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Everybody Knows This Isn’t Nowhere: Designing for Non-Places

By justincranshaw3 months ago - permalink

Tags: civic tech nonplaceproject transit human mobility urban mobility

This summer at FUSE, we’ve been thinking about the “non-places” that people spend much of their lives at every day. While this term might be new to you, the concept is surely familiar. Maybe you’re even reading this post from a non-place right now. Non-places are the transient waypoints we pass through on the way to where we are going. When we’re stuck in traffic on the highway on our way home from work, or waiting at the terminal for our flight to depart, or riding the subway surrounded by the same familiar strangers each morning, we’re at non-places. We visit non-places often, but they are never our destinations. 


One concern with non-places and the increasing role they play in our lives, is that they are without character, and promote feelings of detachment. Despite the large number of people constantly passing through non-places, they lack a sense of community. We’re starting to investigate what role social computing systems might play in addressing some of the shortcomings of non-places.

Technologies for Surfacing Communities around Non-Places
Non-places are distinct from “nowhere” in a critical way: our common human experiences at non-places imbues them with meaning, defining latent communities through co-presence. If you poke around the social web for a while, it doesn’t take long to find people grabbing hold of these latent communities online in ad hoc ways. On Reddit you can find people exchanging stories and tips about public transit, for example sharing their praise and admiration for bus drivers or commiserating with one another over transit horror stories. On Foursquare, it’s common to see people check-in to non-place venues such as traffic jams. Airports are also among the most common Foursquare check-ins, giving people a way to signal their arrivals and departures, but also to be virtually present with their fellow travelers in transportation-limbo. Similarly, apps like Waze connect people in a lighthearted way with others on the road (often when they’re stuck in traffic). What other technologies can we design to surface these latent communities and give them a voice and a purpose?

One of the reasons we’re excited about this topic is that so much of our collective human attention is lying dormant as we pass through non-places. We sit on the bus, thumbing through the trendiest apps of the day, alone together with all the other passengers who thumb through the same apps. How can we leverage the attention of people at non-places? What problems can this community be tasked to solve collectively?


Though it’s too early for us to reveal what we’re planning (stay tuned!!), we’re experimenting with the design of a mobile app that:

  • automatically groups people on trips that start and end near each other;
  • surfaces latent non-place communities by connecting people who are on these common paths; and
  • enables communication among the members of these communities.

This app will help us investigate how to design systems to cultivate communities for non-places. Over the summer we’re looking to explore questions of anonymity, identity, and engagement. How do we design social computing systems that allow people to connect, but are respectful of the delicate social balance of non-places?

Beyond communication, once we identified and cultivated these communities, we are interested in exploring how we can build new forms of transportation. Just over the last few years, innovations in transportation technology are rapidly changing the way we get around. By reducing the effort required to share excess transportation supply, services such as ÜberLyftCar2Go, and bike sharing systems such as CitiBike are recalibrating what we thought was possible in transportation. Yet, we feel the transportation revolution in computing is just getting started. Imagine how much more would be achievable if we could unlock the power of the communities on the road. Can we finally solve the on-demand ride-sharing problem? Can we encourage healthier and more sustainable transportation decisions? Can we eliminate congestion? Can we build better, more efficient, and more “human” bus systems?

You can follow our progress on Twitter at @NonPlaceProject to stay in touch. We also need your help!  Help us better understand the role that non-places play in your life. Are you part of a latent transportation-based community? Share your thoughts and stories below or on Twitter.

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