Clearleft presents

dConstruct 2009

Designing for Tomorrow

04 September 2009 · Brighton Dome UK

Elements of a Networked Urbanism

Adam Greenfield

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So, the talk today is called "Elements of a Networked Urbanism." It basically is in the nature of a diagnosis and a manifesto. It’s an attempt to figure out where we’re headed in these large containers for human vitality and activity that we call cities, what technical conditions are coming down the pike that might begin to etch away at the arrangements and the agreements that have conditioned urban space for 5000 years or so now.

I’m not a techno determinist, so it’s not about "these technologies are going to change things"; it’s about what new technological affordances, conditions, and possibilities are beginning to open up that people in cities are going to take hold of and make use of. Together these things are going to transform urban life.

It’s also a manifesto for how to do those things right. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a fairly opinionated guy, as some of you know. This conversation will definitely reflect my prejudices and beliefs about them, the things that should and should not happen.

Who am I? I’m imagining a lot of you have no idea who I am. I come from a user experience background. I spent many, many years between 1999 and around 2002 doing web development. That was primarily of interest and importance in this context, because it marinated me in what happens when human beings and reasonably high technology artifacts encounter one another; the results are not pretty. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with people’s frustration and sense of their own incompetence when confronted with technology, and I can guarantee you that these are not stupid people. These are ordinary, everyday people that we saw interacting with websites.

I’ve spent years developing these things, enterprise-scale websites. What we would see often is that human beings encounter with these things. When they can’t figure out how to use them, they don’t blame the designers, they don’t blame the developers; they blame themselves. They say, "Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I figure this out?" As a designer, that’s not anything I ever want on my conscience. That’s primarily what I brought with me out of user experience.

After a couple of years of doing that, I got bored silly. After you build 40 or 50 websites, there’s really no magic in it anymore; at least, there wasn’t for me. I began asking all of the smartest people around me, "Really, this web stuff is fine, but what comes next?" You know, we’re talking about the future here today, so really, what is the future?

This was Japan, 2002, so you can imagine a lot of the answers I got were about mobile. But, I was a North American; and in 2002, in North America, mobile wasn’t part of our everyday consciousness; it wasn’t really that important to me. So, when people gave me answers that were about, "Yeah, mobile is the future," that really wasn’t so engaging to me, and I didn’t really buy it. There had to be something deeper, there had to be something more than that.

A very smart woman I know by the name of Anne Galloway said, "You know, there’s this thing called ‘ubiquitous computing’ that you ought to check out. As a matter of fact, there’s a conference next week in Sweden and maybe your bosses will pay for you to go to it." In fact, they did, and in fact I did go. What I discovered was something that looked like, and in a lot of ways still looks like, the future—the idea of ubiquitous computing, the idea that this container for information processing is just a transitional phase.

We’ve made the transition from mainframes to mini computers, from mini computers to personal computers. As the processing power that is invested in each of these devices begins to get smaller, more powerful, more robust, it spreads out into the world. Mainframes in the world were numbered in maybe the hundreds; obviously there are tens of millions of personal computers. By the time you make the transition to ubiquitous computing, we’re talking about many hundreds of information processing devices dedicated to each one of us; so, tens of billions of these things in the world, and more than that.

I wrote a book about that, it was called "Everywhere"—thanks for alluding to it. So, I’ve been interested in that for a couple of years. But, that was really an excuse for me to talk about what I’ve really been interested in my entire life, which is architecture and cities. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today—"networked urbanism." What happens to the conditions of urban life when ubiquitous computing arrives on the scene, how can we reach into that technological manifold, how can we use it to improve the conditions of cities and improve the lives that we have there.

I really want to make sure that we do this. I really want to prove, question, and challenge the idea of networked urbanism. There is a place in South Korea, it’s a place called New Songdo. It’s a city that’s been built from the ground up with intense corporate and governmental support to have what we would think of as a sort of orthodox vision of ubiquitous computing in everyday life wired into the city from the ground up.

I mean to push back against visions like that; I mean very strongly to probe and to question. This is a place where everything you do in the course of the day will be captured by a network of sensors, will be represented on a network, will have its outputs in a variety of other ways. For example, a trash can might have RFID sensors in it. Every can of soda and beer that’s sold in the city of New Songdo might be RFID tagged. You, of course, would have some kind of account representation.

So, if you’re walking down the street, you’re done with your soda can, and you throw it in the trash bin, the system recognizes this act and credits the five-cent recovery fee for the can back into your account. Meanwhile, the city’s trash infrastructure is notified that an aluminum can has joined the trash flow. It’s this very aggressive, very complete vision of what information processing looks like in everyday life, and how everyday life can be founded on that.

There are neat things about that vision. It has obvious implications for sustainability, it has obvious implications for your empowerment and for bringing knowledge to you as you move through space, and through opening up choice in the city. But, it also has these other, sort of weird implications, obviously for privacy and for the way in which we construct our presentation of self and for the psyche. So, I mean very much to put that question mark on this discussion.

Again, I’m not a techno determinist. Technologists are really fond of this quote from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Hugo. It’s this poor, desperate priest who realizes this will kill that, "The printing press will kill the church." Why do we love this quote so much? There’s something in the drama of "this killing that." This is the techno determinist creed, this is the idea that you drop a new technology into a context and it autonomously changes things.

I don’t think things work that way. None of the things that we’re going to be talking about today I imagine happening all in one city, all at one time. All of the 14 or 15 transitions we’re going to be talking about today, they’re layers. They’re things that settle over cities and over urban conditions differentially in time, differentially by place.

Cities are palimpsests; they are layered representations of experience over time. I think that each city, whether it’s a city in the UK, whether it’s a city in North America, or whether it’s a city in Asia, each human population is going to adapt and embrace to these technologies in different ways. So, we will see different defects. Nevertheless, I think there are some observable continuity in the sorts of technological effects that we are going to be seeing prodded by these two facts. These are factoids that I think are going to describe the parameters for the space that we are going to be operating in.

The first is that humanity is irretrievably becoming urban. This is from the U.N.’s most recent population development statistics at the end of 2007. And they said that "By the end of 2008, for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the human population of the planet lived in large cities."

This is epochal, this is huge. This means that from now on when you are considering anything that affects humanity or the human condition in any meaningful way, you’re talking about an urban context. You’re talking about the problems and the potentials of large, dense networks of human settlement. That is unbelievable, it really is. I obviously can’t convey the force of what these means to me personally. This is really a fascinating thing to me.

Lest we think of the cities in this equation as London or Paris or Tokyo or Seoul or New York, they’re not. What we are talking about here is more like the favelas, the slums, the informal encampments. Humanity in cities is almost a post urban condition. These are complexes of incredible density, incredible complexity and they don’t really respond to the conditions of cities as we recognize them and this is where people live now.

When you imagine layering ubiquitous computing over the city, I am going to ask you not to imagine it primarily being layered over a neat grid-like, orderly collection of streets, buildings, businesses, infrastructures and people. I am going to ask you to imagine that technology primarily layered over informal, unplanned, self-organizing settlements of the most extreme disorder, occasionally squalor and vitality as well. That’s the city that I want you to have in mind as we go through the rest of this conversation.

There is also this bracketing discussion today. This is from the technology research company Gartner. It is kind of a weirdly worded suggestion, but their prediction is by the end of 2012 network sensors, embedded sensors, will account for 20 percent of non-video Internet traffic. Now, I don’t know what percentage they see as being video traffic so this statistic is almost meaningless. It gives them a lot of room to fudge and to say "Well, we were kind of right."

I don’t know what that’s all about. I don’t know exactly why they present this piece of information in quite this way, but the important fact here is that a reasonably credible institution with access to a large amount of information and having a lot of influence in this world is willing to stake themselves to the bed. That a very significant percentage of all the bytes traveling over the Internet from now on are not primarily going to be there by dint of human beings communicating with other human beings. Not primarily going to be there by dint of me sending an email, me accessing a website, or anything like that. It is going to be bytes that are put there by network sensors pulling up information about street use, facial pattern recognition, air quality. Sensors embedded in places transmitting information on an extremely wide variety of channels about the physical world.

When you take these two conditions together, I think you begin to see some very, very interesting, slow at first but increasingly fast-paced, some profound shifts in the way that people can organize themselves in place. This is the very first one that I see.

We are familiar with Internet Protocol, IP, and the current version of Internet protocol that we use, IPv4, the salient quality of it is that we are running out of space in it. The address space is beginning to run out around the edges.

Can we have the house lights down a little bit… the top lights up there? That would be great. Thanks. Thank you very much.

So, for years we have been aware of this problem and what’s been proposed as a response to it is IPv6. IPv6 with 128 byte address space, which gives you enough address ability to take every seat in this room and make it a node of the Internet, more than every seat in this room, to take every fiber woven into every seat of this room and if you wanted to give it its own Internet node and identity.

More than that, every grain of sand on the beach down there in the Strand here; to give that its own Internet address and identity. One hundred and twenty eight byte address space—I forget the exact number, but it is huge. You can literally turn every button on every shirt, every component of every car, every meter of every sidewalk into its own Internet node.

When you can do that, you can do something really interesting with cities. You can take urban components, streets, sidewalks, buildings, infrastructure, windows and you can make them… Well, they are addressable, queryable; and if they are queryable, they might even be scriptable. You can turn cities from collections of objects into assemblages of resources.

You have to begin thinking about urban environments as collections of addressable, queryable, scriptable networked resources potentially and ideally with open APIs, which allows you to reach into them, gather data off of them, figure out what state they are in, maybe even tell them what state they need to be in next. When you can do this, this changes everything. This one transition drives everything else that we are going to be talking about today.

It’s really a new set of eyes. I’ve started as I moved through the world, as I move through the cities I come into contact with, I’ve started to read them differently. I definitely read them on the human level and on the experiential level and on the perceptual level, but I also have begun to read them as what can you do, what kinds of information might you derive from this space and what might you be able to do with that information. What might I be able to do if I could somehow see this place as dynamic and open-ended, extensible in time and space as a networked resource?

And I think if you have that, it begins to drive this—this is really interesting. The new media theorist Lev Manovich once said the main effect of a computer revolution is to turn everything that is now a constant into a variable. He was talking about one particular building that was designed digitally so that everything that had been static and rectilinear and expressed in Cartesian coordinates now became kind of a vector field. It became more of a fluid condition. The spaces wrapped around themselves in ways that would only be possible if you had extremely computationally intensive processes that were devoted to design and fabrication.

But, the comment is more generally true than I think he understood or at least, would have been willing to stake himself to. The comment is much more generally true of everything that we’re talking about because when you have this networked environment, nothing need be static anymore, nothing need be a constant any more.

You can take the things above you and turn them into variables. You can begin to imagine a world of dynamic response. You can begin to imagine a world in which conditions change over time in response to other conditions elsewhere in the network, whether those are local or distant conditions unknown. But, you can begin to take, for example, a building membrane and have it change its permeability in response to the CO2 concentration in the room. You can begin to have streets that change direction in response to traffic conditions half way across town. You can take the built in environment as a whole and model it as a variable, dynamic, open-ended quantity.

That’s fascinating to me, and I think that that begins to actually, pretty profoundly change the meaning of place, because if there’s one thing that we know about place, it’s that its nature as a constant, as something that you can come back to time and time again, helps us orient ourselves, helps us establish ourselves, and ultimately, at least if you read Heidegger, helps us inhabit it, helps us develop a relationship over time with it that is rich and meaningful and resonant.

So, you get the upside of being able to turn the environment into this dynamic condition, but you also get, potentially, the loss of a sense of place, because things are going to be up in the air. They’re going to be changing around us.

Something else happens that is really interesting. Life generates information by its very nature. Our activities in the cities have always generated information. Now, when things are networked resources and are available on the network, you get this transition from latent to explicit.

How does that affect us in everyday life? One of the best examples I can think of is a really amazing new service in the United States that’s just thankfully been picked up, and hopefully had its life extended a little bit. It’s a service called "Every Block." Ad one of the things that Every Block does is, it collects things like police reports, traffic reports, utility reports and local news, local information, and most interestingly for my purposes, health certifications; health inspections of restaurants.

And it puts those all online, and it plots them out over a map of the city. If you’re a reasonably savvy consumer of urban place, you know that this information has always been generated. You’re aware of the fact that when you walk down the street, you’re in a police precinct, and that police precinct has generated information about the crimes that have taken place there.

And you’re walking past businesses that have each been rated, and have each received some kind of certification from the municipality, and there are facts and regulations and opinions, the condition, everything that you’re encountering. But, all of that stuff has been latent. It’s been hard to get at.

What a service like Every Block does is draws that stuff in through its EPIs, and rolls it all up into a really nice map that makes everything explicit. It puts all of those facts there for you as a dot on the map. And then you can look at your local favorite curry house, and you can see that it’s got 79 health inspection violations, including rat feces out on the counters and the staff not wearing hairnets and stuff like that, and maybe you don’t eat there anymore, right?

You can see that this police precinct has more street crime than that precinct, and maybe you don’t choose to live there. Or if you have no choice on where to live, maybe you order and structure your life differently. The information that is revealed through these networks has the quality of being actionable. It changes the way that we make decisions.

It informs and guides our decisions about where to go next, what to do next, how to live, how to interact with the spaces around us. It makes things painfully explicit, and when we take all of that information in, it can be again, incredibly empowering, and at the same time, kind of uncomfortable. At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to know that about your favorite restaurant, your favorite nightclub.

You don’t necessarily want to be aware of all of the murders that have been committed on this block of street in the last two years. These things are facts of our existence that maybe sometimes, it’s better to live in an agreed sense of deniability about. Maybe it’s better to live in kind of a fog about. At least, I think a lot of people would choose to.

Nevertheless, they are now becoming explicit, and will be persistent over time. [screams] I had my slides out of order, sorry. We’re moving from latent to explicit. What this gives us is also the ability to move from what I call "browser urbanism" to search urbanism. And this again is something that sounds kind of abstract, but is actually really concrete and really interesting.

It means that when everything has a tag associated with it, and everything has data, everything is available on network, you reach into the city and you, instead of encountering things at random by happenstance, one by one as you pass by them, you encounter them deliberately; you encounter them by choice. You reach into the urban manifold, and you ask the city for what you want, for some collection of circumstances that corresponds to your desires, your needs, and your abilities to make use of them.

So, when you are walking through a district that is extremely popular on a Sunday morning and you’re looking for brunch, and every single place that you walk through has a line outside that’s 45 minutes long, you can begin to structure queries such as, "Give me a restaurant that is open right now, that is within walking distance, that has the kind of food that I want, at a price that I’m willing to spend, that doesn’t actually have a line outside, if there is any such thing."

Extend that logic to every conceivable set of circumstances. "Bring this to me." You can search the space of the city the same way we can now search the space of the web. You can begin to bring things towards you. You can begin to function as an attractor for new kinds of circumstances.

This has important consequences for the construction of urban savoir-faire. Importantly, what it’s meant to be an enlightened and a knowledgeable user of a city historically has meant knowing about specialist services. Knowing things that other people don’t.

Having the secret knowledge, the insider knowledge. Knowing where you can get your shirts pressed for less than anybody else, and still have a great deal done on them. Knowing where that restaurant is. Knowing where that record club is. Knowing where the scene is happening.

When you have search urbanism that is radically democratized, and it’s hard to argue that that’s anything but a good thing. It means that specialist knowledge, per se, is spread out in a broad swath over the entire population. It does mean that you are going to have to work a little bit harder to become a maven of place, to become anything like an expert; a local character.

It begins to etch away at our understandings of what it means to be a truly power user of cities. Again, good and bad, like everything I’m talking about today… Excuse me. Like everything I’m talking about today, you begin to sense a theme, right?

You begin to sense a trend, a trend of the potential for incredible empowerment at the price of losing something that we have brought with us throughout 5000 years of urban experience that may have been kind of neat, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to let go of too quickly. But, that’s the deal we are offered in our time.

Of course, this is really cool too. When you begin to have these informational handles on things, it doesn’t make sense to hold them to your selves any longer. If anything, the logic of our age teaches us that the power of information is probably best realized by opening it up and sharing it, or at least that is personally what I believe.

And the neat thing about the context that we are getting into, is that when everything has a handle, you grab it for yourself, but you also share it outwards again. You also take it and you throw it to your friends, and you throw it out into the world as an open proposition.

You begin to share your knowledge, and yes, you do lose the sense of urban savoir-faire, but maybe you gain something that is even better. Maybe you gain… If our research about the oncoming age cohort holds up, the ability to contribute to the world is an extraordinarily strong motivation for them.

So maybe by sharing your information, by throwing it back out there, by curating and then re-releasing things, packages of urban experience, you’re contributing to the world in a really important, rich, and meaningful way. At least I tend to believe so.

You know, this is also the case that we’ve built our societies around the idea that knowledge does eventually leave the world, and what I think we’re building in our network condition, in our global nemo-technic system, is an urban environment in which things no longer expire. They no longer leave the world in quite the same way. They persist over time. At least, as long as there is a network there to catch information, and as long as there is a network for this information to kind of bounce and travel within, facts remain.

And again, a good side and a bad side. The good side is that history has depth, has meaning. You can begin to interrogate a place as to all of the things that have ever happened there. So, I can look, instead of needing to be told that this building is where Abba won the Eurovision song contest that set them off on their route to fame, I look at the building, and I’m offered that.

The current paradigm would be I’m offered that in an augmented reality overlay, that I hold my personal device up, I have a little, I look at it on the screen, and there’s a little overlay that says, "Well, this is the Brighton Dome, and this is where these things happened, and this is the history of the place."

I’m not so interested about the particular affordances of the interface through which we’re offered this stuff. All I know is that history will persist and be accessible in a way that it hasn’t been before. But, I also do mean personal histories. And an example of that is… It is a rather charged subject at the moment, I’m aware here, because there is this current case about these two kids, these twelve and ten year old kids who committed these horrible, brutal crimes, brutal assaults.

Something that we have guaranteed in our societies throughout history is that when juveniles commit offenses of that nature, when they become adults, their records are expunged. For better or for worse, they’re able to operate in the world with a fresh slate. They are able to take up new identities.

That is in fact one of the reasons why big cities exist. One of the things that big cities have always offered people is the chance to start over. If you’ve developed a bad reputation, an unsavory reputation, in the place where you came from, if you’ve run into trouble in your small town or your village, you run away to the big city, and you start over fresh. You start with a clean sheet of paper, and you are able to reinvent yourself. And most of the pop cultural movements that are so near and dear to my heart actually have that kind of reinvention of the self at their core.

Well, guess what, when information goes from expiring to persistent, you’re not able to do that nearly so easily. The records stay with you. They’re sticky. They stick to your name, they stick to your identity. And at least as we’ve got it currently set up, it’s really, really hard to get away from that stuff. It’s really, really hard to construct a new identity that doesn’t have tendrils of traces of all of the other identities you’ve had in your life attached to it.

It’s really, really hard to do what Erving Goffman talks about in 1958 in "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," which is to wear different masks that face the different communities and the facets of our life. Those things, our technologies tend to laminate those things together. And they tend to force us to deal with the world through one true name.

That’s not always the way that we want to do things, and people go to extraordinary measures to be able to present different facets of their identity autonomously and independently of one another. But, our network technologies tend to make that kind of difficult.

I’m not going to talk so much about this, because I think for this crowd, it’s kind of obvious. Things that have been deferred, things that have taken extraordinary investments of time and energy and effort, when you’ve got something equivalent to a Google search box that you can describe a condition in and have that delivered to you, things get easy. Things get something closer to real-time.

But, what this also means is that you can get reads on real-time conditions served back to you. So, this means things like traffic, like weather, like air quality conditions. Conditions that in years past would have taken months to gather, and to parse, and to represent, and then to serve back out to the public, now flow back to you in something really close to real-time.

And what all that does is enhance its actionability. It means that when you are in a place or about to be in a place, you can know exactly what is going on there, and all of the registers that are significant and important to you, and you can have that inform your decision about whether you want to be there, or be somewhere else. Whether you want to do that, or do something else. Whether you want to eat at this place, or that place. See this film, or that film. Whatever it is that you can think of doing in a city, you can now make the choice based on relatively fresh, relatively accurate, real-time information.

We move from having to be passive recipients of urban experience into being co-creators of place. If all of the physical surroundings are dynamic, and if they respond at least to our proximity, our presence, if everything that we see around us has been opened up and turned into some kind of open-ended condition that responds to data that’s being served to it, then everything we do has a consequence, begins to set up the conditions under which other people experience the city, in ways that are more practical and relevant than might be the case now.

This has of course always been the case, but of course, we’re talking now about a transition from deferred to real-time. We’re talking about the things that you do now having consequences for other people around you in some very real ways.

And one of the simplest ways is just sheerly being present at a place, and having that presence accounted for. There’s a… Unfortunately, the project itself is much more interesting than the application. There is an application called CitySense, which right now is just a dynamic map of where people are in the city of San Francisco.

And it’s able to show that at a given time, at a given intersection, there will be a cluster of red dots around that intersection. There will be a little legend that says, "Right now, the corner of 14th and Church is 50 percent above normal." There’re more people now at that intersection than there would be ordinarily on a Wednesday night at 7:00.

And if there’s one thing that we know about cities, I think Elias Canetti says it best in "Crowds and Power." "A crowd likes a crowd." So, just the fact of people being in a place and being visibly in a place is probably enough to get other people to go there. And that is probably the simplest manifestation I can think of, of the transition from passive to interactive. Obviously this ramifies; it gets much deeper. But, that is a near-term, real-world example.

We move from way-finding to way-showing. This is fascinating. Historically, cities have been designed to account for the fact that you need to find your way around them. And in 1961, in "The Image of the City," Kevin Lynch talks about the ways in which cities can be designed to help you orient yourself, to locate yourself, to figure out… Neighborhoods are constructed with clear edges and nodes. Pathways are designed clearly. And of course there’re things like signage, and maps that are placed in the public space to help you find your way around cities. There is a very long, deep, rich tradition of way-finding.

But, what if all of that becomes something much more like the condition of a sat nav unit in a car? What if you’ve got a mobile device or some kind of interface to the world that basically says, if you want to get from point A to point B, here are step-by-step directions how to do that? Walk 500 meters this way. Turn sharp left. Go up these stairs. Take this subway car. If you want to get out at this exit, to come out at this side of this intersection. You’re beginning to show the way around the world rather than having to find the way around yourself.

A boon in places. Trust me, it’s a boon in places like Tokyo, which are such incredibly thorny compactions of space, and where the address scheme that they use to express location is not necessarily the easiest to parse. It is an absolute boon if you’re a stranger in a place. You’ve never been there before. You need to have some kind of intercession and assistance in finding your way around.

But, Marshall McLuhan says something that’s really profound and true, and which I tend to quote at every available opportunity. He said that "Every extension is also an amputation."

So, when you grow up, from a really early age being shown the way to everything, and ultimately, when you do have this ubiquitous computational and representational presence in everyday life, maybe it’s almost like… The example I always come to in my mind is that video of Billy Jean, where the tiles of the street light up. Maybe literally, the street in front of you lights up and you just follow that path through the world to your destination.

When you grow up from a very early age having the way shown to you; maybe it’s not even way shown anymore, maybe it is just waying, and that is very elegant, very beautiful, but also very disempowering, because all networks fail, all technologies fail. And what happens when that entire infrastructure of representation about place goes away, even intermittently? What do you do then if that is the only thing you have ever known? What do you do then when every cue that helps you locate yourself in space and time and place goes away?

This is rich enough in that it should probably be a talk in of itself. We begin to move from a context in which things are discrete unitary objects, into being able to see them as services. The best example I can think of is City Car Share, or similar programs or Zip Car, or one of these services where you can lease cars on short-term basis. But, it also applies to the local bicycling network, bicycle schemes like BThing and schemes of that nature.

In 1965, if I wanted to get to work, and I lived in the suburbs, I had a car and that car sat in my driveway and in the morning I got up and I drove that car to work. And I may have driven an hour each way, and maybe had an hour in errands in the evenings. So, that car is being used three hours of everyday. For the rest of the 21 hours of the day, it sits in a parking lot.

Imagine all of the materials, then all of the wealth, and all of the energy that went into making enough cars to serve people like that. You have the ecosystem you have now with all of its obvious limitations and sort of scary implications. But, when that car becomes networked and when it is able to locate itself, you can begin to lease access to it on an hourly basis and do so that is efficient in a way of over an urban landscape.

The one object, the vehicle, you have to think of it as a service now; its edges begin to blur. It is not so much a product in space and time but a proposition; a proposition that is accessible by multiple people, different rates, and different times. Eight, ten or twelve people can use that car during those 21 hours of the day that it would have sat vacant and then used otherwise.

So, you can turn this really painfully underutilized resource into something that is utilized; it is something close to its optimal peek utilization. If you are concerned about environmental efficiency, things obviously get much more environmentally efficient, but they also get more socially interesting.

I am really excited by all of the implications that happened when every previously discrete object in the world has its network location and represents something of its current condition, location status to the world through the network. I am really encouraged by what happens when things become more service-like, more open-ended. It kind of means capitalism has to change though.

One of the consequences of that is that you have to think about things instead of being a vehicle; this is now more like an abstract quantity of mobility. I think it is all well and good that we are currently re-engineering the car to become electric or hydrogen powered or something like that. But, that is ultimately kind of a twentieth century solution to things. Why not think, if we have this ability to do way showing, and maybe even waying; and, if we have these sort of network shared services that we think of now as cars and bicycles.

When you are planning a route through space, do not think about it as having to do with any one or another mode of travel. Think of it instead as a proposition sewn together from available bicycles, available public transit, maybe even available shared car services. You have to start to plot routes through space that are something more like an abstract notion of mobility from one place to another.

This really begins to etch away at the idea of what it means to own something. Maybe I don’t need to own something to make use of it. The best current example I have is Spotify, it’s actually a music service that… It has ambitions to have all of music on their service, on their servers, and I don’t have to have local copies of those songs to listen to them, I just need to set up a playlist on Spotify. It lives somewhere else. I have access to it. In the parlance of our times, it lives in the cloud, and I don’t need to worry about that.

Extend this logic to space and to objects in space, and things begin to get really interesting. Maybe I don’t need to own things locally to make maximum use of them. Maybe I don’t express my personality through a car anymore, and through ownership of that car, because I get everything I need from that car out of a shared service and a mobility system.

Maybe the set of potentials and opportunities that are available to me begin to look a lot more open-ended and fuzzy than this kind of very twentieth century paradigm of, oh yes, I buy something, and I use it. It’s spent millennia as oil in the ground. It’s turned into an object that I use and buy for a year, and then I throw it away and it sits in a landfill for the next seventeen thousand years. Maybe things get a lot closer to peak optimization and use.

It changes utterly the conditions of corporate late-stage capitalism. It changes utterly the social circumstances of our lives. It brings us all into contact with entirely different networks of people that we might have had access to before or have had available to us. It changes things radically.

I would go so far as to say that this transition to a non-rivalrous, open-ended economy, I think our current global economic downturn—this is just a guess and a supposition—I think what we’re feeling is the first promontory shocks of a more general recognition that we’re moving out of consumerism and more towards something else that isn’t quite born yet, but is out there in the network condition. I think that some people already suspect that fairly strongly, and I think it’s beginning to etch away at the assumptions that undergird our economy.

This is different, this is just me indulging myself, a shelling place. If I told this audience that I’m going to be in New York at noon tomorrow, and I’ll meet you there, I’ll meet you at noon tomorrow in New York City, where you going to meet me if you have no more information that that? Anybody have… Raise your hand if you have an idea of where I’m going to meet you.

Audience member:

Time Square.


Time Square. Anybody else? Over there?

Audience member:

Grand Central Station.


That’s what I’m looking for. Thank you. Traditionally the clock in Grand Central has been what is called a shelling point, it’s been a node of unconscious coordination. We have traditionally needed artifacts and landmarks like that to make sense of urban place. Most cities, most urban places, have one of these things. In Tokyo it’s the statue of the dog in Hachiko Square in Shibuya Station. I don’t know what it is in London. What is it in London?

Audience member:

Under the clock at Waterloo.


Say again.

Audience member:

Under the clock at Waterloo.


Under the clock at Waterloo. Most cities have one of these things because this is how in the absence of effective communication between people, you make appointments. You have to arrange things ahead of time, and the plurality of such things ultimately converge on a couple of high visibility destinations—which is why these artifacts kind of bubble up from the bottom, and why there’s such thing as shelling points.

Obviously, when everything is networked, you don’t need that anymore. You get soft appointments. You get shoaling activity. You get people saying on four square, I’m at the magician on Rivington Street. And that functions as an attractor around which people shoal. Social activity changes. Social activity begins to be much less about specific times and points and places and much more about converging on some kind of vector where people either are, have expressed their presence or have expressed an intention to be. We get something that looks actually a lot more like the flocking of birds, or the shoaling of fish.

And if you’re a student of cities, this is the kind of thing that is promontory of a great many other changes. It means that the sorts of opportunities that you have to present people with, the ways that you structure and orient your proposition to people changes. But it also means that space changes.

And I think ultimately, we begin to see a transition from everything we’ve understood as community to a much more conscious social network. And this is something that I think is wonderful, but it also has real, deep, significant potential challenges.

Neighborhoods subsist on a very delicate balance of knowledge about the other people around you. This is something that Goffman calls the "nod line." It’s a sort of, a nod line is a minimal acquaintance of somebody. You recognize them, you know them just well enough to kind of nod at them in the morning, and maybe say a couple of phatic words, "Oh, nice day we’re having." But, you don’t know anything else about them.

And it turns out, that’s kind of an optimum for the cohesion of a neighborhood or small social unit. It turns out that you don’t want to know too much about the other people around you.

A friend of mine likes to tell a story about how he broke his building in New York. He lived in something like a six-unit condo in Brooklyn. And everybody there in the building kind of got along, and liked each other, and was really comfortable, and then he said, "Hey, why don’t we do like a discussion board or a bulletin board system for the building."

So, he designed one. He designed this web front-end on the social experience of the building. And within just a couple of months, the building was broken. The turnover rate in those condos was unbelievable. It’s like four of the six units were on the market within just a couple of months.

And the reason was, that the amount of information available about the other people around them had gone through and crossed a threshold. It turns out you don’t want to know that your neighborhood is a Scientologist, or a Tory, or whatever. You don’t want to know these things about your neighbors. Cohesion requires a dissembling about them. It requires a sense of plausible deniability that allows us to get along with each other.

When things are too explicit, when things are too available, too persistent, when the multiple selves that we present to the world are laminated into a single one, and anchored to space, some kinds of situations get impossible. Some kinds of situations become untenable. One of those situations may be neighborhood as we’ve traditionally constructed it.

So, I’m concerned about this. I’m also concerned that when you have 120 friends on Facebook or whatever the average is, most of those friends resemble you in some strong way. This is how social networking software, as it currently exists, tends to underlie the creation of connections. Yes, it’s sort of a connectionist philosophy underlying the social network, but you tend to only associate by affinity, by choice.

That’s not the way cities work. The prospect of a city is precisely the normal, ordinary, daily cheek-by-jowl confrontation with the other, with the different, with the separate.

And everything interesting happens at the interface between two different things, between two different conditions. Whether we’re talking about ethnicity, or class, or race, or gender, or income level. However you want to construct these things, everything interesting about cities happens at the interface between two tense, discrete, divergent conditions.

Now, when I say interesting, it’s obvious that I also mean uncomfortable, and sad, and heartbreaking, and disturbing, and threatening. But, I also mean interesting in all of its positive senses. And something that I’ve watched happen to my hometown, New York City, over the last couple of years, is an increasing homogenization, that doesn’t yet have anything to do with homogenization of social networking.

But, when you begin to superimpose the logic of social network space onto physical space, and when you begin simultaneously to assault the foundations of neighborhood, when places become more self-similar as opposed to enforcing on a daily basis the encounter with the other, I don’t know what happens, but I have a sneaking suspicion it looks a lot like the suburbs. It looks a lot like the suburbs in all of its manifestations. And guess what? I moved from the city to get away from the suburbs. I didn’t suspect that the suburbs were going to catch up with me.

So, what I’m asking for is a design of interfaces to these conditions that preserves and maintains, not artificially, and not out of sentimentality, and certainly not out of any heavy historical responsibility, but for purely functional reasons, maintains some of the things that have constituted human experience in urban spaces in time in memoriam.

We should preserve those things because they work. We should design to them because they have been arrived at after an awful lot of trial and error. And they’ve been arrived at in culture after culture, place after place. They exist and they persist because they function. And if in our design of networked cities, we overwrite that or overrun that, I think we’re asking for a lot of trouble.

But, I don’t want to end on that note. I want to end on a much more positive note, because I really do think that we have an extraordinarily, and epochal opportunity here. We have an opportunity to move from willy-nilly consumers of urban space and experience, into constituents of it—and I mean it in every deep, political sense—co-creators and equal constituents of the experiences that we partake of, and the experiences that everybody else partakes of.

I think that we have the opportunity with networked urbanism to invent a whole new way of being human on this planet, and a whole new way of experiencing the diversity and the complexity of urban space, to underwrite the vitality, the richness, and the conviviality, that potentially waits for us there—but, only if we design it properly. And obviously that properly is going to be different from city to city, from country to country, from community to community, but it requires sensitivity, delicacy, and tact.

And circling way back around, if there’s any one thing that my experience teaches me is not bloody likely to come out of the technology sector, it’s precisely that sensitivity, intelligence, and tact.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m excited by it. I’m scared by it. I think in the end a lot of it’s going to be up to us and people who look like us. Because we’re going to be the ones that are interacting with the technical systems that wind up producing the effects. Everything deep in the architecture that begins to condition potential and experience.

An increasing amount of that is going to be technical, and Internet-technical, in ways that people in this room will be very comfortable with, and will recognize implicitly and immediately. So, the power and the grandeur in a lot of senses really is with people like you and me.

I hope that we understand the immensity of the challenge before us. I hope that we really appreciate the power that’s now in our hands. And I would encourage us to take that power and go out and make great, profound, enriching urban experiences happen for us and for everybody else on the planet.

Thank you very much, I’ve really appreciated being here, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the talk.



You guys are super generous. That’s like 30 seconds longer than I ever get applause for. I think we have time, I hope we have time, for a couple of questions, because questions are the best part. One, two, can we go, four. Four minutes, OK. I hope there are questions, because I like Q&A the best out of anything that I do in presenting, so ask, if there are any.

Audience member:




Audience member:

Is consumerism, the consumerism side as we have now is that, that is going to change through service base citing. But, is privacy going to be the binding factor, the tipping point, the problem that people are not going to own a product and go to use a service for a proposition? Because if I have a car, that is my car, I can go anywhere, it does not have a RFID tag yet, I can go out of my city, go to Amsterdam, go to London. I will not get logged yet, except in the parts where they want to speed trap me.



Audience member:

But, if I use a service, I am going to be logged everywhere because I am from the Netherlands. We have the OV chip car now. That is a really big controversy. They have an RFID chip. It is all privacy problems right now because they have a lot of investment into it.


Yeah, I am going to stop you there just because we have such brief time for questions, please forgive me.

Audience member:

Yeah, sure.


I think that the gist of the question is clear. Thank you. It is an important question, it is the right question. What happens to privacy under the network conditions that we are discussing?

And I think pretty obviously, unless something is very explicitly done to preserve it, the momentum in the paradigms that we have set up so far, is for privacy to begin to be a rodent. I think that certainly in the systems that I design, I try to design them as such that people who want to use them, always have some kind of guarantee of actually perfect privacy, of having any trace of their use of their system disappear immediately and having that utterly effaced from history.

My bosses and the governments that they write contracts with are not always comfortable with that, and may take fairly significant steps to prevent systems from being deployed that actually do act to enhance personal autonomy and privacy.

I am not religious about these things. I think these are always tradeoffs, and I think that sometimes you give up privacy and in return for that privacy, if in fact you are offered something of great worth and value, that that may be a deal that is worth taking. I am not quite as hardcore about this as a lot of people. But, in the systems I design, I do always believe there should at least be the option for people to opt out of that kind of visibility and representation to the system entirely.

When you do opt out, there are penalties associated with that unavoidably. It is very hard to design network systems that deliver to your services that do not require some account, at least of your physical presence.

But, I think through fairly elaborate dodges of tokenization, you can get just about everything you need to from an urban information network without necessarily giving up anything decisive about yourself. It is a deep and rich design challenge, and it is something that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about lately. I do not think privacy is as nearly as important, or as foremost in the minds of the vendors of technical systems, as it should be.

I think the developers are mostly kind of EFF libertarianish, in that direction. I am happy and comfortable with that because I think that they are doing a lot of hard work to preserve our autonomy and freedom, whether or not we personally are quite that threatened by privacy as they are.

But again, the grand jurors at the governmental corporate level, and I think we need to be working a lot harder to be sure that the systems get in place and that we are exposed to like oyster, octopus, … These things have protection from privacy built into them, and if they do not, then we should call attention to that and urge people not to use them. I think we probably have time for one more question.

Audience member:

I just have a couple of questions. The first one was, "Do I want to search?" So, what I mean by that is a lot of the beautifulness about cities is about discovering the things yourself, about going out and being the browser. It feels like the functional need would be the search ability to be able to search data but that ability discovers what being innocent is about. The second question…


Can I speak first? I personally agree with you about 22,000 percent. I have good friends who have design services that attempt to accelerate serendipity, but I am not entirely, as much as I love those friends who are sitting in the audience right now, I am not always entirely convinced by attempts to accelerate serendipity. I would rather accept some measure of disappointment and difficulty as the price of getting to discover things for myself by a happenstance—most of the time.

There are other times when I am on some kind of time or other pressure in which that functionality is not merely useful and congeals me, but might even be vital. So, what I would suggest is ultimately, at least in the present, that we exploit the very partial nature of these network services, and we exploit the fact that not using them is as simple as turning your phone off, or leaving it in your pocket. We still do have that choice, and I would suggest that we make use of it, if we are ever feeling the need to wonder and experience things rally.

And it is certainly true that when I get to a new city for the first time, my immediate panic reaction is to get out my phone and call up a map and try and locate myself, and if I am wise enough to take five or six breaths before I think to do that, then I just walk out from the train station, or wherever I have been left off and I start to get the texture and the grain of the sense through my senses. I am apt to have a much different and still I think more vital and more interesting experience, not always the most deficient one, but a more vital and interesting one. That one, I hope satisfied your first question. I think we have about 32 seconds left.

Audience member:

The second one is about, "Do I not want to own? So, what I mean by that, I completely agree with this kind of ability to use things, but the point about the tangibility of adding to my identity in some way. So, if I cannot own it in its physical form, or I cannot own it, what would be the tangible output to still make me believe that I am using it?


I do not know. I do not know. I am not sure. I think that that entire question might be rooted in some assumptions about things which are very much are our era and of the past. Forgive me for saying so.

I think that if we design things properly, the persistence and the laitance… What you are looking for will be ambiently available. So, you do not need to have some kind of token that you are still logged into the service, or have subscribed to the service, or that it is still a part of your portfolio. You might need to have some sort of notification when those things disappear from your portfolio. But, I cannot answer that yet.

My suspicion is that I am always weary of situating things in the approximate future and saying, "Oh, well when we have design the perfect ultimate evernet and you are walking down the street and you can grab things out of the air," I am weary of that but I would also say that if anything like I am talking about actually does come to pass, then your concern about that will seize to exist. You just will not be worried about it.

As personally somebody from the minimalist aesthetic is really important, I look forward to most things going away and most tokens of things going away and just kind of being able to live in a world where the few moments that are physically represented, or represented with great beauty and attention to detail.

Personally, I look forward to a day where most of that cruft and clutter just evaporates. I think that is probably all the questions we have time for. I would just like to thank you again for being such a generous audience and it is wonderful to be here in Brighton. Thank you so much.




Clearleft is a user experience design consultancy based in Brighton, UK.

We make websites, and in our spare time we like to give something back to the web design community by running dConstruct. It's a grass-roots conference that gathers some of the brightest minds in the industry from around the world, and brings them to our little home by the sea for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

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