design thinking initiatives for a better urban life
SoundTrek activates space psychically and emotionally by framing and sharing user experience of space in real time and along several experiential axes. SoundTrek is a socio-spatial music sharing mobile application that curates user generated playlists to play back to other users only under specific conditions. Songs are geo-coded and pinned to coordinates along with time, season, weather conditions and user information enabling users to discover, often by surprise, music tied to the spaces they use.
Space + experience = place
In this equation, the built environment plus the experience of that environment equals “place”. In 2006, the Project for Public Space asked people how they define “placemaking, “ and by far the most frequent and compelling answers included; connection, memorability, shared stories and experience, humanity and the purposeful creation of character and meaning in public spaces. While “place” and “placemaking” often refer to the physical activation of the built environment through design and alteration promoting, usability, the question remains that perhaps there are more subtle techniques that lend themselves to achieving the goals laid out above.
What it takes to “know” a space? What experience of the space leads us to feel connected, to remember, to share, and to feel a space has character and meaning? How did we learn about the spaces we know? What was the lesson and who gave it?
Finding the entry point for this project was no easy task. With the equation above as a template, various ideas were developed from interviews with community activists in Jamaica Plain and East Boston, and videographers in New York City. These included: Pop-up playgroups based on real-time population data delivered from neighborhood playgrounds, the field and playtime allocation for pick-up soccer games in the city, a project on segregation and public space, and a video mapping project based on MyBlockNYC.org.
The project finally landed on Boston’s tour guides, specifically Boston Duck Tours and Cambridge Historical Tours in Harvard Square. Interviews with two of the tour guides who work for these businesses were instrumental in furthering and honing the idea that resulted in SoundTrek. Often tour guides are professional actors who may or may not live in the area. Their job is to entertain. While they pride themselves on their research and local knowledge, they are often directed to recommend certain places and businesses in the city. They share historical and trivial anecdotes about the actual built environment and but their lessons lack the experiential element of the space, thus depriving it of “place.” Adding the element of experience to the lesson of space led to interviews and videos of local people who shared their “favorite places in Boston.” Locals can teach us about both space and their personal experience in the space, but does their experience resonate with us?
The ‘needle drop’ is a term used in movies when popular music is laid on a scene in place of traditional score. Nobody knows this better than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino explains his attention to detail when it comes to music in film in an interview with Arts District. “To me, my soundtracks work as two different things. They work as a little shadow version of the movie itself. If you like the movie and you want to carry it around with you and not have to watch the story all the time but still get the feel and sense of it, they allow you to do that.” Music can be used as shorthand to quickly illustrate a state of mind, an emotion or an experience, it is intimate and connecting. When watching a movie, one knows exactly what to feel at any moment via the scene and soundtrack. SoundTrek would allow users, much like a film director, to frame their real-time, physical scene by “dropping” the perfect audio track to capture the moment and then share that moment with an audience of other users. With one song users could share the idea that “this is me in this space at this moment” thus transforming a space into a place and achieving some of the goals of the Project for Public Spaces; connection, memorability, shared stories and experience, humanity and the purposeful creation of character and meaning in public spaces.
The final review of SoundTrek, the idea and rough design, raised interesting questions about data collection and analysis. Presumably one could take the emotional temperature of a city or even a part of the city using the songs and playlists as data points. Over time, cities could be compared to each other and a better data metric for “happiness” could be established. Another interesting piece could be data collected over time in a single city and how the music sharing related to changing demographics and ethnography.
SoundTrek is an idea and application that works best in an urban setting because living in the city increases the odds of serendipitous encounters. SoundTrek is the record of a personal moment, though ephemeral, that can lead the user to new discoveries, experiences or feelings. Its expression as a mobile app does not hinder the rhythm and movement of the user through the built environment. SoundTrek is calculated urban serendipity, a romantic, sentimental concept perhaps, but one that provides emotional, intimate, spatial connection in otherwise routine and anonymous urbanity.