Reinventing the third place for the digital dimension

Andy Mak Andy Mak
Associate, Building Structures
17 September 2019
6 min read

Long, long ago, when games still needed dice and phones required cords, the average teenager was a very different breed of human. Awkward experiments in social behaviour were conducted face to face, and migration patterns usually revolved around food courts and bowling alleys. And for those of us who grew up in a metropolitan area, the mall was the 'ground zero' for the community – a place of common gathering and interaction, where pimple-pocked youth could strut and flash their proverbial peacock feathers, and arcade games provided endless entertainment.

The mall, in all its premillennial glory, was one example of what author Ray Oldenburg calls, "the third place". In his book, The Great Good Place, he defines these common spaces as the "neutral ground" where people congregate for pleasure, conversation and connection. "Daily life," he writes, "must find its balance in three realms of experience: home, work and social life." The third place is essentially the third pillar of this trilogy – that place you choose to be in your own time.

But with the dawn of digitisation, society has seen a seismic shift in the rules of human engagement. Shopping is only ever a few taps away, all within the palm of your hand, and browsing is a concept now synonymous with scrolling. Gaming, chat rooms and online communities provide those interactive experiences that the traditional brick-and-mortar meeting place once facilitated.

The third place is now becoming digitised, yet how does that impact human beings' continued wants and desires to connect? Could our virtual and physical worlds be converging to birth a new breed of third place that draws upon the power of technology to enhance social interactions and community engagement?

Malls are floundering – and soaring

It's no secret that malls are becoming an endangered urban species in America. Last year, mall vacancies were at a seven-year high of 9.1 per cent in the third quarter, nearing their peak from 2011, according to The Wall Street Journal. The recent death march to bankruptcy of former century retail giant Sears Holdings – once the largest retailer in the U.S. and pioneer of mail order catalogues – only drives the truth home.

But as we look east to Asia and the Middle East, it's a very different story. With urban populations rising, increased climatic risks and less premium public space to congregate, malls are becoming a welcome watering hole for public consumption, recreation and engaging customer experiences. Some of the largest shopping malls in the world can be found in Dubai, Iran, Thailand, China, Malaysia and the Philippines.

While these designs and many others around the world are evolving and thriving by offering a broadened value proposition for customers (such as shopping mall giant Westfield's Destination 2028 plan), their place in society is continuing to evolve due to online gaming.

Gaming is the new supersport

playing online gamesThe new third place, it seems, is not about 'where the people are' but what are they doing, thanks to digitisation. In the past few years, the rise of eSports and multiplayer online gaming has exploded, with top gamers joining the ranks of millionaires and a global fan base with the number of competitive eSports gamers on a monthly basis forecasted to hit 276 million by 2022.

With more people now watching gaming video content than those who watch HBO, Netflix, ESPN and Hulu combined, it is no longer surprising that big brands are getting involved with eSports to 'court' the youth market. Of course, the only thing technically required in the world of eSports is a server to connect its players and viewers.

There's no need for queuing, no bad seats in the house, no stadium at all. With state-of-the-art cloud-based gaming platforms such as Google's stadia reaching players on nearly every screen, there's really no need to ever leave the house – unless you build something that makes gaming together an even more enticing experience.

Throughout the United States, abandoned department stores in malls are being reimagined as lounges for competitive internet gaming and eSports events. The nation's biggest mall owner, Simon Property Group, is working with AI company, Niantic, to transform 200 of its shopping centres into in-game locations from where players can compete and role play as part of a unique, interactive and fantastical experience.

Saudi Arabia is leading the Middle East in eSports investment by designing malls to include gaming venues and lounges. And South Korea is going to the next level, with three more eSports stadiums as well as a dedicated referee training facility to be completed by 2020.

We're addicted to social interaction – not smart phones

This combination of physical and digital hits a sweet spot for human interaction. For all the panic that digital is making us lonely, research also suggests that our tech habits stem from a healthy human need to socialise, rooted in evolutionary science.

A study that examined dysfunctional use of smart technology found the most addictive smart phone functions all shared a common theme of tapping into the human desire to connect with other people.

There is an innate, tribal need as humans to rub shoulders, interact, play, collaborate. Social network and technology company Nextdoor is trying to increase real-life community building by reducing the "creepiness of connecting with strangers by verifying names and addresses, then nudging neighbours to connect over common interests, such as book clubs or barbecuing."

"While we are clearly a technology company, it's with a goal of 'How do we get people off their phones and off their apps?'" says Nextdoor Chief Executive Officer Sarah Friar. Usage surges during hurricanes and wildfires as in the moment of crisis, people see the real benefit of community.

Could this blurring of the digital-physical divide be the balance we need?

The point: we can successfully design for 'the third place' of the future if we learn to blend the digital and physical as one seamless experience – just like gaming and malls.

The more we can marry our tech with our instinctive capacities to relate and engage with one another, the more meaningful spaces we can carve out of digital innovation.

Therefore, we must be asking now: are we ready for this next wave of digitisation in design? Do we know how to scale our technology to accommodate the Gen Z masses? Currently, we know how to plan for a football stadium, but we don't necessarily know how to kit out a conventional sports arena with 90 000 VR headsets. How do we start to gear up for these investments so that we capitalise on these extraordinary design opportunities?

Where the lines will divide our digital and physical worlds into the future, no one can say for sure. But one thing seems rather certain: the new breed of 'third place' will be a tribute to their blend.

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Andy Mak
Written by
Andy Mak

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