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Blog: Can less intrusive technologies help keep our green spaces visually quiet?

10th December 2015

John Lynch, Project Lead in Product & Service Design at the Future Cities Catapult, takes a speculative look at how he thinks connected E-Ink signage could improve public spaces.

One of most pleasant things about Hampstead Heath in London is that it has no signposts. Unlike the rest of the city you can get lost, lose your bearings amongst the trees and small valleys and, if only for a moment, forget that you’re in a huge metropolis. In contrast, the city instructs us at every turn; to obey, comply, to look left or even just to remind us exactly where we are at any given moment.

At Future Cities Catapult we’ve become interested in how dynamic signage might give the opportunity for a more finely tuned, sustainable and efficient balance of information delivery which is better suited to the quiet of our city’s green spaces.

The same technology that has brought libraries of books to our pockets, and allows us to switch on our central heating from the train, offers new opportunities to help cities communicate with people and to develop entirely new and better services. The much cited “internet of things” hasn’t yet delivered on the promise of wholesale new and improved services. However through low-energy signage it could begin to quietly change the way our cities are understood, read and communicate with citizens and the economy. From way-finding to safety, advertising to transport, the humble signpost, in it’s many forms, has remained the staple and static channel through which cities present information.

Of course, in some niche areas, dynamic digital channels have been used with success – such as the real-time information at transport stations, or in public space advertising. These can be characterised as bright, attention seeking, usually LED-driven displays, designed either with utility (bus stop notices) or spectacle in mind (high definition advertising screens). But new display technologies might offer a way for cities to communicate with citizens in a less obtrusive way and consuming far less energy than legacy digital signage. (See video here)

As technology develops, the same material that powers the display on an e-reader or some smartwatches is becoming available for use in the urban context. These crisp, high-contrast displays use a system which uses no energy at all in order to display static information. In addition, these displays are not obtrusive – they produce no light, meaning they might be better suited to sensitive heritage areas like parks or historic sites. An additional benefit in these areas, is the potential to reduce the clutter of multiple notices down to one, dynamic display tool.

In parks, the opportunity that presents itself is intriguing. Firstly, parks are places where signage and notices are a nuisance – and minimising this visual noise should be a priority. In addition, the overhead cost of refreshing such notices is high, requiring staff to travel over distances replacing notices and ensuring information is up to date. This at a time when funding for parks constantly decreases. To take the UK’s Royal Parks as an example, central government funding for these important sites was reduced from £18.8m in 2009/10 to just under £13.2m in 2015. New ways to make, and save money, while maintaining or improving the environment, are in demand.

Dynamic signage, presenting timely and useful information, might also get better attention from the public. During research conducted at a London park, an experienced manager commented that “people don’t read the signs anyway”. If real-time, pertinent information can change this, the opportunity may exist to increase revenue via this attention or save on costs through behaviour change.

Future Cities Catapult has, in this film, captured six fictional use cases to describe just some of the ways that this technology might be used in parks, to tackle existing challenges, but also to create new opportunities and better, more liveable cities.

These kinds of connected technologies belong to a category which actively effects the environment in which we live. “Actuators” create change, and help to change behaviours. Familiar urban actuators like traffic lights, access control systems and lighting controls have become ubiquitous and save time, lives and money every day. The internet of things offers many new ways in which we might act on our urban environment dynamically and in more efficient, sustainable and engaging ways.

We’d like to hear from cities, businesses and researchers who might be interested in prototyping and demonstrating these kinds of technologies in the UK, and overseas.

John Lynch – Project Lead, Product & Service Design

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