Digital communities: Are they real?

                                                                  Campo de Cebada, La Latina, Madrid (Zepelin)

A week ago, the Prix Ars Electronica, one of the most important awards for creativity in the field of digital media, was awarded to ‘El Campo de Cebada’ as the best practice in the category of ‘Digital Communities’. I visited the website to learn more about this “barley field”.

‘El Campo de Cebada’ is a 5,500 square meter area in the La Latina neighbourhood, at the very heart of the historic centre of Madrid. It was once left vacant and converted into a temporary installation. Then, as the architect David Bravo explains, the parents of children attending nearby schools and collectives of young architects came together under the name ‘El Campo de Cebada’ to maintain the community’s use of the space. They signed an agreement with the city council for its temporary lease.

While reading more on this experience, I wondered why ‘El Campo de Cebada’ had been recognised as a digital community. It didn’t look digital at all. There was indeed a website but every piece of news on it had to do with REAL people getting together to organise REAL projects.

-          Is it enough to launch a crowd-funding campaign for a geodesic dome that will host activities during the winter to be labelled as a digital community and get the best prize in the field of electronic media?

-          Is it enough to state the importance of open data to be considered as a digital community?

I realised that the issue at hand seems to be a brand new definition of “digital community”, based on the need to boost human interaction with all available means, including technology.

‘El Campo de Cebada’ is a magnificent example of Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts written in 1972, long before the surge of digital communities. Nicholson writes:

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”.

He adds that “it does not require much imagination to realise that most environments that do not work (i.e. do not work in terms of human interaction and involvement in the sense described) such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals, day-care centres, international airports, art galleries and museums do not do so because they do not meet the ‘loose part’ requirement; instead they are clean, static and impossible to play around with. What has happened is that adults – in the form of professional artists, architects, landscape architects and planners – have had all the fun playing with their own materials, concepts and planning alternatives (…) and thus has all the fun and creativity been stolen: children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right’ ”.

Nicholson argues that “the dominant cultural elite tell us that the planning, design and building of any part of the environment is so difficult and so special that only the gifted few can properly solve environmental problems”. He didn’t mention at the time the ‘dominant technological elite’ that tells us today that digital applications help people to interact with the city, “since these applications make it more efficient, interactive, attractive, adaptive and flexible”. In both cases, there is no room for loose parts.

‘El Campo de Cebada’ is an initiative that attempts to recover the ‘loose parts’ that ultimately constitute the building blocks of a digital community. It directly involves the residents in the architectural design of the space and in programming the activities that will take place in it.

It looks like one of the best examples of a ‘smart city’ based on collective intelligence. According to Manuel Pascual, a Campo de Cebada neighbour and architect of the studio Zuloark, "a smart city has more to do with participation and open data than with a urbanism full of sensors".

Thus, we will argue that a digital community that focuses on real human interactions is a REAL community making full use of digital devices to strengthen genuine participation and achieve REAL changes in people’s daily lives.

 

 

 

One Response to “ “Digital communities: Are they real?”

  1. Montse says:

    Good to read about the REAL feel when people makes money with inexisting communities and ghost and UNREAL followers. I think you pointed to a great asset: they could play around with something of their INTEREST. Interest-based communities are the most active, generally. And technology becomes the day-to-day arena and the face-to-face comm is left for special occasions. Let’s think about runners, that communicate several times per week -anytime they run- but only gather together once per week, month, year… Also photographers… Themathic networks will probably succeed due to this. Digital communities exists. For sure. I belong to a few.

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