It takes two

For anyone who couldn’t hear at the back (or perhaps even missed the live version completely!) here’s a recap of my slightly random BarCamp Southampton lightning talk. The loosely-connected-to-the-theme-of-the-day title on the schedule was:

AR Twinning or The perils of Town Twinning – modernising with augmented reality

As you drive in to many towns, you’ll probably recognise a sign like this:

Not the snow, although maybe that will start looking familiar, or “Hedge End”, or even the useful driving tip, but the bit in between; “Twinned with…” In this case a town in Belgium that I know almost nothing about. (I really should try and find out how to pronounce the name.)

It wasn’t the signpost that inspired the lightning talk though; it was an announcement in the local newsletter that the twinning association was dissolving. I wonder how many people could name the places their town is twinned with, know anything about it, have visited, or even know why towns have twins, so I’m not all that surprised about Hedge End’s lack of interest in twinning activities.

So is there a way to revitalise town twinning? Something that might help is lowering the barriers to participation; not everyone can commit to formal activities or take on permanent roles in a twinning association. Providing a means for ad hoc encounters between people in the twinned towns could naturally lead to more interest in finding out more and getting more involved. But how do you do that when Hedge End and Comines-Warneton are around 300km apart?

You could create some Twinning 2.0 social web site but for me that somehow loses the physical connection between the towns. Why would you choose people in one town over anywhere else in the world? Would a shared physical space be possible and, if so, would it stimulate more interest in an otherwise remote place?

So my hair brained scheme involves a signpost in each town. Not the kind you drive past, but one right in the centre pointing the way to the twinned town. A traditional sign from Hampshire might look something like this:

I had less luck finding one for Belgium, but you get the general idea:

If a town only has one twin, it might be a nice touch to switch the signs round, so Hedge End would have a sign post you’d normally see in Comines-Warneton.

Next, add some ambient indication of what’s going on at the other sign. In particular, it needs to catch people’s attention if there is anyone near the remote sign. Winchester’s Luminous Motion might provide some inspiration here:

This sculpture only reacts when it receives a text message, but the twinned signposts would need to communicate with each other automatically, and pachube could be an ideal way to do just that:

So if you’re walking past the sign post in Hedge End, and it indicates that there is someone near the sign post in Comines-Warneton, what next? With modern smart phones and augmented reality the possibilities are endless, from a simple chat, to video feeds, to exchanging town photos, to virtual tours, to AR games, to anything people in the towns come up with.

I realise of course that not everyone has these kind of devices (me included) but there’s a library in Hedge End which could conceivably loan them to people. Some of the activities would also be possible via any internet connection, but now there’s a highly visible physical focal point in each town providing an anchor to tie it all together. At least, that’s the theory!

I did finish the talk by claiming it would never happen, but it would be really nice to be proved wrong, and maybe the two sign posts could exist in a virtual form to begin with. Thanks to everyone who was there for the lightning talk in person, and thanks to everyone who made BarCamp Southampton happen… but that’s for another post.

Update: thanks to Katy’s comments below, I’m very excited to discover that Murrhardt actually has a fingerpost pointing to its twins! (28 November 2010)

Images © their respective owners :

  • Hedge End sign – Jim Hart
  • Map – OpenStreetMap contributors, cc by-sa
  • Corhampton sign – Jim Champion, cc by-sa
  • N333 sign – Faz Besharatian, cc by-nc-sa
  • Luminous motion – Sumit, cc by-nc-sa
  • Pachube – Connected Environments Ltd.
  • Noticings Layer – James Bridle, cc by-nc-nd

8 thoughts on “It takes two

  1. Hi, this brought lots of memories back & I thought you might like to see a project I was involved in several years ago. When I was town centre manager for our town (Frome) I was asked by the Town Council to erect a fingerpost showing the direction & distance to our two twin towns, Murrhardt in Germany & Chateau Gontier in France. It was to be sited at the riverside walk which I was upgrading & replanting at the time (in the style of a formal french garden but on a grand scale with the flags of the twin towns in sedum). I thought it was a bit naff to have another bit of street furniture, so came up with another idea which you can see here – & I used road paint to make a permanent sign on the path with the distances & directions in miles & km. It was opened by the mayors of both other towns in a rather splendid ceremony.

    It led to another idea – the towns you are twinned with are supposed to be roughly the same size or similar in some way to your own town. They tend to be relatively close but as I was setting up my ideas for our town in future years (when life is wonderful despite no fossil fuels) I though of two new types of twinning. It started with wondering if we should be twinning with Dire Dawa, a town in Ethiopia with a tenuous link with our town, so that we could provide funding and aid rather than just a ceremonial twinning role. We did some fundraising for wall rebuilding of the eroding hillsides there as an ‘offset’ for CO2 emissions project (we thought this approach was much more direct than tree planting).

    This sparked yet another idea, where in future years each child born in the UK (perhaps born on the same day) could be ‘twinned’ with one in a developing country for shared understanding, mutual support & funding – I called it the twin-twin project (set out here in a ‘dream for 2028’

    • Hi Katy,

      Thanks for leaving such a great comment. It’s certainly good to see what other towns are doing- do you have any idea whether the garden and signs increased the amount of twinning activities in Frome? I’d also noticed in the Southampton University reports that twinned towns were relatively close together. How did you pick Dire Dawa out of interest?

      • Hi,

        Dire Dawa was chosen as the chap who founded Sustainable Frome ( was working for Comic Relief on Ethiopian projects & wrote this piece on our forum – It explains the impact of extreme weather events on Dire Dawa & how local people know what is needed to respond.

        Yes, twinning activity has increased – since then the town has twinned with Rabka-Zdrój in Poland, very fitting for the recent incomers to the town, and there has been discussion about twinning with a town in Northern Ireland too. More info on the Town Council site here –

        Maybe further distant town twinning is made more possible through AR, or even virtual worlds? It would be easy to start with twinning online through school projects, perhaps using links & modelling on Google Earth, for example.

  2. @Katy,

    I like the idea of towns coming together to form a group, rather than individual twinnings. Would make for more interesting fingerposts as well- I notice Murrhardt actually has one! Frome definitely seems to be doing much more to promote twinning. Maybe Hedge End needs a twinning mentor.
    I like the idea of using virtual worlds for twinning activities- last time I was thinking of learning a language I wondered if virtual worlds would be a good way to practice for example. Overlaying the virtual and real world locations using AR would certainly add another dimension… sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!!

  3. Pingback: Geek Camp « Notes from a small field

  4. Pingback: ↑ Hedge End 1/2 mile | Notes from a small field

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