A view of the future

How do you create an image of something that’s no longer there or that does not yet exist?

It’s not always easy for local governments to communicate in an easily understandable manner on past or future changes of the public space,  especially if they want the link between past and present or between present and future to be visible on-site in the public space.

Plans for the drastic renovation of a village square can be announced by sending letters to the local residents or setting up a scale model in the town hall. But how can you show passers-by exactly what the square will look like once the renovation will be completed?

Although heritage organisations are experts in confronting physical places with their past, for instance by means of enlarged historical photographs, they haven’t as yet succeeded in really bringing the past to life.

And what if time travel was really possible?

Design agency pilipili took up the challenge to make time travel possible, with the help of erfgoed zuidwest and a few towns. Pilipili had already been involved in cocreation projects with public authorities, e.g. within the context of the K-totem, an initiative of Designregio Kortrijk. Brecht Bonte of pilipili was more than happy to participate in another cocreation process: “Although it didn’t concern a highly urgent challenge like combatting soil artificialisation, it is a fact that all cities and towns are sooner or later confronted with the need for clear and tangible communication about and in the public space. They had already tried out different possibilities, like information kiosks at roadwork sites. Based on their experience and our approach, we defined a number of criteria for the concept.”

The wish list is the following:

  • Visible: a discreet information panel in a corner of the square is not an option. The concept has to be conspicuous.
  • Beautiful: the concept has to be conspicuous in a positive way. This means that the design should not clash with the environment.
  • Accessible: it must be something that is literally easy to reach by all passers-by and local residents, including children or people with a disability.
  • User-friendly: the concept must be easy to use. This means no complicated installations or control panels.
  • Safe: the object will be installed in the public space and must therefore comply with a number of regulations.
  • Mobile: the public space is in constant evolution. The concept must evolve accordingly. It must therefore be easy to install and remove.
  • Interactive: the concept preferably does more than merely provide information. Interaction must be possible so as to turn the observer into a real user.
Physical with a digital layer

The partners set to work on the basis of this wish list. This resulted in a two-part concept:

  1. A physical dimension. A 3D printer was used to make modular concrete elements that can be stacked anywhere in the public space. The design brings to mind a “brick man”. The openings in the design literally offer a perspective of the past or the future. The bricks can be combined in many different ways; they can even be shaped into a bench.
  2. A digital dimension. QR codes give users access to a digital portal,  where more information is available. This information may be minimal, like extra photos or texts. But it may also be very tangible, e.g. via holograms or augmented reality.

In the cross-border context of TRIPOD-II, inspiration for the digital dimension was drawn from enterprises in Wallonia and the North of France. A particularly inspiring world of opportunities opened up. Time travel is still not possible, but travelling from a physical place to the digital world and back is. Although a few decisions must still be made, Brecht Bonte explains: “At pilipili, we were already exploring the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality. What we saw in those companies made the possibilities a lot more tangible. An AR environment, a 360° view of the future, holograms: technology enables you to bring the past and the future a lot closer, adding a lot of value to the physical object. However, it also raises additional questions, such as: Which information will be shared and who will manage that information?”

There are still a few practical issues to be settled before the first concrete “brick men” will be visible in the streets. But the process has shown that the wish list is realistic and that it is possible to show people what the past looked like or what the future may look like.

Public partners