Posted: May 31st, 2011 | No Comments »
The other day I took part of a round table on entrepreneurship for investigators organized by Universitat Pompeu Fabra to promote their latest incubator in collaboration with Barcelona Activa. Since I finished my PhD and co-founded Lift Lab one and a half year ago, young researchers have frequently inquired on my personal experience to move from academia to a private research agency. I often explain how we modeled our research methods and analysis techniques to fit into processes. Or I point our techniques to transform results into insights and solutions for diverse audiences (engineering, design, marketing, management). Beyond the evolution of our practice, there are a couple of ingredients that I believe greatly help initiating the trajectory of a business that spins out of an extended investigation (the PhDs of Nicolas and I in the case of Lift Lab):
Nurture a mixed network…
Lift Lab was already taking shape during our research as part of our constant efforts to communicate our ideas and results, using our blogs, pamphlets, talks and workshops as echo chambers. It was particularly important for us to confront our findings outside of a single research community as much as outside of academia. Reaching out of the walled gardens of academia, listening and reading about other practices is particularly important to refine and polish a voice, the kind of voice that makes research finding more tangible and accessible in a life after academia. In our case, it helped us capture the interest of what-would-then-become clients and create diverse channels of communication with people that challenged our intuitions, confront our points of view and ultimately made our methods evolve. Prior to move out of academia, these contacts were already grasping the value we could produce in their contact. Ultimately, these channels exposed, nurtured and also generated some sense of legitimacy that we use to further inspire and provoke.
… to benefit from a community …
As a consequence, our business thrives on this ability to involve multiple practices and networks for question formulations, data collection and solution creation. Our links to academic institutions (e.g. following master or PhD students) provide unique opportunities to further polish our research methods and well as new techniques and latest findings. With our experience in academia, it comes at very little cost and it is very rewarding. In parallel, we like to expend our network based on our curiosity with partners, “extreme users” and anybody we can learn from. The Lift community reflects very well this access to different practices, the confrontation of ideas/methods/interests and the access to domains and problems we never suspected we could be engaged int. When mobilized, this type of network provides resources for a small agency like ours to extend the range of our services and share risks in a bid.
… that helps (among other things) correct the execution …
A few concepts spun out of our PhDs, but none of them were ready to even remotely consider a product or service. Nevertheless, we like to engage with our clients to test the maturing concepts (e.g. social navigation). It helps refining the ideas, evaluate them with users and our network. Through this iterations, clients and partners might invest in the idea and engage resources. In any case, the exercise delivers keys that shape the execution of a concept that is very often more important than the idea itself. Once again the capacity to transfer results and intuitions into innovative prototypes is deeply rooted in our ecosystem of friends and partners.
… and forces to stay humble but assertive.
We found out that leaving academia improved our ability to formulate our methods particularly thanks to the diversity of constraints that demand a diversity of techniques. However, we make efforts in keeping the ideological approach of a researcher intact. It implies staying humble, not starting an investigation with a priori assumptions and not being afraid to express dots. When conveyed with assertiveness, this posture of the researcher driven by doubts but confident in its methods is what makes our value.
Why do I blog this: The paths out of academia are not paved, particularly because completing a PhD today differs from 15 years ago. Researchers must adapt to the increasing speed of knowledge sharing without necessarily grasping the opportunities to cross-pollinate. Beyond incubators, the mixed networks I describe here represent a support that helps concepts and a business mature.
Posted: May 30th, 2011 | No Comments »
Below are the slides of a lectures I gave a couple of weeks ago at the ENSCI (Ecole nationale supérieure de création industrielle) in Paris. The content (in French) is mainly directed to design students and practitioners intrigued about the new digital urban actors and the process to materialize layers of network data into information. I based my discourse on the recent investigations and experimentations we perform at Lift Lab (e.g. study of hyper-congestion, mobility, social navigation). Particularly, I highlighted the bestiary of practices, tools, languages and protocols that we articulate our approach with:
Un nouveau monde de données, ENSCI, May 18, 2001 (15.8MB)
The ENSCI offers a particularly compelling approach to its student by confronting them with concepts and practices at the frontiers of design. Thanks to David Bihanic and Licia Bottura for the invitation!
Posted: February 23rd, 2011 | No Comments »
It is rewarding to see some our areas of investigation at Lift Lab burgeoning in relation with our clients and partners. For instance, we now have a good set of tools and reasonably well-documented processes that help qualify and profile territories from their network activity (e.g. GSM, WiFi, Bluetooth, mobility infrastructures, social networks). One specificity of our approach is to produce visualizations that characterize the data at hand very early in the analysis process. It tremendously helps bring the different actors of a project on the same page by opening a dialogue and their interpretations of what they see is often great material for early insights to focus the investigation (see Exploration and engage in the discussion in the Data City essay).
This ability to sketch with data is particularly fruitful when dealing with multidisciplinarity. Indeed, data visualization brings together over a same language very diverse practices and methodologies (e.g. in our projects on network data, we deal with a bestiary of physicists, network engineers, marketing directors, salesmen, architects, geographers, social scientists, innovation specialists, …). Over the last months, we have been very fortunate to partner with our friends at Bestiario who share a common vision : data visualization is part of an innovation process not its outcome. They applied this perspective in their latest product Impure, an engine with an intuitive visual programming language. Impure has particularly revolutionized our ability to quickly communicate the early results our investigation. In a few weeks we have been able to swiftly create interfaces in collaboration with designers that did not have prior programming skill. One outcome of the use of our set of tools is Elephant Path, a concept by Lift Lab, designed and implemented by the young designer Olivier Plante in Impure :
Elephant Path, a social navigation interface based on he thousand of pieces of information inhabitants and visitors share publicly on the web
Our idea of Elephant Path germinated years ago with the emergence of new ways of reading and discovering a territory through its digital activities (see my PhD thesis). It collided with our long interest in the principles of social navigation (see rss4you developed by Nicolas and Robi in the early days of content syndication) that leverage traces of activities with the goal to facilitate locating and evaluating information. In the physical world, a classic example of social navigation is a trail (called elephant path, desire line, social trail or desire path) developed by erosion caused by people making their own shortcuts (a phenomenon we like to observe).
Taking that concept into the informational layers of our cities and regions, we sketched in Impure the possibility to reveal unofficial routes and beaten tracks through the thousand of pieces of information inhabitants and visitors share publicly on the web. Technically, we deployed our own algorithms to extract travel sequences using collections of user-generated content from Wikipedia, Flickr and Geonames. For each region, Elephant Path lists Wikipedia entries and selects some of the monuments, parks, and other popular sites with a story. It consolidates the the Wikipedia entries with geographical coordinates via the Geonames API. Then, it uses the Flickr API to collect the information photographers share at these locations. Finally is applies our own network data analysis algorithms to filter the data, produce travel sequences and measure photogenic levels.
We have done it for both Paris and Barcelona. For each city, Elephant Path provides measures on the main trails, on the photogenic attractions and the months of activity. For instance the information reveals that:
Paris seems to be a “summer” destination according to their monthly photographic activity. If you are in Paris during that period, the parks (Bois de Boulogne, Parc Monceau and Jardin du Luxembourg) might not be you visiting priorities. Indeed, these sites seem to be more photogenic in Spring and Fall. But if you are at Jardin du Luxembourg, there is some chances that you were in the St-Germain des Prés neighborhood (e.g. Café de Flore) previously and that your stroll there might very well bring you to Centre Pompidou that links the nearby Panthéon with the trendy Marais neighborhood. Barcelona seems to be more of “fall” destination according to the monthly photographic activity. Discover it yourself. [More screenshots]
An interface designed for you to copy and adapt it
But Elephant Path doesn’t end with data visualization, maps and graphs that can be embedded into web pages. It is meant to be open and be appropriated in unexpected ways. The Impure platform offers numerous data access, information processing and visualization capabilities. You can copy the code and data of Elephant Path and improve it in your workspace. Content of the work content is under the terms of a Creative Commons License. Do not hesitate in ripping and adapting it!
Posted: February 21st, 2011 | No Comments »
Early last year Manuel Lima kindly invited me to contribute to his book at Princeton Architectural Press on the topic of Network Visualization. The book VisualComplexity: Mapping Patterns of Information is not available for pre-order. However my essay did not make through the last editor’s pass. My role was provide an overview of the topic “data city”, its future implications and the role of visualization in this context. I tried to give a high-level reflection on the field evaluating its present and future while keeping the text accessible with tangible examples. It was written in January 2010, it is unedited, but you still might find some relevant elements:
City and information
A city has, by default, always been about information and its diffusion. Historically, fixed settlements permitted the development of newspapers and the possibility for the exchange of information. It will continue to do so in the near future given the volume of data modern cities generate and the emerging selection of algorithms and visualizations available to us to extract information.
The digitization of information
Indeed, we are noticing a digitization of the contemporary cities with technologies embedded into its streets and buildings and carried by people and vehicles. This evolution has appended an informational membrane over the urban fabrics that afford citizens new flexibility in conducting their daily activities. Simultaneously, this membrane reports on previously invisible dynamics of a city; providing new means to the multiple actors of the urban life to reshape the spaces, the policies, the flows, the services and the many different aspects that constitute a city. For instance, the aggregated view of mobile phone traffic reveals the “pulse” of a city, detecting anomalies such as traffic congestions in real-time. Similarly, the deployment of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags connects inanimate objects into an Internet of Things. Ben Cerveny, strategic and conceptual advisor to the design studio Stamen, coined this evolutions as ”things informalize” using the following terms: “the city itself is becoming part of the Internet with a world of data moved piece by piece and collided against a open source toolchain and methodology”.
Tools and platforms to reveal the data city
The data collisions described by Ben Cerveny produce multiple layers of urban information accessible to the actors of the city for their appropriation. Mixed with the emergence of accessible cartography (e.g. Open Sreet Maps), descriptive languages (e.g. KML), data visualization platforms (e.g. GeoCommons), and data processing techniques (e.g. Geocoding), today’s representation of cities do not only depict the cityscape, they reveal conditions in the city that were previously hidden in spreadsheets and databases. As the datasets become more complex and their model of representation richer, graphically representing the city has become less a matter of convention and more a matter of invention. Indeed, traditional cartography with primitive line drawing and static images now co-exist with flexible solutions that separate row data from the map, and promote exploration with multiple-scale interactivity and reactive environments. This evolution was particularly striking with the popularity of “mash-ups”, linking information to space and mapping newly accessible urban data on top of interactive imageries.
The popularity of “mash-ups” have determined larger initiatives (e.g. “open data” and “web of data”) to free urban data from their silos and promote the public appropriation. Practically, city and government data have been also moving onto the Web making accessible the locations of infrastructures, crime reports or pollution readings. In consequence, “data scientists”, developers and designers create palettes of city data-based visualizations and application, transforming data and their visualization into a public good. In parallel, other platforms such as Pachube have contributed to the bottom-up generation and upload of city data with visualization platforms such as GeoCommons or IBM’s Many Eyes to communicate and share views. This participation offers the opportunity to change cities urban strategies, with potential innovations creating news way to look at the process of citymaking.
Other ways to share the dynamics of the city have emerged in a less obvious but nevertheless indicative unfolding. For instance, of the past years, Idealista a Spanish online real estate ad platform had been accumulating massive amount of information on the cities housing market. It is only recently they have started to offer, almost in real-time, their analysis of the evolution of the real estate market back to the public, with and API for developers to appropriate the results. This strategy offers a city the kind of insights that previously only tedious administrative survey procedures were producing.
Similarly, as the information is not always well-formatted for the analysis and visualization inquires, some initiatives had to develop “web scrapping” techniques to extract valuable data from the public web sites of local institutions and services providers. For instance, for the Oakland Crimespotting, the developers at Stamen Design parsed the web site of the Oakland City Police to produce an effective interactive visualization of crime data showing residents where crime is occurring and what types of crimes are being reported.
The roles of visualization
Exploration and engage in the discussion
The work of Stamen proved that this type of “interventionist mapping” go beyond the expository. Indeed the use of interactive visualization allow exploration and question-making; broadening the urban policy conversation. In fact, aesthetics plays a fundamental role in engaging the discussion. It is not without a reason may visualization of urban informational layers are exhibited in Museums. Indeed, the application of aesthetics to data does not only try to make citizens aware of what is happening around them, but also figuring out the most elegant ways of making the unseen felt and gather feedback. As a researcher at MIT Senseable City lab, I experienced the fundamental utility of “beautiful” visualization as part of investigation process, to attract attention of cities stakeholders, stimulate the dialogue and stretch the imagination. For instance, very early on in the Tracing the Visitor’s Eye project, we produced visualizations to acquire first-hand feedback from journalists and inhabitants of the Province of Florence. They naturally contextualize our work to the local politics, wondering whether the our results could help move the David statue to more appropriate tourist areas or whether they could better understand the impact of the implementation of low-cost airline in a near-by airport. In contrast, they also helped highlighting the “imperfect mirror to reality” we were projecting, rightfully arguing that the models and data supporting the visualization reveal only a partial perspective on visitors dynamics.
Decision making – integration into existing practices
The critics of mash-ups and raw data visualization is the necessary first step to produce knowledge. It leads to investigation, further linking the data to improve the ways professionals and authorities understand and manage cities. Indeed, architects, transportation engineers, urban planners, policy makers, community groups rely on new types of representations as communication instrument as much as means to analyze urban dynamics. In fact, the application of visualizations that combine the emerging time-space data has proven vital; particularly because language through which designer, planners and decision makers communicate plans is mainly visual.
Outside the realm of professionals, the flexibility of new data processing and visualization techniques facilitate their communication to the public through multiple mediums, from projection on building facades to the transformation of physical space. Indeed, the cityscape offers plenty of interfaces to display the state of city-scale services such as energy consumption (e.g. green smoke) or road traffic. When communicated in real-time, the information creates a responsive environment capturing city dynamics, supporting the decision-making and adapting to the changing needs of the public. MIT Senseable City Lab’s seminal project WikiCity exemplifies the implementation of this feedback loop mechanism. This urban demo proposed a visualization platform for the citizen of Rome to view on large screens the city’s dynamics in real-time (e.g. presence of crowd, location of buses, awareness of events). This platform enabled people, participating to the Notte Bianca event, to become prime actors themselves, appropriating dynamically the city and the event. Besides the importunity of this type of responsive environment to improve the experience of a city, it raises challenges to design the mechanisms by which these services are provisioned and understand for which activity that citizens utilize them for?
The modern city is built not just upon physical infrastructure, but also upon patterns and flows of information that are growing and evolving. We are only at beginning of the development of the tools and visualizations that allow us to see these complex patterns of information over huge spans of time and space, or in any local context in real-time.
Yet, this data city face major challenges. Particularly, the collection of data and their communication involves the collaboration of multiple actors in different languages at the crossroad of urbanism, information architecture, geography and human sciences. Indeed, it is evident that the understanding of a city goes beyond logging machine states and events. Therefore, the data scientist fascination of the massive amount of data cities produces in “real-time”, should not discard the other points of view necessary to understand the city, its environment and its people. In other words, data alone does not explain and their visualizations do not stand alone.
Why do I blog this: Thanks to Manuel for the invitation. Even though the text did not pass the final cut, it was a very healthy and fun exercise to try to write about my work and domains of investigation in accessible terms.
Posted: November 11th, 2010 | No Comments »
These past weeks I had to chance to work with the alpha version of Impure, a new visual programming environment developed by my good friends at Bestiario. Impure offers a full visual language to retrieve, manipulate, process and visualize information:
Impure allows the acquisition of information from different sources, ranging from user-specific data to popular online feeds, such as from social media, real-time financial information, news or search queries. This data can then be combined in meaningful ways using built-in interactive visualizations for exploration and analysis.
Based on an event-based development structure, the software consists of 5 different modules.
1. Data Structures, which hold data coming from a data source (e.g., Number, String, List, etc.).
2. Operators, which have 1 or more receptors that enable the system to perform a specific operation (e.g., addition or subtraction).
3. Controls, which act as dynamic filters (e.g., interval selectors).
4. Visualizators, which receive data structures from operators or controls and visualize it. They usually return emitters on selected visual objects that can be used as input into another module.
5. APIs that allow real-time communication with various data sources such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Delicious, Ebay, etc.
The prime objective of Impure aims at bridging the gap between ‘non-programmers’ and data visualization by linking information to programmatic operators, controls and visualization methods through an easy visual and modular interface. Yet, I must admit that Impure has a lot to offer to programmers and data specialists; particularly those who necessitate to “sketch with data” as part of their practice. In other words, the type of professionals who process and visualize datasets as part of their investigation process rather than uniquely generating results.
My experience in leading investigations that aim in extracting value from network data, exploratory data visualization is crucial to quickly recognize patterns and understand complex events. But as my projects involve diverse sets of professionals (e.g. ) being able to quickly sketch an interactive dashboard is a guarantee to have a common language that helps the different actors in asking better questions, getting better feedback from them and properly focusing the investigation (some call it visual thinking or to some extend predictive analytics). Ultimately, the use of plateforms such as Impure offer that opportunity to collect insights that give a project the upper hand in decision making. Moreover, the flexibility of a visual programming environment permit to go beyond the limited possibilities for design of GIS and statistical softwares while reducing the fast-prototyping time necessary to program specific interactive visualizations (e.g. see the animations of traffic density and flows in Zaragoza, Spain, based on real-time information) produced in a few hours with Impure).
Practically, in addition to quickly share a first exploratory analysis, environments such as Impure can simplify the practice of ethno-mining particularly to co-create data with participants of the field research (see Numbers Have Qualities Too: Experiences with Ethno-Mining).
Sketching a solution for the Louvre Museum with Impure (see the complete “Sketching with data” Flickr set)
Similar approach to “sketching with data”, Stamen that has for long been leading investigative data visualization projects generally we divide their process into three distinct phases—explore, build and refine. Based on their experience, they outlined some of their common assumptions about data visualization and recommendations for how to do this kind of work; one particularly relevant to the exploration (i.e. sketching) phase:
(19) Start and End With Questions
“Traditional statistical charts can be a good first step to generate questions, especially for getting an idea about the scope of a data set. Good questions to start with include “how many things do we have”, “what do we know about each thing”, “how do the things change over time”, “how many of each category of thing do we have”, “how many things are unique” and “how many things is each thing connected to”. I don’t believe that any visualization can answer all of these questions. The best visualization will answer some questions and prompt many more.”
Apparently, they are engaged in the a similar path as Bestiario, using a Knight News Challenge grant to build a series of tools to map and visualize data that is truly Internet-native and useful. Flexible and “internet-native” environments that make easier to work with information are also emerging in the data storage end of “sketching”, for instance with the Barcelona-based FluidDB.
At Barcelona Design Week, sharing an animation of the traffic flows in Zaragoza sketched with Impure using real-time data feed from BitCarrier.
Posted: November 9th, 2010 | No Comments »
While I was in Barcelona to attend the Barcelona Design Week, Josep Blat presented at the Foro de Movilidad de RedIRIS in Madrid the research themes and works developed with him as my PhD supervisor. RedIRIS provides highspeed Internet connectivity and other network facilities for the academia in Spain. On their invitation we shared some insights on the innovative exploitation of network data and their implications.
The presentation ran under the name “Networks, Sensor Networks, Human Sensors” (pdf).
Wires and their exploitation under new scrutiny
Why do I blog this: Publics institutions that make a living transporting bits also become curious on extracting value from network data. Our presentation complemented very well a day that had started with a demonstration of the use of animal digital traces in the Doñana natural park in the South West of Spain.
Thanks to Gerard Alcorlo i Bofill for the invitation!
Posted: October 22nd, 2010 | No Comments »
As part of the Barcelona Design Week, I participated to the Mobile Design Conference organized by dotopen.
In my talk I discussed the notion of *frictions* that are inherent to the mundane life in the networked city. Frictions are all the *resistances* that people experience when using network infrastructures. Frictions are also the vigorous *rubbing* that sparkle data that we are not always aware off. Based on Lift Lab experience and investigation on the I argue that knowledge about frictions is a powerful, relevant and original resource to innovate in the networked cities. Here are the slides with my notes:
Cities, Networks, Frictions (pdf)
The networked city: Tyre, Lebanon.
Thanks to Rudy, Steffen and Carles for the inviations. It was a pure pleasure to share the stage with Kevin Slavin, Hugo Zaragoza and Matt Jones.
Posted: October 14th, 2010 | No Comments »
Next week I will be speaking at the Mobile Design Conference & Workshop around the theme of the “Networked City”. Particularly, I plan to share my experiences and methodologies to apprehend the hybridization of the physical and the digital in both contemporary urban environments and people practices.
Program organized by BCD in collaboration with dotopen. On October 21, 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona (MACBA) during the Barcelona Design Week.
Morning Conference: Designing for the Networked City with keynotes from:
Kevin Slavin – Co-Founder and Chairman of AREA/CODE Entertainment
Matt Jones – Director of Design at BERG
Usham Haque – Director of HAQUE Design + Research Ltd
Fabien Girardin – Co-Founder of Lift Lab
Afternoon Workshop – MDC Lab: Co-Creating for the Networked City
This years’ Mobile Design Conference is proud to present the MDC Lab: a co-creation workshop lead by Liz Sanders with expert participation of the Mobile Design Conference speakers Kevin Slavin, Matt Jones, Usham Haque, Fabien Girardin. This workshop is aimed at professionals interested in the outlook and potential of Mobile Technologies and Urban Living.
Why do I blog this: This talk provides an opportunity to clarify the communication around the Lab’s investigations and methodologies at the crossroads of the physical and the digital.
Posted: July 16th, 2010 | 3 Comments »
For the HABITAR exhibition, we wanted to augment the catalogue of design scenarios with essays that challenge and explain the new practices, tools, solutions and languages that are being developed to negotiate the near future of cities. With an objective of transdisciplinarity with the language of architects as a backbone, each contribution meant to participate to a common dialogue with a unique perspective. I believe it worked quite well, so I strongly encourage you to read them downloading (pdf) or purchasing (5.00€) the catalogue.
Here is brief – overly summarized – overview of the essays and their articulations as part of the script José Luis de Vicente and I had planned.
“Urban Software: The Long View” by Molly Wright Steenson
First, we wanted an historical account of the concept of urban intelligence that resonate in many of the contemporary discourses. Right at that time Molly Wright Steenson had contributed to the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium with an “introduction of computing to urbanism and urban planning”. Molly kindly agreed to synopsize her talk and investigation in that domaine. In “Urban Software: The Long View”, she describes the emergence of active forms of intelligence from the distribution of information and commands for interaction (starting with the development of intercity railroad and electrical telegraph) and new procedures (software with the information and feedback flows they generate):
The concept of urban intelligence overlaid upon a city is much older than one might think. It originates in the 1830s in the symbiotic development of intercity railroad and electrical telegraph. The railroad made it possible to quickly deliver both passengers and written communication over long distances; the telegraph, whose wires followed rail lines, facilitated nearly instantaneous long-distance communication. The result was no less than the distribution of intelligence. In 1850, science writer Dionysius Lardner wrote, “The Electric Telegraph for the transmission of intelligence, in the most literal sense of the term, annihilates both space and time.” The telegraph, in Lardner’s view, rendered moot concepts of geography, distance, duration, and tempo. It altered all of the possibilities for connectivity and shifted society’s expectation for information. The diffusion of knowledge over space and time—the “transmission of intelligence” to which he refers—would cause “the increase of civilisation by intellectual means.” The new mobility provided by communication was tantamount to the growth of intelligent society. Telegraphy, in his view, was a system for distributing culture.”
This perspective of a world constructed of information and feedback flows naturally seeped into architecture and the design of cities, leaving computer scientists and architects wondering about “Life in a Computerised Environment”, with concerns on the the particular lack of adaptability of computerized systems that are poor at handling sudden changes in context in environments and concerns in ways of dealing with physical reality:
Software exists to make sense of information in the world—including organic information. This cybernetic perspective, of a world constructed of information and feedback flows, does not stop with machines and people: it seeps into architecture and the design of cities. “By and large, these alterations have been internal, in the form of new procedures and ways of dealing with physical reality, rather than purely visual responses,” writes Burnham. It’s not just that which is read that concerns Burnham, but how the procedures and the societal changes instigated by information affect the day-to-day reality of physical inhabitation. It is the possibility of intelligence—of information being taken into account by urban systems and thus changing the interaction of a city’s residents.
Some of the the intelligent systems exhibited at HABITAR annihilate conventions produce a radical shift in the notions of time and space, leaving Molly wondering on the combination of people behaviors and cities mediated by software:
Intelligent systems, in short, annihilate convention. They introduce a radical shift, whether in time and space, as with the telegraph, or in procedures and information—software and data—that Burnham described. If we magnify Ted Nelson’s statement, “Our bodies are hardware, our behavior software,” how do our bodies meld with our cities, mediated by software? And just what might our cities learn from us?
“Building a Useful City of Bits” by Bryan Boyer
The building of cities and the bringing of technology to life should have led to a natural convergence in the architects/designers and technologists practices. However, to the exception of some pioneer works the cross-disciplinary combination of deep expertise in technology and spatial design remains highly uncommon. Being an active actor in both worlds, Bryan Boyer has been vocal about the antagonism of practices. We invited him the explain the promises of cross-disciplinary work to help “Building a Useful City of Bits”.
Even with large body of work in the community of technologists to dissolve information with a vast quantity of output media and the banality of digital production equipment in architecture schools and ateliers, we are still left wondering “What urban informatics is actually instrumental in solving?”
Efforts to combine these two fields have yielded modest results: technology happens to exist in the city, such as the digital screens now dotting many central business districts, and buildings happen to have some technology glued on to them, here and there an LCD facade. The more that practitioners on both sides of this divide actively engage, understand, and recombine each others’ working modalities—rather than just the output formats—the better the outcome will be. The attention-grabbing aspect of cross-disciplinary collaboration may be its outward expression or formatting, but the transformative potential is in finding hybrid working models.
Cross-disciplinary works becomes key to finally demonstrate that urban informatics is a worthwhile endeavor at an urban scale. Bryan has been active in setting up projects involving the expertise in technology, architecture, interaction, space and finance:
The C_Life team, bringing together expertise from the fields of architecture, urban design, finance, construction, real estate, technology, and informatics, recently signed a contract to build the Low2No block, which has a projected completion date in late 2013. With a serious investment demonstrating a mission-driven commitment to support informatics as part of a large scale development project, Low2No is one answer to the question of financing. With a little luck, in three years time the key question of, “What are informatics instrumental in solving,” will have a sketch of an answer.
“Notes on the Design of Participatory Systems – For the City or For the Planet” by Usman Haque
Other practitioners at the frontier of architecture/design and technologies have explored other forms of cooperation with the involvement of the many actors of the city. Usman Haque has been active in building participatory systems (see his Lift France talk on Chaning Things). He agreed on illustrating the paradoxical structures of collaboration and the ways that the paradoxes can be harnessed. He particularly highlighted 10 key elements in the design of participatory systems (here overly summarized):
- Dilemmas: you cannot rely on the end goal being incentive enough to encourage individuals to participate and cooperate on achieving the end goal.
- Incentives: a participatory system needs to have intermediary, short term incentives from which participants can gain tangible benefits
- Increments: incremental participation results in incremental gains; they cannot depend on an “all or nothing” situation.
- Trust and evidence: trust largely comes from evidence; and self-constructed evidence is the best of all because it does not require second-hand knowledge.
- Tools for evidence: determining indicators for success is crucial
- Opting out: the choice of “opt out” must not be made into a value judgement by thos who “opt in”.
- Granularity: in any participatory system there will be those with different skillsets, different responsibilities, different desires, different commitment levels and different time-availability.
- Coupling: rather than trying to develop solutions to individual problems, construct means for incremental incentivised actions in two seemingly unrelated domains to benefit each other.
- Complexity: it it’s that complex, it means it’s beyond professional capabilities of any single individual: it *demands* cooperation. […] a designer is there to ensure that that goal is *not fixed* but can be overridden by participants.
- Public spectacle: if a public spectacle is engaging, it encourages people to observer, ask questions, occasionally even participate.
“The Gifted City: A Design Concept” by Anne Galloway
Technologist, architects and designers envision special or even superior kind of cities, gifted in their abilities. But also gifted because they are being given as gifts. It is this theme of the gifted city that Anne Galloway presented last year at Lift in Geneva. Unfortunately, there is no video archive of her talk, so we thought that HABITAR provided an extra opportunity to capture her thoughts on the relations between the designers and consumers/users of sentient and reactive environments.
The gifted city instantaneously connects us to others near and far, places us where we need or want to be, maps our activities in real-time and captures information for our later action. The gifted city promises that we can become gifted individuals.
These new products and services can also be seen as gifted objects or abilities, in the sense that they have been given as gifts.
The ideal gift does not establish a relation of obligation but instead, as it happens in our everyday lift, opens up imminent relations between subjects, expanding these relations to other forms of exchange and becoming. But there are also gifts the we do not want, need or understand, of course raising complex implications in the design of gifted cities with its services and objects:
The gifted city I have conjured is an extraordinary city given to us by well-intentioned designers. But my conceit raises more questions than it provides answers and I wonder what kind of gifts and gift-relations we are creating. What happens to the cities and people that do not receive our gifts? Are our gift-relations free from obligation, or do we expect something in return? Do we design with ourselves in mind, or others? Do we design for abstract users and scenarios, or for concrete people, situations and affects? Do we give gifts that expand possibilities and open up space for new relations, or do we reinforce existing affiliations? Can our gifts only be used in particular ways, or can people use them as they wish?
We know that gifts and gift-giving involve complex, and sometimes even fraught, values and activities. But they also involve fundamentally caring relations, and with each gift we create we too are given something: the opportunity to create a richer, more meaningful gift. So what kind of city would you like to give and what kind of city would you like to receive?
“Snapshots From a Fictional Asynchronous City” by Nicolas Nova
Nicolas Nova further questions the content of these gifted cities and their emphasis on instantaneity and real-time as a limiting metaphor, a thought he started to frame in the pamphlet A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing he wrote in company of Julian Bleecker. In “Snapshots From a Fictional Asynchronous City”, further exemplifies his critique of the obsession on the present and the ephemeral:
Moreover, the focus on instantaneity in this Urban Informatics projects often leads to a relative absence of consideration towards other temporal dimensions. Designing meaningful and original new media experiences may considerably benefit from a more complex understanding of time.
From his critique, he describes project that go beyond the conventional assumptions about digital experience of space. For instance the Slow Messenger, developed at the Near Future Laboratory in company of Julian Bleecker, that provokes on the spirit of a affinity from pre-digital correspondence. Similarly, Jotyou is a communication system that enable people to send message in a potential future without knowing when a message can be read, only where. These projects show the opportunities in pushing the envelope of the “real-time meme”.
What these various projects show is simply that there are intriguing ways to go beyond the “real-time meme” that pervades current instantiations in Urban Informatics. In order to create such orthogonal perspectives, one should consider how to foster new modes of experience and occupancy of space. In that spirit, it can be pertinent to create connections between unexpected events and rethink the intricate relationship between time and space. Rather than taking people as the receptacle of instantaneous solicitation from mobile devices and interactive architectures, there might be ways of engaging them into new forms of encounters or exploration In other words, what are the opportunities for re-imagining the databased city that have not been directly designed-into these systems?
Sure, the explorations mentioned here may seem weird and futile at first glance. But down the road, one should see them as props to contemplate issues bigger than the objects themselves, and to help us imagine near future worlds that wait to be uncovered.
“Flowing, Dwelling, Thinking” by José Pérez de Lama
Finally, we wanted to terminate the set of essays taking some more altitude linking ubiquitous networks with architectural theoreticians. José Pérez de Lama kindly played the theorist role inspiring from Martin Heidegger’s classic 1951 text Building, Dwelling, Thinking which introduced the concept of “dwelling” into the real of architectural debate (“the objective of building is to dwell”). Heidegger assumes that there is an unavoidable connection between dwelling and staying, to which José suggest to augment with “flowing”:
But today we know that our being on the earth is just as linked to remaining as it is to what we could call “flowing”, borrowing in part from Manuel Castells. There is a whole new spectrum of dwelling, fundamental to our experience of being in the world, that is linked to movement, communication, the new dynamic image and information ecologies.
It is certainly true that in 2010, ubiquitous networks, proliferating information and the growing numbers of artifacts that extend our physical and mental capacities, mean that this new way of dwelling that we could refer to as “flowing”, “floating”, or both, has become a defining and distinguishing condition of our being in the world today.
And José requesting to critically consider these new forms of dwelling governed by ubiquitous computing and hyper-connectivity.
Tow what extent do they contribute in stimulating production and generating an egalitarian redistribution of the wealth of networks? To what point do they favor a social organization of a critical nature?
Why do I blog this: We wanted these essays contribute to the dialogue between the practices in technology, interaction and spatial design that are timidly converging. They highlight some of the reasons why the discourses on urban informatics are not fully convincing (yet), acting as a balance with the many proposals presented at the exhibition. Finally it was an opportunity to gather voices and thoughts contribute to the large – but not exhaustive – body of works (publications, exhibitions, urban demos/probes, …) produced by Adam Greenfield, Dan Hill, Stephen Graham, Marcus Foth, Kazys Varnelis, Mark Shepard, Carlo Ratti, and many others inspiring theorists and practitioners. I admit thought I would have loved to add voices from Asia and Africa.
Posted: July 13th, 2010 | No Comments »
Human Geographers help me theorize my investigation and frame my rhetoric (e.g. Stephen Graham, Phil Hubbard, Martin Dodge, Mike Crank, and Rob Kitchin). Among several themes they have formed a large body of work on the confrontation of technophiliac dreams with situated practices. In his recent book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, Stephen Graham gives a convincing exposé on the evolution of the urban sites, spaces and infrastructures which have become battleground that continually track, scan, control and target people. As a natural counterbalance, forces act in tempering the technical community’s enthusiasm for sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus. In a synthesis of a talk Stephen Graham gave over the weekend, Adam Greenfield (Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing) the challenge of network urbanism and what it can do for cities and citizenship:
The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.
This concern echoes very well with Jacques Lévy‘s wrap-up of last week’s Lift France. The human geographer warned on the risks of a certain digital imperialism that sabotages socials logics and desires arguing subtlety for the “assimilation” rather than the “accommodation” of the immaterial with the material. Bruno Marzloff reports it as:
À propos du couple matériel/immatériel, le géographe appelle à penser plutôt la figure de “l’hybridation” que celle de “l’expansion”, mettant en garde contre un impérialisme du numérique. Il faut penser “assimilation” (la voie naturelle) plutôt qu’ “accommodation” (la voie forcée). “Faut-il un passeport pour franchir la frontière du numérique ?”, demande enfin notre géographe qui tacle au passage les bons esprits qui voudraient qu’ “il suffit d’être bon dans le numérique, pour être bon dans tout”. Il insiste enfin pour qu’on ne sabote pas au nom du numérique “ce potentiel extraordinaire des logiques sociales et de ses désirs”.
Why do I blog this: Digital initiatives for cities often lack of subtleness and creativity in defining the ability of technologies to improve the human and social experience (see for instance Freeband’s technophiliac scenarios). An implicit message in my talks at Lift this year and in 2007 is to temper this digital imperialism and better look for the opportunities that lay in gaining a sense of the limits of the tools I develop; opportunities for instance in designing for assimilation into a practice, or in designing for appropriation.
Explicit sign of (old) military urbanism. A military area in the heart of Marseille, as captured last week.