The Field Guide to Digital and/as Public Space

November 19, 2021

At the height of the pandemic much of our public life – from education to cultural programming, health and wellness to social interaction – shifted online. This in itself wasn’t the wholesale change that many claimed. Public space has always existed on digital platforms – from chat rooms to video platforms, from Twitter to Twitch. Yet, the lack of access to shared physical space paired with rapidly evolving networks and protocols fundamentally changed our notions of the communal experience. The conditions for the commons were being challenged as never before. 

As public space operators, programmers, and developers, The Bentway sought to better understand this shift, as the emergence of a digital Bentway seemed like an inevitability, but how critical is it for place-based organizations to occupy a digital ‘space’? Can a hybrid approach better enable us to “toggle” between online and offline spaces to build organizational and community resilience?

In early 2021 we launched the Digital and/as Public Space initiative, with a series of lofty goals.  In search of the elusive hybrid condition, where digital and physical spaces meet rather than mediate one another, we aimed to overcome access barriers, explore new mechanics for navigating the city, animating public space, promoting civic engagement, and supporting community resilience in online and offline and hybrid contexts.

Recognizing our own limits and knowledge gaps, The Bentway partnered with Toronto-based studio, From Later, a transdisciplinary team whose work focuses on understanding change and building possible futures, and who helped to help steer the development of the research.

While we set out with clear objectives for their work, the results are less singular or straightforward. Perhaps naively we began by searching for technological answers to these complex questions, but were quickly reminded that our world is not determined by technology; our techniques are conditioned by them. This was never solely a spatial project, but a study in relations between people, places, and protocols – an effort to better understand publicness – the fundamental element for any public space.

How we learn to use, (mis)use, and shape digital techniques in the interest of community care, shared agency, and unmediated interaction will be one of the key legacies of this moment. It is these relations between publics that will transform the space around and determine that space’s publicness. It is here we will find the conditions for a hybrid future and the multiple overlapping spheres of public interaction – from the physical to digital, instinctual to ritualistic, unexpected to the everyday.

November 30 – A Collective Sensemaking Session

Join The Bentway, From Later, and residents of the Digital and/as Public Space initiative for the launch of the Field Guide to Digital and/as Public Space – a special event that culminates an exploration into the futures of public spaces and digital technologies.

The Field Guide to Digital and/as Public Space is a living document, designed to be rearranged, remixed, and expanded. It provides cues for situating oneself among the possibilities and affordances of digital techniques, so that we can sense the potential of what could be, not chart what already is.

Tune in to a live discussion on YouTube on November 30. You can also join in on the collective sensemaking using our Miro board – where we’ll continue to arrange new connections, constructing this field together.

Digital and/as Public Space is an initiative by The Bentway and From Later, with design by Nomadic Labs and support from the Balsam Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts.