From the issue feature, "Living by Design in the Pacific Northwest." 
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Illustration: Tom Eykemans

I was so hopeful three years ago as I applauded the Arab Spring, the spread of mobile technology and the democratization of media. Suddenly citizens could connect to each other through content shared on social platforms such as Twitter in ways that could disrupt companies and nations alike. As feature editor of the ARCADE Winter 2011 issue, I argued that our region’s unique “community power” would demand “a more consultative approach to how designers think and work.” If the people designers were creating for could speak directly to them and each other, they would also expect to play a more participatory role in a particular project.

And yet this upheaval has been less a rocket ship to the stars and more of a runaway train. At a Washington Technology Alliance event this summer, Silicon Valley strategist Geoffrey Moore observed that when accounting for the future, decision-makers never assumed that everyone would have access to a computer. But with cellphones they do, “and that changes everything,” he said. This rate of disruption has obliterated the five-year plan. Now executives shoot for two and hope for the best every six months.

Practically, this technology has granted the world a 24/7 invitation into our lives, which has led to a profound shift in our relational expectations. We expect to communicate with strangers, organizations and brands. We expect to hear back from them. And we expect a well-designed interface in any online-facilitated interaction.

The Pacific Northwest is already conducive to technology-fueled collaboration. This raises the stakes further as we seek value in a currency of connectivity that has been so seriously devalued by the very ease with which we communicate. Last summer, Karen Tillman wrote on tech-giant Cisco’s blog The Platform that a predicted 50 billion devices will go online by 2020, as connectivity continues to transcend screens. “Parking meters, thermostats, cardiac monitors, tires and supermarket shelves” will modify our behavior in ways that a well-meaning TV-ad never could. With every calorie, inch, degree and ounce, we will adjust our quantified selves to the constant stream of data in everyday life.

So will storytelling and community diminish as devices distract and intrude? Hopefully not. It may mean that for communicators and designers the opportunity to offer a connection of relevance becomes more granular as we become ever more conscious of the tiniest slivers of our lives so efficiently tracked by this technology.

One such innovation is low-powered, Bluetooth-enabled iBeacons that can pinpoint a location to within two feet. These pebble-sized sensors can be affixed to any flat surface and, unlike GPS, work indoors as well. Suddenly, creators and designers can meet our immediate informational needs based on specific times and places by sending us highly relevant content. In Seattle, the startup Artifact (which I advise) is doing that right now at the Pacific Science Center (which I also advise—community power!). A smartphone app serves up a fresh experience to the museum’s guests based on where they are at any given moment.

Call it “ambient computing” or “the age of context,” but either way it is nigh, and we’re in an ideal region to pioneer this new form of storytelling. We now need to account for this real-time approach to community connectivity. Those who communicate through design must assume that everyone will increasingly use these devices even as they’re physically participating in a particular experience. The more we can deepen those experiences by connecting through these near-invisible technologies, the more we can engage within a community and accomplish meaningful things.