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.

The other day, in an extraordinarily generous gesture, someone I’d met less than an hour before simply gave me a book I was admiring on his (well-stocked) shelves, Justus Dahinden’s 1972 Urban Structures for the Future. For anyone with even a passing historical interest in the XL-scaled architecture of the 1960s and ’70s, this book is an absolute feast, with multipage spreads on every major megastructural project proposed to the date of its publication: various Fuller dome projects, inevitably, and competing Metabolist lattices for Tokyo Bay, but also French, German and Soviet (!) megaplans I’d never even heard of.

The gift’s timing could not have been better. These may be weak and uncorrelated signals, but there seem to be stirrings of a resurgent interest in the megastructural moment, at least locally. Between the recent show at Cooper Union of Paul Rudolph’s meticulous drawings for the never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway, and a seminar dedicated to megastructures being taught at Parsons next semester, the idea of Total Architecture at the scale of cities would appear to have more currency than it’s enjoyed in many a year.

There were good and sufficient reasons for it to have dropped out of fashion, of course. Commentators on the LOMEX plans have universally noted the complete absence of people, or eye-level perspectives, from Rudolph’s drawings. Nor has it escaped anyone’s notice that, as designed, the expressway would have bifurcated, and largely prevented the development of, the neighborhood we now think of as SoHo; similarly, the planned transit hub and tower clusters would have overwritten the Lower East Side in toto. Given the incalculable human, symbolic, cultural and economic value we now know those neighborhoods generated for the city over the last forty years — imagine, for starters, a New York in which CBGB, ABC No Rio, the Knitting Factory, Tonic, Exit Art and the New Museum had never existed, in which loft living for artists had never taken hold in the Cast-Iron Warehouse district — it would be hard to conceive of any replacement making up for their loss.

But there were things — beyond lunatic hubris, and a blithe disregard for the texture, scale and history of the human city — that megastructural thinking had to offer. Foremost among these was the recognition (and if Dahinden is to be believed, it was commonplace among the cohort whose work he depicts) that new media technologies and the emergent forms of sociality that coevolved with them required new conceptions of public and private space. It also had an inherent, refreshing tendency to look beyond High Architecture for formal inspiration — classically, of course, to geological and biological processes of structuration that were still poorly understood at the time, but to vernacular practices as well, from Çatal Höyük and the hillside pueblos of the desert Southwest to Apulian hill towns and contemporary slums. (In an outcropping of what might now be called “favela chic,” the book points explicitly to the improvisatory, adaptive, human-scaled modularity of “Brazilian slum dwellings” as an inspiration for megathink in its clip-on and plug-in modes.)

Finally, of course, as Reyner Banham recognized, truly megastructural proposals had verve: that obscure quality something possesses when it’s presented with enough style, sweep and confidence to make the patently outrageous seem not merely plausible, but inevitable. These days, we call this a “reality distortion field,” and those of us who love finely-grained urban life should probably be grateful that — but for trivial exceptions, and those all at Expo ’67 — not a single one of the projects Dahinden covers generated a sufficiently strong field to actually get built. But if there’s any one aspect these proposals all have in common, and which seems by way of contrast to be so sorely lacking in the contemporary urbanist visual imaginary, it’s that.

For all its goofily quaint exaltation of the “rational” and the technical, for all its highly problematic assertions (“Today acceptance of responsibility for the future presupposes total planning”), and even for all its barely-disguised loathing of actual urban places (“Our cities are in their death throes — do we still need cities?”), Urban Structures for the Future is at root a primer in audacity. Given the magnitude of the challenges we currently face, it strikes me that we could all do with a little more of that.

That’s what I sense behind the current blip of interest in things Mega, anyway, if blip there truly be: a latent, as-yet-inchoate desire for a more verveful set of responses to our problems. This time around, it needn’t (and can’t) mean obliterating a fabric that works in the name of some despotic vision of Total Design. It needn’t even be anything particularly large in size or extent. But if there’s one thing there’s both scope and need for in the contemporary city, it’s bolder, more imaginative, more vivid and inspiring ways of addressing the situation we find ourselves in. And that’s the thought we at Urbanscale will leave you with, as this first, painful decade of the twenty-first century passes blessedly into history: our best wishes for an audacious, verveful 2011. (AG)

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of last week immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve elsewhere called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks (a sample from which is visible at left), is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the truth, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization.

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for our work here at Urbanscale. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as clearcut as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

And if I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s clear that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment we’re both honored and terribly excited to be a part of.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting Urbanscale to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

Week Zero: Introducing Urbanscale

Adam Greenfield on 11 December 2010

Ever since engagement with digital technology first became a common aspect of everyday life in the 1980s, there have been professional practices oriented around the design of these experiences. Depending on the particular aspect of the encounter they emphasized, such practices have variously thought of themselves as providing web-, interface-, or interaction-design services.

What we see now, however, is a collapse in any easy distinction between the virtual and the physical. With the advent of smartphones, especially, the Internet has been folded back onto the built environment; networked information pervades and conditions just about every facet of the contemporary metropolitan experience.

We believe that this presents the greatest possible ground of potential and opportunity, a once-in-a-generation chance to devise more humane, more livable and sustainable urban places…at precisely the moment in which humanity has become a decisively urban species.

As we see it, though, there are critical gaps in the disciplines that cities and citizens might naturally call upon to help them grasp this opportunity. As a profession, interaction design has tended to have problems thinking beyond the screen; it lacks any account of large-scale physical, spatial or social environments. Meanwhile, the fields that traditionally deal comfortably with these scales — architecture and urban planning — quail before the unique demands posed by the human interface with networked information systems.

This is the challenge we’ve taken up. Urbanscale is a practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of interaction design to the specific problems of cities. Through the design of products, services, interfaces and spatial interventions, our work aims to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. We hope you’ll join us in the coming weeks and years, as we explore the abundant possibilities presented by a world of networked cities and citizens.

Let’s face it: European design/technology conferences are thick on the ground. With a limited field of speakers who both have something interesting to say, and are able to express their ideas engagingly, it’s getting pretty hard for organizers to offer much in the way of genuine novelty. So my frank advice to would-be organizers is generally “Don’t bother” — not unless you’re entirely sure you’re capable of bringing something new to the table.

Our friends at Cognitive Cities certaintly seem to have jumped that hurdle. Their ambitious inaugural event, scheduled for late February, seeks to take the ideas proposed in the usual Keynote decks onto the streets of Berlin, there to see how they stand up, or fail to do so. I’m happy to be contributing a talk…and a little something special besides.

Find out more at http://conference.cognitivecities.com/.

We’re happy to announce that we’ll be working with BDigital, the Barcelona Digital Technology Center, on a project exploring “transmobility“: the use of networked information technologies to bind together all the different transportation networks that serve a city.

Thinking in terms of transmobility offers riders a few important benefits, as compared to more conventional representations of trips and journey segments. Transmobility planning starts by developing a holistic understanding of how people actually conceive of their journeys through urban space, and works toward developing low-cost interventions — at intermodal junctions and hinge points, particularly — that might facilitate the closest possible approach to these conceptions. Finally, we produce representations of system space, including maps and application and service interfaces, that reflect all the above. (These representations include the internal space of stations and rolling stock, where these factors are relevant to journey outcomes.)

Especially at a time when municipal transit authorities worldwide are under the most severe fiscal strain, this kind of planning, and the carefully-designed services and interfaces that are such an important part of it, can to some degree buffer riders against disruptions in service. We think Barcelona, so richly provided with overlapping transit networks (including the Bicing bike-sharing service) is a great place to start thinking truly systemically about next-generation urban mobility, and how it might be facilitated and eased by appropriate digital interventions.

- The transmobility workshop takes place 17th January in Barcelona; we’ll post full details here as soon as possible afterward. Many thanks to Marc Torrent and Marc Pous of BDigital for inviting us.