For the last year or so, I’ve been giving a presentation called “Elements of a networked urbanism,” a version of which you can listen to here, as kindly recorded by the folks at dConstruct. (Do note that it’s a 60-minute sound file.)
I’ve generally characterized this talk as “a diagnosis and a manifesto”: both an attempt to puzzle out some of the shifts in the ways people make and use cities that occur when those cities are provisioned with ubiquitous informatics, and a set of assertions about how informatic systems should be designed to support high-quality urban life. (And yes, the original post was called “The elements of,” but as it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, that wording felt a little misleading in retrospect. Not to mention arrogant.) By and large, it’s been successful in conveying the affordances and constraints presented by a relatively novel information technology to audiences largely conversant with the granular details of that technology in a different context.
But the talk I’m planning to give at the Pompidou on 27th November and at Supernova in San Francisco a few days later is a little different. It’s called “Public objects: Connected things and civic responsibilities in the networked city,” and while it takes as text and jumping off point the same set of observations and concerns, it winds up in a different place.
Maybe you’ll see what I mean if I share the abstract I submitted for the Pompidou event:
The networked objects which are increasingly populating our lives and our cities already generate torrential, unceasing volumes of data about our whereabouts, activities, and even our intentions. How can we ensure that this data is used for the equal benefit of all? What provisions regarding such objects should citizens demand of their municipal governments? How might the juridical order respond most productively to the presence of these new urban actors?
We’re clearly into a different territory here. This is not a talk intended, primarily, for technologists, but for people who understand themselves to be citizens, constituents and co-creators of an urban polity. And it’s an attempt to use the appearance of networked informatics in our cities to argue a much larger point: that our times and circumstances call for a conscious art and craft of urban systems design.
Consider the laundry list of actors involved in framing the urban environment invoked by Rob Holmes’s recent post on big-picture thinking: “…engineers (experts in infrastructure), planners (experts in navigating the regulatory terrain of city-shaping), developers (experts in financing), and ecologists (experts in the science of relationship).” Depending on how you interpret “ecologists,” there’s precious little room in that spectrum for the kind of holism that’s capable of standing back, looking at the conjoined impact of infrastructural, economic, regulatory, political, social, financial and aesthetic choices on a given urban terrain, and making informed suggestions as to the interventions required to improve outcomes for all.
Where a need for it is seen to arise, the responsibility to think holistically about the urban milieu is generally located within architecture, never least by architects themselves. But where Holmes argues that architecture has ceded the “big picture” to the contingent whims of other disciplines, I’d submit that this is because the field is in genuine risk of missing the picture entirely. I like to think that I’m reasonably familiar with what’s going on in the domain, as an enthusiast amateur, and if I can judge by what gets published, even the more advanced practices of the current architectural generation seemingly remain smitten by scale-free, procedural strategies for the generation of form. Their exercises are often lovely, occasionally awe-inspiring, but they seem to issue from some mathic universe governed by the teraflop exertions of a deep ruleset that excludes the possibility either of human agency or of the frailty which inevitably attends it.
So I don’t think architecture is at present organized or oriented in such a way as to provide the necessary insights, nor are individual architects much motivated to do so (with the usual and much-admired exceptions). By contrast, I’d argue that we’re now in a position to articulate something of what a truly integrative faculty might look like, what a curriculum in urban systems design might contain:
Any such thing would have to be deeply grounded in a literacy in complex adaptive systems. I’m thinking, of course, of the kind of thing that the worthies of Stamen work so hard to evoke and do so well, but also the work that Paul Torrens does. The result would be something that integrated an understanding of economic geography and incentive landscapes at all of the relevant (time and spatial) scales.
That word “incentive” offers a big fat clue as to another vital component: any useful practice of urban systems design would have to offer an account of human motivation under typical city-scale conditions of concentration and density – and not merely one that reduces to biological drives. One would further hope this account would be built on the best, most nuanced and sensitive qualitative research available.
It would have to be able to model the role of all the interdependent actors involved in producing urbanity: from institutional and technological to climatological, animal and microbial. (The networked informatic systems I’m most personally concerned with would of course be numbered among these actors.)
It would exhibit deep respect for the phenomenological, which is to say, for material and semiotic and linguistic particularity.
And – at least in my version – it would emphasize the importance of human choices and decisions. Of especial interest is how choices made in any layer cascade through all the systems connected to it, or fail to, so we’d wind up (for example) able to depict how a specification made by a standards body, at the urging of one manufacturer, makes a networking standard more or less likely to be broadly adopted, and how that same standard once adopted winds up allowing (or compelling, or forbidding) certain kinds of behavior.
The aim of all of this would be to improve outcomes for everyone who lives in a city. Starting from a hard-headed assessment of the negotiations required and the parties and imperatives that need somehow to be satisfied, the goal would be to design interventions (and non-interventions) that enhance the quality of life in a particular urban terrain in whatever ways resonate with the motivations discovered there, and whatever “quality” is seen to mean. Ultimately, even “sustainability” as that goal is currently understood would merely be a subset of this endeavor.
Especially given the by-now-clichéd recognition that we’ve decisively become an urban species, the time for such a movement, frankly, isn’t now: we needed it desperately yesterday, last week, last century. From where I am both delighted and seriously privileged to stand, though – able to travel the world, astride many conversations and disciplinary communities but beholden to none – I can tell you that alongside the genuine and acute need for this work there stands a cohort of brilliant, insightful, compassionate people hungry to take it up. Many of them, it’s true, already know each other, or at least of one another, and are working the puzzle together from whichever angle is most congenial to their skills and desires…but still more of the people with the relevant interests and ambitions do not.
If you’re working in any of the areas implicitly bound up in all this, or about to, and think you’d like to address this set of challenges, I’d like to spend my time helping you to meet the others so embarked and find useful outlets for your energy and effort. For myself, I’m going to devote the balance of my career to the question of urban systems design, in ways formal and informal, purposive and casual, hard-knuckled and ludic – and I’d very much like it if you joined me, in whatever way you felt most comfortable.