Keep up to date on new work, our thinking, ongoing projects, things we’ve noticed and what we’re up to in the studio with our weeknotes and occasional articles.

Week 69: Pause

Adam Greenfield on 3 May 2012

Faithful followers of Urbanscale will have noticed that things have been very quiet hereabouts — a quiet which is probably more acute for the contrast with the pace of commenting we’d kept up since the launch of the practice at the beginning of last year. In part, this sense of quiet is illusory, in that there’s been the usual amount of work and travel going on in the background, but it also clearly speaks to some pretty major transitions in the nature of the practice.

Rather than trying to continue the level of output we’d been keeping up, I’m going to be trying something a little unusual, which is putting the practice per se on pause for an indefinite period while I concentrate on finishing The City Is Here For You To Use. The book has gone through a lot of changes since I first announced my intention to publish it, way back at the beginning of 2008, and while I think it will unquestionably be better and more useful for having matured over this extended period, it really does demand my total attention now. Demands my attention, that is, in a way that’s inconsistent with the realities of running a client-service business honorably and with a focus on detail.

We’ve wrapped up work on all the projects we had in the shop, shipped our final outstanding deliverable, and will be putting things in hibernation until such time as I am once again free to pursue active design and development work. This is certainly a strategy with its share of risks, but ultimately I think it’s the best way of fulfilling my obligations to the book, to the people who have already invested in its appearance, and to the networked cities and citizens I care about so passionately. (I am continuing to take on a limited number of public-speaking engagements, so as ever you should feel free to get in touch if this is of interest to you.)

I want to thank Mayo, Jeff, Leah and J.D. for their talent and fervor; our collaborators Ryan Sullivan, Benedetta Piantella, Justin Downs and Todd Bailey for theirs; and everyone who’s responded to what we’ve been trying to do with such enthusiasm and love for that wonderful and truly affirmative energy. This includes each and every one of you who have followed our weeknotes, reposted our essays and videos, come to our FRIDAYS AT 7 events and, yes, sported our stickers.

For my own part, I would encourage you to think of this not as a departure, but as a shift into a different mode of investigation. The mission is a very long way from completion, there are many loads left to lift, and miles to go before we sleep. Take care and stay in touch.

Week 62: In dreams begin responsibilities

Adam Greenfield on 16 March 2012

Two seemingly-unrelated topics have been occupying the lion’s share of our thoughts in studio this week, both concerning what we might call the politics of imagination.

» You may well have heard of the boneheaded stunt a marketing agency pulled at the South by Southwest Interactive festival last week, in which members of Austin’s homeless population were pressed into service (OK: “recruited”) as walking, talking wireless hotspots.

I’m going to go out on a limb and advance the opinion that this is not inherently an obscene idea. Once a society is prepared to tolerate the genuine obscenity — which is the human cost incurred whenever and wherever a market unimpeded by wisdom or mercy forces people to fend entirely for themselves — you’d pretty much better offer the worst-off a few ways to keep their nostrils above the waterline. In this light, the notion of furnishing homeless people with something of inherent value, network access, that they can both use themselves and exchange for cash money is not terrible.

Had this been executed properly, it would have been no more troubling, at its core, than the street-paper business model that was its direct inspiration. It would have some resonances with the Indian-inspired alternative model of service delivery Anab Jain discussed in her Urban Lenses session at PICNIC 2010, bringing the network-wallah to American streets. I can even see circumstances under which such a scheme would underwrite the dignity and autonomy of those choosing to participate in it — if, that is, I thought for even a bright moment that the creative sparks responsible for conceiving Homeless Hotspots had anything as un-buzz-generative as dignity or autonomy in mind.

We’re skeptical because so much of the program’s design-in-detail seems bound to dehumanize the people giving life to it. And even if this does not ultimately turn out to have resulted from a massive failure of empathy on the part of the designers, well, the purpose of a system is what it does.

For example, participants were required to wear t-shirts saying “I’m [e.g.] Clarence, a 4G Hotspot“; the inclusion of the first name here reads to me like a disrespectful diminution, rather than the personalizing touch it was most likely intended to be. Worse still was that the privileged conference-goers making use of the hotspots were asked to consider a “donation,” rather than making a fair exchange of money for value received. Finally, insult to injury: the program was launched during a week when much of Austin was mourning the death of local character Leslie Cochran, a street person flamboyant and ubiquitous enough to have become a fixture even among that cohort that only visits town for SxSW.

Let’s be clear, then, that we think the harsh reception Homeless Hotspots met with was entirely deserved. But it’s also kind of a shame. Within the limitations of the neoliberal city, it’s nothing if not a creative (“innovative”) application of the existing toolkit. Further, there’s a cleverness in the concept that is not incompatible with the notion of using networked information technology to forge new, surprising and mutually-valued human relations in the city. The yawning gap between that end and the hot mess the people of Austin were actually offered reinscribes the first and last lesson of urban-systems design, which is that details matter.

It’s the details that determine how actors can form links with one another, or fail to. It’s the little granular greebly surface bits of the things we design that condition what other frameworks they can plug into, what behavior they make possible, what potentials they actualize.

And that brings us to the other teapot tempest that’s been on our minds this week…

» It’s always interesting to see a more-or-less mainstream media outlet focus its attention on issues “in our wheelhouse,” to use the parlance of our times. The latest such that’s popped up on our radar is Talking Points Memo — a well-known American political site that I’d judge center-left by US standards, and center-right by any sane ones — which has recently been trying to extend its brand into the science and technology space.

As part of this push, TPM has shown a great deal of interest in the results of the somewhat notorious annual skyscraper-design competition run since 2006 by “architecture and design journal” eVolo. (In fact, TPM lavished rather a lot of attention on this competition — as far as I can tell, more than they did to any non-party-political matter unfolding over the same interval. Here’s a post in the site’s main column by site founder and lead editor Josh Marshall; here’s another six days later, by associate editor Paul Werdel, and here’s a separate, high-profile slideshow that was merchandised in modules on the bottom and side of the front page.) The troubling thing is that the site repeatedly characterized the subject of these renderings as “visions of our urban future.”

No. These are:

- Static pictures…
- …of fantasy buildings (i.e. precisely not cities)…
- …that are completely detached from contemporary (or any reasonably foreseeable near-future) materials engineering possibility…
- …that make no reference to any real-world economic, political, practical or moral constraints on land acquisition and development…
- …that at best wave a hand at the social relations they embody, extend, or make possible, and at worst appear to deny any necessity for or possibility of human inhabitation…
- …that were produced as part of eVolo’s cynical, pay-for-play promotion, something that has always struck me as more about revenue generation than the advancement of visionary architecture.

It straight-up mystifies me as to why a media outlet presumably interested in establishing its bona fides in a new field of coverage would want to lend its hard-won imprimatur to everything implied by the above description.

What’s our beef here? Mostly, it’s the act of dual normalization performed, doubtless inadvertently, by TPM’s framing of the competition and its winning entries. In labeling these posts “2012 Skyscraper Competition,” Talking Points Memo is implying that this is the annual such competition, and therefore worthy of your attention, not merely (with all due respect to the many talented entrants) a rather marginal and contested exercise that’s not taken seriously by any architect I know. And by characterizing these as “visions of our urban future,” Marshall and his writers are telling us — again, almost certainly without thinking very deeply about it — that urban progress has something to do with ever-more-ambitious conquests of the vertical. Hark unto the experts, they seem to be saying, whose visionary vision-y visions will show us the shape of tomorrow today. And boy howdy, that shape is up.

As it happens, any “urban future” I’d want to be a part of isn’t about experts and their visions at all, but would concern the creation and long-term sustenance of architectures of participation. With the exception of the justificatory apparatus around the (formally hackneyed and even played-out) Honorable Mention, it’s frankly hard for me to find gestures at anything resembling this among the eVolo competition winners. In this light, however unwitting it is, the ideological work performed by the TPM posts is precisely the kind of policing of the discourse that the site’s writers and editors would recognize in a heartbeat in the party-political sphere.

In the end, the question I lodge against Homeless Hotspots and eVolo’s skyscaper pr0n is the same — is, in fact, the same I ask of all provocations, prototypes and “design fictions”: what specific, historical spaces, relations and experiences are they foreseeably likely to bring into being, for people and nonhuman participants both? As designers, what I believe we all need to develop is the courage to rework or even refuse projects that seem likely to generate further squalor, no matter how seductively bold the idea, how soaring the conceptual arc. And what I would ask of those making representations of designed artifacts in the broader media is the perspicacity to unpack the images you encounter, and determine which agendas they might serve, before granting them the aura of your approval.

» Logistics: In Copenhagen and Aarhus all week, for meetings with Gehl Architects, BIG, and the Aarhus city government. Back in NYC next Monday! Endmark

For the past few seasons now, my standard talk has been one I call “Another City is Possible: The “Smart City” from Above and Below.” If you’re inclined to dig in a bit, this series of pieces I wrote for Wired last fall recapitulates its core themes, but I can surely save you some time: in a nutshell, “Another City” maps James C. Scott’s argument, in his invaluable Seeing Like A State, onto the terrain of the networked city.

Let’s start with Scott. He contends that there are two fundamental ways of thinking about urban structuration, organization and development: one built around a rigorously-applied and essentially optical order, consecrated to the needs of administration — we might call this “watchfulness from above” — and the other dedicated to far messier organic processes that, in the fullness of time, give rise to “spontaneous order from below.” (Scott identifies these modes with Le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs, respectively.)

In my talk, I argue that almost all widely-promulgated contemporary visions of the so-called smart city — archetypically, the “intelligent operations center” IBM’s Smarter Cities group built for the city of Rio de Janeiro — conform closely to the former paradigm, and that this not merely recapitulates all of the blunders of high-modernist 20th Century urban planning practice (blunders now widely recognized as such), but squanders by far the greater share of the actual value that inheres in the data we produce in the course of living the city.

Both because it’s, so far, the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in the domain, and because it is after all what I’m setting out to critique, I furnish plenty of concrete examples of this marked preference for centralized, top-down schemas, rhetorical, imagined and deployed.

This part of the talk feels a lot like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel, frankly. Like psychoanalyzing a subject who hasn’t learned to dissemble or sugarcoat his or her desires yet, let alone sublimate them, it’s all right there on the surface; a quick trawl through the promotional material generated by usual suspects IBM, Cisco and Siemens throws up dozens of passages in which enlightened administrators use “autonomous systems” to “anticipate problems and…manage growth and development,” where technology is used to “optimally regulate and control” “occupant support and convenience systems” (!) and “perfect knowledge” is invariably deployed for the benefit of “decision makers” rather than ordinary citizens.

This is rhetoric, but it’s an accurate reflection of a set of circumstances in which citizens generate data in the course of their everyday activities, the analysis of which is used to furnish administrators with improved situational oversight. I hope it’s obvious by now that Urbanscale’s entire raison d’être is returning the value bound up in that data to the people who, after all, produce it in the first place. And given that I’m asking people to imagine alternatives to the dominant paradigm, I think it’s entirely fair when they ask me for actual examples of the kind of thing I’d like to see more of: technical systems in which value is both produced from the bottom up and primarily returned to the parties responsible for its production.

I have a big, concrete, obvious answer, and it may surprise you. It’s Foursquare.

Yep: Foursquare, the popular location-based mobile social application. If you’re not familiar with it, Foursquare allows its users to register their presence at (“check into”) commercial venues and other real-world locations, and earn a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for doing so. Check into enough venues of a particular sort — airports, or bakeries, or Korean restaurants — and you earn a rather charmingly-designed “badge” recognizing your predilection. Check into a single venue more often than anyone else, and you’ll find yourself that place’s “mayor,” earning your profile a little crown icon in the process.

There’s plenty of stuff in the Foursquare interface — the point tallies and leader boards, primarily — that’s almost entirely irrelevant to me, that I tend to view as so much cruft (though I do acknowledge that these features may be of value to others). What Foursquare gets right, though, it gets very right. In particular, it manages to encourage two almost diametrically-opposite behaviors that, between them, open up a great deal of the experiential richness and depth any city has to offer: the badge mechanic drives exploration, while the mayor mechanic incentivizes repeated custom.

If, like me, you’re the kind of person for whom home and all its psychic and material comforts represents an all-but-inescapable gravity well, and for whom a nudge out the door is more than occasionally useful, the incentive mechanics built into Foursquare are a godsend. Engage them even slightly, and the odds are that you’ll wind up going out more often, to more different places, and spending more time at your favorite places, developing a broader spread of experiences and enriching your first-hand knowledge of what the place you live in has to offer. In my book, that’s a reasonable approach to living urban life to its fullest.

Let’s be crystal-clear that I don’t believe Foursquare in itself is or can be a panacea for shallow engagement with place. I’d never make what amounts to the vulgar-Marxist mistake of assuming that because someone’s earned the mayorship of this or that venue, he or she has necessarily made the most of their visits. But the strong likelihood is that, should you land the tiny golden crown, you’ve had a deeper encounter (or series of encounters) with that place than would otherwise have been the case. In most reasonably-scaled venues, you’re most likely well on your way to becoming a recognized regular, a local. (I also want to point out that “mayorship” is cannily named, respectful of an older conception of neighborhood-scale localism. It’s a nice touch that I appreciate.)

There’s also invariably a performative aspect to Foursquare check-ins. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — rarely declaring when I’m somewhere banal like Starbucks, for example, yet somehow never forgetting to mention the fact should I happen to find myself at, say, The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s lounge at HKG.

These quibbles aside, of all the networked urban systems I’m personally familiar with, Foursquare almost certainly generates more value, for more parties, in more different registers, than any other. From the perspective of a business owner, it rewards loyalty, drives custom, and produces actionable intelligence about that custom; through its generous API, it clarifies patterns of activity in time and space; from the perspective of a lover of cities, it gives rise to a kind of declarative flânerie that at its best transcends the performance of consumption.

We think Foursquare is a shining demonstration of our principle that cities are always already smart, that this smartness inheres in the currents of daily practice, and that significant value is realized when these patterns are brought to light. And it’s already up, already running at scale, and costs a municipality precisely zero. Both the heroic, top-down systems being urged upon municipalities by the big vendors and the claims made on their behalf seem pretty impoverished next to it, don’t they? What we’d really like to see, in preference to these desiccated notions of networked potential, is one, two, many Foursquares.

» Logistics: We’ll be ducking out early Thursday evening to see geographer Don Mitchell and activist Amador Fernández-Savater consider new conceptions of public space, in conversation at Parsons, and are looking forward to next week’s get-together with the folks from Grimshaw Architects; in the studio otherwise, largely for meetings with our friends at BBVA. Endmark

Weeks 59-60: Taipei to come

Adam Greenfield on 1 March 2012

We’re just back to the studio after a moderately lengthy trip to Taipei, a city we’d never been to before and from which we had very little idea of what to expect.

Compared to its flashier sisters among the great Asian capitals, Taipei feels like something of a well-kept secret. It’s relatively compact, easy to navigate, and favored with that particular kind of safety that encourages wandering and risk-taking. Its Metro is a joy to use, taxis are cheap, and in general getting around simply isn’t a problem. What’s more, the city is positively blessed with close-in amenities like the Beitou hot-springs district.

Curiously, many of the things we ourselves loved best about Taipei — the night markets, the texture of the sidestreets and alleyways, its impressively profound lack of large-scale commercial advertising — are apparently among those aspects of the city least valued by officialdom, the representatives of which invariably seemed surprised and even faintly embarrassed when we singled these elements out for praise.

Their reaction made me wonder how well these particularities — the elements, after all, which fundamentally distinguish one place from another, and which do so much to support the experiences that resonate and that you take away with you — will fare under the generic sort of smart-city strategy that seems sure to be implemented here. Having sat through a presentation from a functionary of the semi-official Institute for Information Industry that emblematized just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary Internet-of-things discourse as applied to cities, I have my doubts.

What struck me as so troublesome about it? The national strategy, at least as enunciated in this particular presentation, deploys a very impressive-sounding stack of mediating technologies in its conception of networked objects in everyday life, but essentially waves its hands at the two most crucial aspects of any such schema: the data feeding the stack from the bottom (which were here, as so often, presented as natural and unconstructed) and the applications at its top (which “developers will come up with” at some unspecified point in the future). None of this effort, mind you, driven by anything but the perceived necessity of keeping pace with the EU and Taiwan’s Asian competitors, and laying claim to some of the “USD 200B” in annual revenues projected to be generated by the market for IoT products and services by mid-decade. (The one aspect of the presentation that was actually helpful, although surely inadvertently, was its point-by-point comparison of Taiwan’s initiative to the similarly grandiose Chinese, Korean and Japanese national-level IoT strategies.)

If you’ve been paying close attention to the documents and other artifacts thrown up by this discourse, you’ll have noticed that they generally collapse the distinct notions of a developed cloud-computing infrastructure, an “Internet of things” and the transformation of everyday, but specifically urban, experience by networked informatics. There may be certain circumstances under which this effacement of details is warranted, but it doesn’t bode particularly well for those of us who are interested in ensuring that networked urbanism works at least as well and as smoothly as the naive city did before.

A concrete example: Taipei does offer a blanket of free public WiFi, a service called TPE-Free. But a critical design decision — the requirement that visitors to Taiwan register for access to the service in person by bringing their passport to one of a very few physical service centers — means that access to TPE-Free is effectively denied to one of the populations that most obviously stands to benefit from it.

At the most basic, hygienic level, can Taipei claim to offer free municipal wireless access? Yes. Does that mean it’s very useful, or returns to the city very much on the investment that was surely made in deploying it? Not necessarily. And the same goes triply for more elaborate deployments of networked informatics, situations in which the technology of connection is more intimately interwoven with the circumstances of everyday experience. If nothing else, history teaches us that getting this stuff right is difficult; planners are displaying an almost contemptuous disregard for that difficulty, the innate complexity of the urban terrain in general and the specific quiddities of each city, when they sketch out generic technical “solutions” and call it a day.

We think Taipei deserves better. We’d like to see a strategy for networked Taipei at least as clever and idiosyncratic as the city’s new crossing-signal character — a loping fella who seems like he might just be on his way to Ampelmannian status in the hearts of his countrymen. Judging from the folks we met, there’s both the desire for such a thing, and (abundantly) the local insight, talent and energy necessary to carry it off. There does also seem to be a fair amount of entirely justified skepticism that the national and local bodies charged with setting policy in this domain will make wiser choices than they have in the past. You know what they say, though: where the people lead, the leaders must follow.

Our hearty thanks to Ilya Lee for inviting us to Taiwan in the first place, to Xiao-Ling Lin and Ruby Yang for keeping everything flowing smoothly, and to Denny Tsai for introducing us around. A double-extra helping, as ever, is due to Ching-Yao Chen, because he’s awesome.

» Logistics: In the studio until we go wheels up for Copenhagen and Aarhus in the third week of the month. At last, some time to focus on New York and NYC-based projects. Endmark

Week 58: You only live twice

Adam Greenfield on 17 February 2012

Lots to manage this week, amidst our on-the-fly reconfiguration of the company and its offerings.

» Midweek we shipped off the final documentation of the January workshop we held for BBVA’s Centro de Innovación, with our good friends Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova of Near Future Laboratory and young Mr. Slavin.

It’s been wonderful working with BBVA. If you’re interested in tracing the flows of matter, energy and information through a given place, not many things will give you a better handle on them than studying the patterns of financial transaction that obtain in that place. And of course, very few parties will have better visibility on these patterns than a bank with both retail and commercial offerings.

This kind of access is a tonic, let me tell you. Over the last half-decade or so, I’ve more than a few times been confronted with a frustrating inability to build some useful model or visualization of a situation, because the data required was simply out of reach — either it was held close by some recalcitrant gatekeeper or, just as likely, it straight up didn’t exist. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said something along the lines of “Imagine what we could show if we could only get” X or Y or Z dataset. The amazing thing about the BBVA engagement is that no such imaginary exercises are required: the answer to such queries is generally either, “Yeah, we’ve got that,” or at worst, “We can get that.”

The generous space of possibility this opens up has implications for one of the longer-term (rhetorical and practical) points we’re trying to make in our work. We believe, bluntly, that as far as the dynamic visualization of information is concerned, the era of “pretty pictures” is over, and that the time has come for institutions to use these methods more instrumentally, in roles as varied as prediction, decision support, argumentation and advocacy.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to make this argument on a foundation of visualizations with meaningful probative value, and the odds of building any such thing are immeasurably improved by access to robust and complete data sets. So saying that I’m looking forward to seeing what we’re able to develop with BBVA and the Near Future folks is something of an understatement.

» On the logistics front: this upcoming week we’ll be in Taipei for a series of events happening around the TELDAP 2012 conference. On the 22nd, with Nurri Kim and under the Do projects banner, I’ll be leading a Taipei Systems/Layers walkshop, and on the very next day, giving a talk at the Academia Sinica. But for a half-hour layover at the airport on my virgin visit to Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, April 1994), this will be my very first time in Taiwan, so — again — I’m super-excited.

» A little further out, upcoming keynotes include the Digital Urban Living Konference in Aarhus, Denmark, on the 22nd of March, followed by Where 2.0 in San Francisco, and one I’ve tentatively agreed to do at Open Data Eindhoven. The latter two are both in April — the San Francisco talk on the 4th and the Eindhoven event on the 20th. (I’m planning to be in Amsterdam a day or two either side of Eindhoven, so get in touch if you’re interested in e.g. Wijnand Fockink.)

» Keep an eye peeled for a post here showcasing some of the outstanding work our friend and colleague Ryan Sullivan did on iconography for Transitflow. We think this work goes a long way toward solving some really vexing problems in representing complex transit options for the mobile touchscreen, and we’re happy to be able to share it with you even independently of the context in which it originated.

» Finally, and on a not-entirely-unrelated note, I’ve been energized lately by the conversations we’ve been having with “social transit” provider Weeels about our doing some NYC-based work with them. Given our love for the city and our pride in representing it globally, New York has always been kind of an upsetting lacuna in our portfolio of projects, so the prospect of working on something we might actually get to experience as part of our own everyday life is just too enticing. I’ll keep you posted as these discussions evolve; until then, we’ll come back at you next week with a report from Taipei and whatever else crops up. Endmark