Museum on the Street: Building a community digital heritage exchange in Hastings, UK
Jon Pratty, School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex, UK
AbstractIn Hastings, UK, a small coastal town with high unemployment but extensive arts and cultural heritage resources, we have been working for two years to build a small-scale broadband environment to house and deliver arts and heritage content in new ways. Across the Internet of Things (IoT) community in the UK, there's now lots of interest in so-called LPWAN solutions to deliver connectivity for IoT projects and innovations, but few projects are aiming at the heritage and museums sector. We have tried to envision what local needs there are, listening to artists, archivists, writers, and the library. Can we create a connectivity resource that offers flexible hosting for heritage use, for new arts businesses, and for locative experimentation with museum objects, perhaps even creating a new IoT environment for historic data delivery? Our work so far has included development of strategies for delivery of historic digital materials via a data environment, presented to local councils, funders, and stakeholders. Working with our Technical partner, TechnologyBox Ltd, we have deployed substantial parts of the connectivity environment, though not at this point using LPWAN. A live dashboard tracks and evaluates audience flow around our three small-town streets. Arts and literary events, commissioned to demonstrate the capacity and measurability of the environment, are hinting that we can offer cultural funders and sponsors new insights into visitor engagement and behavior. Now we are keen to reel in local business partners and major funders who can underwrite our heritage and arts program, which will be delivered by curators, storytellers and artists using the WiFi envelope we have built across a triangle of three interlocking streets. What we are trying to do is offer a data and connectivity playing field for others to use to shape new kinds of historic and creative experience. A museum on the streets, found using your own device, wrapped by WiFi.
Keywords: Community digital exchange, IoT, MESH, Living lab, Meraki
This paper explores our long-term project to build a “Museum on the Street” in Hastings, East Sussex. In 2016, the writers of this paper joined with other local media professionals to explore how to build a town-scale digital arts network. The partnership is guided by Hastings arts consultancy, MSL Digital, where the writers of this paper are Director and Associate Director.
What we wanted to do was create a space for street-level live heritage or arts experiences using the network–what we call our “Museum on the Street.” To help the project make sense in the depressed local cultural economy, we knew we wanted to house and deliver community-developed culture and tourism content for mobile users, and also offer flexible server space for small to medium-sized creative enterprises. Finding funding is a continuing effort, but hardware is in place; arts events began in September 2017; and live data evaluation of visitor activity is happening as a result of a growing partnership between MSL Digital and the Audience Agency, the national body for audience development.
The seeds of “Museum on the Street” germinated from work nearby in Brighton, at the Digital Catapult Centre (https://www.digitalcatapultcentre.org.uk/local-centre/brighton/) and the Brighton Digital Exchange (http://bdx.coop/), an offshoot of the Catapult. These city-scale collaborations encourage new businesses such as retail development, financial technology, and Internet of Things (IoT), to engage in activities powered by experimental 5G connectivity.
In Hastings, by contrast, there’s no 5G experiment, few retail designers, hardly anything like a digital cluster, no financial technology spin-offs, no search engine optimization companies and no IoT start-ups waiting to join up everything, so we knew we needed to take a different political and strategic approach to building the project. The town has a completely different economic and social context to bustling Brighton, but one which could be equally valuable if it we can network our historic streets and create something interesting and particular to our urban landscape.
Researching the project, we noted socially-centered projects are now seen as a particular characteristic of local-scale digital infrastructure; NESTA’s New Radicals list (https://www.nesta.org.uk/news/new-radicals-2016) annually features microbusinesses spawned from such networked spaces. It’s interesting to see how few of the “New Radicals” projects have developed from arts and heritage sources; something we think suggests that cultural institutions may not yet be collaborating creatively enough to build new kinds of public value from their collections or programming. Developing new audiences and new social equity is a facet of our project that we feel is particularly important.
Our town museum, Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, (http://www.hmag.org.uk/) has an excellent physical collection and a small online collection, but on the streets, there’s little evidence of this to be found for mobile Web users. The history of place is mostly still locked away in paper archives or offline databases, few of which join together. However, we know that there’s a significant and growing mass of non-museum public data, including archive and census information going back 200 years, local newspaper archives, Historic Environment Records, Land Registry records, parish records, Ordnance Survey data, and lots of street, architecture, and building control plans.
The principle barrier to building the network is money. Public funding for heritage and arts digital projects is increasingly hard to find, with local authority finances cut massively in Hastings; ten years ago there was seven times more funding for the council than there is now. There’s little local funding for conventional websites, and no money to maintain them, so a new approach is needed to extract value from what has already been digitized across the town environment. We’re hoping to tap into the unexploited, mostly undiscovered, historic data landscape around us. Going forward, we know we will have to raise funds centrally or from other social and business sector sources to create an editorial, curatorial, or relational framework to allow touristic, creative, or research access. In other parts of the UK, we know people are working to surface data like this; the Digital Curation Centre (http://www.dcc.ac.uk/ ) is opening up a new skills area around understanding, making use of, and preserving data of all kinds found in the wild.
For many involved in community networks, the whole point is to create open access for open cultures, inspired by the political idealism of the early years of the Web. There’s a lot of discussion about creating a cultural commons, particularly with the fascinating Digital Public Spaces work at FutureEverything (Hemment et al., 2013) but for writer Douglas Rushkoff, the business of media might already have gone too far. Rushkoff voiced his fears in the seminal short essay, The Next Net: “The fiberoptic cables running through the streets of San Francisco and New York are not a commons, they are corporate-owned. The ISPs through which we connect are no longer public universities but private media companies who not only sell us access but sell us content, block the ports through which we share, and limit the applications through which we create” (Rushkoff, 2011).
When Rushkoff wrote that, he was carrying the flag for left-leaning activist networkers, creatives, and those who wanted to stay outside the information spotlight for all kinds of reasons, most of them good ones. In the backstreets of Hastings, to survive and build a creative digital space, we know we need to manage complex cross-party political and business relationships; a delicate balancing act which requires talking to everyone of every political shade.
The project in detail
Hastings is a small coastal town of around 90,000 people, with high unemployment, and scoring high on social indexes of deprivation and homelessness. According to official figures, it is counted as one of the UK’s 20 most deprived towns, and some council wards in town are in the bottom 1% of the whole UK (DCLG and Hastings Borough Council figures, 2017). While there is extensive deprivation, the town has much potential for the arts, tourism and perhaps, eventually, a creative industry cluster. There is an extensive historic built environment, and the town is recognized for this in the RSA Heritage Index database (https://www.thersa.org/action-and-research/rsa-projects/public-services-and-communities-folder/heritage-and-place), where it is in the top 20 of UK historic places. Heritage Index data confirms Hastings has exceptional unrealized tourism potential. It’s a common mix of coastal positives and negatives, as Vanessa Thorpe wrote in The Guardian. (https://amp.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/12/new-battle-hasting-save-museums-cuts-reduce-opening-hours)
America Ground and the Trinity Triangle
The town streets we’re working on have witnessed a fascinating mix of historical and political intrigues over the last 200 years. Thought to have been founded in Saxon times, by the late 13th century Hastings suffered a series of massive storms that silted up the town harbor leaving sandbanks which turned into eight acres of waste ground over the next 400 years. Settlers, merchants, and workmen arrived, making ship hulls into living spaces, notably an old vessel called the Polymina. Unpopular with the town nobles and the government of the day as well, they were harried and hassled and eventually declared themselves and their tiny colony of land independent from the Crown, hoisting the American flag, a potent symbol of independence at the turn of the 19th century—hence the name, the America Ground, still used today. The land was eventually reclaimed by the Crown in the 1840s, and grand seafront houses were built by Patrick Robertson, after whom many of the streets are named (1066 Online, 2018)
Today, the streets we are working on are at the heart of the America Ground story. There’s a triangle of narrow streets surrounding Holy Trinity church, Grade II listed for its historical value. The town’s main library, housed in the Brassey Institute, another important architectural survival, is just about to re-open after a major refurbishment. As part of our project, we met with the library team to talk about developing audiences together for literature and other combined arts events. At the back of the library and adjoining buildings, along Claremont Road, lies an amazingly dark and atmospheric L-shaped alleyway, a space bounded by buildings on one side and a sheer cliff face which is the remaining elevation of what once was called the White Rock, a geographic feature that once dominated the medieval harbor and town of Hastings. Caves have been cut into the cliff face, and there are many underground passages and basements which reach out beyond the alleyway, almost as far as the beach.
Print, publishing, and the graphical trades were the only distinctive industry sector the town was known for. F.J. Parsons (Hastings) were important regional news publishers, owning the Hastings Observer newspaper, printed from a large block of buildings adjacent to the historic “America Ground” streets.
One remaining Hastings Observer Group building, known as Rock House (https://www.rockhouse.org.uk/), survives as a co-working space for local creative media workers and SMEs. Rock House is also base for a growing group of social enterprises, including Jericho Road Solutions (http://www.jerichoroad.co.uk/), a regeneration company involved with rebuilding Hastings Pier. On top of Rock House is a very powerful broadband aerial with substantial spare capacity in the contract agreement. This led Rock House co-workers to create a brand around their fountain of connectivity called Rocknet, and it is the spare capacity Rocknet provides which is the core of our digital arts and heritage community exchange.
Our plan is to develop mobile audiences with a mix of culture and historical content of all kinds, from AR and VR to traditional performing arts events, using the triangle of streets as a small-scale outdoor digital arena. Importantly, alongside the culture and history, the digital environment will function as an experimental space encouraging local creative digital workers to begin new businesses, and also to spawn socially-centred activity benefiting all parts of the local community. We may not be limited to broadband via distributed WiFi access points; it will be possible to construct low power wide area network access, so-called LPWAN technology. This could lead to digital education experiments with distributed sensors, exploring environmental change, biodiversity, and STEM-related activity.
Digital arts and heritage networks like ours are beginning to spring up elsewhere
Culture and creative industry programs like ours are beginning to feature in place-based digital exchanges. CityVerve (http://futureeverything.org/news/art-iot-smart-city-demonstrator-cityverve/), now under construction in Manchester, is an arts and IoT project by FutureEverything, the digital innovation and arts agency with strong R&D links with universities in the region. CityVerve has similar cultural, community, and business aims to our project, but is pitched as a smart city project, rather than a dedicated culture project.
Netpark in Southend, Essex (http://www.metalculture.com/projects/netpark/) delivered a large-scale outdoor playable and educative digital platform, but it was never intended to be a community development facility like our work. Here’s a great video of Netpark: https://vimeo.com/151135640
Discovering dark networks in Hastings
Bearing in mind we are fundraising for the project as we go along, one of the key factors in making this project achievable is the ingenuity and enthusiasm of our technology partner, Ian McInnes, of Technologybox Ltd. Ian’s company is based at Rock House, the core co-working community in the town. While he is a technology guy, spending much of his time planning and deploying office and retail systems, Ian also looks for community value, and has a keen interest in legacy systems and historical technological solutions.
He also likes climbing up walls, down ducts and through tunnels, laying cables in places people have long forgotten existed. He gets inspiration for his guerrilla network building from the absolutely key, canonical text on the subject: Networks of New York, by Ingrid Burrington (Burrington, 2016).
Burrington’s book is all about tracing and recognizing the decades of historic ducting, cables, pipes, and underground and overhead routes that have spread across New York like a hidden spider’s web for a hundred years or more. She suggests much of the urban Internet infrastructure in our cities and towns lies dormant, waiting to be re-used again. In a community digital context, which is really about do-it-yourself action, this could mean shaving thousands of dollars or pounds off the cost of building a not-for-profit net across some town streets.
In Hastings, Ian has already surveyed the flagstone pavements of the America Ground and discovered a multitude of ducts underfoot that can be be used again. He used a mix of cable, line of sight data bridges, ducts carrying fiber, and a cable pulled through a subterranean tunnel to build the bare bones of the network, alongside seafront WiFi beacons already in the local authority development plan. The lines run at first floor level to link from the central node at Rock House to The Printworks, next door, then the cables go through drains to the Source Park (an underground skateboard park) 200 meters away, then along the seafront in an underground foot tunnel to a pub and the theater. “Line of sight” connections joined the main broadband aerial on top of Rock House to Hastings Works, a digital skills lounge 200 meters away in Robertson St.
The access points, all Cisco Meraki installations, are all carefully located so that there’s always a good connection to the central aerial at Rock House. According to Ian, from an infrastructure perspective, the key tasks for repeating this process across any similar town would be to map any existing dark fibre, ducting, and public Internet infrastructure. Unlike punk-style MESH networks, which typically daisy-chain home routers and all kinds of odd devices together, our project is much more about quality, high capacity, and reliable technology, as one would expect from infrastructure we are trying to attract public funding to continue. “We can make creative use of these assets to create a new urban outdoor network. This new network asset would provide fast connectivity for culture events, and would be left behind as a legacy, promoting digital inclusion and getting people outdoors,” according to Ian.
It’s also about making sure upcoming opportunities are planned for. Getting fiber in while roads are being dug up for other purposes, for example. Ian and his team at Technologybox think this could save a lot of work and just leave the wireless bridges or new cable runs to be completed when further project funds allow. Funding for the network came as part of a 2015 grant from the Coastal Communities Fund for general regeneration activity in the town. The overall cost of setting up ten access points across central Hastings was around $56,500 for three years of high capacity access and maintenance over that three year period. No funding was allocated for programming, business development, or arts activity in the original bid for the WiFi Access points.
Storylines—using live audience tracking and engagement tools
One of the big advantages of managing the connectivity environment across a cultural site is the ability to track audience habits, usage of certain zones, the best time of day to visit, and so on. Now that we have WiFi access points across most of the central historic street site, Technologybox has trialled visitor tracking during our first arts activity, which happened on September 10, 2017. This was a combined arts event called Storylines (http://www.mslprojects.co.uk/artists-storytellers-hastings/). In the event, an eclectic selection of storytellers, artists and performers took over the long-abandoned alleyway at the heart of the America Ground, bounded by cliffs and caves on one side, a disused printworks on another, and tall Victorian buildings crowding over everything else. It’s a long, narrow site, but with a really wonderful Dickensian feel to it.
Storylines was accomplished on an overall project budget of $53,078 (£37,583 at current rate) with $6,164 from White Rock Neighborhood Ventures, the local regeneration agency, plus $21,184 from Arts Council England, the national funding agency. Hastings Borough Council added $1,412, and the regional authority, East Sussex County Council, added $847.
During Storylines, Technologybox provided a dedicated wireless access point able to evaluate activity in conjunction with The Audience Agency and MSL Digital. The technology aims of the event were the folllowing:
- Passively collect footfall information from WiFi enabled devices carried by visitors;
- Actively encourage the visitors to connect to WiFi to see “walled garden” video content;
- Use a splash page sign-in to collect demographic details about the audience.
The canyon-like environment formed by buildings and cliffs around the alleyway meant that the WiFi signal matched the event space very well, reducing the chance of counting people who were not members of the audience, something that would be hard to avoid in a more open landscape. Ian found that the WiFi signal reached Brassey Steps, a historic pedestrian cut-through to the north, and to the town library to the south. The short time taken to walk this distance meant few passers-by were wrongly counted as visitors, though we were able track and trace how many people actually did call in, versus passersby.
Footfall graphs and sign up page
Smartphones with WiFi are now so common that they can be used to study footfall and audience. Thanks to a mechanism called “probe requests,” Technologybox can identify the presence of WiFi devices that are switched on regardless of whether they are used to connect to a network. Obviously there are extremely important privacy and ethical issues to this which are being stepped through stage-by-stage. Working with the Audience Agency, we created a splash page to capture demographic information in a micro questionnaire.
On completion, this gave access to very fast (100Mbps) free WiFi for the duration of the visit, allowing visitors to create video and use social media live-streaming on site. On the splash page we asked about age, postal code, and e-mail address. Postal code was partially verified to ensure it matched the UK pattern, and e-mail address was partially verified. We checked to see if it looked like a valid address, but did not use a follow up e-mail to confirm, for resourcing reasons.
We also collected the MAC address of the phone, because this is needed to identify who has or hasn’t completed the splash page. The MAC address uniquely identifies the device, which offers the interesting possibility to track users across multiple venues in future. However, this does also—again— raise privacy concerns, and we need to carefully consider how to ask people if they consent to the data being used in this way. MAC address and identifying data has been removed from the illustration in this paper. (I spotted my own postal code and presence in the list!)
During the September 2017 Storylines event, 24 of 259 visitors were detected by the access point connected to the WiFi network, meaning that they had engaged, however fleetingly, with the broadband. At over 10%, this is higher than we expected. We believe that this is a combination of good communication from event staff who had been briefed to introduce visitors to the connectivity, the walled garden video content, and (very helpfully), there is a poor 4G signal across the locale. Obviously that lack of mobile signal is also an important factor in attracting digital engagement to WiFi community networks like these. There was a 1pm peak to both passers-by and actual visits to the Storylines event space. At 1pm, there were a good percentage of visits of 20 to 60 minutes. The highest numbers of once-only visits took place across the lunch hours.
An important aspect of the project, if it is to become a community digital network, alongside being a Museum on the Street, is that we imposed boundaries around the event, meaning the WiFi created a walled garden. This was intentional; attendees came into the digital environment to see content they couldn’t see outside the boundaries. We also did it to guide more people into using the demographic questionnaire, and we were also able to guarantee reliable content delivery. Our infrastructure was under our control, designed for high speeds and dense crowds. This would not be guaranteed with 4G networks run by third parties. Another obvious advantage is that providing free WiFi, albeit in a controlled context, meant our audiences weren’t using their data allowances, reducing the barriers to participation in the digital element of the event.
Smart cities, but dumb towns?
Critics of the Smart City movement suggest such projects are driven by technology companies trying to gain monopoly status as software platform suppliers to urban authorities. Alongside that, governments, particularly the UK, appear to be piling in to fund almost anything tagged as Internet of Things, powered by AI, or managed automatically from the cloud by digital gnomes. But cultures and communities aren’t passive; they also kick back against the rise of machines and urban life dictated by commerce.
In America in the post-war years, journalist and social and neighbourhood activist Jane Jacobs was a key influence on subsequent city culture ideologues such as Canadian urbanist Richard Florida. In Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs revealed new understanding about how to encourage socially-centered communities, rather than spawning hives for workers and those servicing them.
In developing awareness of concepts such as social capital, and making clear the looser connection with finance, Jacobs might have opened the door to much later socially-inspired network thinking such as MIT’s Living Labs (https://sustainability.mit.edu/living-labs), the City Camp movement after 2010 (http://citycamp.com/ ), today’s Mozilla Hive projects worldwide (https://hivelearningnetworks.org/), and the continuing, but mostly technologically-driven discussions about Smart Cities (http://www.publicsectorexecutive.com/Public-Sector-News/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-smart-city-concept).
In the UK, coming from a different political and economic direction to Florida and Jacobs, there’s currently a mass of theorizing, funded research, and public-sector money encouraging the notion of Smart Cities. According to critics such as Rick Robinson and Professor Adam Longfield, Smart City agendas are top-down initiatives driven by technology advances and government ideology, rather than grass-roots movements derived from local needs. Robinson is Head of Technology at the logistics and planning consultancy Amey. He sees the need for urban communities to build on fundamentally sustainable resources, whether people, energy sources, or heritage, and he criticizes smart city activity that is subsidy or grant-driven, arguing it is often “short-termist,” and lacks sustainability. (https://theurbantechnologist.com/2015/02/15/6-inconvenient-truths-about-smart-cities/).
Urbanist and design educator Adam Greenfield has been looking at how design thinking from the Web development sector might be adopted as a way to continuously develop and refine sustainable community networks. In Practices of the Minimum Viable Utopia, he writes the following:
Might there not be room for a lean development approach to highly-technologised urban environments? Rather than the single, top-down strategy espoused by the corporate architects of the smart city, this would be an experimental, participatory, iterative and, above all, multiple approach to the making of urban place—one that sensitively leverages advanced technology, but is not driven by it. This presents us with an entirely different conception of the role data and data-driven tools might play in and for the city. (Greenfield, 2016)
Greenfield declares the Smart City movement to be “an intellectually bankrupt vision,” and counters with his own template for urban prototyping, characterized by four movements: “People making data, people making things, people making places, and people making networks.”
The emerging political and economic context for the project
From our own experience as arts managers, producers, funders, and stakeholders in major culture programss nationally, we have found that building local partnerships and collaborations demonstrating business viability is more of a challenge than defining the technology or culture program the project will present to the public. It’s about helping local authority staff to understand the shift from a one-off investment, like building a town website, to thinking about how data networks, digital skills, and people-focused needs can become a sustainable, resilient, and positive local development strategy for all.
One thing we feel will encourage local civic support is if national agencies get truly behind local initiatives like ours. As former Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette (2017), the Warwick Commission (2015), and Hasan Bakhshi at NESTA (2016) all point out, the arts and culture sector is dwarfed by the fast growing creative industries, and links between the two are more and more important as public sector funds for culture shrink. Writing in a NESTA Creative Economy and Culture provocation in 2016, Hasan Bakhshi suggests if the arts want to be part of the Creative Industries, it is a one-way journey:
…contemporary cultural policies must continue to attempt to take the economic benefits of culture seriously, while at the same time dealing with a widening range of further entanglements based on the undeniable role that culture plays in social inclusion, technological diffusion, and even health (whether the impacts are positive or negative). No contemporary cultural policy can go back to an arts-only focus, and this is a position supported—either tactically or in principle—by most arts advocates. (NESTA, 2016)
After the 2016 Culture White Paper and the government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy White Paper, Arts Council England launched their Improving Places (2017) report, which is interesting because it highlights Business Improvement District (BID) networks, potential new local sources of funding for arts, creativity, and tourism. These aren’t quite the opportunity they might seem; they work by encouraging local businesses to pay a levy on their turnover to fund civic improvements including culture and heritage projects. Where towns are prosperous, local Business Improvement Districts are successful, but in places like Hastings, BID incomes remain low, so this isn’t necessarily going to add much resource for culture and digital infrastructure.
Conclusion: To be a smart town, we need tactical infrastructure
For place-based digital networks to sustain and grow, brokering partnerships is more of a challenge than raising funds or mediating server space and content programs—a challenge that Professor Gillian Youngs acknowledges in her important Internet of Place research, initially published as part of the Brighton FUSE project (Youngs, 2016).
In beginning this project, we have tried to envision what local needs there are, listening to artists, archivists, writers, and our library—and network growth is beginning to take place. There are signs of interchange and collaboration within companies and individuals within our base at Rock House. Our company, MSL, is leading on the reclamation of the Alley as a public space, allied with White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures, the Heart of Hastings BID group, the town library and, potentially, East Sussex County Council.
We are encountering problems which are not unexpected: there are barriers between local authority and community sector; there is private sector business suspicion of third sector motives and community resistance to change. Getting legal agreements about property and land into place is complicated; it’s not like a conventional urban development scheme, with a unifying vision and a single outcome, perhaps in the form of a civic center. Agreements need to be fixed in some places but fluid in others, because in the community sector, sensibilities and individuals change.
David Berry’s Tactical Infrastructure theories (Berry, 2016) suggest emerging heritage and culture community networks need to carefully consider if their ethical, cultural, and digital preservation needs match the audience data and business strategies that major broadband providers offer, echoing Douglas Rushkoff’s note of caution about who really owns the Web. Museums considering the seductive properties of IIIF image management and publishing via 5G connectivity from a major provider might subsequently find they need actually unorthodox server setups with much more flexibility to carry out more complex R&D than their broadband provider allows. This is where the tactical use of stand-alone local server space and experimental sensor nets served via a local-scale network might still allow Adam Greenfield’s vision of “people making data, people making things, people making places, and people making networks.”
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