Toward urban systems design

For the last year or so, I’ve been giving a presentation called “Elements of a networked urbanism,” a version of which you can listen to here, as kindly recorded by the folks at dConstruct. (Do note that it’s a 60-minute sound file.)

I’ve generally characterized this talk as “a diagnosis and a manifesto”: both an attempt to puzzle out some of the shifts in the ways people make and use cities that occur when those cities are provisioned with ubiquitous informatics, and a set of assertions about how informatic systems should be designed to support high-quality urban life. (And yes, the original post was called “The elements of,” but as it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, that wording felt a little misleading in retrospect. Not to mention arrogant.) By and large, it’s been successful in conveying the affordances and constraints presented by a relatively novel information technology to audiences largely conversant with the granular details of that technology in a different context.

But the talk I’m planning to give at the Pompidou on 27th November and at Supernova in San Francisco a few days later is a little different. It’s called “Public objects: Connected things and civic responsibilities in the networked city,” and while it takes as text and jumping off point the same set of observations and concerns, it winds up in a different place.

Maybe you’ll see what I mean if I share the abstract I submitted for the Pompidou event:

The networked objects which are increasingly populating our lives and our cities already generate torrential, unceasing volumes of data about our whereabouts, activities, and even our intentions. How can we ensure that this data is used for the equal benefit of all? What provisions regarding such objects should citizens demand of their municipal governments? How might the juridical order respond most productively to the presence of these new urban actors?

We’re clearly into a different territory here. This is not a talk intended, primarily, for technologists, but for people who understand themselves to be citizens, constituents and co-creators of an urban polity. And it’s an attempt to use the appearance of networked informatics in our cities to argue a much larger point: that our times and circumstances call for a conscious art and craft of urban systems design.

Consider the laundry list of actors involved in framing the urban environment invoked by Rob Holmes’s recent post on big-picture thinking: “…engineers (experts in infrastructure), planners (experts in navigating the regulatory terrain of city-shaping), developers (experts in financing), and ecologists (experts in the science of relationship).” Depending on how you interpret “ecologists,” there’s precious little room in that spectrum for the kind of holism that’s capable of standing back, looking at the conjoined impact of infrastructural, economic, regulatory, political, social, financial and aesthetic choices on a given urban terrain, and making informed suggestions as to the interventions required to improve outcomes for all.

Where a need for it is seen to arise, the responsibility to think holistically about the urban milieu is generally located within architecture, never least by architects themselves. But where Holmes argues that architecture has ceded the “big picture” to the contingent whims of other disciplines, I’d submit that this is because the field is in genuine risk of missing the picture entirely. I like to think that I’m reasonably familiar with what’s going on in the domain, as an enthusiast amateur, and if I can judge by what gets published, even the more advanced practices of the current architectural generation seemingly remain smitten by scale-free, procedural strategies for the generation of form. Their exercises are often lovely, occasionally awe-inspiring, but they seem to issue from some mathic universe governed by the teraflop exertions of a deep ruleset that excludes the possibility either of human agency or of the frailty which inevitably attends it.

So I don’t think architecture is at present organized or oriented in such a way as to provide the necessary insights, nor are individual architects much motivated to do so (with the usual and much-admired exceptions). By contrast, I’d argue that we’re now in a position to articulate something of what a truly integrative faculty might look like, what a curriculum in urban systems design might contain:

Any such thing would have to be deeply grounded in a literacy in complex adaptive systems. I’m thinking, of course, of the kind of thing that the worthies of Stamen work so hard to evoke and do so well, but also the work that Paul Torrens does. The result would be something that integrated an understanding of economic geography and incentive landscapes at all of the relevant (time and spatial) scales.

That word “incentive” offers a big fat clue as to another vital component: any useful practice of urban systems design would have to offer an account of human motivation under typical city-scale conditions of concentration and density – and not merely one that reduces to biological drives. One would further hope this account would be built on the best, most nuanced and sensitive qualitative research available.

It would have to be able to model the role of all the interdependent actors involved in producing urbanity: from institutional and technological to climatological, animal and microbial. (The networked informatic systems I’m most personally concerned with would of course be numbered among these actors.)

It would exhibit deep respect for the phenomenological, which is to say, for material and semiotic and linguistic particularity.

And – at least in my version – it would emphasize the importance of human choices and decisions. Of especial interest is how choices made in any layer cascade through all the systems connected to it, or fail to, so we’d wind up (for example) able to depict how a specification made by a standards body, at the urging of one manufacturer, makes a networking standard more or less likely to be broadly adopted, and how that same standard once adopted winds up allowing (or compelling, or forbidding) certain kinds of behavior.

The aim of all of this would be to improve outcomes for everyone who lives in a city. Starting from a hard-headed assessment of the negotiations required and the parties and imperatives that need somehow to be satisfied, the goal would be to design interventions (and non-interventions) that enhance the quality of life in a particular urban terrain in whatever ways resonate with the motivations discovered there, and whatever “quality” is seen to mean. Ultimately, even “sustainability” as that goal is currently understood would merely be a subset of this endeavor.

Especially given the by-now-clichéd recognition that we’ve decisively become an urban species, the time for such a movement, frankly, isn’t now: we needed it desperately yesterday, last week, last century. From where I am both delighted and seriously privileged to stand, though – able to travel the world, astride many conversations and disciplinary communities but beholden to none – I can tell you that alongside the genuine and acute need for this work there stands a cohort of brilliant, insightful, compassionate people hungry to take it up. Many of them, it’s true, already know each other, or at least of one another, and are working the puzzle together from whichever angle is most congenial to their skills and desires…but still more of the people with the relevant interests and ambitions do not.

If you’re working in any of the areas implicitly bound up in all this, or about to, and think you’d like to address this set of challenges, I’d like to spend my time helping you to meet the others so embarked and find useful outlets for your energy and effort. For myself, I’m going to devote the balance of my career to the question of urban systems design, in ways formal and informal, purposive and casual, hard-knuckled and ludic – and I’d very much like it if you joined me, in whatever way you felt most comfortable.

36 responses to “Toward urban systems design”

  1. Fred Scharmen says :

    Interdisciplinary Networked Rosicrucianism. Conspiracy for the greater good. Love it.

  2. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Great post, Adam. I would follow up by saying that—historically-speaking, of course—architecture culture’s interest in “big picture” thinking never simply materialized. Or, those who did attempt at such visions (people like Buckminster Fuller, Konrad Wachsmann, or Christopher Alexander) were, at best, adopted by other disciplines, or, at worst, marginalized.

    A couple of days ago, the artist-architect Fritz Haeg lectured here at Princeton and remarked to the audience that architects were wasting all their efforts on building. In other words, architects have a very broad and deep knowledge base, and that often they are not mobilizing that set of skills properly in the service of important concerns. I’m not one best suited to assess this statement, and in fact I would leave it to Fred, Bryan and others who know a lot more about professional practice than me to comment on this issue. But generally speaking, I think that you and Rob Holmes are right when you suggest that architecture’s inability to deal with “bigger picture” issues has a lot to do with institutional and professional strangleholds.

    A question worth asking, however, is what would excluded from the domain of urban systems design? It may be a premature question, especially since you are interested in defining a field. But I think it makes for an interesting and productive design. For example, what role would building have in urban systems design? Would it be limited to design “suggestions” (which is the domain of Urban Design in United States)? Policy recommendations (as taught in schools of Urban Planning)? I only ask, because I think what you propose here is not-Urban Planning, not-Urban Design, even if some of the things you are interested in (including elements of economic geography as well as public goods allocation analysis) are part of these disciplines.

  3. Rahul Sen says :

    Awesome post Adam! As a former architect I completely agree with your phrase – ‘the field is in genuine risk of missing the picture entirely’. A great Tschumi poster that I never forgot – ‘the most architectural thing about this building (ref: to Villa Savoye) is the state of decay it is in.’ Moving toward studying interaction design was part-solution but I continue to be fascinated and interested by the creation of complex, dynamic urban ‘fabric’ – a fabric offering total democracy and openness in the way we shape our lives. Would love to be in Paris for the event. :-) When is the book due???

  4. Michal Migurski says :

    Incentives, outcomes – been reading much freshwater economics lately? I’d be interested in seeing that same kind of thinking move up the chain a little, to the architects themselves. Right now it seems that the outcomes are bad and the incentives screwed up for architecture itself because the scale-free formalism you talk about is rewarded. How can architects be pulled along with the building process to a point where they benefit from feedback on their own work? Interesting that you call out Paul Torrens – his crowd movement simulations would be a great opener to subsequent movement studies in the same environments, something like a built unit test.

  5. Liz Buckley says :

    I have always thought that urban design ought to facilitate somatic experiences that increase self-efficacy. For instance a retaining wall is an adventure to the kid who balances as they walk on top of it and has nothing to do with holding back dirt. That small experience of climbing, balancing and getting back up if you fall might be the most valuable lesson learned, but only if the top of the wall was designed wide enough to walk on.

    If places are created that lead to self-efficacy then you have a place that fosters healthy people and health means wealth. I would like to see things built that are designed to first create a desire to educate oneself.

  6. Fred Scharmen says :

    On the professional practice tip (since Enrique brought it up), I would say that many architects I know are increasingly interested in urban systems in general.

    We’re interested in things like stormwater management, resource sharing, hyperlocal production and distribution of food and energy, and even (especially) in the political and social systems that can generate and sustain new forms of the above. In one sense, networked informatics is fascinating to the extent that it allows us a fresh look at these older problems. For these territories, there’s hardly a better touchstone that Sterling’s short story White Fungus.

    The friction comes when we realize that these things all exist between disciplines and scales. In simple terms – we want to design in this realm, but at the end of the monthly cycle, where do you send the bill?

    It’s true there are different funding models out there for research, grants, teaching … as well as government and corporate clients. But for now, I’d be *very* interested in talking and sharing with those who have more entrepreneurial experience in this realm.

  7. Neil Freeman says :

    I think that “design” is the wrong word for what you’re describing here. Perhaps “curation” would be better. It seems to me that ubiquitous, torrential, unceasing streams of data cannot possibly be put to “the equal benefit of all” (perhaps you mean public benefit). The level of complexity you’re describing is well beyond the reach of designers, on the order of the relationship of the natural and the reals.
    I’m surprised that you dismiss planners, who certainly do more than navigate regulation. In fact, many planners pay very little attention to specific regulations, and instead think about the big picture of a city or region, how to clarify its goals, and what concrete steps need to happen to take fullest advantage of limited resources, and set the framework for positive change.

    On another semantic note, what makes the systems that you’re describing urban? You rightfully dismiss the cliche that we’re now an “urban species.” Certainly telecommunications and networks are concentrated in cities, but the also exist in non-urban realms, and in fact constitute a non-place realm of their own. In my mind, urban is a spatial concept, so what do you mean when you describe non-spatial systems as urban?

  8. AG says :

    To address your points one at a time:

    – No, believe me, it’s design: the crafting of interventions intended to produce a certain outcome.

    – Data can certainly drive decisions of equal benefit to all, and the odds of this happening are vastly increased when such data is equally available to all.

    – Data isn’t magic, and it’s no substitute for a community’s will, desire or intention. None of this is to mystify “the numbers,” or to wreathe the notion of data collection with an unwarranted accuracy and authority.

    I simply believe – and it is quite simple, really – that better decisions tend to be made in the presence of relevant information than in its absence.

    – I don’t believe I did dismiss planners, or the practice of urban planning. I’m arguing that planning is not enough.

    In fact, here’s where the “curation” you refer to is most relevant – it’s not really that, more like “wrangling,” but we’ll accept the term for the sake of argument.

    Rather than crafting a top-down plan, one strategy of an urban systems designer (who may well be a planner by profession!) would be to:

    (a) understand the existing flows of matter, energy, people, information and money present in a given urban ecology;
    (b) model which basins of stability exist among all the possible states of that ecology;
    (c) design interventions intended to steer outcomes toward the basin regarded as most desirable by the constituencies involved;
    (d) verify the efficacy of those interventions, using both qualitative and quantitative means; and
    (e) iterate accordingly.

    – The systems I’m describing are by definition “urban,” in that their scale, concentration, complexity, and degree of interconnection has breached the threshold that distinguishes cities from other forms and modes of human habitation. These skills, insights and strategies may certainly find useful purchase in other domains of human endeavor…but this one’s about life in cities.

  9. AG says :

    I get it that this is not going to be even a remotely tenable answer for a lot of people, Fred, but my response is simply to start doing the work and trust that the money will take care of itself.

    Two kinds of people can get away with this strategy: folks like me, who are comfortably compensated through other channels…and those like the people in Bruce’s story, who have nothing to lose.

    It’s from the latter group that I would expect the truly great things.

    Also understand that I’m not trying to argue that people trained as architects, people who practice architecture, or people who work for companies with “…Architects, LLC” in the name can’t do the sort of work we’re talking about. This is a big tent, by design and definition.

  10. bryan says :

    Fred’s question about the bottom line is apt and important. I’ve had numerous conversations with people outside the practice of architecture who want to know why architects are not doing this or that New Thing (urban informatics included).

    Generally the answer is pretty simple: there’s no money in architecture. Buildings are incredibly expensive one-offs that are expected to be both innovative and perfect from the get-go. Designers coming from backgrounds in product and interaction are particularly prone to expect that architecture can adopt the same iterative techniques of prototyping and testing, but who is going to pay for it? Do you want to pay twice as much for your building (let alone a retaining wall)? Even if you would like to pay double, can you?

    But some parties (Like IDEO) are finding ways to embed ethnography, prototyping, and other useful techniques in the architectural process. They’re consultants that charge a much higher hourly rate than architects can get away with and generally don’t have to stick around and deal with the mess of translating ideas into lived-in material reality. That’s a joy the architects inherit.

    While this specialization of design tasks does, in theory, enable the development of deep expertise in the various silos, it is actively working against the sort of horizontal integration Adam is talking about.

    So let me float a theory that what we’re talking about is not the job of an architect or a planner or any other profession, per se. It’s a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind. I’d propose that you’re talking about people working strategically, or executing “strategic design.” Design’s strength comes from its position between the real and the possible. Strategic design is that, but turned up to 11. Architects, planners, interaction designers, graphic designers can all work strategically. We need to be in the habit of working together, and working with more experts from outside design and academia. Non-designers like Saskia Sassen have been driving urban theory for a while, but seldom to designers include outsiders in the process of translating theory to practice. (Low2No was an interesting exception where one team even had a philosopher!)

    What you describe is the ability to navigate a diverse collection of inputs, to coordinate their confluence, and to guide that conversation towards the implementation of an equally diverse range of solutions. To me this sounds like Eliel Saarinen’s famous quotation about designing for the “next largest context” freed from its emphasis on the built environment. Things should be designed not only in their next largest (and smallest!) contexts, but also in the next level of abstraction. A material building in the material city, but also within a behavioral model, a cloud of data, a policy framework, a regional/national/global ambition…

    Anyone who really wants to bite into this work would do themselves a huge favor by dropping any notion of “architect” or “planner” from their title. Even “designer” is suspect in a lot of places that the strategic designer needs to embed themselves. So, yes, to get to Enrique’s point, this may largely be a professional practice issue. If any of us archi$%&@s hope to work on these kinds of topics we first have to reboot this aged and broken profession. We need a new degree of design (11!) but also new clients. Or, rather, the burden is on us designers to help potential clients understand the value of what we offer. This is a transformation that will only happen slowly and with sustained investment and effort on the behalf of the larger design community. As E points out, the wave of designers who got into this in the 1960s mostly blew hot air. It’s our job to deliver.

    And on that note, come to HDL2010 because it is interrogating this precise issue: how do we move from thinking to doing?

  11. Liz Buckley says :

    Since embedded geographical capital is historically the basis of enterprise, the non-geographical capital, all that data, is creating a new hegemony. Capturing a place in the developing hegemonic class is like farming, you work all summer planting seeds and weeding and hope for harvest. We are all farmers right now.

  12. AG says :

    Well, the aim is to prevent it from creating a new, or any other kind of, hegemony. But yes, I do have my farmer’s hat on.

  13. Fred Scharmen says :

    Oh yeah, absolutely a disciple of the behave-as-if-you’re-free-til-proven-otherwise praxis. I’m just looking for new tools.

    And yes, I’m kind of in both camps right now, too, comfortable (knock), but with not much to lose. The two states don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    In one sense, ideas are the cheapest thing around, it’s the implementation that matters to me right now. That’s what I like about HDL. It feels like there’s a lot to learn in implementation, that’s where I want to head, and where I want to steer the conspiracy.

  14. Fred Scharmen says :

    To Bryan and Neil’s points about terminology – given the way we’re discussing the orchestration of confluence: water, energy, material, political will, cultural imagination … we could just as easily call this a kind of microplanning, instead of hinting at a macroarchitecture.

    Maybe it’s not buildings scaled up to cities, it’s regions scaled down to neighborhoods.

  15. Liz Buckley says :

    (a) identify the components of the existing hegemonic system

    (b)identify the particular points of consensus between the components in the hegemonic system

    (c) capture a place in the hegemonic class by designing acceptable interventions to the points of consensus

    (d) assert your new definition of consensus

    (e) maintain your position in the hegemonic class

    I think we agree. Wrangling or capturing a position in the hegemonic class or farming, whatever you call it, I think it has to be sustainable, which means everyone has to be included. I don’t mean hegemony as an exclusive group.

  16. karl says :

    you said: “Especially given the by-now-clichéd recognition that we’ve decisively become an urban species”

    It is indeed very interesting to think about urban systems design given there was a major move toward cities. That said I have the feeling that this move comes with, at least, three issues:

    1. access to the “thought” urban environment,
    2. the space left where 50% of the population is still living,
    3. the space of this growth

    There are many areas in the world where the growth of the cities is made by people without access or a limited access to the thought urban environment. Poor people living in slums or just in a space which is not part of the work of urban planner per say. In a recent exhibition about slums I went, it was very interesting to see that the organic structure of the slums was making possible for the individuals to create a rich and meaningful space, driving sometimes to less criminality than more traditional areas of the city. The slum is a forced collective creative space for survival.

    The rest of the population, the 50% living in deserted areas are the forgotten of this story. It’s indeed more “fun”, interesting for researchers, sociologists to observe and think about the density in urban space (richness of interactions) more than the low level of activities in the “countryside”. Though there are equal challenges there in terms of design and space organization, access to services, etc.

    Finally, is it really cities which are growing? What we call urban space often relates to the city center, but I have the feeling that the growth is happening in the in-between space (suburbs), which is again a complete disaster in terms of design, even more so in rich countries. The private space is becoming a space of non-creativity, dead areas of non activities. Someone, who wants to start a small business in between two buildings on the grass of a random suburb of a rich city, will not last for very long. Complete different dynamic than the slum where unregulated areas give the opportunity of creative solutions for surviving or living.

  17. AG says :

    Karl, Mike Davis identifies the domain of interest as “post-urban complexes” rather than cities per se. This seems to speak to some of your concerns.

    Also, you’re not alone in thinking that the emphasis on the urban leaves crucial constituencies unaddressed. (Have you seen this and this?) For myself, though, I can merely reiterate what I’ve admitted before: my own emphasis on the urban has to do with my complete lack of feeling and affinity for, and understanding of, the suburban, small-town and rural contexts. For me to speak to those contexts would be irresponsible, arrogant and ignorant.

    Although I do sometimes feel I have an ever-so-slight handle on the dynamics of small-town life after living in Helsinki.

  18. karl says :

    Ah I knew the russel davies one but not the second one. Thanks for the link.

    The focus of your discourse is perfectly understandable.

  19. Fred Scharmen says :

    I know this has drifted below the fold, but it’s still a useful place to think out loud about some of this stuff. One of the questions that you’re implying here, Adam, is ‘why architects?’. To me, it always seems like, through process of elimination, no one else is trained in the same way to deal with the social, the cultural, and the technical, in quite the combination you’re describing above.

    I’ve posted this elsewhere, part of an ongoing rant-to-self about titular protection and ‘information architecture’, but it seems relevant here:

    You can call yourself an ‘X Architect’ (where ‘X’ is information, product, solutions, flavor, etc.) if you can answer yes to the following questions:

    Are you self critical?

    Do you have a coherent set of ideas that parallels production and allows you to talk about why you make the choices you make?

    Are you able to position those ideas relative to the ideas of other peers and define a space for conversation or debate?

    Is the task large enough that it requires a division of labor, a split between concept and execution, and the continuous maintenance of evolving consensus between multiple stakeholders?

    Do you contribute to the public realm?

    Do you add more to the solution of a problem beyond the simple fulfillment of the brief?


    self awareness & theory & discourse & consensus & community & surplus

    (but it will probably turn out that whatever *this* is, calling it ‘x architecture’, or microplanning, or even ‘urban systems design’ will end up sounding, as you might say, kind of ‘horseless carriage’ once the real work starts getting done.)

  20. Molly says :

    I wrote the following to Adam in an email. He asked me to post it here to so that it could possibly spark a conversation, which I hope it does.
    Asking to be involved in your efforts to build a community of practice around design of urban space feels like walking up to the popular kids’ table in 7th grade and asking if I can sit with them for lunch. However, this is the work I desperately want to do, so…Can I play too?

    I come at this work from many different directions: I’m a mechanical engineer by education, an energy efficiency and green building consultant by employment, a design geek by way of a couple classes and one amazing professor in college, and the daughter of a mediator who raised me on collaborative decision-making process theory. I’m fascinated by the impact the built and designed environment has on the experience of being a human in a particular space. Urban design is a powerful tool, and mostly we use it…poorly. I’m speaking of the US, although I’m sure there is global room for improvement.

    I’ve come to believe that if you find yourself creating external regulations for a system, you designed the thing wrong. (This is ironic given that I advocate for environmental regulation as part of my job, but that’s because we designed the thing wrong. And by thing I mean every scale of economic and governmental system in the country, more or less.) I feel this very strongly when it comes to human systems. A well-designed system should work with our instincts, needs, and desires to encourage positive outcomes. Sometimes I feel like my entire culture is a collection of systems trying to block all natural paths and divert everyone into narrow little channels where we’re expected to do the equivalent of flow uphill. What we have is a country full of unhappy people and broken systems. I want to fix it.

    So, that is some of what I’m about. I would appreciate it very much if you could help me find ways to get involved and connect. Thank you for extending the invitation!

  21. Liz Buckley says :

    Molly what are some of your internal regulations that you may use unconsciously. Can you articulate the instincts or needs that lead to good urban design? For instance, if a sidewalk is only 4 feet wide then a system is created whenever you pass someone going the other direction, a hierarchy ensues. The 4 foot width is a regulation but do you think it provides a need or meets an instinct?

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