This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 3: Transmobile Barcelona, pretty sensors, transplantable scenius and more,” written by Adam Greenfield in Barcelona on the 22nd of January 2011.

Barcelona all week.

- Monday and Tuesday were given over to the workshop in next-generation networked mobility we held for BDigital, the Barcelona Digital Technology Centre.
Given their charter to explore issues of mobility, we were fundamentally interested in ways in which informatic systems could be used to address some of the known hassles and irritations of getting around Barcelona and the broader Catalan region. Given the realities of the economic downturn, which Spain has of course felt particularly acutely, we specified the additional criteria that whatever form these interventions took, they’d have to be relatively lightweight, low-cost and non-infrastructure-intensive. And given the baseline requirement that any solution negotiate the complexities of regulatory approval, meet the demands of competing public, quasi-public and private operators, appeal to the public ridership and present a robust business case…our work was cut out for us.

We came up with five ideas, ranging from S to XL in scale and ambition, which we’ll be presenting to BDigital in the next few weeks and to you very soon thereafter.

We’re also helping BDigital define — for their own purposes, at least — exactly what is meant by “smart city.” As it happens, and perhaps surprisingly, this is not a phrase we have much use for in our own work; we simply don’t feel it brings either specificity or clarity to discussions of the networked urban. But there’s no doubt that the rubric is in very wide currency globally, and since, most particularly, many of BDigital’s partners (and the European, national and regional funding initiatives that support their collaborations) use this language, we figured it might be worthwhile to help them pin down exactly what they, at least, will mean when they use it.

We were offered a vivid reminder of some of the reasons we don’t buy into the “smart” hype by our experience of the MediaTIC building, where BDigital’s offices are located. MediaTIC turns out to be rather notorious locally: famous for an active-membrane, eco-performative skin that has never functioned as advertised, a solar power-generation scheme that is supposed to return power to the local grid but does not, and so on.

Its intentions are impeccably honorable, but the day-in/day-out reality of life with ostensibly smart systems is clearly another story altogether. It’s a caution that, in addition to the tangle of complications I allude to above, building anything in the real world, anything at all, necessarily involves the builder in what our friend Bryan Boyer calls a “matter battle.” Things, it turns out, do have agency — and that agency only rarely seems like it aligns with any direction useful to the would-be master planner. This is a lesson we’ll take to heart, in the hopes it will keep us appropriately humble.

I don’t want it to sound like the workshop was anything less than optimistic, though. The energy in the room remained focused and engaged throughout, and I personally found it even more invigorating than I had hoped. I think the results, when you see them, will bear this out. Many thanks to the Marcs Pous and Torrent for inviting us, and to Lillian Shieh, Rich Radka and the Vector Project’s Maya Wiseman and Neil Clavin for joining the extended Team Urbanscale.

- Wednesday morning saw us heading off to the offices of Urbiotica, and what Neil aptly called the “smartest square meter in Barcelona,” a site where they’ve got prototype parking, soil-moisture and dumpster capacity sensors deployed, along with lamppost-mounted “data collectors” and the usual CCTV gear.

Urbiotica’s ambition is to furnish the “city operating system” we (and presumably you) are so deeply interested in with its physical, street-facing manifestations. One of the company’s prime partners is the street-furniture concern Santa & Cole, and it shows; their sensor enclosures struck us as being far more sensitively and attractively designed than is ordinarily the case. It was genuinely encouraging to see this, in that it supported our own sense that if the urban fabric is going to be comprehensively instrumented — to the tune of millions of discrete objects in any one city — those instruments had at the very least better look nice. It was also encouraging to note the attention to detail involved in the design of the sensors’ physical connectors: those on the data collectors, for example, are not just pretty, but ensure that the units cannot be installed in any way other than correctly. At municipal scale, especially, this matters hugely.

If there’s one place where our own vision of the networked city seemed to depart from theirs, it had to do with what happens to the data produced by all those sensors. We feel that any such information-gathering device should be understood as an “open public object,” which is a phrase that you’ll be hearing a lot from us. The gist of it is that we feel that the public has the right of access to and use of any data they themselves generate in the course of their ordinary activities in the common spatial domains of the city. Yes, of course: improved municipal oversight and resource-utilization efficiency are primary use cases for urban sensors. But we never want to hinder direct citizen access to these data streams, or the second- and third-order uses that will surely follow on from such access. It’s one of our guiding beliefs that a significant proportion of the value eventually generated by a given fabric of networked sensors, services and applications will reside in things built on such access.

If, as Greg Lindsay recently suggested in Fast Company, then, there’s a “battle for the soul of the smart city,” one of the battlefields on which it will be engaged has to do with the relatively arcane topic of structured-data formats and interoperability standards. Urbanscale believes these should almost always be open as opposed to proprietary, and we hope to convince companies like Urbiotica — who are doing such important work — of the merits of this approach.

Thanks again to Neil and Maya for having invited us along, and to Urbiotica’s Irene Compte for having been so generous with her time. It goes without saying that we look forward to exploring the possibilities of collaboration.

- Coming up: Next week is primarily given over to the search for office space. What we’d very much like to find (or create, if need be) is that very happy circumstance enjoyed by our London friends BERG, RIG, the late, lamented Tinker London and Pachube/Connected Environments, all of whom share a building in Scrutton Street that must surely register among the highest brilliance/min/m2 readings ever recorded. We harbor no such illusions about our own capacity, nor do we in the slightest mean to denigrate the qualities of the individuals involved as individuals…but we do know that the intangible quality Brian Eno called “scenius” has not a little to do with the extraordinary velocity of provocative ideas coming out of the aforementioned institutions. Would we be selfish in wanting a little of that for our ownselves?

We’re particularly interested in locations in SoHo, Flatiron/Gramercy, Chinatown and DUMBO, all of which recommend themselves for different reasons. If you’ve got any leads, know of a space, have space to share or are interested in looking together, please drop us a line. We’re wanting to get out of virtual mode pretty quickly.

- A step further out: in February, I’m delighted to be speaking at Stamen Design’s inaugural Citytracking conference. More details on that talk next week. (AG)