Goaded by Mike Kuniavsky’s publication last week of an outline to his forthcoming book, here’s a table of contents for The City Is Here For You To Use. It’s a little unusual, in that it takes the form of a skeletal argument, or maybe even an essay; I hope you enjoy it. Of course, you should also consider this an alpha version, subject to change. (If any of this whets your appetite, do consider pre-ordering the book here.)
Twentieth-century urbanism struggled mightily to establish the rudiments of an empirical, human-centered practice – one capable of identifying, understanding and supporting the processes that give rise to lively, vibrant cities.
We’ve learned that the dynamics which bring such communities into being and allow them to flourish are peculiarly sensitive; the configurations of favorable material circumstances, enlightened policies, and empowered citizens on which urban vitality depends are inherently contingent, and must remain (or be held) within surprisingly delicate tolerances. The introduction of any disruptive factor is likely to move a given ensemble across a variety of thresholds, with significant implications for the way that place is formed and the ways in which it can be experienced. The disruption we will be examining in this book is technological.
In recent years, a class of networked information-processing technologies has emerged which permits the built environment, and discrete objects in it, to sense, process, store, communicate, display and take immediate physical action upon information. The result is a highly dynamic overlay of current conditions, soundings and action potentials made explicit and superimposed on the city – something we might think of as network weather.
This weather is already exerting pressure on the delicate parameters that between them do so much to condition the life of our urbanized places. We can see both the urban milieu and the array of choices available to people moving through it beginning to evolve in response.
In many ways, the technologies involved remain distressingly opaque. Understanding how they work in concert with one another (or fail to do so) requires specialist knowledge that tends not to be bundled alongside their appearances in the world. In order to build effectively with these systems, therefore, and use them most sensitively once deployed, we need to unpack the specific details of their capabilities, affordances and governing logics.
When considering the impact of informatic technologies on urban form and experience, however, the relevant unit of analysis is not the technology itself, but rather the local technosocial assemblage into which it has been laminated. Such constellations of protocols, practices, activities and cultural assumptions operate in mesh to produce a given effect, and this makes any one component very hard to dissect out, consider in isolation or successfully transplant.
Nevertheless, some general trends are observable. A previously mute and disjointed streetscape is being replaced by one comprised of addressable, queryable and even scriptable objects;
An architectonic built up from static and relatively inert forms is being replaced by dynamic structures and surfaces;
A visual environment which asks little more of us than that we spectate is being replaced by interactive façades, screens, and displays;
Above all, those of us moving through the urban environment have ourselves been richly provisioned with sensors operating on a variety of channels and at the most intimate scale.
As a result, where previously human and other processes in the urban fold were lost to insight and to history, the contemporary city’s rhythms and processes speak themselves.
The bottom line is a city that responds to the behavior of its users in something close to real time, and in turn begins to shape that behavior.
This has profound implications for a variety of practices that, between them, are arguably constitutive of metropolitan experience: the way the city is disposed in space, as well as the way we find our way around it;
…the way in which we move around and through it;
…the way we make use of it as a platform for conviviality, to socialize, experience solidarity and the simple pleasures of the company of others;
…and the way we bring goods and services to market.
We need to be clear that significant threats to liberty and autonomy inhere in any adoption of these technologies. They can all too easily be used to apply differential control over who gets to use space and under what circumstances, with little or no effective recourse in real time.
There are other inherently and significantly problematic aspects involved any time we re-engineer urban practices of long standing, that have matured to the point that they already work usefully well, around technical processes which are not, have not and do not. We need to take particular care to avoid the introduction into everyday life of failure modes which do not currently exist.
Only by reckoning with these constraints and limitations will we formulate a robust urbanist practice for the twenty-first century, a Newer Urbanism capable of fully embracing the potential of networked informatic technologies while turning them to our own various ends.
This will require a new way of conceiving of public objects as informational utilities…
…new agreements regarding the use of public space…
…and perhaps even a new conception of the practice of citizenship.
None of these strategies will be sufficient on its own, and the list is far from comprehensive. Ultimately, successfully managing the challenges of the networked city will mean understanding it not just as an ecosystem but as a single conjoined process unfolding in time. And further still, as a deeply seamful process, presenting all who encounter it with a million gleaming hinges: apertures allowing you to reach in and withdraw useful intelligence, to tweak its performance to your own present necessities, or to plug its outputs as inputs into yet other running processes. Now, as never before, the city is here for you to use.