UrbanIxD Summer School

Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena
Re: UrbanIxD


I see contemporary design concerned with solving a problem and art as concerned with raising a question or issue. […] The overlap is quite rich for aesthetic and/or speculative works.

Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena is a Venezuelan media architect working at the intersection of physical and digital design. He is also atelier leader at our summer school.

How would you place your work in the context of the contemporay design/art practice?

I have a mixed background in architecture and interaction design but with experience in additional fields as varied as video art, physical computing, sound design and VJ’ing.

I call this practice “media architecture” as a catchall for the notion that data, media and physical experience can be merged in designs that create new perceptions of spatial experiences and shape social behaviors.

How do you see the current relation between the design and art?

I see contemporary design concerned with solving a problem and art as concerned with raising a question or issue. Both share creativity at its root, and we may find elements of both in an artist or designer through history – from Michelangelo, the Arts & Crafts movement, Bauhaus to Dunne & Raby. The overlap is quite rich for aesthetic and/or speculative works.

I see designers borrowing plenty of ideas from art, but not so much the other way around. When an artist draws inspiration from design, often the output seems to fall out of the artistic and into the commercial one way or another. Not that there is anything wrong with that – a lot of current art is commercial to begin with.

What is the role of the critical design approach today and how important is it in your work?

I would say that critical design is the Velvet Underground of the design world – it’s not for the mainstream, but those that do follow its contribution and ideas are often other designers that will be making the next few waves of popular design innovations.

I think I have done a few artworks that align with aspects of these critical approaches, but in hindsight these did not stem from a critical inquiry but rather a creative exploration on the possibilities of interactions in public space. I don’t see myself as a critical designer.

Why do you think it is important to be critical/to question the current scientific and technical development?

I believe questioning scientific and technical development can make us think about the consequences of our decisions. Contemporary mass culture is numbed by consumption, and usually science and technology are major pushers of the drug. If we look back at the 20th century, there is a legacy of modernist belief in progress that produced wealth and wellbeing but also a vast catalog of social, urban or environmental malaises – like sprawl, global warming, contagious social unrest, digital divide, to name a few.

It’s hard to forecast the deepest and long-term consequences of any technological development. Usually it all starts with the hype of the future, or the next big thing, and aggressive adoption strategies based on some well-marketed working theory of benefits – the negative effects are hardly spoken of, let alone understood. Just look at the history of the automobile to see the profound impact it had in affecting modern life, cities and the environment.

Critical views can present alternate visions of how things could pan out, and this serves an important role in helping raise awareness of our own personal responsibility to each other, our descendants, our planet.

All statistic indications put attention to the trends of the constant growth of the urban population. How do you see future cities in 5, 10 and 50 years?

They will probably look like 2013 but a lot more crowded, some of them with permanently flooded areas, and a myriad of technologies covering their streets, waters and skies. I like how the writer William Gibson sums it up:

 cities are like compost heaps – just layers and layers of stuff.  In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjecent

And it’s likely that robots may be fellow citizens then as well. I explain more on that below.

How do you perceive the influence of the new technologies to life in the future cities – especially if we focus on human activities experiences and behaviour in these cities?

Technology is a tool we use – I hope we don’t forget to always think and act as humanists above all.

Cities are one of the best reminders of this since so many people have thrived and coexisted peacefully in them for thousands of years in many cases.

The fact is that technology has always played a role in shaping urban life one way or another—we had to master agricultural tools and irrigation techniques before we could settle on a patch of land and build our first urban settlement a few thousand years ago.

In the 21st century we are more urban than ever, but this is also the dawn of an unusual era where radical technological innovations may outnumber us for better or for worse in at least a couple of ways.

The first is that by 2014 there will be more activated mobile phones in the world than people. I see that as a great opportunity for citizens and the wide range of activities we like engage in – but too much of a good thing can be bad. In New York, I have noticed couples on dates over the course of a dinner not looking at each other but at their smartphones and I wonder if they were texting each other? Modern love. I see people sitting on the subway staring at their tablets, and not noticing a pregnant woman or elderly person in need of a seat. I’ve heard screaming breakup conversations by phone as I’m walking by a park. With this mobile communication we’re neither here nor there, and that’s making us somewhat insensitive to our surroundings or just rude at times. Technology is able to both improve and undermine our ways of thinking and socializing with each other and this will definitely be played out and experienced in our cities in the near future.

The second aspect somewhat disturbs me and is informed by what Sherry Turkle calls the “Robotic Moment” and what may happen to us if we become cozy with the notion that robotic companionship is just as good as human company. This is particularly worrisome as this age is set to spawn an intelligent zoology of robots including unmanned drones, sex robots, robo-cheetahs able to reach 50 km/h, flying insect-sized spybots and everything in between. If this wasn’t enough we’re also seeing that the internet will see explosive growth of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) networks with millions of nodes scattered worldwide. Soon enough, most of global internet traffic will consist of these devices.

What are the implications of the Robotic Moment to the future of our cities and how we live them? In a way, the Smart City is a harbinger of the Robot City. We can imagine a roboticized urbanism featuring robotic plazas, streets, urban furniture, infrastructure and even stadiums for new sports with robots. Parts of our cities may resemble an animatronic Disneyland or 1980’s Transformers – but more importantly, how good will quality of life, human condition and dignity be in this place for us? What will the social contract be between us and the technologies that run the state and the city?

What are the biggest issues and challenges for interaction design in an urban context?

If we are strictly speaking of computer-mediated interactions, I see social or technological issues such as access (physical and digital divide), privacy or security fears, obsolescence, scalability and interoperability.

But to me the more interesting challenges for urban interaction design may reside in seamlessly meeting perceptions or expectations that citizens of a particular place may have around context (both cultural and geographical) with a proposed interaction (its relevance, functionality, usability, feedback and gratification). Or in other words, contextualizing interactions to such a degree that their geographical, physical and digital elements are indivisible and create unique urban experiences that will help you belong to and form a sense of the city – rather than detach you from it. That this urban feedback may have local character would be a fine goal for both 21st-century placemaking and experience design (is there a quintessential Parisian, Hong Kong, Lagos interaction?)

Another set of challenges will be in the hands of municipal decision makers and how open or not they will be to innovation and experimentation in public spaces, considering post-9/11 policies. Will they adopt a top-down approach and pick who gets to introduce what or will they open the city to the hackers and makers to experiment? In New York, interaction designers and artists have been arrested for doing DIY art installations on the street without a permit.

Having said all of the above, I also think we can have urban interaction designs without computer mediation or technology – for instance, human interactions shaped by purely architectural means.

How can design help society to address these issues?

Luckily this is all happening at the same time as the rise of the hacker/maker and crowdsourcing. With more global broadband access, 3D printing and easier-to-program electronics and robotics we are going to see a lot of design happening, from many different parts of the world representing a range of contexts, viewpoints and ideas.

Societies should be able to replicate, try out, choose and improve design solutions that best fit them.

What skills would a young designer or researcher need to work in this field in the future?

The urban interaction design field will require cross-disciplinary skills or working in teams with people that have them. Knowledge of architecture and urbanism is a good foundation to understand cities. Some ethnographic research or observation techniques are helpful to understand citizen behaviors. Interaction design, prototyping and even fabrication skills are needed to test and get the user experience right. Finally, keeping up with technology is going to be a life-long process.

Can you mention one of your works in the context of the urban ixd topic which we discussed?

I like working with public spaces as I think they are some the most shared experiences of the city we have. In these urban environments, we are all equal participants of a space and time regardless of age, race, gender, nationality or class. The space is there as an urban fixture, but what happens in it when people use it are incredible transformations of urban experience. For example, a plaza can be a perfect place to find some quiet solitude one day, see an improvisation performance the next day, or be the stage where revolutions are played out, like Tahrir Square.

I think we as citizens live in constant real-time negotiation of these public assets and that we have agency and rights to creative reappropriations of space. For this and other reasons, I look with particular interest at plazas, parks, streets and sidewalks as canvases for spatial and social experimentation by introducing some tech in the mix.

The Urballoon is an example of a project that can transform plazas or parks at night. It collapses public space and online experiences into a unique experience of place suggesting new sets of social behaviors.




The Urballoon consists of a large helium balloon with a video projector and a wireless laptop that projects user-generated content onto public spaces. It floats above its tethers in parks or plazas and displays the video onto the ground, encouraging people to gather around a digital bonfire.

The project was born as a concept of parallel space: an experience of a built environment so intertwined with electronic mediation that it can not be reproduced without technology. The Urballoon creates an instant connection between online communication and the public in the street as an urban media space experience, stressing the role that the city has as an interface for daily life.