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 57: The cold equations

Adam Greenfield on 10 February 2012

This is one of the more difficult weeknotes I’ve had to write — but they can’t all be good news, now can they?

From the outset, I positioned Urbanscale as a hybrid proposition: a chimera forged of equal parts “visionary” consultancy, boutique design practice, and resolutely pragmatic development shop. The logic behind this was that, ideally, each one of these activities would inform the others, generating that all-important synergy, and ensuring that the whole would give rise to more value than the sum of its parts would imply. In practice, though, it’s become obvious that the diverging requirements implied by these different ways of approaching the world (and, particularly, of trying to offer full-scale technical development and integration for municipal clients, without losing focus on our other activities) pulls a studio of five people in too many conflicting directions.

This tension is in itself interesting, and it’s probably productive in a bunch of ways. But one in which it’s clearly not productive is the single way that happens to matter for a business enterprise, and that is financially. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that the studio was undercapitalized for the sort of projects our ambitions dictated we should be taking on. Equally — municipal bureaucracies being known neither for the rapidity of their decision-making or the transparency of their procurement processes — we understood that anyone playing in these particular fields had better be prepared to tolerate drawn-out negotiations and lead times that are often measured in years. We made a bet that our relatively high-margin consultancy activities would generate sufficient short-term revenue to support the other facets of the practice while our more ambitious and capital-intensive projects gestated. This was a hedged bet, but a bet nonetheless.

Unfortunately, it’s now clear that we’ve lost this bet, and there are consequences for the practice and its projects that I need to share with you. The most obvious, immediate and frustrating consequence is that we’re suspending development work on our Urbanflow and Transitflow projects indefinitely. There are also some implications for the way we’ll structure the studio and its ongoing activities. The best way to describe these changes would be to say that we’re reformulating the studio as a rather looser network of associates, who will continue to work on some projects together under the Urbanscale banner, and take on other opportunities as they present themselves.

None of this will affect our ongoing consultancy work in any way. We’ll continue to serve our existing clients, and (we certainly hope) take on new ones. I should also make it clear that we’re not abandoning the work we did on Urbanflow/Transitflow — if nothing else, we’ve generated a significant amount of code, cartographic and other assets, and we’re currently exploring ways we might return the value locked up in these to the City of Chicago and the broader open-source development community.

There’s a much longer post to be written about what we’ve learned by trying to bootstrap our way into municipal-scale production immediately, but the time for that consideration is a little later on, after I have enough distance to put things in their proper perspective. For now I’ll confine myself to noting that, in retrospect, a wiser course of action might have been to concentrate on producing the design fictions I tend to dislike so heartily, in the hopes of securing the longer-term institutional buy-in that might have led to more successful outcomes. (This may in fact be what’s in the process of happening with Urbanflow, given the spate of recent and favorably-received coverage, but only time will tell.) But, y’know, sometimes it’s hard to see past one’s ideological blinders, to say nothing of one’s own ego and ambition.

I want to thank the whole extended family — Mayo, Jeff, Leah and J.D., Nurri, Benedetta and Justin at GROUNDlab, ace coil man Todd Bailey and our West Coast co-conspirator Ryan Sullivan — for all of their hard work on our slate of projects over the past year. (Actually, what I really want to say is otsukaresama deshita, which is the customary way of thanking Japanese colleagues for a collective effort; ironically enough, I hated having these compulsory and merely performative-feeling ritual greetings expected of me when I actually lived and worked in Japan, but have come to miss having a handy figure of speech to acknowledge consciousness of the debt one owes to one’s coworkers and their diligence.)

A heartfelt otsukaresama deshita, then, to them and to those of you who did so much to support us during this never-anything-less-than-engaging process. As you might expect of us by now, we’ll be ringing the changes at Temple Bar tonight. I think we may even have one or two Year One t-shirts left, so bring cash if you’re inclined to pick on up. And I’ll check back in next week with some more thoughts on where we go from here. Endmark

Week 56: Back in NY, and getting perspective

Jeff Kirsch on 25 January 2012

Week 56 finds all of Urbanscale back on NY time and in the studio, at least until Adam departs for DC on Thursday. As ever, we’ve got our hands in many pots this week.

» We’re reflecting on what we learned last week in Madrid with our old friends Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova of Near Future Laboratory (plus Kevin Slavin) and our new friends from BBVA’s Centro de Innovación. We were thrilled to be able to bring a different perspective to the work they’re doing, help them see how we combine data analysis with on-the-ground observational research in our practice, and suggest some new opportunities for their current explorations.
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Week 55: SOPA, Madrid, and doing the impossible

Mayo Nissen on 19 January 2012

» Looming over the internet this week has been the debate about and protest against SOPA/PIPA, and a wider discussion about copyright, censorship, and state control – or, if you prefer, corporate control – over a network that spans nation states and legal jurisdictions. The two bills currently before the US Congress, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US House of Representatives, threaten free speech, hamper innovation and increase insecurity on the web. We hope you’ll join us in opposing this dangerous legislation. Find out more here.

» For the first time this week, the clocks on our new about page each did something useful – indicating where each of us was. With Adam, Leah, and Jeff in Madrid for the previously alluded-to workshop with BBVA, the studio has been emptier than usual this week. Adam, joined by Kevin Slavin and Nicolas Nova, also gave a free and open-to-the-public talk titled “Beyond Smart Cities” at BBVA’s Innovation Center last night.
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Week 54: Site launch, Madrid and beyond

J.D. Hollis on 11 January 2012

First off, welcome to our newly-redesigned site! Jeff and Mayo have spent the past several weeks putting everything in place atop a foundation built for us by our friends Kristin Gräfe and Marcus Schaefer, with Jeff pushing through last weekend for a soft launch Sunday evening.

» Aside from helping Jeff with the site, Mayo has been putting the finishing touches on a video demonstrating our Farevalue/PERRY prototype; look for that video soon. For my part, I’m spending the week polishing our Urbanflow iPad demo, and then I’m back into Transitflow.

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My contribution to the catalogue for Invisible Fields, an innovative show on the “geographies of radio waves” José Luis de Vicente and Honor Harger put together last year. Attentive readers may recognize one or two familiar passages. The accompanying image is a frame from one of Timo Arnall’s short films, shot off a monitor on which it was playing during the show’s run at Barcelona’s Arts Santa Mònica.

When I say the word city, what’s the first thing you think of?

For most of us, I’d wager, the word conjures up images of things that are for the most part just that: things, physical facts. Judging from the friends, students and total strangers of whom I ask this question, anyway, our initial impressions tend to be oddly static dioramas, mute arrays of buildings and streets and sidewalks; only after a moment, if at all, do we remember the unceasing flows of people that animate a place and make it what it is. And this is likely to be true whether our first thought happens to be of Grand Central Station, Shibuya crossing, the choked streets of Lagos or the markets of Bangkok.

Two lenses, then. Through one, the city is coextensive with its stones and monuments, more or less independent of the acts that take place among them; through the other, it’s nothing other than the sum of those acts. If you’re like me, you may be disposed to think that one of these two ways of describing a place has by far the deeper claim on truth — and it isn’t the former.
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