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.
And this is what everything that came before was leading up to: Urbanscale, design for networked cities and citizens.
Urbanscale is a New York-based boutique practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of human-centered interaction design to the specific problems of the metropolitan environment. We aim to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. And yes, we’re hiring.
You can find us via the above site, or @urbnscl on Twitter.
Crossposted on Urbanscale.
I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.
As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)
In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:
- The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
- The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
- The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
- The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
- Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.
This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.
For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.
Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.
There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.
The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.
As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:
I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?
This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.
Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.
This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.
Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.
The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.
This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)
These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.
If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.
Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.
And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)
There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.
I’m wheels up for NRT tomorrow, and but for two European appearances my bike & I will be there through the end of October.
Those two gigs? PICNIC in Amsterdam, on the 23rd of September, where I’ll be moderating a panel called Urban Lenses with Helden Tom Coates, Matt Cottam, Usman Haque and Anab Jain; and keynoting Megapolis in Helsinki two days later. I hope to see you at one or both.
- On the survivors’ bond 1 December 2013
- Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics 22 November 2013
- My back pages: Morning and the man who made me 30 October 2013
- Statement on collaboration with Russian institutions 16 October 2013
- “Against the smart city” on CBC’s Spark this week 4 October 2013
Being discussed now
- AG on Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics
- Extenuating Circumstances on Data-driven, realtime advertising: The aura of approach
- Kurt on Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics
- Alper.nl on “Against the smart city” now available for purchase in Kindle
- Lab404 - Laboratório de Pesquisa em Mídia Digital, Redes e Espaço on “Against the smart city” teaser