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The elements of networked urbanism

A summary of what those of us who are thinking, writing and speaking about networked urbanism seem to be seeing: fourteen essential transformations that, between them, constitute a rough map of the terrain to be discovered.

Not sure, in every case, I’ve got the phrasing just right, and will in any event expand on this shortly. Nevertheless:

1. From latent to explicit;
2. From browse to search;
3. From held to shared;
4. From expiring to persistent;
5. From deferred to real-time;
6. From passive to interactive;
7. From component to resource;
8. From constant to variable;
9. From wayfinding to wayshowing;
10. From object to service;
11. From vehicle to mobility;
12. From community to social network;
13. From ownership to use;
14. From consumer to constituent.

The City Is Here: Table of contents

Goaded by Mike Kuniavsky’s publication last week of an outline to his forthcoming book, here’s a table of contents for The City Is Here For You To Use. It’s a little unusual, in that it takes the form of a skeletal argument, or maybe even an essay; I hope you enjoy it. Of course, you should also consider this an alpha version, subject to change. (If any of this whets your appetite, do consider pre-ordering the book here.)

Twentieth-century urbanism struggled mightily to establish the rudiments of an empirical, human-centered practice – one capable of identifying, understanding and supporting the processes that give rise to lively, vibrant cities.

We’ve learned that the dynamics which bring such communities into being and allow them to flourish are peculiarly sensitive; the configurations of favorable material circumstances, enlightened policies, and empowered citizens on which urban vitality depends are inherently contingent, and must remain (or be held) within surprisingly delicate tolerances. The introduction of any disruptive factor is likely to move a given ensemble across a variety of thresholds, with significant implications for the way that place is formed and the ways in which it can be experienced. The disruption we will be examining in this book is technological.

In recent years, a class of networked information-processing technologies has emerged which permits the built environment, and discrete objects in it, to sense, process, store, communicate, display and take immediate physical action upon information. The result is a highly dynamic overlay of current conditions, soundings and action potentials made explicit and superimposed on the city – something we might think of as network weather.

This weather is already exerting pressure on the delicate parameters that between them do so much to condition the life of our urbanized places. We can see both the urban milieu and the array of choices available to people moving through it beginning to evolve in response.

In many ways, the technologies involved remain distressingly opaque. Understanding how they work in concert with one another (or fail to do so) requires specialist knowledge that tends not to be bundled alongside their appearances in the world. In order to build effectively with these systems, therefore, and use them most sensitively once deployed, we need to unpack the specific details of their capabilities, affordances and governing logics.

When considering the impact of informatic technologies on urban form and experience, however, the relevant unit of analysis is not the technology itself, but rather the local technosocial assemblage into which it has been laminated. Such constellations of protocols, practices, activities and cultural assumptions operate in mesh to produce a given effect, and this makes any one component very hard to dissect out, consider in isolation or successfully transplant.

Nevertheless, some general trends are observable. A previously mute and disjointed streetscape is being replaced by one comprised of addressable, queryable and even scriptable objects;

An architectonic built up from static and relatively inert forms is being replaced by dynamic structures and surfaces;

A visual environment which asks little more of us than that we spectate is being replaced by interactive façades, screens, and displays;

Above all, those of us moving through the urban environment have ourselves been richly provisioned with sensors operating on a variety of channels and at the most intimate scale.

As a result, where previously human and other processes in the urban fold were lost to insight and to history, the contemporary city’s rhythms and processes speak themselves.

The bottom line is a city that responds to the behavior of its users in something close to real time, and in turn begins to shape that behavior.

This has profound implications for a variety of practices that, between them, are arguably constitutive of metropolitan experience: the way the city is disposed in space, as well as the way we find our way around it;

…the way in which we move around and through it;

…the way we make use of it as a platform for conviviality, to socialize, experience solidarity and the simple pleasures of the company of others;

…and the way we bring goods and services to market.

We need to be clear that significant threats to liberty and autonomy inhere in any adoption of these technologies. They can all too easily be used to apply differential control over who gets to use space and under what circumstances, with little or no effective recourse in real time.

There are other inherently and significantly problematic aspects involved any time we re-engineer urban practices of long standing, that have matured to the point that they already work usefully well, around technical processes which are not, have not and do not. We need to take particular care to avoid the introduction into everyday life of failure modes which do not currently exist.

Only by reckoning with these constraints and limitations will we formulate a robust urbanist practice for the twenty-first century, a Newer Urbanism capable of fully embracing the potential of networked informatic technologies while turning them to our own various ends.

This will require a new way of conceiving of public objects as informational utilities…

…new agreements regarding the use of public space…

…and perhaps even a new conception of the practice of citizenship.

None of these strategies will be sufficient on its own, and the list is far from comprehensive. Ultimately, successfully managing the challenges of the networked city will mean understanding it not just as an ecosystem but as a single conjoined process unfolding in time. And further still, as a deeply seamful process, presenting all who encounter it with a million gleaming hinges: apertures allowing you to reach in and withdraw useful intelligence, to tweak its performance to your own present necessities, or to plug its outputs as inputs into yet other running processes. Now, as never before, the city is here for you to use.

Toward the sentient city

Of all the many pleasures of metropolitan life that we left behind, at least temporarily, when we moved to Helsinki, among those I miss most acutely is the particularly rich stratum of small-to-medium-sized local institutions New York supports – shops like the Architectural League, the Design Trust for Public Space, the Van Alen Institute, and Storefront for Art and Architecture. Over the five years we lived in NYC, these institutions provided me with an unfailing stream of thoughtful, provocative, and occasionally breathtakingly inspirational events, and almost as a fringe benefit, introduced me to dozens of folks who would wind up numbering among my favorite people and most important influences.

Inevitably, it hurts to find myself so far away when I hear these friends are achieving great things back home, not to mention being so kneedeep in the day-to-day that I’m barely able to keep up with the mail reminding me of same. That’s why I’m so disappointed that I couldn’t have shared this next bit of news with you the very day it was announced: in September 2009, at the Architectural League of New York, Mark Shepard will finally be able to share his “Toward The Sentient City,” the show he and his Situated Technologies collaborators have been working toward for the last three-and-some years.

Personally invested in Situated Technologies as I am, this obviously means even more to me than just another provocative, resonant show at a great New York institution; I’m most impressed by the fact that, over the course of these linked events and productions, Mark has been able to gather together an astonishingly high percentage of those most active and influential in framing the emergent discourse around urban computing and the networked city. If you have the slightest interest in this domain, I strongly recommend that you find a way to New York for this show and the curated conversations that will accompany it; I sure as hell intend to be there.

Hearty congratulations to Mark, for all of his hard work; to the winning commissioned project teams, among whom are good friends Fabien Girardin, Anthony Townsend, Dennis Crowley, Laura Forlano, David Benjamin and Soo-In Yang; and of course Greg, Rosalie, Varick, and everyone else at the League. I am all but bouncing up and down in my chair in anticipation.

More on interactive advertising: Better be careful what you wish for

I wish I had it in me to resist plunking down cash on things like eVolo’s Skyscraper for the XXI Century. The New Titles racks at Stout and Urban Center are generally piled high with volumes like this, glossy omnibus reviews of architectural design competitions, and when I have a few bucks in my pocket I tend to bite.

I’m always idly expecting to find some actual critique there among the purty renderings, and eight or nine times out of ten I come away disappointed. Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way. (The exception this last year was Typological Formations, an AA pamphlet that continues to resonate with me, as provocative as it is beautifully designed.)

It’s the uncritical embrace of whatever frankly dubious (social as well as technical and structural) assertions the projects are making that really makes me wonder what the various juries and editors are looking for in these competitions, and in eVolo’s case especially the vibe is not good.

Nevertheless, every once in awhile I trip over something in one or another of these books that makes it all worthwhile, like that experiment you read about in Psych 101 that returns randomized rewards just often enough to keep the hapless rat jamming down on the button. And this is the case here: snuck in among the squamous mile-high neoplasms and the vertiginous shafts premised on pure unobtanium is an entry that puts a delightfully nasty latterday twist on the basic, time-honored pod-and-frame iconography we inherit from Archigram and the Metabolists.

It’s an entry by the team of Edwin Liu, Nathaly der Boghosian, Felix Monasakanian, Efren Soriano and Hugo Ventura called Billboard Skyscraper. Billboard Skyscraper posits a pod-stippled megastructure in the form of an enormous undulant wave, in which the end of every pod is a smart-glass window, and every window a single pixel in the kilometer-square screen. And then it requires the subsidized residents of those pods to exhibit the “correct” consumption behavior in order to make use of their sole window on the world:

The invasive insertion of this massive entity into the downtown [Los Angeles] area alters or destroys existing sight lines and replaces them with corporately sponsored images. Living rent-free in the towering structure are residents that are participants in the performance of the building as advertising conduit…In coordination with RFID tags embedded in participating advertisers’ products, sensors within each pod determine the level of consumer activity that an individual produces. In a typical scenario, consuming more of the “correct” brand clears the window to full transparency, removing the “pixel” as a participant in the advertising façade.

Consumer inactivity or consumption of the “wrong” products causes the smart glass to become opaque…[O]perating at full commercial potential produces a surface punctuated by transparent windows, while…operating below established market criteria will compensate by activating the surface with advertising.

It’s a breathtaking proposition. I bet these kids’d find Irish babies pretty tasty, too.

It’s a damn shame I can’t find any pictures of this thing to show you: it’s one of the few student projects I’ve ever seen whose construction would result in an LA truly worth of Ridley Scott. The neat little self-correcting ad-placement algorithm this team has ginned up seems to capture, too, something of the deeper nature of living in an Empire with no edge and no outside. For the notional residents of Billboard just as for the rest of us, there really is no way not to play the game. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about this project is that once the ideas that animate it are on the table, there’s no telling what they might lead to, however clearly satiric they were at their inception.

I consider it very bad form on eVolo’s part, by the way, that they make it virtually impossible to learn anything at all about their entrants. No contact information or other metadata is offered, either on the Web site or in the pages of the book, making it unlikely that winning entrants will be able to leverage their success here in any meaningful way. (Amusingly enough – as I should have suspected, given my brushes up against Internet ad sales one or two lifetimes ago – if you Google “billboard skyscraper,” you get…scummy bus-dev pages on ad rates.) I’m still willing to extend eVolo the benefit of the doubt as to the sincerity of their aims, but I have to say this doesn’t help their case.

At any rate, I have to say I was delighted to find among the usual dreamy wankspires one finds in these books not merely a project with actual teeth in it, but the nous to dissect out some of the generally occult linkages between architecture, commerce, technology and representation, and I do hope some of those names crop up again in future.

Like Legos

I find myself completely fascinated with this Korean competition for the design of a Central Open Space in a Multi-functional Administrative City, which comes in via the excellent suckerPUNCH.

Some of its oddness, obviously, comes from the fusion of bureaucratese and Konglish in which it’s couched, but I think the balance of the frisson I get from it is down to something else entirely. I’m thinking of it as a weak signal from one possible future-becoming-present, one in which the scale-free generative modeling processes we’ve lately fallen for are mated to the very ambitious ab initio development programs we’re starting to see in places like the UAE and the PRD.

If such a contingency came to pass, I’d imagine its characteristic artifacts would be things just like this: RFPs, in effect, for rapid-fab Lego cities, readymade to plug into existing service infrastructures.

It’s not that such a scenario is entirely incapable of being handled intelligently; I think of some of the smarter work in Typological Formations, a neat volume I picked up last week at Architectura & Natura, as exemplary in this regard. But oh, I can also see way too much potential for misery in these self-consciously generic urbanized fields – I mean, they’re not even really “cities” anymore, are they? – and the correspondingly anomic quality of life I’d imagine going hand-in-glove with any large-scale procedural rhetoric of composition. (Residents? Any, y’know, culture they might tend to accrete around them? Modular, entirely fungible.)

Now, I’d be willing to bet that peak oil is going to set real limits on this kind of hubris long before us mere critics need to worry about its implications for the texture of everyday life. But then I’ve been wrong before.

Working the same side of the street

If you’re interesting in catching a strong flavor of The City Is Here For You To Use – and I understand from the feedback I’ve received after last Friday’s New Museum talk that there are a lot of you of whom this could fairly be said – you couldn’t do much better than to check out Dan Hill’s megapost “The Street As Platform.”

It’s an almost uncanny prefiguration of the book’s themes, from new forms of interdictory space, to the importance of read/write APIs in public objects, to the pivotal (and not always salutary) role of the Californian ideology in shaping informatics-mediated experiences. You’ll also find, in addition, considerations of one or two things that I won’t be dealing with – Dan’s much stronger on transmedia and new media-consumption patterns than I am, and I don’t share his interest in issues of sustainability (long story), so he’s really to go-to guy on these issues as they play out in the urban-informatic context.

If you’ve been reading Speedbird for awhile, of course, none of this is likely to come as a 2×4 to the head, but if you’re newly considering this domain, Dan’s piece is an excellent place to start.

Thought I want to come back to

It leaves one breathless to remember how quickly [Oscar Newman’s concept of] defensible space, originally a tactic for the further liberation of society’s disadvantaged, was “consumed,” or turned in on itself and reconstituted as a strategy to “control” space in global enclaves of privilege.

That’s John Kaliski, in his introduction to Steven Flusty’s Building Paranoia. It’s strikingly apropos to recent discussions (in class and outside of it) as to whether artifacts can meaningfully be said to have politics. More about this very soon.

Like Jane never happened

As part of the research I’m doing for The City, I recently picked up the catalogue for the Van Alen Institute’s 2005 show “Open: New Designs for Public Space.”

It’s a pretty enough catalogue, dense with what certainly look like thoughtful essays from folks like Deyan Sudjic and Enrique Peñalosa. It came in the mail, I added it to the pile of research materials that’s threatening to eat the living room, and thought no more about it until last night, which is when I pulled it off the pile and started to leaf through it.

I have to admit to being a little shocked at what I find on page 74: a case study devoted to Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. No matter what direction I come at it from, I’m just not able to conceive of this museum as in any way meeting a reasonable definition of “public space.” It’s a heavily branded private collection to which you must purchase admission, located on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper devoted to the greater glory of Mori Building: you tell me where the “public” is in any of that.

What’s truly astonishing to me is the following paragraph:

Since Le Corbusier first wrote about the “vertical city” in 1931, architects have increasingly striven to push the limits, with all facets of life city from business to pleasure located high above ground: a “city within a city.” The Mori Art Museum and viewing terraces…activate the tower long after the offices have closed and provide Tokyo with a major contemporary art institution, a unique destination and spectacular lookout point.

No acknowledgment here that every notion bound up in Corbusian city planning has been but-thoroughly discredited in the, let’s see, eighty-five years that have passed since Vers une architecture. (Actually, “discredited” doesn’t quite convey the state of affairs properly. “Smashed”? “Shattered”?) No acknowledgment that “city in a city” is a profoundly antiurban stance, one that has been demolished theoretically – most obviously in The Death and Life of Great American Cities – as well as literally, time and time again over the last half-century. Half-century! It’s not as though this is breaking news.

Mr. Mori is known to be a Corb fan, however, and since he’s the one writing the checks, I guess the copywriters and PR folks working on his behalf are bound to repeat the great man’s assertions, however thoroughly debunked they’ve been otherwise. It’s not a job I’d want to have, that’s for sure.

The sad part is the shadow of dubiousness these two pages now cast on the entire volume. I’m going to take each essay on its own merits, of course, and otherwise mine the book for whatever inspiration I can find in it, but I must say Mori’s inclusion has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Fortunately, a new broom has swept through the Van Alen since “Open,” and I have no intention of taking the current management to task over two pages of a catalogue three years old. But the point stands as a more general warning, even if it seems founded on the worst sort of nitpicking: I cannot overemphasize the damage an institution’s credibility suffers in my eyes when it blithely reproduces braindead PR flackery like the above.

The kind of program a city is

I’m not, in general, a “wisdom of crowds” guy. For every gorgeously elegant distributed search of possibility space you can name, I could cite one or more irrational, mindbendingly stupid, or merely time- and resource-wasteful clusterfucks. (And when I hear the word “crowdsourcing,” well…that’s when I reach for my revolver.)

Nevertheless, given both a crisply circumscribed problem and the right kind of community, the approach can and does work; Ask MetaFilter seems to do pretty well, for example, under the right circumstances. Given that you guys are nothing if not knowledgeable, then, and that what I have on tap is a pretty specific question, I thought I might give the following a try – as a way to do an end-run around my own blindspots and prejudices, if nothing else.

I ask you: what do you feel are the most significant contemporary developments in urban informatics? The most resonant projects, the most powerful interventions, the scariest precedents?

Cast as wide a net as you please in answering. I surely have my own answers, and of course I’ll be laying them on the table, in abundant detail. But I want this book to be multivocal, as much so as any real city, and it cannot be that if the sole things covered in its pages are the projects, plans and personalities that coincide with my own prior suppositions.

To cite just one example, my (and the book’s) vision of the “digital urban” has surprisingly little overlap with that pursued here. Yet the book won’t be worth very much if it doesn’t address and engage that perspective too. So go wild. I need to know what you’re imagining when you hear the words “urban computing.”

The Ouroussovian dodge

In the end, it is the public’s responsibility to do the hard work of parsing the difference between superficial creations designed to cover up a hidden, cynical agenda, and sincere efforts to create a more enlightened vision of a civilization that is evolving at a brutal pace.

Maybe so, Nic: maybe so. But if that’s the case, then surely it’s the critic’s responsibility to present things to architecture’s various publics in a way they can get their respective heads around? To explain the issues in play, many of which will be far from self-explanatory to people who don’t spend their days immersed in the domain? To demonstrate how a particular proposal responds or does not respond to one or another conception of the public good, or advances one agenda over another?

Not to mince words: it’s your job. You’ve been invested with a certain amount of power to frame these issues, lent to you by an institution with considerable reach and influence. I can hardly think of a pulpit bullier. Now use it.