It’s hard to define a concept as in-vogue as public participation. Some people see it as an opportunity to make their voice heard in public decisions that affect them on a daily basis. The rejuvenation of wasteland sites or how to expand cycle lanes are just two examples of situations in which local communities can express their priorities.

The Swedes have proven adept at moving with the times: they have some of the most modern social services and are at the forefront of the inexorable paradigm shift in mobility through the promotion of bikes and public transport. They also have their finger on the pulse when it comes to the technological revolution, to such an extent that one of the country’s most iconic buildings has its own virtual app that allows people to change its colours.

The Colour by Numbers app gives its users the opportunity to choose the colour of the lights on the 72-m, 20-floor Telefonplan tower. But how? By downloading the app or calling a number for up to five minutes (free for locals), users can take turns to modify the rainbow band that lights up the last ten floors, in a spectacle that is visible within a 10-kilometre radius.

Each key on the keypad corresponds to a colour. The numbers 2, 5 and 8 correspond to the primary colours red, green and blue, respectively. The numbers 3, 6 and 9 increase the intensity of the colour, while the numbers 1, 4 and 7 weaken it, resulting in a spectrum from yellow through to purple. The hash key is used to finalise your choice and, if you want to have another go, you can use the asterisk key.

Photo: Anna Hållams

“Colour by Numbers was first inaugurated at Telefonplan 23 October 2006 and continued until 1 April 2007,” explains the official website, and “the permanent installation was inaugurated 14 January 2011.” The installation is the brainchild of designer Loove Broms, architect Milo Galdi Lavén and artist Erik Krikortz, promoter of the Emotional Cities initiative, described as “a collective discussion about happiness and how we should live our lives.”

The goal of the project was to stimulate the debate about how we use public space, which is increasingly in the hands of commercial interests. Anyone can use their telephone to change the lights of the tower, which is visible for up to 10 kilometres, and there is a webcam on the website that displays the results in real time.

The concept has attracted interest in the country’s media and beyond. Between October 2008 and January 2009, it was installed at Seville’s Torre de los Perdigones. “Seeing that the building had been forgotten about, Erik decided to use it for his art,” remarks Milo Lavén by email. He estimates the number of users at 15,000 a year, some of whom are “regulars”.

“It’s a unique way of connecting with art. It’s fascinating how people can interact with the installation. The best way to discover is by having a go,” he adds. The website AtlasObscura notes that “in a certain sense”, the installation achieves this goal, although “it is also just a piece of urban piracy that allows both locals and visitors to connect with what is often an alienating urban environment.”

Photo: Anna Hållams

The spot was not chosen at random. Telefonplan, in the Midsommarkransen district, began life as a metal tower joining the Swedish capital’s 5,500 telephone lines. The original structure was built in 1887 by the Stockholms Allmänna Telefon AB company, was 80 metres tall and its construction was managed by Fritz Eckert, a local architect who was a member of the Stockholm Royal Academy of Arts and who topped the tower with four turrets.

However, the structure soon became obsolete: the growing telecommunications networks expanded underground and the Telefonplan site, one of the highest points in the city—which now has a population of 790,000 people—was gradually abandoned. In 1913, the city’s underground telecommunications network consigned the tower to history, although it retained its initial badge until 1939. In 1952, a fire reduced it to ashes, leaving a precarious structure that was subsequently demolished in 1953. Shortly after, Ericsson chose the site for its headquarters.

The telecommunications company had its offices and parts warehouse there until just a few years ago, gradually vacating the floors, which were taken over by branches of the University of the Arts and the social security agency. The building is now owned by Vasakronan, a real estate agent whose participation was key in allowing Colour by Numbers to come to fruition. Although it’s not clear if the company’s goal was to facilitate public participation or generate good publicity, the lights of Telefonplan are now in our hands, regardless of whether we are considered an active part of the city’s decision-making.