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Community / Public space

What yellow umbrellas and "mesh networks" tell us about public space

Last year, I set a research project for my spatial design students. As part of the “Digital Activism” project, they were to design a democratic space based on our experience of digital networks.

One of the reasons for the project was to allow them to critically evaluate our network culture and the way our built environment has been transformed. The other was the Yellow Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest in which protestors in Hong Kong took over several planned spaces and made them their own.

This was a very unusual occurrence in Hong Kong. The whole experience, a powerful means of expressing popular discontent to the government, expanded the imagination of the city’s people.

But what really intrigued me was the use of digital social network to coordinate and organise the whole protest. Facebook was used, but the game changer was FireChat: an app that uses your phone’s WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities to build what’s called a “mesh network” with other phones.

Most phones are connected to each other through a centralised network. Whenever you text, send an email or make a call, you’re doing so through cellular networks first: communication can be remotely intercepted, monitored, or even blocked altogether.

With a mesh network, the actual network is decentralised. Devices just connect to other devices, and anyone can become a node with an anonymous screen name in that network, as long as they’re within 70 meters of just one other node.  

But the real advantages of mesh networks have nothing to do with anonymous communication. While mesh networks are harder to infiltrate than centralised networks, their real strength is holding up, even when someone may not have a reliable internet connection.

That is what drew in the student activists of Hong Kong’s recent protests. The protesters were using it to share messages off-the grid, to avoid any censorship or tracking via their on-location service in their smart phone. This app also enabled the protesters to create a new form of “public space” in a private digital network. The network is open, yet you can protect your anonymity; anyone can come and go from the network; and there’s no option for private communications. Using FireChat is more like tweeting than chatting among trusted confidantes.


With the emerging new form of communication in the digital network, our public space is extending and evolving, adapting itself between our physical and digital worlds. The intensive use of AR (Augmented reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) has already transformed our physical experience, giving us extra layers of information where our physical eye can’t find them.

In the digital world, public space is organic and spontaneous, collective and responsive, sometimes – in the case of the DarkNET – even hidden. People are finding ways to express their ideas though different channels. And these channels – WhatsApp, SnapChat and surespot – are increasingly being designed to become more instant and encrypted.

To make the point, I want to share two projects created by my students who graduated from my digital activism studio last year. The first, “The Embassy – The freedom of expression” by Yuuki Teraoka creates a digital version of an existing physical embassy.

It was inspired by the embassies on London’s Exhibition Road, which in 2011 underwent renovation via a project called “Shared Space” implemented by the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington. Yuuki’s project used the site to challenge ideas of public space, and suggested the digital embassy is the ultimate “access” for the freedom of information.

The second project “The Imprisoned Mind – the Internet in our city” by Sean Koo, is based on the everyday surveillance activities. Rather than repackaging the concept of George Orwell’s 1984, the students adopted Orwell’s concept to explore the privacy in our everyday digital life.  

Sean suggested that, via our extensive digital connectivity – such as data tracking, or the Internet of Things – that surveillance activates were far more extensive than we could imagine. His final design was a museum on Exhibition Road which exhibited our surveillance data via hacker’s channels.

Zhu Tao, an associate professor from Department of Architecture at Hong Kong University, used the title “Regain – the Spatial Revolution” to describe his thoughts of Yellow Umbrella Movement. He said regaining roads and streets in the movement was a form of power negotiation:  negotiating the space and returning it for its people. He added that the nature of public space should be free: free from commercialisation, free from any political expression.  

My students’ projects provoked me to consider how we find that democracy in our “public space” in the digital world. The power negotiation will soon be extended to this digital public space. The question for me is, who has ultimate control?

Cyril Shing is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, a part of the University of Arts London.

He will be taking part in tonight’s Design Salon: On Public Space Now at Somerset House, part of this year’s Inside Out Festival.  To book your free place, click here.
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