It’s been a good long while since I’ve given a proper hometown talk, and there really is very little in life I like better than matching wits with a proper hometown crowd. So why not come help me celebrate the launch of “Against the smart city” at the New Museum, November 6th at 7:00 pm?
UPDATE: A few folks have written in to mention they can’t really tell from the New Museum site what the talk is all about, and I think that’s fair comment. Here’s what I’m planning to speak about:
I believe that we have the good fortune, you and I, of living in flat-out astonishing times. From 15-M and the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street and beyond, the wave of actions that began in 2011 (and has continued into this year’s occupation of Istanbul’s Taksim Square) represents nothing less than a global assertion of the will to self-determination, comparable in its magnitude to the events of 1968 or 1989. A critical subtext that emerged during these struggles concerned the very ground they were enacted on, engaging the kind of questions more usually debated by specialists in urban planning, land use and law: for whose benefit are the city’s policies designed, enacted and enforced? Who controls its spaces? Who is the city for?
During the very same period, though, that people all over the world were answering these questions by putting their own bodies on the line — and (arguably/partially/in some places) prevailing — the terms of their struggle began to migrate onto a new and far less hospitable terrain. This terrain was technical in nature, or technological. Global enterprises like IBM, Cisco, Siemens, LG and Microsoft, having identified an attractive market opportunity in the urban deployment of certain networked, digital information technologies, fused these technologies into a single proposition and offered it to municipalities worldwide under the rubric of the “smart city.”
Their offerings are generally justified with claims of enhanced efficiency, security, convenience and sustainability. But for reasons that I’ve detailed on this site and in the pamphlet (and will speak to in the New Museum talk), I just don’t believe these organizations are capable of delivering on their promises. Even if they were capable of doing so, I don’t think the ends they aspire to have very much to do with the ways cities actually work to generate value for the people that live, work and dream in them. And I definitely don’t believe that much of anyone at all would retain any enthusiasm for this notion of the smart city if they understood just how closely its development was informed by neoliberal values, or the requirements of authoritarian administration.
Most bizarrely of all, the stream of activity taking place under this banner barely acknowledges the one networked information technology that actually has colonized urban space and experience over the same interval, in just about every city on Earth: the smartphone.
So we’ll dispense with the smart city, and end the talk by looking at some practical, concrete ways in which we might use the networked information technologies we already have to advance our desire for individual and collective self-determination, uphold the right of all to use all the spaces of the city, and support ways of being urban that produce genuine meaning and value for all of us.
Like I said: it’ll be a good time — and all the gods of discourse willing, we ought to have actual books for sale. See you then and there.
UPDATE AG’IN: Here’s the talk as described on the Architectural League’s great Urban Omnibus site, complete with Nurri’s illustration!
I go on about this thing we call “public space” quite often — most recently here — but I don’t think I’ve ever furnished you with an argument as to why I think creating, maintaining and actually using it is so important, from either the individual or the collective point of view. So on the eve of publishing a pamphlet that deals with the topic not a little bit, I figured I’d have a go at doing just that. You might want to settle back and pull up your cushions, because like the man says, this is going to go on for awhile.
For the past several years, exploring the ways in which we collectively understand and use the common spatial domain has been a primary focus of my design work, as well as my writing. One of the things we set out to do at Urbanscale was use digital cartography to surface and expose all those spaces of the city that are public in name and law, that are yours to use and to enjoy, but which generally remain beneath the threshold of everyday awareness. In New York City specifically, we wanted to use data furnished to the public under the various Local Law provisions to populate a map layer on our Urbanflow kiosks, and eventually personal devices connected to the Urbanflow service, effectively updating Jerold Kayden’s invaluable Privately Owned Public Space (or, for that matter, the Nolli map) for the age of networked informatics.
Discovery turns out to be critical to activating this scattered archipelago of courtyards, plazas and atria as a public amenity. Michael Kimmelman, in his Introduction to Beyond Zuccotti Park (a volume I recommend highly, by the way), emphasizes the idea that no space, however designated in law, can legitimately be described as “public” unless it is routinely occupied and used by members of the entire community, and of course I agree wholeheartedly. But you can’t use something that you don’t know is there. And despite the mandatory signage, to say nothing of longtime activism, advocacy and consciousness-raising on the part of groups like Project for Public Spaces or the Design Trust for Public Space, most New Yorkers seem blissfully unaware that these sites are in fact available to them.
These privately-owned parcels simply aren’t as self-evident as the sidewalks, squares and parks we more often think of as public space. And while some of them are of extremely high quality — Paley Park, for example, which is simply one of my favorite places to sit, read and think in all of New York City — more often they’re neglected, underutilized and unwelcoming, which is something I read as a direct consequence of their low profile. (In fact, their managers tend to rely on this relative obscurity, as well as a fair amount of confusion as to the contours of their rights and obligations, to prevent members of the public from using what is rightfully ours, and therefore contributing to their maintenance burden.)
Why go to the trouble of bringing these spaces to light? And especially why would Urbanscale, as a commercial enterprise, dedicate resources toward doing so? After all, firms like Control Group certainly don’t seem to think that any such thing is in their remit, when developing wayfinding kiosks for the MTA, and the notion that the city is suffused with spaces available for free use is something barely even alluded to in Pentagram’s otherwise-respectable, Legible City-based program of map plinths. Nor do these sites receive any particular attention or distinct graphic treatment in any other widely-used digital map of the city. So why undertake the effort involved in raising them to real-time awareness?
The honest, simple answer is “Because we live here.” That was true when Urbanscale was a “we,” and it remains just as true now that the practice is (but for the occasional collaboration) an “I”: for the most selfish of reasons, I want people to know these spatial amenities are available to and for them, because I benefit when they’re used routinely.
How so? Let’s start with the idea that, like anyone rational, I want the city I live in to be a humane, generous place, one that provides for its citizens and visitors at every level of the Maslovian pyramid. (I happen to believe that I’m better off when everyone around me is receiving the support they need, whether that support be physiological, material, interpersonal or entirely intangible in nature.) And public space in all of its forms is one of the few tools we have that’s capable of speaking to all of these dimensions of need, at least in potential. So it seems to me that there are few more worthwhile things a design practice might do than contributing to awareness, stewardship and use of this resource.
I’m comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:
— Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords.
The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)
Most fundamentally of all, people should have free and unimpeded access to toilets and hygienic facilities for reasons of self-respect. Mitchell Duneier, in his 1999 book Sidewalk, describes a distinction the unhoused themselves delineate between those who habitually relieve themselves in public and those who, for reasons of pride, make a habit of doing so indoors whenever they are able to do so; I now think of this every time I see anyone but a drunken fratboy peeing in the street. In so many words: nobody should be forced to rely on the contingent goodwill of a friendly shopclerk or McDonald’s manager to take a shit in safety and privacy. The point is that most street people, just like anyone else, want to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity, and will do so if given the slightest chance.
And I should hardly need to point out that while the need for a clean toilet, a sink or similar facilities may be felt most acutely by those among us without a permanent place to call their own, the same need can beset any one of us, at any time. Even if for no other reason than “I just got crapped on by a pigeon, and I need a place to take my shirt off and scrub it down before my next meeting.” In this very direct and very real sense, the provisions we make for the ostensibly lowest among us are the provisions we make for ourselves.
We need to make at least some provision for the basic needs of all, and public space can do this.
— Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities. Last year, I joined a local group advocating for the pedestrianization of a service road just off Second Avenue near our apartment, and the furnishment of the resulting space with planters and seating. The (eventually successful) opposition to the pedestrianization plan hinged largely on the notion that with Bellevue Hospital and the city’s main homeless shelter/intake center for unaccompanied men in the neighborhood, if the service road were in fact to become a pedestrian plaza that plaza would swiftly come to be overrun by those with nowhere else to be.
Never mind that no one ever offered any empirical support for this scenario. And put to the side, if you can, the understanding that many of those opposing the pedestrian plaza on these grounds were fellow residents of the building complex I live in, and just like me able to avail themselves of the leafy, three-acre garden between our buildings at any time of their choosing. Assume that everything the opponents said was true: that if we successfully created a public amenity in our neighborhood, that amenity would be dominated by the vagrant, the unclean and the unstable.
My response to this is to say, effectively, “So what?” Those human beings, manifestly, exist. There they are. They have needs. As a society, we have made collective choices that result in their being unable to fulfill or even address those needs in the way you or I would as a matter of course. And now we’re going to begrudge them even the ability to sit down and take a load off, when we can do so wherever and whenever we want?
I don’t say any of this cavalierly, and I am under absolutely no illusion that every last person living on the street is an angel, or even particularly safe to be around; New Yorkers, of all people, are acutely aware of the risks of living in close proximity with people whose substance-abuse and mental-health issues have gone untreated, of what’s likely to happen when those issues are allowed to fester to the point that they become life-threatening (or indeed life-ending). But we don’t solve anyone’s problems — neither theirs nor ours nor the region of the Venn diagram where they overlap — by succumbing to self-satisfied NIMBYism, sweeping homeless people out of sight, denying them the basic lineaments of self-care and making tidied-up, fatuous little Potemkin villages of our neighborhoods. So if we don’t want to be confronted by the reality of homeless people sleeping on our public benches, taking up all our public chairs and being visible in the public way, maybe we’d better design public policies that provide them with better options.
We need to face the consequences of our actions, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces.
At the most basic level, if a city isn’t furnished with a well-developed fabric of public spaces of different sizes and shapes and types, there is no place to simply be if you are not actively consuming. You never understand quite what this implies — just how stark and uncomfortable an urban environment can be, no matter how well-appointed otherwise — until you visit someplace where such a nightmare endstate is enacted intentionally and literally.
For me personally, it’s an experience I had last year on a visit to Istanbul’s Kanyon mall that comes to mind when I think of what might await us, should the various tendencies toward privatization of the common spatial domain we can currently discern in our own environment go unchecked. Designed by the California-based Jerde Partnership (the same practice responsible for Universal CityWalk, the “parallel urban reality” dissected by Mike Davis in his 1992 pamphlet “Urban Control“), Kanyon offers plenty of places for visitors to sit…not a single one of which is not clearly demarcated as belonging to Illy or EAT or Le Pain Quotidien. God help you if you’ve come to look and see, but not necessarily to buy: you’ll attract nasty glares not merely from security guards, but — like something out of the “militarized subconscious” of Inception — from shoppers themselves, as though they suspect that your desire to sit somewhere and quietly eat the sandwich you’ve packed is in itself a token of being up to no good.
This may be true of malls everywhere, for all I know; I’ll confess that it’s been a good few years since I’ve been inside of one. But it was glaringly obvious at Kanyon, a place which seems to take Rem Koolhaas’s infamous description of shopping as “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” a little too firmly to heart. Its demand that we justify our presence by spending is a tendency that’s only likely to accelerate as Square and similarly “effortless” low-cognitive-load mechanisms for the transaction of value proliferate in the world, and fuse with the ability to throw a virtual geofence around a given locale. The inherent cruelty involved is something that affects us all, whether or not we happen to have the price of a coffee to spare by way of paying a half-hour’s rent on a place to sit.
I want to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the ability of small, independent operators to make a buck. James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism helped me articulate the distinction I think needs to be made whenever we discuss commercial activity in public space. It’s the same made in Pattern 87 of A Pattern Language, “Individually Owned Shops”: that between individual, accountable proprietors and those deadening enterprises that operate at national or global scale, and that function mainly to extract value from the local community. (I know it’s the hip thing to hate on the High Line these days, but to my mind it’s a place that gets this mix just about right. The kiosks and food stands feel refreshingly humble and local, and reasonably well-curated. You want an ice-cream sandwich, you get a ice-cream sandwich.) My point isn’t that all commercial activity needs to be purged from public space, but that it must never be allowed to dominate these environments, or drive out ways of using them freely.
We need to develop meaningful ways for people to use the city when they don’t have so much as a penny to their name, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way.
Georges Amar, formerly head of foresight for the RATP, reminds us that the sidewalks are a high-throughput mode of conveyance. He likens them to walking subways, and suggests that just as subways have stations, so too ought our pedestrian thoroughfares be well-provisioned with places to stop and rest at regular intervals — again, each complete with shade, toilets, drinking fountains and (I would add) free WiFi. Per the point above about small businesses, further, there’s no reason why each of these nodes can’t support an independently-operated food cart or coffee stand as an adjunct to and enhancer of experience. perhaps as a social focus. platform for impromptu conviviality.
To dip, again, into A Pattern Language, what Amar is proposing corresponds almost precisely with Pattern 82, “Bus Stop”:
Build bus stops so that they form tiny centers of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighborhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a newsstand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops [!], coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms, squares…
A city whose walking paths are well-provided with nodes such as these is simply a more merciful place than one that is not. I didn’t really take Amar’s deeper point, though, until I thought carefully about the routes I habitually take when traversing Manhattan on foot. There’s no question he’s on to something: I’ll happily choose a clumsy, meandering path, or even cut a block or two out of my way, if it lets me pass through one of my favorite public spaces, whether it be Union Square, Liz Christy Community Garden, Lincoln Center or the plaza in front of the Seagram Building. I find these places restorative, even without stopping to rest in them — they make the difference between a joyless trudge and a pleasingly punctuated journey. The happy fact is that, for a great many potential journeys one might take through New York City, something like Amar’s network of walkstations already exists.
The lesson I draw from this: the measure we take to enhance one mode of using the city winds up being an investment in others. The same amenity that furnishes one set of users with the necessities of daily survival can afford others the makings of a safer and more pleasant commute. In other words, there’s a multiplicative, synergistic quality to the return we enjoy on whatever interventions we make with an eye toward improving the urban fabric. If nothing else, each place where people can freely sit and watch the life of the city furnishes an additional increment of Jacobian “eyes on the street.”
We need to think of the urban fabric itself as a source of amenity and succor, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole.
We’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy now. It’s not just a matter of production values, but of what those production values communicate. And what public investments like these communicate is that what binds us truly is more important than what separates us; that even the least “important,” most marginal member of our society is entitled to the same experience of belonging as anyone else; and there can be a dignity, even a grandeur in the everyday.
We need to celebrate what we are collectively and together, and public space can do this.
— Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups. The other night, we stumbled onto this as we passed by Bryant Park. My initial response was that it was one of the most appalling displays I’d ever seen in New York, that there was something almost fascist about it. That it was not at all light-hearted, spontaneous and captivatingly romantic, as it so obviously ached to be, but exclusionary, pretentious, class-ridden and uptight, just an obscene misuse of a public park. (The event didn’t do itself any favors by stationing private security guards at entrances to the park, there to turn away anyone who wasn’t sufficiently compliant with the all-white theme.)
That was my initial response, and truth be told, it was my second one as well. But then I reconsidered a bit. No, Dîner en Blanc is not an ideal use of this public resource. No, it’s not acceptable for a private event to control access to a space maintained for the benefit of all. Yes, there are troubling aspects to it — not least of which is that the dinner struck me as being an all-white event in more ways than one. But it’s one night a year. I can find Dîner en Blanc not at all to my liking — in point of fact, entirely grotesque — but so long as it doesn’t persistently interfere with anyone else’s ability to use Bryant Park I can’t find particular fault with it. (And, in fact, as a traveling spectacle it’s highly doubtful it would impact the same neighborhood two years running.) At very worst, it’s sufficiently localized that anyone who finds it distasteful can avoid it, which is more than can be said for SantaCon.
Ideally, though, different groups would be able to pursue their multiple uses of a space simultaneously and non-exclusively, interpenetrating like strollers, joggers, runners and cyclists all using a path together. The benefit of doing things this way is that it more directly teaches us to accommodate one another’s needs, in a way that merely alternating in time does not. At a time when our city has never been more heterogeneous, and when the “interautistic” tendencies of foam-phase social interaction make it ever harder for us to read, understand or empathize with one another, the kinds of encounter and exchange we generally experience in public space furnish us with a crucial tutorial in getting along.
This applies to public spaces at the smallest of scales, as well. I believe that something was lost, for example, when Barcelona began to phase out its public benches a few years ago, in favor of appealingly designed but single-place seating; certainly, park benches were the site of some of my own first negotiations with strangers over contested space. Shared spatial arrangements such as this teach us the rudiments of being a citizen and an urban self — and sites in which young people can practice urbanity are even more necessary when contemporary technology otherwise allocates us into what Jane Jacobs, in another context, once described as “decontaminated sortings.”
We need to learn the comfort with oneself that allows us to accommodate the needs of others, and public space can do this.
— Finally, civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances. If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, in object lessons from Tahrir Square, the Plaça de Catalunya and Zuccotti Park to the Place Émile-Gamelin and Taksim Square, it is the enduring symbolic power of physically occupying public space, even in our putatively mediated age. We seem to have arrived at a renewed understanding that no political gesture is quite as resonant as the act of coming together in shared space, to join our voices and the presence of our bodies.
I can’t meaningfully discuss what happened with 15-M in Spain, or the various protests and uprisings of the Arab Spring, because I wasn’t anything but a distant observer of those events. But I can speak, a little, to what happened in New York City, and I can tell you that some of the most exciting, empowering interactions I’ve ever participated in happened in Zuccotti Park and Foley and Union Squares in the fall of 2011. Whether or not it was effective in bringing about the precise change desired, the consensus now seems to be that Occupy Wall Street was responsible for the prominence income inequality retained as an issue throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign; for all the good it seems to have done over the long term, it definitely forced the Obama campaign to shore up its bona fides on the left. Among that subset of my friends, anyway, who believe that constitutional democracy is something other than a shuck and a con, just about everyone is disappointed with the Obama Administration, and to a degree that surprises me I share their sense of disillusionment…but I continue to believe that everything we face would have been much, much worse under a Romney Administration.
While only a fool would try to draw a direct connection between Zuccotti Park and, say, the 50% reduction in health insurance costs New Yorkers now stand to benefit from, the events of 2011 are a potent reminder that democracy is something that still happens in public. And the experience of Occupy benefitted New York in other, less obvious ways, as well: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it was precisely the connections and networks that formed in these spaces that laid the groundwork for the city’s single most effective response to Hurricane Sandy.
Both by happenstance and design, our city furnishes us with a network of spaces in which the rights of free speech and assembly cannot be abrogated. The particular ways in which we pursue and enact those rights are continually in the process of being constructed, renegotiated and challenged, but the act of doing so places us in a tradition that extends from the first beginnings of our nation — and beyond that, from the very roots of democratic practice itself.
We need to negotiate the terms under which we pursue our individual destinies within the overarching framework of common purpose, and public space almost alone can do this.
…and the self (a personal coda)
I think it’s clear by now what I mean when I use the rather loaded word “civilization,” and why I make the perhaps curious linkage between this quality and the various modes of land use we collectively describe as “public space.”
But none of the above really explains why this particular platform for social interaction is so important to me personally, why I’ve chosen to dedicate my practice to it, or why I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the parks, community gardens and plazas of New York City. Maybe I can approach an answer sideways, by putting it in one final axiom: Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so.
I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Anybody still reading who doesn’t care about the particulars of my own history, or finds this sort of detail distasteful, is more than welcome to skip forward to that bit with the bullet points at the end. (I won’t be offended, I promise.)
Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.
I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.
But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.
So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.
Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.
I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.
We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this.
Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?
• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)
• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of public-space activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.
• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)
• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.
• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.
• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.
• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover.
A brief interview for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, to accompany their publication of my article “Fear in the bones and the right to the city.”
In your work, you write about you and your girlfriend having the “choice to live downtown,” which intrinsically means accepting certain risks and physical dangers in your life. Do you think there is attraction in danger, since you choose this?
I’m sure for some privileged people, there is attraction to danger for its own sake — some fondness for the endocrine rush someone experiences when they deliberately place themselves in situations that pose imminent threat to life and limb. The key, though, in such circumstances, is that it’s always supposed to be a manageable situation. And “manageable” is not the very first word that springs to mind when I’m asked to describe Avenue B in 1986.
And anyway, that’s not what I moved to the East Village for. I moved there simply because it was a neighborhood that was both convenient to my school and cheap enough for me to afford living with my girlfriend. Another way of framing this is to note that whatever danger there may have been for me in those blocks, it was the fruit of some other, underlying circumstance, and that circumstance also produced other conditions which happened to be desirable — in this case, cheap rent, personal and artistic freedom, and the company of other people who were also engaged in the project of reinventing themselves. And those qualities were rare and special enough that it was worth taking on whatever level of risk I faced. But, again: for me, as for a decent percentage of the people around me, that was a choice I got to make. Other people living on our block were never asked to rank neighborhoods they might move to in order of lifestyle preferences.
With regard to the present “age of technological acceleration,” digital developments can provide necessary information, as you notice, to deal with fear. How do you consider the rapid development of digital, online relations/communities, or, in your terms “networks of weak ties”? In other words: is the growing digitalisation of interpersonal contact the new form of “weak ties,” or does it endanger them?
Well, look: urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to Gregory Smithsimon have observed that public space is necessarily a space of negotiation — negotiation for limited spatial resources, with people who have different goals, ends, intentions and values than we ourselves happen to hold. As it happens, this is true even in something as simple as sharing the space of a sidewalk, when we use it to get between points A and B: we pay close attention to the ways in which other people indicate they intend to use the space, as they do our own, and all of us make constant, swift, subtle adjustments to our own speed and trajectory to keep things flowing. It’s a process that sociologist Lyn Lofland calls “cooperative motility,” and the carrying capacity of our pedestrian mobility infrastructure turns out to be entirely dependent on it.
But what happens when seventy, eighty percent of the people using the sidewalk aren’t really psychically or emotionally present to it? When they’re texting someone, or chatting with them via a Bluetooth headset, or looking up an address on Google Maps? They fail to attend to other users of the space, they have a much harder time performing the little dance of minute accelerations, retards and course corrections that cooperative motility requires, and everyone suffers as a result. The flow of the entire sidewalk bunches up, knots up, slows down. You can see this happen every single day on the streets of Manhattan, or, I’d wager, any other big city.
And part of what I’m arguing is that an analogous process is taking place in our interpersonal relations. To some degree, because our networked social media give us the option of surrounding ourselves with people who are demographically and psychologically similar to ourselves, we appear to be forgetting how to coexist peaceably with those who are not. The tendency is, if anything, toward stronger ties with a network of people who have more in common with us, which is the opposite of the scenario Granovetter described. And this is a problem, because maintaining functioning democracy in a heterogeneous society absolutely requires that we, again, negotiate with those with whom we share nothing at all but an address.
Furthermore, as Sennett and others have long argued, it’s clear that the necessity of engaging in that negotiation is extraordinarily good for us. It’s how we grow as citizens and citydwellers, it’s how we become who we are. We need risk and contestation not because they’re glamorous, or because we get a frisson of temporary, egotistical satisfaction from surmounting them, but because they’re vital to the project of becoming fully human. And that’s something that I’d prefer to see reflected more often and with more sensitivity in the design of networked information systems.
To me, your work reads implicitly as a plea for solidarity, against the highly individualized modern Western society in a way, since the essence of coping best with fear and danger is building relations with each other as co-inhabitants of the city. Would you consider it a plea of that kind?
Yes. Absolutely yes.
How do you do, fellow kids? I’ve spent most of this year working on the “Against the smart city” pamphlet, and now that I’ve just shipped the final copy, my life gets back to normal. Which, of course, means “back to crazy”:
- On October 2nd, I’ll be keynoting Merck’s Displaying Futures symposium in Seoul, alongside the splendid Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler. I can’t quite tell whether or not the event itself is open to the public, but if you happen to be in Seoul between the 30th of September and the 4th of October, we should totally have chicken and beer.
A few weeks later (hopefully, after I’ve recovered a little bit) I fly down to Brazil for two very special events:
- On the 24th, my friends at LSE Cities have invited me to participate in a panel at their Urban Age conference in Rio de Janeiro. I spoke at last year’s Urban Age event in London and it was a blast, so I can’t wait to see what they put together for Rio.
I’m super-excited about that for two reasons. The first is that my session is called “Harnessing Resistance: Anger as Untapped Capital,” and it’s being billed as a conversation between Teddy Cruz and myself on “how resistance brings people together and the roles that the urban environment and social media play in turning an uprising into a movement” — hugely potent topic there, obviously. The second is the very brütal SESC Pompeia itself.
Brazil itself I haven’t set foot in since I was a skinny kid in a Fugazi t-shirt in 1990, and that was several lifetimes ago for the country as well as for me. In the years since, I’ve more than occasionally found myself electrified by what’s happening there, whether that meant the considerable creative ferment of Brazil’s informal sector (any interest in which latterly tends to be dismissed as “favela chic”); a line of pungent, occasionally hard to watch films; or the efforts of a generation of innovators working at the intersection of technology and politics — the work of Felipe Fonseca and MetaReciclagem, say, or the folks who organize the Novas Cartografias conference. So to say that I’m looking forward to my return, and to conversations with some of the amazing people responsible, would be something of an understatement.
Finally, I’m not at liberty to say just what this is about yet, but if you’ll be in NYC and you’re interested in questions of technology, design and public space…you may want to keep the evening of November 6th clear. In the meantime, I’ll get back with you more or less imminently with information about the pamphlet, where and how to get it, and so on.
Sometime in the early 1980s — I can’t have been any older than 14 — I tagged along with my father on a trip he made to New York to commission some work from the artist Agnes Denes. You shouldn’t get the idea that my father was any sort of Medici, or generally has taste quite as refined as his choice of Denes suggests; that I know of, this was the only time he ever did anything along these lines, and certainly there weren’t a whole lot of hard-drinking, Lacan-reading conceptualists in our family life.
Agnes immediately struck me as one of those force-of-nature types, and her studio was everything you’d expect and hope, a cabinet of curiosities furnished entirely with the everted contents of her own mind. The things I saw that day, little shardy glimpses of SoHo and the daily lifestyle of a SoHo artist circa 1983, remain indelible in my mind.
There was one piece of hers in particular I’ll never forget, at least in its general outlines. It was an open glass bowl, containing what to all appearances was a mound of incinerated human remains, bone chunks and all. And the placard mounted alongside the bowl read something like this:
These are the earthly remains of Firstname Lastname, who lived 71 years, 10 months, 13 days, 3 hours, 26 minutes and 17 seconds. In his lifetime he experienced 2,521,490,585 heartbeats and breathed 605,491,268 times. He urinated 39,280 times, for a total output volume of 48,872 liters, and experienced 24,718 bowel movements. In the course of his life he married twice, and enjoyed 3,668 sex acts with these two wives and 16 other partners (fourteen women and two men); including 12,463 acts of masturbation, mostly to completion, these resulted in a total of 15,531 orgasms.
I’m pretty sure about most of that stuff being there. (I’m absolutely certain of the word “orgasm,” because I’d never seen it outside of a verrrry furtively thumbed book before, and there it was on the wall in screaming 48-point Helvetica.)
What I’m less sure about is whether or not I’ve embroidered into the memory a final statistic, which was a figure representing the weight of the ashes. Anyway, that’s what I think of every time I hear someone talk about “the quantified self.”
A conjecture I’d love to get your reaction to. I’m wanting to explicitly position human institutions as tools, and ask of each two things: what are they best at, and what contribution vital to the functioning of a just society can they and they solely provide?
Bear with me for a moment here.
I include markets, amazingly supple and efficient tools for bringing latent information to light, and bundling that information in the form of a signal we call “price.” But that is all they can do, for if information cannot somehow be reflected in price it does not exist to the market, no matter how vitally salient it may be to our choices and life outcomes.
Government, the state, operates best at scale, and functions best when protecting us — not by any means exclusively the most vulnerable among us – from the doleful implications of a world purely organized along market lines. It is best at serving ends none of us could achieve when organized exclusively from the bottom up, no matter how dedicated, and at capturing collective benefit from circumstances the market does not recognize. But I am wary of its coercive power, and believe that these measures are close to all we should let it do for us.
Mutual aid and only mutual aid can teach us to avoid dependency on the benisons of the state, or the helpless lassitude and cynicism that tend to settle upon us when we are organized primarily as consumers of the things of the market. It teaches us the real power of cooperation — a kind of humble awe for what ordinary people are capable of when self-organized. None of the other institutions can come close to what it teaches us about the yoking-together of our energies and the commonality of our fates.
And nothing can stand before the right and obligation of individual conscience and sovereignty over the self, the ultimate wellspring of moral judgment, arbiter of claims to legitimacy on the part of various kinds of collectivity, and guarantor of freedom.
I believe that it is only when these tools are held in the proper balance, and turned to the tasks to which they are best suited, that we’re truly able to thrive, as individuals and collectivities. It makes me a very curious sort of anarchist, admittedly, in that I do see valid roles for despised institutions like the state and the market. And it surely does feel naïve and baldly arrogant to imagine that there may still be some contribution to be made by positing a new balance of these functions at this late date. But while I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m mistaken, or have overlooked something obvious, I just don’t recall, in all my reading, anyone ever having set things out quite this way. And I do think it will be a fruitful place for me, at least, to start in conceptualizing a useful balance of affordances and limitations in the design of a liberatory statecraft.
On the first of January, 2008, I promised you a book about the things I saw happening at the intersection of emerging networked information technologies with urban place.
Well. It has been a long, long time coming, the book has inevitably evolved from my initial conception of it, and there’s still a great deal of work to be done. But I’m now in a position to at least let you know, in a fair amount of detail, just what The City Is Here For You To Use argues.
Please bear in mind that the following is not an outline, just an accounting of some of the book’s major propositions, in the rough order in which you’ll encounter them. As it happens, some of my favorite passages are acutely underrepresented in this accounting (particularly historical material and that concerning network technology’s implications for subjectivity and the constitution of a metropolitan, cosmopolitan self). What’s worse, a good deal of fairly carefully worked-out argumentation is here compressed into what are more or less bullet points. Unless you and I are already muy, muy simpatico, there’s no reason you should necessarily find all of the arguments as presented here convincing, nor do I expect you to. But I do want you to have a map of the line I’m going to be taking.
Without any further ado, then:
1. We find ourselves at a moment in history in which the nature of cities, as form and experience both, is under pressure from a particular class of emerging technology. The advent of lightweight, scalable, networked information-processing technologies means that urban environments around the world are now provisioned with the ability to gather, process, transmit, display and take physical action on data.
2. As a result, that which primarily conditions choice and action in urban places is no longer physical, but resides in an invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds the physical city. That is, our experiences in such places are no longer shaped exclusively, or even predominantly, by our physical surroundings, but by the interaction of code and data.
3. While it is impossible to know for certain just how much of the activity going on around us on any given street is there as the explicit result of a network sounding, it is clearly both a nontrivial and a growing percentage.
4. Our ability to use the city around us, our flexibility in doing so, just who is able to do so, will be shaped by decisions made about the technical design of objects and their human interfaces, and the precise ways in which such objects are connected to one another and made visible to the network.
5. There are many modes in which information raised to the network can re-enter the world. The most obvious is for that data to be mediated by a personal networked device, and acted upon at the level of individual choice and behavior.
6. A second clear category of interest is when this data populates urban media interfaces, which is to say the wide variety of shared, situated display and interaction surfaces of all sizes which increasingly layer urban space.
7. A third order of output is when data is expressed as a dynamic alteration to the physical form or other performative qualities of buildings, circulation networks and other infrastructural systems. We find ourselves in the liminal realm of physical form as the dynamic expression of some discrete measured condition.
8. Independent of the platform on which they’re displayed, the velocity and complexity of the data we are presented with suggests that it will increasingly be conveyed to us in the form of data visualizations that in and of themselves may be both dynamic and interactive.
9. An expansive range of everyday urban tasks currently mediated by analogue (or only passively networked) means, from physical access control to the ability to participate in economic transactions, are increasingly mediated by a single converged interface object, the smartphone…
10. …or disappearing into behavior altogether.
11. Just as Bourdieu argued that we learn the social roles and performances expected of us, in part, from our engagement with material and manufactured objects, we now learn those roles from our interactions with digital interfaces.
12. Digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.
13. We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed nonbiological, nature, from drones to algorithms.
14. These inevitably have their own embedded rhetorics and immanent logics.
15. Equally, there is a determinism implicit in the software used to design spatial relations, from 3D design packages to agent-based modeling tools.
16. The grandeur in determining the conditions of urban existence increasingly resides with those who produce networked objects and services and the interfaces to them.
17. The technologies we are concerned with here achieve their effect not as discrete objects, but as functional ensembles.
18. In many ways, the capabilities and affordances associated with any given ensemble remain distressingly hard to understand, even to people exposed to them on a daily basis.
19. A strong motivator for the deployment of these technologies is the idea that they will render previously obscure, occult and opaque urban processes transparent to inquiry, and therefore actionable.
20. For a variety of reasons, technologists have tended to treat the environments in which the things they design are deployed as what Deleuze called “any-space-whatever”: abstract, generic, unconditioned spaces, containing infinite potentials for connection. But as insightful observers of technology like Paul Dourish and Malcolm McCullough have pointed out, this isn’t so, and can never be: space is always some particular space, systems are always given meaning by being situated in a specific locale and human community, with all the limitations and constraints which go along with those things.
21. Conversely, of course, the urbanists that might have supplied technologists with vital corrective insight have tended to be correspondingly far from the cutting edge of technical development.
22. These technologies are at present offered to us in two guises: the smartphone app and the smart city. Neither is satisfactory.
23. The smart city, as currently proposed, exists almost solely for the benefit of managerial elites.
24. The smart city is situated in “the proximate future.”
26. The smart city replicates in substance most if not all of the blunders we associate with the discredited high-modernist urban planning techniques of the twentieth century.
27. The smart city and similar schemes tend to rely on a model that hardwires or literally embeds technical devices and systems too deeply in the urban fabric to accommodate the rate of change we observe in such systems. (The componentry that affords us an informatic service layer will tend to evolve far more quickly than the structural support in which it is housed. Cities ought therefore be designed to accommodate ready maintenance and the constant swapping-out of hardware.)
28. The smart city is predicated on a neoliberal political economy, and in particular presents a set of potentials disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.
29. Most damningly, the smart city has little enough to do with cities.
30. Latent in the ideology underwriting the smart city is the notion that there is one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need, and that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically.
31. We should demand to know precisely which models of everyday life, subjectivity and experience are implicit in the smart city.
32. There is an inherent tension between technologies that achieve their beneficial effect only at network scale, and therefore benefit from or even require top-down imposition, and the imperatives and prerogatives of local autonomy.
33. The same set of underlying technical potentials that results in the (rhetorical or actual) performance of the smart city can be turned to far more interesting, vital and responsive ends. These meaningful alternatives can best be realized when organized according to the “small pieces, loosely joined” logic so decisive in securing the uptake of the World Wide Web.
34. A set of technical preconditions exists, which Anthony Townsend has identified as (free or low-cost) robust broadband connectivity; (free or low-cost) personal network-interface devices, of wide availability; fully public interfaces; a robust cloud-computing infrastructure, such that storage and information processing are pulled off of local devices; and, at the policy level, an equally robust commitment to open municipal data.
35. Of course, the data is never “just” the data, not at any point a neutral, objective quantity.
36. Firstly, we measure what can be measured.
37. As Laura Kurgan has pointed out, we measure the quantities that it is politically expedient to measure, or which signify against the metrics and success criteria that between them constitute our incentive landscape.
38. We deploy the sensors that are cheap to deploy.
39. Above all, we measure what we think to measure, looking for explanations in some places and not others.
40. There is always contingency, always a selection process, always a choice of what to gather…and always decisions made by some historical agent about how to label, characterize and represent the information that does get collected.
41. We move toward a time in which every change of state, every transaction, every mediated conversation transpiring in the cities of the developed world is, at least in principle, capable of being captured and retained by the network, assigned some meaning, and grabbed, manipulated and acted upon by some remote system.
42. Where previously human and other processes in the urban fold were lost to insight and to history, the contemporary city’s rhythms speak themselves.
43. Even seemingly innocuous facts or patterns of fact, when subjected to relational, inferential and predictive analytics, may be brought to bear against us in distressing and unforeseeable ways, such nonobvious linkages particularly leading to transitive closure and the revelation of identity.
44. These technologies redefine surveillance. It is no longer something which takes place exclusively, or even primarily, in the audio and visual registers, or, for that matter, in real time.
45. We must henceforth understand surveillance as something that can be assembled retroactively, on demand and in response to an emergent perception of need.
46. When discussing surveillance, and the use of power/knowledge to police and constrain behavior, historically most concerns have centered on the state and its capabilities. We must now extend the ambit of our concern to include both market entities and the collectivity of our peers.
47. As ever, the salient thing is not whether some technical capability exists, but whether some party believes that it does, sufficiently to act upon that belief.
48. The discrete objects that gather information and furnish it to the network are acutely sensitive to the alteration of parameters relating either to their design or their deployment.
49. As Anna Minton has observed, the presence of certain kinds of surveillant artifact in the streetscape empirically diminishes personal safety, by eroding the sense of mutual responsibility that is otherwise the hallmark of an organically functioning neighborhood.
50. New visualization tools endow us with what amounts to an extended sensorium, but only at the risk of privileging the perspectives they encode over others which may well be more salient to the situation at hand. There is a danger that our tools will seduce us into believing we understand the flow of things better than we do, or can.
51. Because predictive analytics are all too often based on straight-line extrapolations from present behavior, they can fail to account for perturbations that knock a metastable system out of its present state and into another basin of stability.
52. Networked technologies erode our long-standing conceptions of public and private space. Instead of “public,” perhaps we are better off constructing these as places one can reasonably expect one’s behavior to be observed.
53. Instead of “private,” by the same token, perhaps we can consider such to be places where behavior, once observed, has a very high probability of being correlated with one’s identity.
54. We are now in a position to see that any meaningful distinction between such spaces is collapsing.
55. The risks to individual privacy posed by the contemporary networked streetscape and the objects in it is compounded by the personal devices we carry voluntarily.
56. Mediated digitally as they now are, many of the activities that constitute the public sphere have evaporated from the public realm, leaving the destiny of our public spaces uncertain.
57. Networked objects capable of collecting information from public space can usefully be placed on a spectrum of concern, evaluated by whether they do not store captured data, store it locally in a persistent manner, or upload it to the network…
58. …allow analytics to be applied to collected data or not…
59. …what their effective range and domain of action is…
60. …whether or not meaningful provisions for consent to and opt-out of attempts at collection are present…
61. …and whether or not there is a clear and immediate public good served by the collection.
62. As presently constructed, certain such deployments represent a unidirectional and involuntary transfer of value from individuals moving through public space to private concerns unknown to them.
63. Coming to terms with the fact that a very wide range of everyday objects and surfaces in our cities will have the capacities discussed here will require a new conception of them as open informational utilities: public objects.
64. What is a “public object”? Any artifact located in or bounding upon public rights-of-way…
65. …Any discrete object in the common spatial domain, intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public…
66. …Any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessible to the public, regardless of its ownership or original intention.
67. The data streams collected by such objects should, within reason, be open, free, accessible and extensible. You should certainly be able to draw data out of them, and — so long as those functions represent no public harm — to run other functions on top of them.
68. We might more rigorously define the aim here as ensuring that the goods produced by public object data collection are nonrivalrous and nonexclusive.
69. Given the rapidity with which software evolves, it may be exceedingly difficult to subject systems where power/knowledge is brought to bear by provisions resident in code (rather than in discrete hardware) to processes of democratic accountability.
70. Provided with such functionality, urban space itself becomes capable of performing sorting and ordering operations, including differential exclusions with little or no effective recourse in real time.
71. Increasingly, the systems we are exposed to treat us as temporary and contingent aggregates of “dividuals,” distinguished from one another and laminated together only in the act and moment of inquiry. In the absence of traditional markers of mutual in-group recognition and solidarity, it may be difficult for such dividuals to recognize that they do in fact constitute a class.
72. Cities, with their density and diversity, generate two profound goods for free: enhanced information exchange and transactive capacity…
73. …and the forging, through friction, dissensus and the constant exposure to difference, of a metropolitan self.
74. The ability to trivially search the space of a city is leaching away at the constitution of a quality we have always recognized as urban savvy or savoir faire.
75. The persistent retrievability of personal information is undermining the city’s capacity to act as a chrysalis for personal reinvention.
76. Technologies like high-resolution positioning and algorithmic facial recognition are destroying any promise of anonymity we thought the metropolis afforded.
77. Cities depend vitally on informal, illicit, even deviant economies, which are threatened by a regime of eternal, total and trivial visibility.
78. The wish to protect, preserve or even enhance these qualities, when the technologies we now have at hand would seem to cut against them in ordinary use, furnishes us with several clear design desiderata for networked urban systems.
79. Transfer of the tools of placemaking — particularly the ability to make and publish maps — from empowered elites to the general public represents a profound recasting of spatial knowing. The ability to be represented (or, to some degree, to resist representation) is now in popular hands.
80. Equally, the advent of maps that tell you where you are on them represents a profound epistemic break from the entire history of cartography to date.
81. Our conceptions of lived, bodily space and the simultaneity and capacity of time are almost casually transformed by our everyday use of networked artifacts.
82. Many of the things our new tools tell us about the places we live will be circumstances we’re not quite ready to face up to.
83. Equally, these technologies present us with the specter of new and unforeseen failure modes. Such defaults may affect us in multiple registers simultaneously.
84. The ability for any person to physically travel to and occupy any public space of the city at any time of their choosing and without confronting challenge is an absolute precondition for any meaningfully articulated “right to the city.”
85. The present panoply of heterogeneous transportation networks we encounter in most cities cannot accommodate this requirement. They must therefore be bound together in a mesh of finely-grained and fully interoperable networked services — a transmobility field. Information is the substance of this new urban mobility.
86. The ability to claim unoccupied or unutilized space, at least temporarily, by the act of creative use is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city,” most especially in so-called “shrinking cities.”
87. Present land-use policies and practices cannot accommodate this requirement. Parcels available on short-term, temporary, contingent or negotiated bases ought therefore be made discoverable via a networked service, such that both market and nonmarket service models are accommodated: space as a service.
88. The ability of citizens to enjoy the same real-time synoptic visibility over the unfolding processes of the city available to any manager is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”
89. Present deployments of information technology, especially as made manifest in so-called intelligent operations centers, do not accommodate this requirement. Such consolidated awareness ought therefore be made available via open, shared platforms: frameworks for citizen engagement.
90. The ability to deploy vetted and reliable real-time information in support of collective self-determination is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”
91. Present decision-making procedures, even in places under democratic governance, cannot accommodate this requirement. We ought therefore devise and install, at the lowest reasonable level, a populist deliberative process capable of harnessing networked information, bringing it to bear on challenges before the community and focusing dissensus where it is most productive: evidence-based citizenship.
92. The frictions and constraints that act to keep novel technosocial potentials from bedding in are almost never of a technical nature, but are rather institutional, regulatory and legal.
93. Though some of these constraints may certainly exist for good historical reasons, there is at present an odd and potentially temporary confluence of interests between those invested in a neoliberal retreat of the state from the provision of services and those holding an affirmative vision of collective self-determination.
94. Given the drag generally imposed on government informatics by the unwieldy combination of lowest-bidder procurement policies, the requirement for compatibility with legacy systems and elephantine IT bureaucracies, we stand on the threshold of a world in which the ordinary citizen has recourse to data-gathering, -processing and -visualization tools at least as good as, and often considerably superior to, those which local governmental institutions can bring to bear on a problem.
95. This is especially true when citizen information-processing resources are used in the aggregate.
96. As yet, the majority of urban places and things appear to the network only via passive representations. The networked city cannot come into its own until these are reconceived as a framework of active resources, each endowed with some manner of structured, machine-readable presence, and the possibilities for interaction such provisions give rise to.
97. It is only by consciously and carefully transforming the urban landscape into a meshwork of open and available resources that we can find some upside in the colonization of everyday life by information technology. Such resources ought to be maintained as elements of a core common infrastructure.
98. If place derives its meaning from phenomenology, capacity and history, the technologies under consideration here operate in all three registers.
99. The city is not a finite state machine, something with limited configurations. Networked cities, therefore, must be understood as constituting a grammar that admits to a very large number of valid permutations. Understood correctly, any such place will be ripe with potential for interconnection, recombination and improvisatory structuration — something capable of being extended, enhanced and repurposed by its users as new potentials become available and new desires arise.
100. Considerations, then, for a city and a world newly clothed in code. If we admittedly find ourselves amidst this set of circumstances without much having planned on it, how we respond — what we do now, what cities we make of the potentials before us — is still largely up to us. Now as never before, the city is here for you to use.
The raw footage from an interview I did with ZDF German television — twenty-five minutes of me talking about networked cities, if you can take it. (I myself dig the hobbled Trabi I’m slouching against.)
I hope you’ll forgive the moments of redundancy, the result of a droning airplane which kept circling overhead and necessitating the reboot of one or two questions. I have less of an excuse for the inarticulation and hand-wavy quality…but all in all it’s not too shabby an outing for someone who was freezing and had to pee pretty mightily. I hope you enjoy it.
I confess to being both heartened and frustrated by John Geraci’s new post on “the user experience of New York City,” which you should go take a look at. The “heartened” part is easy: I’m delighted that John raises the issue of the Passenger Information Monitor — the touchscreen interface mounted on the rear surface of a New York City taxicab’s protective partition — because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. The “frustrated” part has very little to do with John or his admirable optimism, and much more to do with the fact that, well, I have been thinking about this precise issue for a very long time, as have a great many designers more talented than I, and not all our efforts combined have been able to alter the badness of the taxi-passenger experience one whit in all that time.
As far as I’m concerned, the primary problem with the PIM is that it provides real-time GPS mapping and other situational information to passengers — but not the driver. This gives rise to an informational asymmetry that only exacerbates whatever issues of mutual mistrust and class, ethnic and linguistic-cultural tension may be latent (or explicit) in the encounter between the two parties.
Anyone who takes cabs in New York City with any frequency whatsoever will surely have noticed that a very large number of drivers are not merely recent immigrants but recent immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh. This, of course, is not a neutral pattern of fact, in either the American imaginary or the reckoning of the various Federal agencies charged with enforcing immigration law and upholding homeland security. Drivers from the Subcontinent, particularly, do absorb the suspicion and hostility of a post-9/11 public, and therefore may have some justification for a belief in otherwise hard-to-swallow conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons for the in-vehicle deployment of locational technologies. (How do I know they hold such beliefs? I know this ’cause I ask drivers for their opinions on the PIM whenever I get the chance, and the notion that DHS or some similar entity is tracking their personal movements through in-car GPS arises spontaneously about a third of the time.)
Even absent this specific consideration, the placement of the screen carries along with it a not-so-subtle implication that the driver is out to screw the passenger, and if left to their own devices will surely do so. The particular message of the PIM is that the driver needs to be supervised, their microbehavior monitored and their choices (e.g. of routing) verified from moment to moment. Compare this to the dashboard-mounted GPS navigation systems used by cab drivers in, say, Seoul, which are more clearly there to assist the driver in their negotiations with the cityscape — a primary use of such screens which does nothing to prevent their also being used to coordinate agreement between driver and passenger as to appropriate courses of action.
Finally, as John points out, and in what has to be reckoned an extraordinarily clumsy and hamfisted way of undermining any common feeling between the person in the front seat and those behind the partition, the PIM screens run ads. These are predictably loud and irritating, they load automatically and continue running unless manually shut off, and they generate revenue for the taxi operator every time they are viewed. (The passenger is provided with an Off button, but it is designed so as to be relatively obscure and hard to engage.) The cab driver is therefore incentivized to tolerate a system behavior that’s clearly detrimental to the experience of the paying customer.
These are design decisions. There is nothing inherently wrongheaded with choosing to site a passenger interface on the back of a taxi’s partition, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with providing the passenger with information that will reassure them as to the wisdom of the driver’s choices. But in each of the above cases, as a result of bad design, the interests of driver and passenger have been allowed to become uncoupled from one another, with terrible repercussions for their ability to trust and feel comfortable with the other — both locally to this specific ride, and across whatever rides take place in the future, for as long as this particular envelope of technological and design decisions remains intact.
I share John’s hope that this and the other moments that constitute stumbles in the user experience of the city can be rectified by design — I hope obviously so, given my investment of time, effort, reputation and life savings in a company intended to do just this. But I can’t help but note that we New Yorkers appear to live in a place, a time and a culture in which considerations of design are all but invariably shunted to the back of the line when budgetary and other resources are apportioned. In situations like this, I’m so often put in mind of Stafford Beer‘s observation that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” If, in all the years since Vignelli, New York City and its institutions have mostly failed to produce high-quality citizen-facing design, it’s difficult to conclude anything but that on some level, and from some party’s perspective, this is an intentional outcome.
A rough road ahead for the would-be designer of good urban user experience, then — but a clarion call to greatness, as well. Tomorrow’s Vignellis surely have their work cut out for them. But should you succeed in such tasks even partially, you’ll know that your intervention is improving the texture of someone’s life tens of thousands of times a day, every single day. By my lights, anyway, there are not a whole hell of a lot of things on Earth more worth the effort.
OK, you got me.
You knew I couldn’t go for very long without having some kind of outlet for random thoughts and personal opinions. To paraphrase Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game — and boy, does that date me — expressing same is in my nature.
So forgive me if I go back on my word a little, and use this space to comment briefly on the contrast between what have already become the daily and weekly rhythms of work in my own practice, and what I saw during two years at Nokia. I guess I’m moved to do this both because writing helps me organize my own complicated thoughts on the situation that company finds itself in, and ideally because it might help clarify things for others. My hope is that everything that follows will prove especially useful to you if you’re on the verge of joining a large, global organization — or leaving one.
Executive summary: Despite the omnipresent burden of responsibility, and the inherent risk of failure, there’s an excitement and pleasure in working on one’s own behalf that was for the most part missing entirely from my Nokian experience. The word I keep coming back to, in my head, is “unbound,” and it’s an unbelievably lovely and liberating sensation.
My experience with a project we’re working on, even at this very early stage, might serve as a small illustration of why the entrepreneurial life has already been so rewarding, and incidentally, why I wouldn’t look for innovation from large organizations. At any rate, it’s as good a way as any to comment, hopefully constructively, on Nokia’s recent and ongoing troubles.
Most obviously: our size lets us move fast. We’ve taken this from first notion to Illustrator sketch to technical validation to “Patent Pending” in mere weeks, and not very many of them. This is in distinct contrast to my experience in Espoo, where anybody wanting to launch anything at all had to secure layers (upon layers) of buy-in from people who — in many but certainly not all cases, and with all due respect — are not properly equipped to evaluate the merits of the propositions they’re being presented with. I’m hesitant to generalize. Honestly, I am. But my personal experience suggests that rather than acting as the incubator/force multiplier/accelerator it ought to have, Nokia’s corporate culture served as a brake on all kinds of innovative thought.
We’re better-equipped to detect and respond to actual user needs. Nokia’s problem is not, and has never been, that it lacks for creative, thoughtful, talented people, or the resources to turn their ideas into shipping product. It’s that the company is fundamentally, and has always been, organized to trade in commodities. Whether those commodities were stands of timber, reams of paper, reels of cable, pairs of boots, or cheap televisions for deployment in hotel chains, much the same basic logic applied: acquire, or manufacture, great quantities of a physical product for the lowest achievable cost, and sell for whatever the market will bear.
Nokia’s engineers were and are brilliant at this. I am so far from an expert on the topic it’s not even funny, but I’d feel comfortable wagering that there is still no organization on the planet more capable at designing the guts of a phone, the various antennae and radios-on-a-chip that allow a handset to communicate with a network. Nor are there many who can compete with Nokia on the ability to optimize a supply chain and bring in a given bill of materials at a given (and generally astonishingly low) cost.
These are precisely the skills you need if you’re interested in dominating a global market in commodity communication devices, as Nokia did for the fourteen years of the Jorma Ollila era. But the company utterly failed to anticipate, understand or organize itself to deal with the critical thing that happened at the cusp of the Ollila-Kalasvuo transition. This was that you could no longer think of mobile phones as communication devices. You had to conceive of them as interface objects through which users would experience content and command functionality that ultimately lived on the network. (That grandeur and disproprotionate benefit would accrue to those who did understand this shift was underlined by Apple’s launch of its astonishingly successful iPhone in late June of 2007, just over a year after Kallasvuo ascended to the CEOship.)
Individuals at Nokia, of course, did understand this — many of them. Indeed, the entire Insight & Foresight unit produced material throughout the immediate pre-iPhone period that was as visionary with respect to the emerging paradigm as anything I’ve seen, just as, throughout my tenure, the Design Strategic Projects team under Phil Lindberg continued to generate ideas that for the most part took the full measure of so-called 4G/LTE networks and cloud-based interaction.
But whether as teams or individuals, the parties trying — energetically, and in good faith — to help the company avail itself of this insight were ignored. Compensated competitively, paid lip service to (if not actually fawned over, or rubbed as if for totemic good luck) in presentations to the Group Executive Board…but comprehensively overruled when it came time to set policy or direction. I’m tempted to say that considerations of user experience were bypassed at a structural level.
And this is the crux of it. As it happens, the value-engineering mindset that’s so crucial to profitability as a commodity trader is fatal as a purveyor of experiences. Of course you still want to produce your offering for the lowest achievable cost — but that cost is bound up in intangible, nondeterministic dimensions of design, in ways that are only partially-at-best quantifiable. It’s just not particularly wise to allow engineers to make decisions about things like product and service nomenclature, interface typography and the graphic design of icons: they’re, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so. And yet this is what happened when I was at Nokia and, I would imagine, is happening still.
Again, please understand that I say this with enormous respect for my engineer friends, who manage without thinking twice to achieve a very great number of things for which I am not neurocognitively equipped. My point is merely that, at Nokia, engineering has been allowed to displace what is properly the company’s design prerogative almost entirely.
I’ll give an example. Nokia spent many years, and a great deal of money, doing research and development of a technology called NFC, or “near field communication.” NFC really does have the potential to transform all kinds of everyday interactions; it’s essentially a flavor of RFID that allows signals to pass between objects that are brought within close (touch or tap) proximity with one another. It’s the gimmick underlying the phone you’ll buy next year, with which, if you live in the developed world, you’ll almost certainly conduct the lion’s share of your daily monetary transactions.
When I arrived at Nokia, the folks down the road at NRC were very proud of something they’d ginned up: an NFC-equipped, but otherwise entirely conventional, vending machine. At last!, I thought, here’s a concrete step toward the future of everyday transactions. And in what was, from my perspective, the very best kind of context: that of an interaction so banal and unremarkable that it undermined any conceivable charge of utopian handwaving. Whatever frisson of futurism you derive from the encounter quickly subsides beneath the threshold of the ordinary, which — per all my gurus, from Don Norman to Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa — is exactly as it should be.
Except that, as realized by Nokia, this is precisely what failed to happen. I experienced, in fact, neither a frisson of elegant futurism nor a blasé presentiment of everyday life at midcentury. I was given an NFC phone, and told to tap it against the item I wanted from the vending machine. This is what happened next: the vending machine teeped, and the phone teeped, and six or seven seconds later a notification popped up on its screen. It was an incoming text message, which had been sent by the vending machine at the moment I tapped my phone against it. I had to respond “Y” to this text to complete the transaction. The experience was clumsy and joyless and not in any conceivable way an improvement over pumping coins into the soda machine just the way I did quarters into Defender at the age of twelve.
It’s not that the NFC-based, phone-to-object interaction didn’t work. Of course it did: it had been engineered perfectly. But what it hadn’t been was designed. Those responsible for imagining the interaction apparently wanted to protect users against the (edge case!) contingency of someone making off with their phones and running up a huge vending-machine tab. They failed to understand that, for low-value transactions like this, at least, the touch gesture is a useful proxy for consent — and that if someone’s got physical possession of my phone, I’m likely to have bigger problems than whether or not they order a few cans of Coke with it. A designer committed to the user and the quality of that user’s experience gets this in a way only the rarest engineer seems to. Designers are also, by training and predilection, inclined to design for the usual, where engineers are taught a kind of rigor that compels them to account for, and overweight, low-probability events.
Bottom line: the “magic” of an NFC-based transaction, the “surprise and delight” our esteemed colleagues in Marketing so often demand we wrest out of technological interactions, was foreclosed from the beginning. All of the potential lightness and elegance that would make this not merely a possible way of doing things but a better way was ruled out, by an organization committed to the virtues of engineering rather than those of design.
Is it entirely fair to expect what was, after all, a product of a research lab to exhibit much in the way of polish at the level of interaction? Ordinarily, I’d say no, of course not. But for the fact, that is, that certain highly-placed people in the Nokia mainforce were aware of the NFC vending machine project, delighted with it as-is, and perceived little if any fault with it. It may certainly have needed some “fine tuning,” I was told on more than one occasion…but otherwise stood proudly ready for the day the mass market was provisioned with NFC-capable phones, and could make use of it.
I have to conclude that it’s this inability to even perceive the clear makings of an unacceptably bad user experience, let alone address them as profound obstacles to success in the marketplace, that leads to situations like this.
Another, blunter way of putting it: there’s nobody with any taste in the decision-making echelons at Nokia. And this is especially unfortunate and ironic, given that elegant, simple Finnish design has tutored generations in what taste means. My whole tenure in Espoo was soured by the nagging counterfactual, “What if Nokia had embraced and extended the finest traditions of its own national design culture, in its approach to the global mass market?”
Something tells me that Stephen Elop, whether or not he turns out to be a Trojan horse for Redmond, will be comprehensively unable to help in this department.
We’re happy if our product is viable enough that it reaches an audience, and contributes in any way to making those lives easier. It doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. This raises a related issue, which is that Espoo is only and solely interested in scale. In Nokian terms, this generally means “on the order of tens of millions of users.” On the surface, this is defensible, but it means the company doesn’t really have many innovation pathways open to it. It certainly can’t tolerate the kind of lowercase experiments that other institutions benefit from, whether these are inherently viable businesses generating high-multiple ROIs that are, however, small in absolute terms, or probes like Twitter that enjoy no clear business model at their outset, but later find scale and thereby produce value.
In concrete terms, this means that projects like Nokia Sports Tracker — one of the best things I saw during my time in Espoo, and in my opinion actually superior to the Nike+ iPod offering — are abandoned, orphaned, starved of the oxygen they need. This despite what I would have thought was the obvious fact that it’s projects like these that lend your brand an aura of futurity, build consumer enthusiasm and loyalty, and generally make your company more attractive as a place for people to work. In other words, they pay for themselves many times over and in many ways, whether or not they generate revenue. If nothing else, they cut down on headhunter bills; a company that fully and whole-heartedly supports homegrown initiatives like Sports Tracker is a place where bright developers will want to play.
Although I had nothing a’tall to do with Sports Tracker, it’s extra-galling to me personally that Nokia killed the project more or less in the same breath that it embraced the frankly ludicrous fantasies peddled by acting head of Services and Developer Experience Tero Ojanperä (“responsible for the company’s portfolio of location, messaging, entertainment and context-based services”). I find it so galling because the company had, in its sweaty little hands, a truly pioneering service that showcased its devices and their onboard sensors at their best, leveraged locational technology, was fun to use and nice to look at, and, if you’ll forgive a little jargon, demonstrably “drove user engagement.” And it literally threw this all away, apparently preferring to indulge itself as an institution in, among other things, the fantasy of being a glittering media brand.
I always thought of Sports Tracker as something I would be proud to have designed myself. Now, though, in my role as managing director, I understand that I would be equally proud had I anything to do with creating the kind of environment in which folks like the creators of Sports Tracker might thrive. That’s why it’s inexplicable to me that Nokia’s mid-upper echelons took a pass on what was obviously a service with a bright future — I mean, if success indisputably has many parents, didn’t they want a win they could claim credit for?
I have a great deal more to say on the topic, if you can believe it, but I’ve already gone on pretty long, and likely stressed your interest and/or patience to the breaking point. Quickly, therefore, and I say this to everyone who’s ever whiled away their hours in the corporate breakrooms of the world, boring their coworkers with dream-architectures of world domination and largely ungrounded assertions that everything could be so much better if only x and y and z: I wish I’d done this years ago. Gone out on my own, that is.
You own your mistakes and failures, certainly, in a way that a large organization can trivially buffer you against, but so too your joys. Yeah, it’s brisk out here…but so, so exciting, and there is at the very least a 1:1 ratio between the effort you exert on a day-to-day basis and what is seen to come of it. Say that about any big shop you care to name, I dare you.
As for Nokia, their fate is their own, too. Given the highly questionable judgment displayed by the organization and its senior management over many years, I’d say they’ve finally gotten what was coming to them — but for the fact that “they,” in this context, unavoidably includes many who have been doing their absolute best, under truly thankless conditions, for far, far too long. It’s to you that I’m going to raise my glass tonight, and you know very well who you are.
It also includes just about the entire Finnish people, for whom Nokia has long been a particularly significant benefactor, and for whom I retain a great (if frequently enough puzzled) fondness. These people are blameless — or if not blameless, certainly don’t deserve to be held culpable for the blunders of a few. To me, their experience is a sobering reminder of the responsibility for the welfare of others one takes on in deciding to start any kind of venture at all that extends beyond the shores of the self. And if, in the end, that’s all I wind up taking away from my time in Espoo, I guess that’s not such a bad deal at all.
- Urban data: From fetish object to social object | 14th March 2014 at LSE Cities 27 February 2014
- Two recent interviews 24 February 2014
- TFTD 23 February 2014
- An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object 30 January 2014
- On the survivors’ bond 1 December 2013
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