Moltes gràcies, BCN urbanista

Nurri and I are back in (34º!) Helsinki from a surpassingly lovely week in Barcelona – a week bookended by a pair of provocative and stimulating events, and dedicated in-between to the intensive exploration of one of my favorite urban environments. And cava. Lots of cava.

– Our trip got off to a great start with Urban Labs ’09 at the gorgeous Citilab facility in peripheral, regenerating Cornellà. The morning kicked off with a rapid one-two: my Elements talk, followed by Ben Cerveny speaking on the city as a platform.

I thought Ben was on top form. His talk started from the dual recognition that cities are always already informational media, and always have been; it went on to trace some of the ways in which this has manifested itself historically, and might continue to do so in the near future given the selection of tools we now have available to us.

Given his long-standing interest in games, and especially in MMORPGs and what they might portend for the development of a general literacy in open-ended and non-determinate possibility spaces, it’s almost convincing when Ben makes the argument that the customized World of Warcraft interface is a useful jumping-off point for considering how we might engage complex urban informational spaces in years to come.

I am, of course, generally nonplussed by this line of thought, but Ben brings more to it than just about anybody else advancing it; in his hands, it becomes the ground of a fruitful conversation, rather than geekly wishful thinking. I was also struck by his insight that the various layers of what we might call the urban stack are differentially accessible to citizen input, from the networked sensors and other physical infrastructures at the bottom (not so much) to collaborative models and visualizations at the top (totally). If you want more – and you should – Nicolas has written up Ben’s talk in more detail here.

Hot on the heels of our talks was Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova‘s “Hands On Barcelona’s Informational Membrane” workshop, in which we explored the implications of the issues raised in the earlier part of the day for the multiple communities and constituencies that comprise the city. I’m super-grateful to Fabien and Nicolas for having framed such a thoughtprovoking and inspiring set of questions, to all the brilliant, hyperarticulate attendees, and to the friendly Citilab folks for hosting us. It was especially lovely to finally meet Giles Lane in person – we’d invited him to present at the First International Moblogging Conference in Tokyo a few thousand centuries ago, with no luck, he published my Minimal Compact as a Diffusion e-book, and I’ve followed his career with interest in all the years in between.

– The next day, on José Luis’s recommendation, we went to see an exceptional show on Ildefons Cerdà and his development of the iconic Barcelona street grid, at CCCB through the end of February: highly, highly recommended, and a benchmark for museums in how to do this stuff right.

Truth be told, it was almost too much to take in, but it (and the conversations we struck up in the course of walking through the galleries) confirmed beyond any doubt a suspicion I’d begun to formulate: like New York, this is a town where you can scratch just about anyone you pass on the street and find an engaged, voluble urbanist. Ordinary people have opinions about the length of streets in L’Eixample, about whether or not the Bicing bikeshare network is working well, about the deployment of (very literal) street furniture and what the emphasis on the tourist economy has done to las Ramblas. It’s envy-making, and gorgeous, and not the least significant of all the things which make me want to come back and spend a lot more time here.

(FWIW, we were struck by how well-integrated into the flow of the local everyday Bicing seemed to be, especially as contrasted with the disastrous shortcomings of the similar Vélib system of Paris explored in this very timely piece from the New York Times.)

– This is probably a big ol’ duh to a lot of you, but La Central is one of the best bookstores we’ve ever been to, and almost reason enough to relocate in and of itself. The Raval location, in particular, has the single most exceptional urbanism section I’ve ever seen, and I spent a retarted amount of money picking up hard-to-find volumes I’d only ever heard of before. Nurri says the photography section was equally impressive.

– We closed out the week’s formal activities at a session on mobile design organized by Rudy de Waele for Barcelona Design Week, and kindly hosted by MACBA.

Rudy did a splendid job putting together a diverse spread of viewpoints and perspectives. As disappointed as I was by their presentation – primarily in its evocation of mobile informatics at the service of beautiful white and light-skinned twentysomethings in the media industries, leading consumption-oriented lifestyles in central London – I was impressed by German Leon and Willem Boijens of Vodafone, and their ability to accept my rather pointed criticism with equanimity and good humor.

And of course Timo Arnall‘s contribution was superlative, as it always is. Timo speaks for a design that is sensitive, tactful, curious, critical but above all affirmative: qualities that are perhaps more acutely missed in the mobile design (ahem) space than anywhere else in the contemporary spectrum of everyday technologies. His dissection of mobile interaction into three spatiotemporal scales of immediate tangible experience, short-term connecting and sharing and long-term visualization and reflection is spot on; for my money, any would-be designer of mobile experiences would be well advised to start by considering just what it is that they’re trying to achieve or evoke at each of these levels.

I also really enjoyed meeting some of Rudy’s partners in throwing the event, particularly Sònia Monclús and Isabel Roig of BCD. I can imagine how you perceive the various complexities and frustrations of trying to push this kind of thought forward locally, but trust me: you’ve got something great going on there, and it will be a great pleasure to come back for further and deeper explorations. Of course, it never hurts to fête your guests with cocktails after dark at the omphalos of 20th Century modernism.

– And at a bare-bones level of descriptive detail, anyway, that’s pretty much the week we had. No such attempt would be complete, however, without grateful acknowledgment of the crucial three without whom our week would have been significantly impoverished: Lillian Shieh and Rich Radka, and Irene Hwang. This bottle’s for you, kids. We’ll see you, and your city, again in the very near future.

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