OurHub, a new urban infrastructure for social and enjoyable public spaces

27 06/2016 de Léa Marzloff et Laurent Barelier

Imaginez-vous assis dans un square. A coté du banc, une boîte belle et intrigante. Un message simple y est accolé qui indique comment l'ouvrir - via une app -, et ce qu'on y trouve (pour l'heure pétanque, molkki, croquet, demain d'autres objets utiles au quotidien). C'est ce qu'expérimentera la start-up OurHub dès cet été à Copenhague et bientôt en France. Des "objets à partager", disséminés dans la ville, favorisant rencontres et interactions dans l'espace public, qu'il s'agisse de places, de jardins ou encore de bibliothèques par exemple.

Le projet est maturé depuis six mois par une bande de Danois et une Française* qui ont déjà roulé leur bosse dans les sphères "techno - design - urbain". Ils définissent OurHub ainsi : un nouveau type de mobilier urbain qui contribue à créer des espaces publics pleins de vie et renforcer les communautés locales en facilitant le partage d'objets "made for sharing".

Nous les avons rencontrés lors de leur passage à Paris à l'occasion du OuiShare Fest pour questionner leur vision, leur modèle économique et leurs perspectives de développement (texte en anglais).

*Caroline de Francqueville, ancienne collaboratrice et complice active Chronos et une des associés de la start-up.

 

 

Imagine yourself wandering through your usual park, sitting on your favourite bench, and spotting a box at your feet. The box has a really minimalist design and features a short text telling you that you should download an app if you want to know what it is about...

This is how OurHub could begin from an user perspective. OurHub is a new type of urban furniture that contributes to filling cities with life. It facilitates the sharing of social objects in public and common spaces, creates the conditions for people to interact and strengthens local communities.

The project targets cities, owners and managers of shared spaces (common areas in buildings for example) and individuals themselves. We met a dynamic team - 3 Danes and a French* with a background in technology, design and urban studies -  to learn more about their project.

This interview is part of a serie on what could be a desirable collaborative economy, beyond buzzwords and marketing stories.

*Caroline de Francqueville, a former employee of Chronos, is still an active partner of Chronos and is part of the OurHub team.  

 

How did the idea of "OurHub" emerge?

I (Peter) have started SharingLab 2 years ago, a non-profit organisation focusing on the sharing economy, with the idea to challenge the way we consume. How can we move from a mere consumer approach to a more citizen-centric one?

We investigated this question, doing research and analyzing existing initiatives. OurHub is a concrete solution resulting from this work. It seeks to develop a new type of urban infrastructure, facilitating the sharing of social objects in public and common spaces in order to make them more social and enjoyable.

We use digital solutions to collect memories around the objects so that they can become "daily life monuments" for the people using them. By adding pictures, using social medias, etc. users will be able to create stories around those objects, to keep memories of their use. We think this will contribute to strengthening a sense of belonging to a place and starting conversations between people.

 

 

How does OurHub function?

OurHub aims at becoming a network of smart boxes disseminated in the city. Users will be able to unlock the hubs via a mobile app. borrow objects and get them back once they are done using them. The objects are tracked with sensors and we are working on a matchmaking algorithm, allowing people to meet the friends they haven't met yet.

The idea is to transform this new urban furniture into an urban infrastructure, giving access to all sorts of social objects in public and common spaces.

The first objects we have developed are games, because they are obviously social! There will be petanque, ping-pong, crockets, kubb,... We are also thinking of tools for community gardening for example. The design and aesthetics of those objects is a prime concern for us. Objects to be shared need to be robust but we also want them to be very desirable.

We are indeed working on a certification, which we called "Made for Sharing", where objects need to comply to three sets of criteria. First, objects need to be built to last. Most products today have a built-in planned obsolescence, and are not suited for sharing. Secondly, their design should secure the best possible user experience and finally, they have to be social objects. They should bring people together, and work as conversation starters among local peers. In this way, we want to contribute to creating more resilient cities.

 

How do you make sure that people will take care of the items?

This is of course a key question. It partly relates to the broken window theory, but I would like to put it in a more optimistic way. The broken window theory stated that if you tolerate deteriorations in the first place, then you enter a vicious circle and things get even more deteriorated. On the contrary, we want to give people access to very high quality items, in order to make them want to care for them.

Also, we will encourage people to make the objects as unique as possible by adding a digital layer to them (pictures, information about how the objects have been used, etc.). We hope that this intangible value will also contribute to make people want to take care of the social objects.

Last but not least, we are also consider working with local "ambassadors", who will be in charge of specific hubs and may nudge people into caring about the items. They could also help communicating about the concept (organizing aperitives, distributing flyers...).

 

Is it pure coincidence that the project was born in Denmark ?

The collaborative movement is strong in Denmark, it is part of our DNA, part of our democracy. Denmark gave birth to a strong cooperative movement which has had lasting impacts on the organization of our society (see the co-housing movement for example). Some daily life items are spontaneously shared, such as toys for children in buildings' courtyards.

Still, the Danes may not talk to strangers as spontaneously as in Latin cities. If you want to talk to someone you do not know, you need a reason. Dogs and kids often serve this purpose: they are kinds of "social objects", if one may say so, in that they often help starting conversations between strangers. We just need more social objects! That is what OurHub is for. And, despite obvious cultural differences between countries, we think that creating dynamic and social public spaces is a global need.

 

A Ourhub box

 

Do you think cities will adopt OurHub? Why should they?

Cities today all want to be smart and sharing cities, but what does it mean? We offer a tangible solution behind these terms. OurHub is a mean to make cities more liveable and inclusive. Those are political goals for most city leaders, especially since the link between social life and urban attractiveness has been widely documented in urban studies.

OurHub may also help activate some public spaces, especially in new residential developments that sometimes lack great common spaces - think about brand new modern neighborhoods where nothing ever happens. In that sense, OurHub could become a real tool of tactical urbanism for urban planners and real estate promoters.

OurHub is also meant for spaces that are underused or that depend on municipal employees. In Copenhagen, kids can access toys in playgrounds but only until 4pm and on weekdays where municipal employees stand there. If we were to develop OurHub for playgrounds for example, kids would be able to access those toys until they get tired!

Last but not least, we see a real potential and need with the emerging trend around the creation of bigger common spaces, whether within companies, in the housing sector or in the hotel industry. This trend puts focus on creating room for interactions between users within the same building. But having a room is not always enough. OurHub could be a trigger to spark conversations.

 

Localisation of boxes in a park

So, what are the next steps?

We will start a pilot in the city of Copenhagen this summer, by installing hubs in four parks. Our model is that cities buy the infrastructure (the network of boxes with the items inside) and that we, OurHub, take care of the maintenance of the system, of the animation, etc. Then citizens will pay a monthly membership to access the system. The relevant pricing is one of the things we are going to test.

Beyond Copenhagen, we are also looking to launch pilots in other cities such as Paris, Lyon, Amsterdam or San Francisco. We are starting with big cities, but we would also like to reach middle-size and even small towns in the future. OurHub is not about helping hipsters play petanque. It is about connecting people in large cities as well as in remote areas.

At the moment, our focus is on developing OurHub as an infrastructure, but once we succeed, we will be able to design customized solutions to answer the specific needs of local communities. This is why we say that OurHub is both generic and specific, international and hyperlocal and easily scalable.

 

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