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Route Master: A Biography of the London Map

I’m beyond honored to have had this piece — a love letter to London and its maps — commissioned for the launch issue of the revived Journal of the London Society. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. For the record, the impeccable choice of title was theirs.


I very much doubt that there is a city on the face of this Earth better mapped, over a longer period of time — nor more potently associated with the image of the map, as cultural and practical artifact — than London.

I’m sure some of the reason behind this stems from the need to assert administrative control, assess taxation and clarify property rights across a bewildering profusion of boroughs, wards, parishes, liberties, districts and councils. Part of it, certainly, arises from the way in which successive mobility technologies have allowed the city to colonize the land — sprawling its way across terrains and conditions, levering itself ever outward via rail lines and motorways, until the area within the ambit of the M25 subsumed a not-inconsiderable chunk of the British landmass.

But a great deal of this history is driven by history itself. Over the two thousand years of its documented existence, the physical fabric of London has blithely folded everything from animal trails and Roman roads to the Abercrombie Plan and the Westway into its network of connections. As a result, this is, at its core at least, a topologically ornery city. It is a place threaded with byways that admit to no obvious exit, that continue past a nodal point only under some other name (and therefore bear multiple designations within the space of a few dozen meters), that deposit the pedestrian somewhere, anywhere else than wherever reason and intuition suggest they might. Saffron Hill, Newman Passage, Johnson’s Court, the increasingly (and, it must be said, distressingly) salubrious alleys of Soho — you can walk these thoroughfares half a hundred times, and still not quite remember how they link up with the rest of the city. Or even, necessarily, how to find them again the next day.

At the same time, of course, London is a city of roundabouts, flyovers and gyratories, of circuses and viaducts and junctions — a city that was already thoroughly reticulated by bus routes and Tube lines before anyone now living was born. With each new layer, its complexity increases in a way that is not additive, but multiplicative. But if all of this is undeniably the case, it’s also true that you can wake up one morning to discover that the tramways have been pulled up, that Charing Cross Road no longer quite connects with Tottenham Court Road, that someone’s proposing to turn Elephant & Castle roundabout into a peninsula. The confoundments threaten to spiral out of control. So whether they avail themselves of one via the enameled surface of a Legible London plinth, an app on their phone, or for that matter the Knowledge so splendidly immanent in the comparably complex network of neurons in a cabbie’s head, the would-be reckoner with London needs nothing so much as a chart, a guide. A map.


John Snow's map of cholera deaths in Soho

John Snow’s map of cholera deaths in Soho

So equipped, one can finally negotiate the city with relative ease. But navigation is by no means the only thing we use maps for. It’s long been understood that cartographic tools can help us better comprehend some state of the world, and even allow us to make effective interventions.

As it happens, this kind of spatial analysis was born right here in London. When John Snow tallied deaths in the 1854 Soho cholera outbreak on a map, he made manifest a pattern that had previously eluded even the most conscientious ledger-based tabulation: that peak mortality clearly centered on the Broad Street water pump. Armed with this evidence, Snow famously petitioned the parish Board of Guardians to remove the pump handle, which they did the next day, stopping the epidemic in its tracks. It was a landmark moment for both epidemiology and geographic information systems — and it would not be the last time in the history of London that a map proposed an intervention.

Though a great deal more impressionistic than Snow’s fastidious chart, Charles Booth’s poverty maps of late-Victorian London are almost as granular, delineating among seven increments of socioeconomic status as they varied block to block, and occasionally house to house. Though Life and Labour of the People in London, the magnum opus in which they appeared, must be given the lion’s share of the credit — and this is to say nothing of Booth’s apparently indefatigable organizing — it’s generally acknowledged that the maps themselves were critical for catalyzing the sense that something had to be done to redress abject want in the city, perhaps by conveying its true extent in the backstreets and rookeries only rarely penetrated by the respectable classes. (The blithe ignorance these classes nurtured for their own city was truly impressive. In 1855, the London Diocesan Building Society had described the East End to its subscribers as being “as unexplored as Timbuctoo,” which must have come as some surprise to the hundreds of thousands of Cockneys living there.)

In their way, Booth’s maps were as effective as Snow’s in driving change in the world. The response, when it came, may not have been quite as elegant or as precisely targeted as the removal of a single pump handle, but its impact was undeniably felt at a larger scale. When Parliament authorized the first Old Age Pension in 1908, Booth’s work was widely regarded as having been instrumental to the effort aimed at securing its passage.

Here we get some sense of the power of a geographic data visualization. By judiciously folding complex urban dynamics back against the ground plane, maps like these help us comprehend circumstances that may well be transpiring beneath or beyond the threshold of unaided human perception, in space or time or both. They are, quite literally, consciousness-altering.

In all the long history of mapping the great metropolis, though, it’s arguable that no single map did more to change the ordinary Londoner’s perception of urban space than Harry Beck’s original Underground diagram of 1933. In reckoning with the burgeoning complexities of a then relatively new addition to the city’s network of networks, Beck’s map emphasized the experiential truth of urban space over the geographically literal. As anyone who’s ever hoofed it between Angel Station and Old Street can tell you, the overland distance between any two contiguous stations bears only the slightest resemblance to the proximity implied by the Beck schematic and its many descendants.

The distortions pull in both directions. With only the Tube map to rely on, someone unfamiliar with the topography of central London might well conclude that it’s entirely reasonable to take the Tube from Bank to Liverpool Street, or from Borough to London Bridge, when the former is at worst a nine- and the latter a ten-minute walk. (And don’t get me started about vertical distances. At Angel Station, the system’s deepest, it can take the rider a good five minutes just to get from turnstile to platform.)

But these gross displacements, however grievously they might afflict the small but vocal contingent of people who care passionately about such things, are entirely beside the point. For all its compressions, expansions and improbably crisp 45-degree angles, the map is impeccably accurate in reflecting the way Tube riders actually perceive the space of the city, as it unspools a few dozen meters above their heads. Rely on it often enough for long enough, and you too may find — to paraphrase Edward Tufte — that the map organizes your London.


Charles Booth's maps of London poverty

Charles Booth’s maps of London poverty

For someone more than casually fond of both London and maps, it’s inordinately pleasing that these landmarks in cartographic history are all also part of the story of this particular place on Earth. You can go and visit the very places that John Snow and Charles Booth mapped any day of the week, using the system that Harry Beck described with his map.

We are, however, safe in considering all of this history mere preamble, however glorious it may be. I believe that at this moment in time, we are collectively experiencing the most significant single evolution in mapping since someone first scratched plans on papyrus — for one relatively recent and very simple development, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, and what we can do with it.

It’s this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.

Nothing in all my prior experience of maps prepared me for the frisson I experienced the first time I held an iPhone in my hand, launched Google Maps, pressed a single button…and was located, told where I was to within a very few meters. When you realize that, already, some 30% of the adults on the planet own a device that can do this, that this audience already greatly outnumbers all the people who ever consulted an A-Z, a Thomas Guide or a friendly green Michelin volume put together, you begin to understand just how dramatically the popular conception of cartography is evolving. Those who come after us will have a hard time imagining that there was ever such a thing as a map that couldn’t do that.

The fact that such depictions can now also render layers of dynamic, real-time situational information — traffic, weather, crime and so on — seems almost incidental compared to this. The fact of locability, in itself, is the real epistemic break. It subtly but decisively removes the locative artifacts we use from the order of abstraction. By finding ourselves situated on the plane of a given map, we’re being presented with the implication that this document is less a diagram and more a direct representation of reality — and, what’s more, one with a certain degree of fidelity, one that can be verified empirically by the simple act of walking around.

I’d argue that this begins to color our experience of all maps, even those that remain purely imaginary. We begin to look for the pulsing crosshairs or the shiny, cartoonish pushpin that says YOU ARE HERE. The ability to locate oneself becomes bound up with the meaning of any representation of space whatsoever.

And it has profound pragmatic consequences, as well. It means that our maps can do real work for us. Typical of this is the online service Citymapper. Fed real-time information by TfL via a series of conduits called “application programming interfaces,” or APIs, Citymapper constitutes nothing less than a set of keys to the city, accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a data plan. It effortlessly tames what is otherwise the rather daunting perplexity of the street network, divining a nearly-optimal path through all those closes and courts and alleys, or suggesting just what combination of buses and trains you’d need to cobble together to get from, say, Stoke Newington Common to Camberwell Green.

Again, here London is different from other places. Though Citymapper offers versions for New York and Berlin, Paris and Barcelona, the utility of each is hampered by the limitations placed on it by those cities’ respective transit authorities. In my experience, no metropolitan transit agency in the world provides APIs as robust and thorough as those offered by TfL, and as a direct result Citymapper and its competitors are more useful here than they are just about anywhere else.

Happily, buses and Tube trains aren’t the only ways of getting around that are enhanced by the new interactive cartography. The networked maps so many of us now rely upon transform the practice of walking, too. The way in which access to real-time locative information enhances one’s sense of security in exploring the city is beautifully expressed by the London-based technologist Phil Gyford: “I can quickly see that my destination might be only 25 minutes’ walk away, and I know I’ll be going the quickest route, and GPS will ensure I won’t get lost halfway there. Somehow walking now seems more viable and less uncertain.” What this opens up, even for the longtime resident, is the prospect of exploring a city they never knew, though it may have been separated from them more by habit and uncertainty than any physical distance. Gyford now feels free to wander “the overlooked parts of London…the neglected seas between the Tube-station islands”; somewhere, the worthies of the London Diocesan Building Society breathe a sigh of satisfaction before returning to their deep slumber in the earth.


Harry Beck's original diagram of the London Underground

Harry Beck’s original diagram of the London Underground

That we are becoming — that some of us have already become — so intimately and thoroughly reliant on our maps to guide us safely through the urban thicket makes it more important than ever that we regard them critically. Though we know intellectually that the map is famously not the territory, the emotional truth of this can be harder to internalize; we’ve all seen news stories about truck drivers following their satnav directions straight into a lake, or a wall. We need to get in the habit of asking pointed questions about who makes the maps, who chooses the information that is rendered upon them, and where that information comes from in the first place.

We might also attend to the deeper truths about the city we live in that are brought to light by this class of representations. Consider the dynamic visualizations of the Milan-based transportation-planning practice Systematica. In their time-series map of London, peristaltic pulses of expansion and contraction wash across the familiar terrain, revealing what we’ve always known to be the case: that at no hour of the day is the actual city coextensive with its formal, administrative boundaries. Though the human presence must still be inferred from these abstract surges of color, the message is unmissable: for all the grandeur of its physical fabric, the deep London is nothing more or less than the people who move through it, animate it and endow it with meaning.

This, in the end, is not such a bad lesson to derive from contemplating the play of pixels on a screen. If, as the disgraced geographer Denis Wood puts it, all “maps are embedded in a history they help construct,” this is true of maps of this city more so than most. And if we know that London, this gorgeous hypersurface, is forever absconding from the knowable, and can never be entirely reduced to a set of lines and points and paths, this doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no point in making the attempt. Perhaps, as with those of John Snow, Charles Booth and Harry Beck, the maps of Citymapper, Systematica and their descendants may yet help bring a safer, wiser, more just and merciful city into being.

Weighing the pros and cons of driverless cars, in context

Consider the driverless car, as currently envisioned by Google.

That I can tell, anyway, most discussion of its prospects, whether breathlessly anticipatory or frankly horrendified, is content to weigh it more or less as given. But as I’m always harping on about, I just don’t believe we usefully understand any technology in the abstract, as it sits on a smoothly-paved pad in placid Mountain View. To garner even a first-pass appreciation for the contours of its eventual place in our lives, we have to consider what it would work like, and how people would experience it, in a specified actual context. And so here — as just such a first pass, at least — I try to imagine what would happen if autonomous vehicles like those demo’ed by Google were deployed as a service in the place I remain most familiar with, New York City.

The most likely near-term scenario is that such vehicles would be constructed as a fleet of automated taxicabs, not the more radical and frankly more interesting possibility that the service embracing them would be designed to afford truly public transit. The truth of the matter is that the arrival of the technological capability bound up in these vehicles begins to upend these standing categories…but the world can only accommodate so much novelty at once. The vehicle itself is only one component of an distributed actor-network dedicated to the accomplishment of mobility; when the autonomous vehicle begins to supplant the conventional taxi, that whole network has to restabilize around both the vehicle’s own capabilities and the ways in which those capabilities couple with other, existing actors.

In this case, that means actors like the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Enabling legislation, a body of suitable regulation, a controlling legal authority, the agreement on procedures for assessing liability to calibrate the furnishment of insurance: all of these things will need to be decided upon before any such thing as the automation of surface traffic in New York City can happen. And these provisions have a conservative effect. During the elapse of some arbitrary transitional period, anyway, they’ll tend to drag this theoretically disruptive actor back toward the categories we’re familiar with, the modes in which we’re used to the world working. That period may last months or it may last decades; there’s just no way of knowing ahead of time. But during this interregnum, we’ll approach the new thing through interfaces, metaphors and other linkages we’re already used to.

Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik
Automated taxis, as envisioned by designer Petr Kubik.

So. What can we reasonably assert of a driverless car on the Google model, when such a thing is deployed on the streets and known to its riders as a taxi?

On the plus side of the ledger:
– Black men would finally be able to hail a cab in New York City;
– So would people who use wheelchairs, folks carrying bulky packages, and others habitually and summarily bypassed by drivers;
– Sexual harassment of women riding alone would instantly cease to be an issue;
– You’d never have a driver slow as if to pick you up, roll down the window to inquire as to your destination, and only then decide it wasn’t somewhere they felt like taking you. (Yes, this is against the law, but any New Yorker will tell you it happens every damn day of the week);
– Similarly, if you happen to need a cab at 4:30, you’ll be able to catch one — getting stuck in the trenches of shift change would be a thing of the past;
– The eerily smooth ride of continuous algorithmic control will replace the lurching stop-and-go style endemic to the last few generations of NYC drivers, with everything that implies for both fuel efficiency and your ability to keep your lunch down.

These are all very good things, and they’d all be true no matter how banjaxed the service-design implementation turns out to be. (As, let’s face it, it would be: remember that we’re talking about Google here.) But as I’m fond of pointing out, none of these very good things can be had without cost. What does the flipside of the equation look like?

- Most obviously, a full-fleet replacement would immediately zero out some 50,000 jobs — mostly jobs held by immigrants, in an economy with few other decent prospects for their employment. Let’s be clear that these, while not great jobs (shitty hours, no benefits, physical discomfort, occasionally abusive customers), generate a net revenue that averages somewhere around $23/hour, and this at a time when the New York State minimum wage stands at $8/hour. These are jobs that tie families and entire communities together;
– The wholesale replacement of these drivers would eliminate one of the very few remaining contexts in which wealthy New Yorkers encounter recent immigrants and their culture at all;
– Though this is admittedly less of an issue in Manhattan, it does eliminate at least some opportunity for drivers to develop and demonstrate mastery and urban savoir faire;
– It would give Google, an advertising broker, unparalleled insight into the comings and goings of a relatively wealthy cohort of riders, and in general a dataset of enormous and irreplicable value;
– Finally, by displacing alternatives, and over the long term undermining the ecosystem of technical capabilities, human competences and other provisions that undergirds contemporary taxi service, the autonomous taxi would in time tend to bring into being and stabilize the conditions for its own perpetuation, to the exclusion of other ways of doing things that might ultimately be more productive. Of course, you could say precisely the same thing about contemporary taxis — that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. But we should see these dynamics with clear eyes before jumping in, no?

I’m sure, quite sure, that there are weighting factors I’ve overlooked, perhaps even obvious and significant ones. This isn’t the whole story, or anything like it. There is one broadly observable trend I can’t help but noticing, however, in all the above: the benefits we stand to derive from deploying autonomous vehicles on our streets in this way are all felt in the near or even immediate term, while the costs all tend to be circumstances that only tell in the fullness of time. And we haven’t as a species historically tended to do very well with this pattern, the prime example being our experience of the automobile itself. It’s something to keep in mind.

There’s also something to be gleaned from Google’s decision to throw in their lot with Uber — an organization explicitly oriented toward the demands of the wealthy and boundlessly, even gleefully, corrosive of the public trust. And that is that you shouldn’t set your hopes on any mobility service Google builds on their autonomous-vehicle technology ever being positioned as the public accommodation or public utility it certainly could be. The decision to more tightly integrate Uber into their suite of wayfinding and journey-planning services makes it clear that for Google, the prerogative to maximize return on investment for a very few will always outweigh the interests of the communities in which they operate. And that, too, is something to keep in mind, anytime you hear someone touting all of the ways in which the clean, effortless autotaxi stands to resculpt the city.

More questions on the smart city

There continues to be strong interest in the question of the smart city from all quarters — though perhaps, if my sense of things can be trusted, the tide is beginning to turn toward more grounded considerations, if not outright skepticism as to the ostensible benefits. One of the things I construct as a sign of this tidal shift is the slow but gathering interest more mainstream media outlets have in presenting alternate perspectives on the subject. Here we see no less august a newspaper than the Economist looking to do just that. I hope you enjoy this record of our brief conversation.

What, in a nutshell, is your primary objection or critique to the current discourse surrounding “smart cities” and Big Data related to urban planning and service delivery?

My main beef with the discourse of the smart city is that it was generated, and has almost exclusively been developed, by organizations and individuals that have no particular understanding of cities or their dynamics. They have zero — and I mean zero — familiarity with the canonical works of urbanist literature, and very little in the way of considered practical experience that might help them correct for this deficit of book knowledge.

I remember being a little stunned to learn that a very senior member of Cisco’s connected cities team, who was proposing to intervene in the dynamics of urban neighborhoods, had never even heard of Jane Jacobs. I watched slack-jawed as he carefully took down the name of Death and Life of Great American Cities, like a dutiful if rather grindy student, prepping for finals. I mean, good for him — he wanted to learn. I wager, though, that you’d feel a trifle uneasy in the presence of someone preparing to undertake surgery without having gone to medical school, especially if they were asking you to admire the handle on the kitchen knife that constituted their only equipment for the task.

There’s a mildly amusing Dunning-Kruger aspect to it, but then you remember that these organizations are playing with peoples’ homes and livelihoods and lives. If that kind of arrogant self-assurance coupled with cluelessness isn’t disqualifying, then I don’t know what would be.

Is it possible for developers in “new” cities like Masdar or Palava in India to be able to comprehensively map out how the city will work and anticipate its problems, or does a city need to already exist in order to properly understand how to deploy smart city technology?

What saddens me is that we’ve been down this road before — time and time again, in fact, in the latter part of the twentieth century. We know how this story ends, and it isn’t pretty. There’s a reason why Corbusian total planning is thoroughly discredited.

Understanding why top-down total planning doesn’t, and can’t, produce vital human communities from scratch is something that smart-city enthusiasts might have gleaned from even a cursory review of the urbanist canon. Having apparently forgotten our own (recent!) history, however, we’re now perforce condemned to repeat it.

Does Big Data have any productive role to play in urban planning or service delivery?

Sure it does. But whatever its functional utility, [that use] cannot be had without cost. The task of determining the precise nature of the trade-offs involved, and of deciding whether or not the community wants to shoulder that cost in return for benefits now or in the future — as I’m always saying, these are things that can only be decided in a specific locale, and with reference to a specific set of circumstances. Like any other technology that’s brought to bear on public life, the deployment of analytics founded in so-called Big Data needs to be subject to processes of democratic accountability. And I don’t see that happening in very many places at the moment.

Yet another brief interview

I recently answered a few questions for the leading Korean architectural magazine, SPACE.

First, please state in a sentence your area of interest or expertise in the field of urban computing.

“Ensuring that to the greatest degree possible a robust conception of the right to the city is designed into networked informatic systems intended or otherwise destined for urban deployment.”

Second, an example that you use to make urban computing more readily accessible to architects is of Mark Weiser‘s concept of ubiquitous computing. How do you think functionality within the city divides from novelty or ‘art works’ of urban computing architecture? And which do you think architects can relate to more?

I think we long ago collectively transcended Weiser’s specific vision of technologized everyday life; as a matter of fact, I can tell you the precise date we did so, which was June 29th, 2007, the day on which the original iPhone was launched. What architects and urban planners now have to account for — but curiously, generally do not — is that the overwhelming majority of the human beings they’re designing spaces for are equipped with a way of knowing and making use of the city that no previous population has ever had before. We call it a “smartphone.”

What does it mean for a networked body and a networked self to move through equally networked space? And what might all of this portend for the practice of architecture, for the planning and execution of the built environment? As far as I can tell, these are questions that the disciplines involved haven’t even begun to reckon with in any particularly consistent or meaningful way.

The question about art is impossible to answer without reference to specific works or pieces or artists. Architects and urban planners might do well, in fact, to pay attention to the more thoughtful artists, or people involved in the critical making community, who have begun to interrogate the uses and consequences of information technology in a way that goes far beyond pointlessly “interactive” façades and mobile sculptures. But the kind of digital “art” installation that is generally used to apply a superficial gloss of contemporaneity or futurity to some otherwise utterly conventional commercial real-estate proposition? As far as I’m concerned it’s not even properly art, because it doesn’t satisfy the threshold condition of catalyzing some psychic or emotional change in the viewer, and of course it’s not meant to.

Your representative work Urbanflow examines the limitations of interactive media booths around cities, and looks to connect these booths while making them more behaviorally approachable. What other recent works have you been working on, and how do you feel the future of urban computing has been portrayed through this piece in terms of human behavior and adaptability to technologies?

Right now the thing I’m most interested in is designing for the future of urban mobility, for what I call “transmobility.” Unlike the transportation industry, whose rather boring, heavily capital-intensive conceptions of this future all seem to center on exotic new vehicle types or heroic infrastructures, what I’m trying to articulate is a framework allowing us to make maximum use of a city’s existing heterogeneous array of vehicles, mobility modes and options. Transmobility uses locational data and information-, interface- and service design to bind these things together in a mesh capable of providing something close to on-demand, real-time, point-to-point personal mobility to every citizen. Ultimately I think it’s a wiser, lower-cost and more practical way of achieving that end.

Urban computing is defined as “the integration of computing, sensing, and actuation technologies into everyday urban settings and lifestyles.” Yet, you register your work as belonging to the field of everyware (permeating places and pursuits, social activity, shaping relationships, as a distributed phenomenon). You mentioned that it is in need of a paradigm shift in 2011, has this happened? What is your definition for each of these concepts and how are they better suited in defining your approach in comparison to the term urban computing?

I just don’t use these terms in my work anymore. In fact I’m completely uninterested in technology, except insofar as it facilitates individual and collective self-determination, the meaningful expression of solidarity and the practice of mutual aid.

Think of it this way: networked informatic technology is simply another material we now have available to us as builders and shapers of urban space. And like any other material, it has certain inherent qualities, tendencies, properties or directionalities. But you don’t learn anything useful about these qualities by considering the material as an abstraction; the grain you’ve got to contend with as a designer only reveals itself at the local level — in technological terms, at the level of a specified device, sensor, display or API. And equally, these qualities only become important in context, when you’re designing some ensemble of networked systems in a given space, for a given population of users, to achieve a given effect.

So I try to avoid thinking in jargon, or otherwise succumbing to a uselessly generic conception of the material I’m working with, and focus my inquiry instead on actual communities in specific spatial contexts, their articulated and unarticulated concerns, the envelope of requirements and other constraints within which we work, and only finally the properties of some particular technical system.

‘Nother interview

For a French magazine.

You harshly criticize the top-down controlled, ubiquitous, smart city, designed by big operators for their own interests. But can cities tackle all the challenges without those big companies? Don’t you throw out the baby with the bathwater?

There are things, certainly, that industrial-scale vendors of infrastructural services and systems are very good at delivering to cities. Whether it’s wastewater treatment or the deployment and maintenance of street lighting or managing clean and safe demolition, that’s their competence, their domain of expertise, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that those of us without that experience know their job better than they do. The difference that arises with the “smart city” is that now some subset of these vendors have made an unwonted conceptual leap between whatever specific competence they’ve developed and the ambition to furnish municipal governments with a kind of general decision-support utility, without any particular understanding of or sensitivity to the unique complications of the terrain on which they propose to operate. And latent within almost all of these notions is some conception of municipal administration as an essentially rational and objective pursuit.

Well, of course, it’s anything but rational. It’s a fundamentally political pursuit, sweaty and unpretty and utterly lacking in closure. You can’t automate the complication out of it — or, for that matter, the accountability for having made a decision that necessarily deprived some one or party of access to some resource they regarded as rightfully theirs. I simply don’t believe that the process of governing is something that can be reduced to key performance indicators on a dashboard and optimized and made clean. And so far at least, that’s all the big IT vendors are offering.

No: Let them provide what they are so good at providing. There may not be much glamor in providing “dumb pipe,” but there’s honor aplenty. That ought to be enough.

Do many local governments share your vision? Do they have the intellectual and technical background to understand the ins and outs?

In my experience municipal administrators are not in the slightest degree stupid people, but by and large of course they don’t understand the intricacies of networked informatics or data, which is why some of them can from time to time find the superficially confident blandishments of solution integrators and management consultants so appealing. Fortunately, what they do tend to have a deep and intimate understanding of is the local social, institutional and political environment, and this very often gives them a firm platform from which to push back against some of the more foolish claims that are made for the promise of “smart cities.” It has nothing to do with whether or not they share my “vision.”

Are you afraid of the rise of a new kind of technocrats, that we could name “datacrats”?

Every new configuration of technical capability will tend to generate a stratum of people who are differentially skilled and confident in the use and practical application of that technology. As I see it, though, the point isn’t merely to trade one superficially hipper and trendier priesthood for another, it’s to prevent the emergence of such priesthoods in the first place.

Could you detail a few inspiring examples of cities which are dealing with their challenges with lucid, relevant solutions?

Dublin is doing some very interesting things, with their city council’s Beta Projects initiative. I’m impressed with Madrid’s administration that they had the maturity and wisdom to let the citizen-driven Campo de Cebada process unfold. And I know there are thousands upon thousands of people in local government around the world, generally but not exclusively younger, who understand the multiplex value proposition of efforts like these and would let them proceed if only they could. A big part of my job is to provide those people with resources that support their intuition, so they can make the internal case against the smart-city vendors and in favor of more fruitful directions.

What suggestions would you give to a mayor who is engaged in such a smart city program? To a mayor who has not yet chosen what to do?

To the former, I’d argue that so-called smart initiatives be subjected to the most rigorous oversight and accounting, in a effort to establish precisely who has benefitted from their introduction, and to what degree, and whether or not this observed distribution of benefits aligns with the claims that were made at project inception.

To the latter, I’d suggest that whatever it is they think they will achieve by engaging the incumbent vendors to deliver some smart city “solution,” there may be far better returns on investment to be realized economically, socially and strategically from smaller-scale, more locally-grounded and more thoughtful alternatives. And, of course, whatever promises they are made by those vendors, they should make sure to get it in writing.

Some problems raised by the smart city are linked to the huge amount of (personal) data they use for their tools: privacy, resilience, and blind technosolutionism in general. Do you think it’s time to “uncomputerize” our cities?

No, not at all. I think it’s time for the people living in each place on Earth to think carefully, collectively and consciously about what they want this class of technologies to do for them, and whether or not they think it’s capable of delivering on those expectations. And it’s the responsibility of any of us who do have some grounding in what networked digital information technology can and cannot do to explain and contextualize that technology for everyone else, so they’re more readily able to make those determinations.

What I’m working on lately: Practices of the minimum viable utopia (long)


Hey there! It’s been awhile since I’ve shouted at ya properly, and I’m going to be MIA for just a little longer yet (having stupidly locked myself into back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Dublin, Manchester, Aarhus & NYC, and finding myself rather burnt to the ground as a result). In the meantime, I thought I’d give you a brief idea of what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what kinds of questions I’ll be taking up over the next few months.

I’ll warn you from the outset that everything that follows is both speculative, in that it reflects hints, notions and potential trajectories more than fully coherent and robustly worked-out arguments, and overdense, in that it alludes to more lines of thought than I can properly treat at any length you’d tolerate in a blog post. Bear with me anyway and hopefully we’ll get somewhere interesting together.

This year’s model

More than a few of you have asked just what it is that I’m up to here at LSE. My research project is fairly open, but I think it’s fair to describe it as a consideration of the perennial urbanist themes of land use, mobility and governance, as they fold back against an environment and population whose capacities and affordances are increasingly conditioned by the presence of networked computational systems.

Roughly, I’m asking: given the presence of these systems, how might we use them to (a) help allocate common spatial resources in such a way as to ensure the most socially productive use of the available space; (b) underwrite the greatest ability of all to participate personally and physically in all the circuits of exchange that constitute the city; and (c) assist communities in making wiser, more responsive and more widely agreed-upon decisions regarding these and other matters before them? And how do we do all of these things in a way that respects, supports and makes the most use of our existing competences for the city — that skillful negotiation of the world and its prospects that big-city folks have been known for since time out of mind?

Big questions, obviously, and what’s (I hope) equally obvious is that I make no pretense whatsoever of essaying neutral answers to them. With regard to the first of these topics, for example, it ought to be evident that my notions of “most productive use” bear very little resemblance to the argument from revenue-generation potential that furnishes most contemporary redevelopment schemes with their primary justificatory apparatus, and which as of this writing appears to have hollowed out any hope that the so-called “sharing economy” might give rise to radically different ways of working and living together.

As I’ll explain in greater detail below, it’s what happened to the early promise of a networked sharing economy that haunts me as I prepare to propose new configurations for convivial systems. For all the utopian hope that may have attended their arrival, I think by now it’s clear that all too many existing coworking and “maker” spaces orbit venture-financed technology startup culture too closely, badly underfulfilling their potential and reproducing conditions I have no interest in perpetuating. That I can see, they have broadly failed as alternative spaces in which we could shelter from the invidious operations of consumer-phase capital, rediscover some sense of ourselves as skilled and competent agents and reclaim responsibility for the furniture of our world. Meanwhile, other potentially transformative models, like those on which Zipcar and AirBnB are founded, seem to have been placidly, even hungrily absorbed into the extant framework of neoliberal assumption.

Signs, pointers and portents

Readers of “Against the smart city” (in Kindle or POD pamphlet editions) know that I don’t place any particularly great faith in existing institutions’ capacity (or willingness) to address these circumstances. I go into a fair amount of detail, in fact, to spell out just why I think the “smart city” is such a disastrously misguided conception of the role of networked information technology in our urban places and our lives. At the same time, though, I do think it’s incumbent upon anyone levying such a critique to articulate at least some affirmative vision of what they would like to see happen in the world.

So what do I believe more satisfying, more fructifying alternatives might look and feel like? And what do I think are some ways of using networked technologies capable of encouraging conceptions of the relation between self and society that are a little less atomic — that are, in other words, less Californian-ideological and more oriented toward commonwealth?

In the following months, I’ll be sketching out at least the basic contours of a vision of urban living and working that responds to these questions. In particular, I’m interested in elaborating the outlines of a post-growth, near-steady-state industrial permaculture in city centers, autonomously and locally managed, undergirded by networked systems of deliberation, resource stewardship, mobility and exchange. This is a vision of localism in which flows of matter and energy circulate in a carefully-maintained dynamic equilibrium; communities produce most of the things (and skills, and affects) they need to survive in an unstable world; and sensitive onshoring brings compact, clean sites of precision manufacture and production back into the urban fold, undoing the supply chains of continental and oceanic scale and the ludicrous energetic, environmental and human costs they entail. We learn, once again, to work in atoms as well as bits; we do so together; and in doing so, we focus on the creation of real prosperity in the absence of economic growth.

For a variety of reasons, it’s important to me that I ground everything I’ll be proposing in empirical observations of events and situations that have some track record of functioning successfully. As it happens, some hints of what aspects of this vision might look like in practice do crop up in three very different existing projects/processes I’m aware of: Madrid’s Campo de Cebada; the Godsbanen/Institut for (x) complex, in Aarhus, Denmark; and finally a commercial enterprise called Unto This Last right here in London. Each of these sites has something to teach us, and in some ways I think of each of them as a dress rehearsal for a best-case future.

Campo de Cebada: Community control

At el Campo de Cebada, a fenced-off 60,000 sq ft lot in the heart of Madrid — formerly the site of a market, seemingly doomed to persistent vacancy by the economic crisis of 2008 — was reclaimed and transformed into a community resource by the neighborhood’s residents themselves.

After securing physical access, but before anything was built on the lot, a core group of local activists (including members of the Zuloark architectural collective) convened a series of weekly open assemblies, organized on bedrock principles of transparency, openness and participation. Residents and other interested parties were asked to propose, weigh and decide upon the programs, structures and activities the site should support. And so what had been more or less an abandoned site came under autonomous community control, using horizontal, leaderless processes very similar to those that proved so successful in the Occupy movement (including Occupy Sandy, as I describe here). It was under this informal and only retroactively sanctioned process of management that the space finally began to generate meaningful value for its users and neighbors. (At this point it may be worth noting that Spain has a robust history of anarchist practice, though it would also be something of an sublime understatement to point out that Madrid was not historically the heart of this activity.)

Both public assemblies and other, more casual activities on the site notably rely upon rapidly reconfigurable/demountable pallet-based furniture designed by Zuloark, similar to that Raumlabor Berlin has deployed in their pop-up public spaces in the past. (Such furniture also suggests a slow percolation of open-source hardware design and construction schemas like OpenStructures, a central theme of year-before-last’s tremendous Adhocracy show.) But it would be a mistake to identify the lesson of el Campo de Cebada with its physical tokens. Like the community gardens of New York’s Lower East Side, or more recently 596 Acres, what its success suggests is that ordinary, nonspecialist people are more than capable of taking on responsibility for maintenance, deconfliction and the other less glamorous aspects of administering and operating any such site, in the very core of a world city of the long-developed North — and to do so not in response to an environmental shock like Katrina or Sandy, but as a (dare I say “entrepreneurial”) way of grasping the emergent opportunities that lay curled up fractally inside the slower processes of economic calamity.

What the people behind el Campo de Cebada have forged together is, in essence, an Occupation that is affirmative rather than merely critical, productive and forward-looking as well as polemical. What their experience teaches us is that we can reimagine and reconfigure the sacrifice zones left behind by the reigning calculus of land valuation, grasping and making maximum use of them as a collective resource, in a maximally inclusive way.

Godsbanen/Institut for (x): Gradient of engagement

In Aarhus, my host Martin Brynskov took me for a walk around the publicly-funded Godsbanen production space/event venue, and the curious Institut for (x) that partially overlaps it. These institutions occupy a scatter of buildings lying at the end of a decommissioned rail spur that thrusts up into the heart of town, and the hour we spent walking over, around and through them began to suggest a particularly potent hybridization: autonomous self-management in the style of el Campo de Cebada, fused to the provision of standing community workshops and production facilities.

To my eye, anyway, Godsbanen consists of four distinct structures or conditions: the former railyard administration building, now the offices of various public, private and non-profit groups; a long main hall that was formerly the intermodal freight-transfer center, and now shelters the printshop, photo studio, metalshop and so on; a new infill structure (complete with vertiginously climbable roof) by 3XN, that comprises the event venue and canteen, and sinters the other buildings together; and a tumble of trailers, ad-hoc shacks, shade structures and lean-tos that apparently constitute the Institut for (x).

What was wonderful about Godsbanen was seeing men and women both — of all ages, very few of whom were obviously hipsterized — using the available wood-, metal-, clay- and textile-working facilities to make things for their own daily use. It’s this deployment of emergent digital craft techniques to produce things primarily with an eye to their use value rather than their exchange value à la present-day Etsy that so excited me.

But there are other ways in which Godsbanen one-ups the usual makerspace proposition. For example, the site sports a legible gradient of formality and structure, accessible at any point and traversable in either direction; you can literally see the stiff Scandinavian rectitude of the administration building decomposing into particles as you walk further down the rails, with everything that implies for uses and users. Martin pointed out that the complex supports two entirely distinct woodworking shops, one at either end of the gradient: the first (low-cost, but still pay-for-use) furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and on-site assistance, and the other, further down the yard, free but provided with somewhat older equipment and not much in the way of help/oversight. A project could germinate with two or three friends tinkering in the anarchic fringes, and move up the grade as they began to need more budget, order and privacy, or, alternately, a formal enterprise used to the comforts and constraints of the main building might hive off an experimental or exploratory activity requiring the freedom of the fringes. Either way, individual or collective undertakings are able to mature and develop inside a common framework, and avail themselves of more or less structure as needed. This is something that many self-styled incubators attempt, and very few seem to get right.

The further away one walks from the main building, the greater the sense of permission granted by the apparently random distribution of objects around the central space, by the texture of these objects and their orientation. This is of course not at all random: everything you see has been selected with an eye toward a precisely calibrated aesthetic that at times comes perilously close to favela chic, but that does send a very powerful message about the appropriability of the environment, the kinds of things people can do here and the kinds of people who can do them. (Note that this is the same message ostensibly conveyed, but actually undermined, by the “wacky,” infantilized furniture of dot-com and tech-startup offices.)

This aspect of legibility, or performativity, strikes me as being nontrivially important to the success of the Godsbanen project. What fifty or more years of spectacular consumerism have left us with is the need to be seen to be doing what we do, as a performance of self, identity and affiliation. What participation in a place like Institut for (x) gives its user-constituents is a way to achieve that end without it necessarily being commodified. Citizens are making a very deliberate statement by participating here, and being seen to participate: a statement of value that remains outside the register of consumer capitalism, without necessarily being overtly, consciously or uncomplicatedly in opposition to it.

My sense is that Aarhus has figured out something sensitively dependent on a whole lot of boundary conditions — something that municipalities around the planet are falling all over themselves trying to reinvent, and generally missing by a country mile. Their success has something to do, certainly, with the fact that Denmark can find funds in the public purse to support this kind of activity, and just as certainly with the fact that a coherent fabric of trust yet persists in Danish culture of the everyday.

But it owes even more to some very canny spatial and social thinking. What the Aarhus experiment teaches us, among quite a few other things, are how to organize space so its legibility serves its users rather than the prerogatives of territorial control, and that many of the material things we need in life we can learn to make for ourselves.

Unto This Last: Local production, training and employment

Which brings us to Unto This Last, a commercial furniture manufacturer that has been operating in London’s Brick Lane for the past thirteen years. Their product line — a reasonably wide selection of chairs, tables, beds, bookshelves and storage units — displays a total coherence from conception all the way through design, fabrication method and setting to delivery. Each piece has been carefully designed so that it can be assembled from flat pieces cut from sheets of sustainably-grown birch plywood, by a CNC cutter right in the back of the shop. (Swing by at the right time, and you can see it in action, cutting components of the piece that you yourself will take home and weave into your life.) The shop’s ethos of “less mass, more data” rather takes the logistics-friendly Ikea flatpack concept to a new level.

There are, inevitably, issues. While I personally rather like it, it’s clear that the stripped-down aesthetic (ably conveyed by the store’s iconic sign) isn’t for everyone. And ideally trees yielding wood suitable to this kind of application could be grown within the local bioregion, rather than being shipped from the (state-owned and -managed) forests of Latvia.

Nevertheless, alongside other, slightly differing initiatives, like the wonderfully-named Assemble & Join, what Unto This Last teaches us is how to wrest the greatest practical, economic and (as we’ll see) social value from the minimum investment in matter and energy.

Come together

In the fusion of each of these three archetypal processes, el Campo de Cebada, Godsbanen and Unto This Last, we can see the outlines of something truly radical and terribly exciting beginning to resolve. What can be made out, gleaming in the darkness, is a — partial, incomplete, necessarily insufficient, but hugely important — way of responding to the disappearance of meaningful jobs from our cities, as well as all the baleful second-order effects that attend that disappearance.

When apologists for the technology industry trumpet the decontextualized factoid that each “tech” job ostensibly creates five new service positions as a secondary effect, what they neglect to mention is that the lion’s share of those jobs will as a matter of course prove to be the kind of insecure, short-term, benefits-lacking, at-or-close-to-minimum-wage positions that typify the contemporary service sector. This sort of employment can’t come anywhere close to the (typically unionized) industrial-sector jobs of the twentieth century in their capacity to bind a community together, either in the income and benefits they produce by way of compensation, in the conception of self and competence they generate in those who hold them, or in the sense of solidarity with others similarly situated that they generally evoke.

At the same time, though, like many others, I too believe it would be foolish to artifically inflate employment by propping up declining smokestack industries with public-sector subsidies. Why, for example, continue to maintain Detroit’s automobile manufacturers on taxpayer-funded life support, when their approach to the world is so deeply retrograde, their product so very corrosive environmentally and socially, their behavior so irresponsible and their management so blitheringly, hamfistedly incompetent? That which is falling should also be pushed, surely. But that can’t ethically be done until something of comparable scale has been found to replace industrial manufacturing jobs as the generator of local economic vitality and the nexus of local community.

So where might meaningful, valued, value-generating employment be found — “employment” in the deepest sense of that word? I have two ways of answering that question:

- In the immediate term, I believe in the material and economic significance of digital fabrication technologies largely using free and open-source plans, deployed in small, clean, city-center workshops, under democratic community control. While these will never remotely be of a scale to replace all the vanished industrial jobs of the past, they offer us at least one favorable prospect those industrial jobs never could: the direct production of items immediately useful and valuable in one’s own life. Should such workshops be organized in such a way as to offer skills training (perhaps for laid-off service-sector workers, elders or at-risk youth), they present a genuinely potent economic and social proposition.

There are provisos. The Surly Urbanist correctly suggests that any positions created in such an endeavor need to be good jobs, i.e. not simply minimum-wage dronework, and my friend Rena Tom also notes that the skills training involved should be something more comprehensive than a simple set of instructions on how to run a CNC milling machine — that any such course of instruction would be most enduringly valuable if it amounted to an apprenticeship first in the manual and only later the numeric working of materials. I also want to be very clear that, per the kind of inclusive decision-making processes used at el Campo de Cebada, such a workshop would have to be something a community itself collectively thinks is worth experimenting with and investing in, not something inflicted upon it by guileless technoutopians from afar.

- In the fullness of time, I believe that the use of relatively high-technology techniques to accomplish not merely the local, autonomous production of everyday objects, furnitures and infrastructures, but their refit and repair, will come to be an economically salient activity in the global North. In this I see a congelation of several existing tendencies, logics or dynamics: the ideologically-driven retreat of the State from responsibility for stewardship of the everyday environment; the accelerating attrition and degradation of the West’s dated and undermaintained infrastructures, and their concomitant need for upgrade or replacement; increasing belief in the desirability of densifying urban infill; the rising awareness in the developed world of jugaad, gambiarra and other cultures of repair, reuse and improvisation; the emergence of fabricator-enabled adaptive upcycling; the circulation of a massive stock of recyclable componentry (in the form of obsolescent structures as well as landfill-bound but effectively nondegradable consumer items), coupled to the emergence of a favorable economics of materials recovery; broader experience with and understanding of networked, horizontal and leaderless organizational structures; the creation of a robust informational commons, including repositories of freely-downloadable specifications; and finally the clear capability of online platforms to facilitate development and sharing of the necessary knowledge, maintain some degree of standardization (or at least harmonization) of practice, suggest sites where citizen repair might constitute a useful intervention, and support processes of democratic decision-making.

On forgetting to slay the dragon

Especially when they’re of industrial grade, the 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and other devices involved in digital precision manufacture are highly visible and — if you’ve ever seen one in operation, you know it’s true — coldly glamorous, possessed of the same eerie machinic grace and certainty that makes the flight of quadcopter drones such an uncanny thing to witness. Nor are fabricated things themselves without a certain evocative power. In a dynamic we should all be familiar with by now, and deeply suspicious of, the discrete printed object is often taken as not merely a sign standing for a complex underlying process, but accepted as a unremarkable replacement and stand-in for it. Thus we see an efflorescence of on-demand mall and High Street “fab labs” apparently dedicated to churning out novelty items of puissant symbolism, but little actual utility: personalized busts, complex gear trains that will never be connected to any other mechanism, and similar dead ends and blind alleys.

I certainly do not mean to fetishize the new production. What I do mean to suggest is that we’ve barely taken the measure of these networked, decentralized, distributed technologies of material production as economic and social enablers. The same techniques that generated kipple of the sort I describe above have clearly already transcended the hobbyist stage, having recently been used to rapidly produce and assemble objects of architectural scale and intent. (If anything, this impressive performance was underhyped; as Fred Scharmen points out, the designers/fabricators responsible for the Shanghai development “don’t have press agents, they didn’t make a rendering, they didn’t even post any photos or concepts until after they did it.”)

But neither are the technologies themselves really the point here. In everything I suggest above, the act of production is — comparatively, and for all its many rigors — the trivially easy bit. The challenge isn’t, at all, to propose the deployment of new fabrication technologies, but to deploy them in modes, configurations and assemblages that might effectively resist capture by existing logics of accumulation and exploitation, and bind them into processes generative of lasting and signficant shared value. This is the infinitely harder project of weaving all of these technologies into not merely “sustainable” but actually sustained practices and communities of practice.

My mistake in the past — and, in retrospect, it’s an astonishingly naïve and determinist one — was to think that emergent networked forms of shared resource utilization might in themselves give rise to any particularly liberatory politics of everyday life. Experience has taught me that such notionally transformative frameworks as do arise very readily get appropriated by existing ways of valuing, doing and being; whatever “emancipatory potential” may reside in them swiftly falls before path dependency and the weight of habit, and the gesture as a whole comes to nought.

This is what appears, for the time being anyway, to have fatally undermined the more interesting prospects for conceiving of space as a shared network resource, the cluster of practices I think of as treating “space as a service.” Consider what’s become of my original argument that the companionable coexistence of AirBnB and implied enough space for a (non-corporate but robustly) commercial business model and a fiercely noncommercial service model to subsist side-by-side, even as they brokered access to the same resource: fast-forward three years, and AirBnB looks more and more like a formal branch of the hospitality industry with each passing day, while Couchsurfing has — fumblingly, and much to the chagrin of its original animating community — reinvented itself as a for-profit competitor.

The dynamic here puts me in mind of a thought expressed succinctly by David Harvey in his new, and excellent, book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism:

The long history of attempts to create some such alternative (by way of worker cooperatives, autogestion, worker control and more latterly solidarity economies) suggests that this strategy can meet with only limited success…If the aim of these non-capitalistic forms of labor organization is still the production of exchange values, for example, and if the capacity for private persons to appropriate the social power of money remains unchecked, then the associated workers, the solidarity economies and the centrally planned production regimes ultimately either fail or become complicit in their own self-exploitation.

Also sobering is how very often over the past few years “disruptive innovation” in services has been attended by the worst sort of triumphalist douchery on the part of the already-privileged beneficiaries of the ostensible disruption. I think of the tellingly-named Uber, explicitly positioned as an outright celebration of the “self-made” Randian superman’s differential ability to route around urban infrastructural, bureaucratic and regulatory failure, in a world where his social and economic lessers are reduced to relying on defunded, dysfunctional, all-but-dystopian public transit. Uber’s self-serving rhetoric casts any regulation of their service as unwonted friction imposed by meddlesome rent-seekers, when that fabric of regulation was for the most part woven into place for good and sufficient reason.

As if these disappointments weren’t enough to chasten me from making assertions about propensities and likelihoods, not too long ago Anil Bawa-Cavia (rightly, I think) poked back at something I’d said regarding the “latent and unrealized emancipatory potential” of certain technologies:

I don’t see any reason to believe that any technology has a pre-inscribed ‘potential’ that remains latent within it. I agree with Harman’s interpretation of Latour on this point, extreme as it may be. Either entities have active affinities and relations or they don’t. I see no convincing reason to believe they possess an essence in which potential may reside. So can networked technology be emancipatory? I’d like to believe so, but only acting in relation with other actors in a co-ordinated manner…I don’t [therefore] think it’s constructive to simply assert that this potential is latent, as it amounts to an ideological projection or political posturing. The task, then, would be to go ahead and activate these technologies by bringing them in relation to other actants in ways which might be regarded as emancipatory.

Here the terms of what might at first blush appear to be an abstruse debate in the metaphysics of the flat ontology turn out to have important implications for the ways in which we see, describe and act in the world. Though for myself I tend to believe that all things have recourse to a broader performative repertoire than that set of relations currently enacted, I take Anil’s (and Harman’s, and more distantly Latour’s) point: we have to actually do the work of forging some linkage between things before we can know whether that particular linkage was in fact possible. And that work is an investment, is never accomplished without some cost.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve become wary of using that word “potential” to express my hope for the trajectories that appear to me to be latent in some emergent technosocial circumstance, but have yet to be actualized. But history nevertheless suggests that there is a marked degree of affinity between practices of material production in distributed, networked workshops, on the one hand, and polities choosing to organize themselves as a federation of autonomous local collectives managed by popular assembly on the other. If the latter seems in any wise to be a productive way of addressing some of the more vexatious challenges that afflict us, then maybe it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with the former. (Murray Bookchin gives some consideration to the organic politics of the materially self-reliant, in contexts that include medieval northern Italy and post-Colonial New England, in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, which I recommend without reservation.)

Given the direct and ancillary benefits that seem likely to cascade off of locating material production capabilities of this sort in the community, it might not be such a bad idea to experiment with them in any event, regardless of your politics. My aim, in all cases, is to see if the binding power of the network can’t be used to perform a kind of urban kintsugi: Expose the seams and sutures between things, articulate those seams in such a way as to improve the whole, leave the newly-rejoined fabric stronger than it had been before. What lies ahead is the costful task of attempting to verify whether this can in fact be accomplished — whether the value I suppose to subsist in this particular imagined alignment of technologies, spatial arrangements and organizational structures can actually be realized, by helping to produce real-world circumstances and situations that demonstrate it. And while there are certainly enough daunting aspects to this endeavor, and more than enough, I’ve rarely in my adult life been more optimistic than I find myself at this moment. It is clear to me that what we now have at hand, and ready to hand, are practices of the minimum viable utopia.

Two recent interviews

Two recent interviews, neither of which will appear in their original English when published. I apologize if they’re slightly redundant, either between the two presented here or between these and other recent interviews I’ve given. (A guy gets tired of answering the same questions all the time, you know?) I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.

Interview 1

Where is the world now in terms of developing smart cities? Is it at the start of a long journey? What’s the level of investment now?

Well, as you probably know, I don’t use the terminology “smart cities” at all. As a matter of fact, that term itself is sort of a dead giveaway that we’re just beginning to discover the potential that waits for us at the intersection of networked information technology and everyday urban experience.

What I see so far, just about everywhere, is partial, tactical, disarticulated propositions, very much inflected by existing institutional practices and the perspectives and investment priorities of incumbents. This city has RFID-mediated transit payment, that one has dynamic pricing markets for parking, still another has a robust and useful open municipal data platform — but very, very few places on Earth have yet quite grasped the potential that arises when all of these things exist all at once, in a conscious informational ecosystem, and each element is able to feed on the data produced by every other.

In a perverse way, though, we may be benefiting from precisely this sense of disarticulation and disconnection. What we wind up with, when every object and surface and transaction in the city is made visible to the network, is an extraordinarily detailed picture of our movements, our behaviors and our patterns of association. There’s obviously an enormous amount of value locked up in that picture, value that will yield quite readily to the application of advanced analytics — but I’m not sure any of us as individuals, let alone any human society, is quite ready to face up to total transparency, or will quite like what we see in the mirror these technologies hold up to us.

What are the benefits, to individuals and society?

At present, these technologies are generally sold to municipalities with a set of fairly predictable claims about enhanced efficiency, convenience, security and sustainability, but quite frankly I think those are red herrings. The real benefits we stand to realize from the introduction of networked informatics into our cities are the increased sense of control we achieve over the circumstances of our own lives, the enhancement of our competence as citydwellers, and the potential they hold to underwrite new and more responsive patterns of land use, mobility and urban governance.

How viable is it to convert existing infrastructures into smarter set-ups?

I think that very much depends on the kind of infrastructure we’re talking about. As far as heavy urban infrastructure is concerned, it’s straightforward enough to retrofit existing sewerage systems or electric grids with flow meters and so forth. But the cleverest interventions of all rely solely on the networked sensor package, identity credential and interface device 96 out of every 100 adults on the planet already carry around on their person at all times: the mobile phone. Solutions that leverage this set of capabilities can be deployed almost immediately, and at comparatively negligible expense.

What sectors stand to benefit as these ideas gather more investment?

I think it’s fair to say that in the medium term, every sector will find some operational efficiency to be gleaned from the deployment of this class of technologies. But as we collectively get more fluent with them, as we begin to unfold the fuller potential that’s bound up in them, our societies (and our business practices along with them) will necessarily undergo a profoundly disruptive series of transformations, and these may well result in a set of institutions someone approaching them from the vantage point of the twenty-teens would barely recognize. Clay Shirky famously said that institutions tend to conserve the problem to which they are the solution. This may be a reasonably clever strategy in the short term, but it leaves organizations and even entire sectors dead as the dinosaurs when the problem they’re designed to solve evaporates. What too many enterprises are doing right now amounts to perfecting the horseshoe at the very moment the automobile has started to arrive on the streets and roads of the land. The advantage under conditions of rapid and far-reaching change, therefore, goes to those actors who are able to transform their processes, their value proposition, their structure and even their very form to account for the terrain on which they now operate. The city, as a terrain of business operations, is evolving furiously at our moment in time, and it’s by no means certain that each and every one of our incumbent institutions and ways of doing things will survive.

Interview 2

What do you mean by smart cities: are you referring only to the three sites you’ve described in your book or more generally to existing cities upgraded with technologies?

Well, as I explain in the pamphlet, we need to understand that the phrase “smart city” only refers to the most limited and impoverished conception of the networked urban environment. It’s a particular discourse, in other words, and that discourse really only implies three things: the deployment of a centralized apparatus of data capture and analysis by existing enterprise-scale IT vendors; the wholesale abstraction and quantification of urban processes to render them transparent to that apparatus, and tractable by it; and the development of managerial techniques useful to an administrative authority so equipped.

The three places on Earth I examine in the pamphlet are of interest primarily as sites where this discourse finds its purest expression. In and of themselves, they’re trivial footnotes in the history of human habitation, not anything like “cities” by any reasonable definition of the word. Their sole significance is that they are staging grounds for the techniques a particular class of institutional actors badly wants to deploy across all conurbations in the years to come.

You’re writing about IT companies taking over cities. Could you explain how? What’s the goal?

“Taking over” may be a bit strong, but IT companies and their products “coming to play an outsized and inappropriate role in the management of” cities is probably about right.

From their perspective, the goal is clearly to find new markets for their existing products and services, or minor variations thereupon. IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center product, for example, is merely a zeitgeisty repackaging of a set of rules governing the execution of preset, stereotyped procedures any time the distributed mesh of sensing devices detects that some threshold value of a given metric has been breached. But for the claim that the software suite develops a full enough picture of what’s happening in the city on a minute-by-minute basis that it can help administrators predict and preempt emergent conditions, what it does is very little more elaborate than the rules you might set up to manage spam filters for your email client’s inbox. It’s something one might use to manage the operations of any large organization. There’s virtually nothing about it that’s inherently or specifically urban.

You’re describing cities subjecting citizens to the logic of algorithms. Could you elaborate?

In order to transform some body of data you’ve gathered into something an administrator might find meaningful and actionable, you first need to perform some sorting operation on it, right? That’s all an algorithm is, in this sense: a kind of numeric sieve. You toss an utterly opaque and unwieldy urban complexity into the hopper at one end, you apply some set of filters to it, and out the other end comes actionable clarity. That, at is most essential, is the core logic of the smart city: given everything we know about traffic, or the places that garbage accumulates, or the distribution of emergency-room admissions for acute asthma, here is the optimal strategy for dealing with that state of affairs. And we see this rhetoric of optimization throughout the smart city discourse.

This way of thinking may be superficially appealing, but the problems with it are legion. For one thing, famously, correlation isn’t causation, but that’s a nicety that may be lost on a mayor or a municipal administration that wants to be seen as vigorously proactive. If fires disproportionately seem to break out in neighborhoods where lots of poor people live, hey, why not simply clear the poor people out and take credit for doing something about fire? After all, the city dashboard you’ve just invested tens of millions of dollars in made it very clear that neighborhoods that had the one invariably had the other. But maybe there was some underlying, unaddressed factor that generated both fires and the concentration of poverty. (If this example strikes you as a tendentious fabulation, or a case of reductio ad absurdum, trust me: the literature of operations research is replete with highly consequential decisions made on grounds just this shoddy.)

More pointedly, such algorithmically-derived recommendations pretend to be apolitical, when they are anything but. Data analysis might help determine the optimal site for a wind turbine or a rape-crisis center, but in anything that resembles a democracy, believing that those are worthwhile investments to make in the first place deposits us firmly and unavoidably in the realm of politics. At best you can use analytics to make the case that we the public should collectively invest in those facilities, on those locations, for whatever set of reasons the data seems to suggest. But there will always be parties that contest the picture of reality you’re painting, parties that think there are other and better uses of the available resources, and there’s no way of satisfying all the city’s constituencies at once. Not even in principle. There’s simply no such thing as optimizing a city.

Finally, there’s always a politics that inheres in the algorithm to begin with, which tends to be suppressed or elided when any second-order operation whatsoever is performed on the results of its application. Someone — some known historical actor — wrote that algorithm, decided which values to weight and which to discard. Someone decided that “innovation” was an interesting or a useful quantity to measure, but that it was too difficult to measure directly, and so numbers of patent applications would be used as a proxy index for innovation. And then articles appear saying, for example, that San Diego is across-the-board “more innovative” than New York or San Francisco. And people act on those articles! They invest capital, or they move their families halfway across the country, in pursuit of everything that’s implied by that kind of framing. Well, all due respect to San Diego, but anyone who’s thought about the matter for two seconds knows that urban innovation — I’m talking about genuine, materially productive novelty, with real and significant economic value even beyond the generation of cultural capital — doesn’t work that way. It simply cannot be reduced to patent applications. Chicago may not generate much in the way of patents by comparison with, say, Eindhoven, but which one gave the world house music? How much value do you think would have been left on the floor, worldwide, over the past thirty years if Frankie Knuckles had never entered the DJ booth at The Warehouse? How many second- or third-order developments in audio technology, fashion or visual culture would never have come into existence? And where do you think he shows up in that innovation algorithm? Nowhere at all.

The bottom line is that what gets reified in an algorithm like this is driven by what you choose to pay attention to, and what you choose to pay attention to is a function of what you value. There’s not a single neutral thing about it.

Would you say living in smart cities could be a nightmare?

I’m less interested in whether or not living in a so-called smart city could be a nightmare — although I’m certain that it would be for many, and perhaps even statistically most — than in the kinds of subjects and subjectivities that tend to be reproduced by the act of living in such a place.

I think we have a pretty clear sense of what that would look like, at least at the limit. Consider that “optimized” urban management, as a sorting process, tends to create epistemic and experiential bubbles, and it does so in two ways. First, it acts to eliminate the daily frictions that force us to confront the other, and acknowledge the validity of that other’s claims to the city. And secondly, it gives us a set of tools that we can use to manage our own exposure to difference. (I saw a data-analytics company give a presentation a few years ago, where both the headline on their PowerPoint deck and the value proposition they were claiming for their product was literally and in so many words “Find People Like Me.”)

But that’s not how cities work. That’s not, even remotely, what cities are for. You want to be surrounded by People Like You, fine — go live in the suburbs. Cities are, by definition, sites for the practice of cosmopolitanism, and anyone who makes the choice to live in one had better expect that along with the economic opportunity comes the unavoidable necessity of negotiating with people who are different, who hold values and prerogatives that diverge from those you hold yourself. This is a good thing, by the way, a very good thing, because it’s that constant exposure to difference that generates the worldly, tolerant, resilient, feisty personality we associate with big cities around the world and throughout human history.

So to me, it’s not so much that living in a smart city would be a nightmare. It’s that the residents of any city that had been rendered “smart” in the way contemporary discourse suggests would themselves be nightmares to encounter and deal with: touchy, needy, self-absorbed, and above all incapable of negotiating the shared use of resources, whether those resources be spatial, budgetary or attentional.

What would be an alternative to smart cities? Open cities, also connected? What does it mean for inhabitants? For the entire society?

I think we are barely beginning to discover what potentials this class of networked informatic technologies may hold for us.

I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War. I found it both fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief, and profoundly hopeful and encouraging.

And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.

In your view, what are the 3 best cities in the world? And why?

The “best” cities? Best for what, precisely? And for whom?

An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object

UPDATE: Event confirmed for 14th March, 2014. See the final post.

For the past half-decade or so, in a phenomenon most everyone reading this site is no doubt already intimately acquainted with, data-derived artifacts (dynamic visualizations, digital maps, interactive representations of place-specific information, even static “infographics”) have taken increasing prominence in the visual imaginary of mass culture.

We see such images all the time now: broadly speaking, the visual rhetoric associated with them is the animating stuff of everything from car commercials to the weather forecast. The same rhetoric breathes life into election and sports coverage on television, the title sequences of movies, viral Facebook posts and the interactive features on newspaper sites.

Sometimes — in fact, often — these images are deployed as abstract tokens, empty fetishes of futurity, tech-ness, data-ness, evidence-basedness…ultimately, au-courantness. Just as often, and very problematically, they’re used to “prove” things.

But we’ve also begun to see the first inklings of ways in which such artifacts can be used more interestingly, to open up rather than shut down collective discussion around issues of great popular import — to ask its users to consider how and why the state of affairs represented by a given visualization got to be that way, whether that state of affairs is at all OK with them, and what if anything ought to be done to redress it. And this is whether the topic at hand happens to be land use, urban renewal and gentrification, informal housing, the differential consequences of public and privatized mass transit or expenditures in the criminal justice system.

Very few methods of advocacy can convey the consequences of our collective decisions as viscerally as a soundly-designed visualization. (Similarly, if there’s a better way of helping people imagine the spatial implications of alternative policy directions, strategies, investments and allocations, I haven’t stumbled onto it yet, although that certainly blurs the distinction between representing that which does exist and simulating that which does not.) What would happen if such visualizations were consciously and explicitly used as the ground text and point of departure for a moderated deliberative process? Could democracy be done this way? Could this be done at regular intervals? And how might doing so lead to better outcomes (or simply more buy-in) than existing procedures?

There’s plenty of rough precedent for such a notion, albeit scattered across a few different registers of activity:
– A few savvy journalists are starting to use data-based visualizations and maps as the starting point for their more traditional investigative efforts, and the narratives built on them. Visualizations, in this mode, essentially allow unexpected correlations and fact patterns to rise to the surface of awareness, and suggest what questions it might therefore be fruitful for a reporter to ask.
SeeClickFix, of course, already allows citizens to levy demands on local government bodies, though it doesn’t provide for the organization of autonomous response to the conditions it documents, and it forthrightly positions the objects it represents as problems rather than matters of concern. More proactive and affirmative in its framing is Change By Us, which does emphasize voluntarism, though still with a sense of supplication to (elected or appointed) representatives in government. (The site answers the question “Who’s listening?” by promising that a “network of city leaders is ready to hear your ideas and provide guidance for your projects.”) In any event, both SeeClickFix and Change By Us focus on highly granular, literally pothole- or at most community-garden-scale issues.
Storefront Democracy, a student project of Kristin Gräfe and (ex-Urbanscaler) Jeff Kirsch, reimagined the front window of a city councillor’s district office as a site where community sentiment on various questions, expressed as votes, could be visualized. Voting is not quite the same thing as democracy, much less deliberation, but the project began to explore ways in which situated representations might be used to catalyze conversations about matters facing the community.
– There are even full-blown technological platforms that promise to enable robust networked democracy, though for all the technology involved this one at least seems to blow right by the potential of visualized states of affairs to serve as focal points for managed dissensus.

Draw out all of those threads, and what do you wind up with? I’m not at all sure, but the question is certainly provocative enough that I want to explore its implications in further depth and detail. Again, I’m interested in digital cartography and interactive representations of data used as the starting point, rather than the product and culmination, of a decision process. My intention is to disturb these things as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book, and activate them instead as situated social objects. I think by now it’s clear that data-driven projects like Digital Matatus can furnish people with practical tools to manage the way things are in the city. But can they usefully catalyze conversation about the way things could (or should) be? And can we somehow bundle information about provenance into every representation of data, allowing users to ask how it was gathered, by whom, using what means and for what notional purpose, so they can arrive at their own determinations of its reliability and relevance? All of that remains to be seen.

If you find yourself nodding at any of this — or, indeed, you think it’s all deeply misguided, but nevertheless worth contesting in person — consider this a heads-up that I’ll be convening a one-day seminar on this and related topics at LSE in mid-March, and am looking for qualified speakers beyond my personal orbit and existing friendship circles. If you’re interested in either attending or speaking, please do email me at your earliest convenience at my first initial dot my last name at Limited travel support is available – I have an event budget that allows me to fly in two to three speakers and put you up in Central London for a night, so if you or someone you know is inclined to present I definitely encourage you to get in touch. And let’s see if together we can’t figure out if there’s a thing here or not.

Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics

Politics, in effect, must be recreated again if we are to reclaim any degree of personal and collective sovereignty over our destiny. The nuclear unit of this politics is not the impersonal bureaucrat, the professional politician, the party functionary, or even the urban resident in all the splendor of his or her civic anonymity. It is the citizen — a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality and, above all, civic commitment. The elusive citizen who surfaced historically in the assemblies of Greece, in the communes of medieval Europe, in the town meetings of New England, and in the revolutionary sections of Paris must be brought to the foreground of political theory. For without his or her presence and without a clear understanding of his or her genesis, development, and potentialities, any discussion of the city is likely to become anemically institutional and formal.

– Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, 1987.

“Against the smart city” now available for purchase in Kindle

This is turning into a week of posts that begin “It gives me great pleasure…”, isn’t it? Well, forgive me: it does actually give me great pleasure to share with you the news that our pamphlet “Against the smart city,” the first part of The city is here for you to use, is now available for purchase in a Kindle edition. I hope you enjoy it.

Additionally, if you’re among those who pre-ordered The city is here for you to use lo those many years ago, I’d like to ship you a copy of the pamphlet gratis as a way of thanking you for your patience. If you haven’t gotten an email to that effect from me recently, I may not have your current address, so if you’ll drop me a line and let me know where I can reach you, I’ll send you your copy immediately.

You may have noticed, as well, that this is published through our Do projects initiative, which means that every penny we garner in commission goes directly toward supporting our ability to produce work like this, Nurri’s Tokyo Blues, and other inquiries at the intersection of urbanism and everyday life. So please do share widely. Many thanks!


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