This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 61: Spontaneous order (and value) from the bottom up,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York City on the 6th of March 2012.

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