities’, p. 72.

[8]       ‘Why placemaking is now place marketing’,Resonance Consultancy. From: Accessed: 04/12/2018.

[9]       P. T. Fischer and E. Hornecker, ‘Urban HCI: spatial aspects in the design of shared encounters for media facades’, in Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’12, Austin, Texas, USA, 2012, p. 307.

[10]     M. Foth, M. Brynskov, and T. Ojala, Citizen’s Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Springer, 2015.

[11]     P. Wright and P. Oliver, ‘Digital Civics and the Cities Challenge’ Open Lab, School of Computing, Newcastle University, n.d.

[12]     A. P. Mathew, ‘Interactive Placemaking: Creativity and User Experience at Urban Installations’, p. 291.

[13]     ‘Digital Placemaking – for the heritage, urban development and local government sectors’, Calvium. From: Accessed: 02/12/2018.

[14]     M. Smyth and I. Helgason, ‘Tangible possibilities—envisioning interactions in public space’, Digit. Creat., vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 75–87, Mar. 2013.

[15]     S. Claes and A. V. Moere, ‘The Role of Tangible Interaction in Exploring Information on Public Visualization Displays’, in Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Pervasive Displays – PerDis ’15, Saarbruecken, Germany, 2015, pp. 201–207.

[16]     A. G. Afonso, ‘Full Bodily Engagement as a Means for Placemaking’, p. 3.

[17]     D. Duranti, D. Spallazzo, and R. Trocchianesi, ‘Tangible interaction in museums and temporary exhibitions: embedding and embodying the intangible values of cultural heritage’, in Libro de Actas – Systems & Design: Beyond Processes and Thinking (IFDP – SD2016), 2016.

[18]     J. H. Chu, ‘Designing Tangible Interfaces to Support Expression and Sensemaking in Interactive Narratives’, in Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction – TEI ’14, Stanford, California, USA, 2015, pp. 457–460.

[19]     M. Foth, ‘Participation, Co-Creation, and Public Space’, J. Public Space, vol. 2, no. 4, p. 21, Dec. 2017.

[20]     T. J. Campanella, ‘Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning’, Places J., no. 2011, Apr. 2011.

[21]     J. Jacobs, ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’, p. 474, 1961.

[22]     D. Harvey, Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution. New York: Verso, 2012.

[23]     J. Gregory, ‘Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design’, International Journal of Engineering, Vol. 19, No.1, pp. 62-74, 2003

[24]     ‘Digital exclusion – the unintended consequences of technology | Social Platform’, Accessed: 01/12/2018

[25]     S. Ohri, ‘The Innovation of Pervasive Computing’, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 8, 2016.

[26]     M., A., Al-Alaoui, ‘From illiteracy to computer literacy: Teaching and learning using Information technology, n.d.

[27]     H. Schneider, M. Eiband, D. Ullrich, and A. Butz, ‘Empowerment in HCI – A Survey and Framework’, in Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems  – CHI ’18, Montreal QC, Canada, 2018, pp. 1–14.

[28]     J. Fredericks, G. A. Caldwell, and M. Tomitsch, ‘Middle-out design: collaborative community engagement in urban HCI’, in Proceedings of the 28th Australian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction – OzCHI ’16, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, 2016, pp. 200–204.

[29]     V. Vlachokyriakos, C. Crivellaro, C. A. Le Dantec, E. Gordon, P. Wright, and P. Olivier, ‘Digital Civics: Citizen Empowerment With and Through Technology’, in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’16, Santa Clara, California, USA, 2016, pp. 1096–1099.

Cover image from: Accessed: 11/12/18

Author: Bobbie Bailey

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