From Hacking To Trust: An Interview With Scott Burnham

A few weeks ago, during our experience in Milan, I had the chance to talk with Scott Burnham in the context of an open conversation on design organized by the Design Academy Eindhoven. The theme of the meeting was Trust, the title of the latest research project run by Premsela and Archis, which you can find as a supplement to the latest Volume issue in the shape of a record. Scott Burnham spent many of his last years researching design and creativity, while building huge prototype platforms such as Urban Play in Amsterdam. For a wider overview of his work, check out his website.

What led to the change from Urban Play, a project investigating urban hacking practices, to Trust Design, more related to the dynamics of production?
“There is a stronger connection between the two than you would perceive. Urban play was about realizing that we need to have a different attitude towards creativity in the city. It was exploring new approaches to urban design. While Trust Design is about exploring a new attitude and approaches towards design itself. So the two are about finding new avenues to creativity, either through a relationship with public space in an urban environment, or with the things we buy and use. My interest is focused on our relationship with design, both in terms of the spaces and the things that we share. So if you’re in the city, public space is something that we share. Urban Play was asking if it is possible to create new relationships or new forms of creativity in this environment. I believe that the same questions need to be asked of our products. The only real difference is that the work I do in the streets of cities is physical and Trust Design is research. That said, during my research with Trust Design I have also been working with a lot of universities and design schools to move the ethos behind Urban Play more into the design approach towards the city. I’m working to develop projects that create design with the city, instead of designing for the city. That means working with the existing urban infrastructure to find new harmonies in weaving design into the existing fabric of the city, rather than creating something new and dropping it into the space. In that sense, design can learn a lot from urban interventions. At their hearts, both Trust Design and Urban Play share a focus on the individual, rather than the industry.”

Although we put a lot of efforts in creating them, experiences like Urban Play are limited in terms of time, do you think that they still can influence the evolution of the city?
“I think the results that we are trying to achieve are bigger than the single moments of the experiences themselves. Urban Play and similar projects are better understood as a sort of laboratory, rather than a final product. They’re a window to a different attitude in our relationship with the city, showing what would happen if people were free to relate to the spaces of the city. Although not every citizen will interact in physical ways with the city, there are smaller actions that are performed every day which show us how people are hacking public space — even when you hang your coat on a fence while waiting the bus, you are hacking a piece of the urban structure in a different function from the one it was originally designed for. In the effort of collecting all these small actions in one platform, I recently started the Urban Guide For Alternate Use, which is a side research project that shows how people are using the physical city in different ways.”

Switching from a focus on the language to a focus on the individual means opening doors to the dynamics of crowd-sourcing? Is crowd-sourcing the right step in order to create trust in design?
“Definitely. It is useful in order to create a mutual relationship, something good for both of us. Interesting examples are services that help the citizens interact and take care of their cities, like Fix My Street. What we’re talking about is the individual having a dialogue with the physical city, a first step towards doing things yourself, like what’s happening for bike lanes, for instance. That partly happens also in street art, but, beside that field, what I’m interested in is the idea behind the actions of someone who’s trying to create a different use for the city, or a different way of looking at it.”

Are these processes underlining a lack of confidence in front of professional designers?
“It is somewhat a lack of confidence, but also a statement, that the individual wants to have a greater voice in the things, and spaces, they use. It is no longer a one-way statement from the professional to the user, but a two-way dialogue between them. While in the past the process has been a one-way route of a consumer purchasing something in almost isolation from the process behind its creation, that model doesn’t work anymore. When there’s only the designer speaking at the public and not talking with them, trust breaks down.”

In order to create a product made with the co-operation of the users, you often need to collect a lot of data. Recently developed applications are relying on private information obtained from the user in order to return a product, is this an excess in the dynamics of trust and transparency?
“The first thing required is what has been called a symmetry of information – the person collecting data or information from its users need to be completely transparent about what they are collecting and what will be done with it. Without that level of transparency and truth, trust will never be achieved. If done correctly, and the data collection and use is transparent, it could increase trust. If our interests and information are part of the creative process in the products, then we have a deeper relationship with them, and perhaps a more trusted one. This same principle applies very much to urban space as well. If you think of CCTV cameras and the amount of video and data they collect, then why isn’t there an easy process for us to also have access to what those cameras see and what they are collecting. If they are meant to create trust in urban spaces, then they have to work with the mechanics of trust in how they operate. There have been some wonderful urban interventions playing with this concept (see the work by Collective CC in Lisbon). Again, this is the link I see between Urban Play and Trust Design, making people ask questions about the things that we share, regardless of if it is public space or a product we buy.”

Last question: is trust conservative?
“(Laugh), I don’t think trust has any political affiliation. That said, there is another way to think about this – fear is conservative. And trust is the opposite of fear.”