This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 39: On space as a service,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 30th of September 2011.

Week 39: On space as a service

Adam Greenfield on 30 September 2011

I’m generally a fan of the weeknotes format, and its crisp setting-forth of who made what progress on which project where. It does a pretty effective job of conveying something of the heady intellectual rush, occasional logistical confusion and crackling OPTEMPO I associate with a small creative practice — the kind of shop that’s carried aloft on nothing more than “talent & fervor,” as our friends at would have it.

But really, the nature of any endeavor along these lines is that sometimes you’re not quite sure what it is that you’re doing. At times, you’re going on little more than scent. This week’s been one of those. We’ve had a series of provocative conversations in the studio over the last few days that — I realize now, as I try to describe them to you — are very difficult to capture in their essence, and harder still to moor in any of our active projects.

Broadly speaking, we’ve been considering a set of clearly related, and in some ways overlapping, concerns about the technologically mediated, temporary use of shared spatial resources. And while it’s not at all clear yet if there’s a rocky core at the center of this ideacloud, or, if we found one, how we’d go about developing it into a shipping product or service, it’s our sense that there’s something terrifically exciting and productive waiting to be articulated in here.

So, while this is going to be a tad long and rambly for a weeknote, I think it’s worth diving into the broad set of ideas that have engaged our curiosity of late. Maybe you can help us connect the dots between them, or at least suss out if there are dots to be connected:

1. Let’s start with an increasingly blurred distinction between traditionally discrete notions of the “public” and the “private,” coming from multiple directions.

On the one hand, we see the conceptual walls around private life eroding via (self-)surveillance, a movement toward ever-more-ambitious quantification of the self and the pervasive use of declarative social media. When we (and the increasingly autonomous services we’ve authorized to do so on our behalf) are constantly narrating who we’re with and what we’re doing/watching/listening to/working on, the home and the office become informationally porous to an extent that makes any notion of interiority beyond the literal a little hard to defend.

At the same time, as discussed in quite a good bit of detail hereabouts, the presence of new networked sensing instruments in the streetscape — especially when these are capable of resolving unique biometric signatures — means the pedestrian no longer enjoys any reasonable expectation of anonymity in the common spatial domain.

There’s a more positive sense in which this blurring can be made manifest, though, captured in phrases like “living in public” or “the city as living room.” This set of responses holds forth the promise that traditionally domestic qualities like ease, comfort, intimacy and coziness might be experienced at the scale of the entire city.

Complexifying things still further is that psychological survival tactic you see all the time in big cities, which is using a mobile device to create an aura of privacy where there’s seemingly little enough to be had. (Of course, our smartphones and Kindles have merely supplanted the folded newspaper in this role.) This technique was captured perfectly in a classic picture from the Tokyo Metro I used to show my students; I can’t find it at the moment, so this near-equivalent will have to do. At its worst, using a mobile device to cast a psychological bubble around the user in this way actually prevents interpersonal communication, replacing it with a set of what Peter Sloterdijk calls “interautistic and mimetic relations,” but it’s also an intriguingly lightweight reterritorialization. At the very least, if there’s going to be slippage between long-standing notions of public and private, for once it might be possible to make the general tendency work in our favor, locally and temporarily.

2. Now consider the reasonably novel ability we now have to represent underutilized spatial assets on a shared platform, turning them into networked resources and allowing them to perform somewhat closer to their theoretical optimum efficiency.

At root, this is a fancy way of saying “what AirBnB does”: I have a spare room, you need a place to stay for a few nights, and a searchable platform exists to mediate between my supply and your demand. This, too, is a blurring of public and private. It converts something that would seem to epitomize the idea of a personal, interior space into a public-facing service.

But it’s something more, too. By treating space as a social object, this kind of practice can cause communities-in-potential to become communities-in-actuality. And another way of putting that is to point at all of the people who (anecdotally, anyway) have flipped the nominally one-time transaction represented by an AirBnB booking into a longer-term acquaintance or even friendship. Of course, such associations can and frequently enough do evaporate the moment the circumstance that brought them into being expires, but there’s no reason why they must.

And unusually for this epoch in history, these relations seem to cut across the more obvious kinds of social distinction — OK, sure, they select for a certain adventurousness, on both sides, but otherwise they succeed in connecting people without much in the way of overt commonality. And that strikes me as an increasingly rare and very desirable sort of thing for a city to do.

Could this kind of interaction work at a still more granular level? Say, if I have a soundproofed conference room equipped with a network connection and a projector, but it’s not being used between three and five this afternoon — might I announce its availability and location on some kind of searchable platform, so that anyone in search of same might bid on it?

This was the terrain Hitoshi Abe’s MEGAHOUSE project was designed to explore:

Many spaces, both in office buildings as well as in residential dwellings, are vacant…Rather than leaving these gaps of unoccupied rooms randomly scattered and unused, Megahouse is a new management system that intends to integrate these spaces, maximizing urban building use, and indirectly elevating the quality of life in a shrinking and mobile society…

As Megahouse Inc. offers spaces all across the city, these rooms collectively constitute a “house” for the users. Users inhabit the entire city like one dwelling, walking from one room to the next. This “house” is dispersed and embedded throughout the entire city, and is occupied at different time periods. This leads to a state where the entire city can be used like a big “house”: Megahouse.

A slightly different use case, with distinct requirements, is that of transitional use. I first saw this done well in Tokyo, at the original Co-Lab. This was a frankly obsolescent commercial structure, scheduled for demolition in the next eighteen months (and therefore incapable of attracting ordinary tenants or generating revenue through standard leasing terms) that had been converted into low-cost, lo-fi incubator units. And these, in turn, were perfectly scaled, in space and time, to the needs of solo entrepreneurs and emerging creative practices.

What we begin to see, in the conceptual space evoked by these examples, is some kind of service that surfaces an ensemble of privately-held spatial resources distributed throughout a city, highlights their availability for a specified period of time and/or set of uses, and provides for their searchability.

Note, too, that there’s no reason at all why such a service would need to be exclusively commercial in nature. The fully commercial AirBnB manages to more or less happily coexist with Couchsurfing, a reputation-mediated, voluntary, free equivalent. (See NeighborGoods for a parallel service oriented around the sharing of tools.) There’s a resonance here with some of the ideas about coworking and/in public space explored by Anthony Townsend and Laura Forlano in the Breakout! Festival, where all that was necessary to bring a space of collaboration into being was the (network-mediated) intention of its participants.

3. Couple these notions to our longstanding interest in structures that support a wider variety of uses than have traditionally been the case in North American cities.

All the above begins to suggest an urban fabric practically percolating with activity, presumably generating a satisfyingly Jane Jacobean weave of people moving through circulation spaces and underwriting a healthy mesh of “eyes on the street” throughout a greater portion of the day.

If you’re anything like us, the appeal of this is more or less self-evident. But in most of North America, any movement in this direction would clearly be cut short by the laws and, equally, the conventions that govern land use. We just don’t live this way here, and this understanding is strongly reflected in the regulatory apparatus that governs use of spatial resources — to the point that some folks listing their spare rooms on AirBnB are almost certainly in technical violation of their leases or HOA charters.

Compare this to East Asian land-use practices, which tend to do a better job of exploiting available space qua space. My favorite bar in Shinjuku is an unmarked room on the fifth floor of an older commercial building; our old “mansion” in Ebisu supported apartments, offices, and various freelancers and niche businesses (including a light manufacturing shop and at least one out-and-out brothel).

Or consider the Korean “city of bangs,” tantalizingly described in Jaz Choi‘s papers, in which commercial buildings are shot through with spaces that are subdivided into cells generally rented by the hour, and which function as platforms for various forms of socialization and conviviality. Here again, we see short-term use coupled to the idea of a private life lived out in public, generating an all-hours, street-level vitality that’s seemingly slipped away from most North American downtowns.

A further instructive example, this one European, might be Kunsthaus Tacheles, the squatted former department store in the Mitte district of Berlin. Until its shuttering earlier this year, Tacheles supported the widest possible array of creative activity; unimpeded by any sort of regulation, the single structure functioned as a mothership for dozens of ad hoc artist’s studios, workshops, performance spaces, restaurants and bars.

Anyone who ever spent so much as an hour on the grounds of Tacheles will remember a few things about the place: its energy, of course. The way it encouraged (and rewarded) curiosity. The multiple modes in and through which you could engage it and the people who made it what it was. The point isn’t that every place can or should be reimagined as a graffiti-bedizened hive self-managed on anarchist lines — though a boy can wish — but that particularly intensive mixed use gives rise to a vivid and resonant micro-urbanity that has to be experienced to be understood.

Beyond the other benefits we’ve called out, it’s this classically metropolitan sense of living in a vibrant nexus of round-the-clock activity — whether generated by commercial or noncommercial means — that we’d like to underwrite in whatever it is that we wind up designing. We are, of course, exquisitely sensitive to the notion that deeply-seated practices of urbanity can’t simply be willy-nilly transplanted from one place to another. But maybe there are tactics and insights that can be gleaned.

This might mean explicitly designing structures to support rapid transition between states of use — think of the highly adaptable shed Atelier Bow Wow built for the BMW Guggenheim Lab earlier this summer — or advocating for the careful relaxation of zoning regulations so the kind of adaptive genius we’re interested in can emerge from the bottom up. It’s our bet that the latter will prove to be a more useful model than the former over the long run…but, hey, why not let a hundred flowers bloom?

Of course, the same process that unlocks whatever potential a building may have for intense, heterogeneous utilization can also permit otherwise interstitial spaces or pieces of urban infrastructure to be repurposed for active use. Here’s an old favorite, Shibuya Underpass Society — a restaurant and club built in the space under a railroad trestle.

There’s a quality of contingency, of the temporary autonomous zone to most of these examples. Tacheles lived in a years-long state of abeyance, before finally being shut down this year. Co-Lab was only possible (or of interest to its financial backers) precisely because it squeezed some last increment of revenue from a place that was already due to be dynamited. While it somewhat unaccountably retains the name, Shibuya Underpass Society inevitably relocated to more permanent quarters, and its site has long since reverted to type. But we’re not sure any of this is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe what we ought to be trying to evoke, in any potential reframing of metropolitan experience, is precisely moments of intensity.

4. Together, these suggest a requirement for some thinking about the minimal intervention necessary to establish occupancy of a place.

This sense of contingency implies that, although you might be interested in devising spaces so that they support multiple kinds and levels of use, you certainly don’t want to spend a whole lot of time switching between them. Since we’re looking to achieve a quality of lightness and suppleness in our use of the available urban fabric, whatever measure we come up with ought not require anything beyond a minimum of physical reconfiguration.

How little might it take to express a temporary claim on space, recognizably and consistently? I think of picnic blankets, Raumlabor Berlin’s super-lo-fi chairs, or the blue tarps Nurri documented in her Tokyo Blues project.

It needn’t necessarily take even that much; one of my best-ever memories of Seoul was the time I watched two ajushi turn the stoop of a closed bank branch in Insadong into their living room for the space of a few hours, using nothing more than a go board and their styrofoam noodle cups. But if what we’re interested in is space-as-a-service, some kind of unambiguous signaling is probably vital to the negotiated use (and timely surrender) of same.

Curiously enough, some relevant thinking came out of the HCI and CSCW communities as long ago as the mid-1990s, in the wake of the brief enthusiasm for “hotdesking.”

On the original, Chiat/Day model, hotdesking was a failure by any reckoning, and a lot of the thinking about what went wrong with it and how it might be recuperated focused on the notion of psychological ownership. This, in turn, lead to a good deal of work on the lightweight user-configurability of various aspects of the work environment — in essence, allowing mobile workers to temporarily “zone” a workspace or surface as theirs, through the use of ambient media such as lighting, manipulation of the sound environment, or wallscreen imagery.

We’re not so very far here from VURB’s work on Urbanode, or the synergy Jaz Choi identifies between capsule spaces and screens, particularly in the context of hotel chains like Yotel and citizenM. Consider the touchpad citizenM currently offers in its rooms, which allows guests to manipulate the color and intensity of zoned lighting, the A/V and HVAC systems, and the pleasingly blast-shuttery electromechanical shades. At least in theory, a guest’s preferred settings for all these variables are saved to the RFID card that functions simultaneously as their room key and luggage tag…and the next time they check into a citizenM hotel, their saved preferences are loaded into the roomware.

It is true that by converting the underlying commodified room unit into a phenomenologically and experientially identical space, no matter the continent and city in which it happens to be physically located, this particular use case undermines the sense of local particularity we’d ideally want to support in our work. Nevertheless, as a place to start thinking about the technological means we might have available to us if we want to facilitate temporary but psychologically meaningful occupancy, it’s definitely a useful precedent — and it meshes perfectly with some of the ideas about instrumentation, scriptability and APIs we explored here.

What do you get when you put all these things together?

We don’t know yet.

What’s driving our investment of time and energy in this broad terrain? The desire to learn from the lightness, adaptivity and resilience of informal-sector construction and use practices. The subtly ludic quality associated with living the city in the ways suggested and supported by these practices. The sense that network technology now invests raw structure with some exciting underexplored potentials. The conviction that space-as-a-service will permit a highly intensive use of existing urban resources that is more sustainable and efficient even by the most reductive of contemporary metrics. A spur for urban mapmakers to investigate the diversity hiding in the z dimension, unaccounted for in any meaningful way in the lion’s share of the digital cartography we come across…and an almost desperate feeling that we need to move beyond the already-banal rhetoric of smart cities.

Given the intensity of our interest in these things, we figure that the projects will come in time — that specific product and service concepts will emerge from our conversations, some of which we’ll actually wind up committing resources to developing. We hope that these ideas are usefully provocative for you, as well, and we’d love to hear about what if anything you’re moved to think or do by way of response.

And if that’s a little vague or probe-y for a weeknote, well, so be it. See you next week.

What’s the image? It’s Chicago from the bottom up: the city that emerges from Leah’s plot of the CTA’s 12,000 bus stops, each surrounded by a circle whose radius is the distance one can walk in fifteen minutes. Do note that these circles have not yet been constrained by the shoreline or actual ground cover, accounting for the map’s walking-on-water implications. And no, it’s not at all relevant to any of the above — we just liked it. Endmark