1 March 2009

Carlo Ratti, Dan Hill and Anne Galloway on the ‘long here’ at LIFT09

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LIFT 2009
One of the best sessions of the entire LIFT conference took place on Thursday afternoon.

As half of the world is now living in cities, it’s undeniable that the recombination of our physical environment through technological advancements will lead to unexpected changes, problems but also new opportunities. Carlo Ratti, Dan Hill and Anne Galloway discussed how our relationship to space will change through various new technologies and examine the main challenges of this field.

Note: this post contains embedded video which might now not show up in your rss feed.

Carlo Ratti

An architect, engineer and agit-prop, Carlo Ratti (wikipedia) practices in Torino, Italy, and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, where he directs the SENSEable City Laboratory.

The digital layer didn’t really kill the physical layer. They combined. Bits and data are coming together to provide new types of experiences in urban space. The challenge is to provide new ways of sense making by getting rid of all the information we don’t need.

To illustrate the point of information visualisation, Carlo showed a lot of work that has taken place at the SENSEable City Lab.
Cellphone activity during the World Cup Final in Rome
Real Time Rome
The world’s eyes (based on Flickr location data)
globe encounters
the world inside new york
Digital Water Pavilion for Zaragoza 2008

Dan Hill

(Note that the above video is actually in English, and not in French).

Dan Hill (blog) has been working at the forefront of innovative information and communication technologies (ICT) since the early ‘90s. He was one of the key architects of a BBC redesigned for the on-demand media age, launched Monocle magazine, organised the architecture and urbanism conference, Postopolis, in New York, and runs City of Sound, generally acclaimed as one of the leading architecture and urbanism websites. For Arup, Dan is helping clients explore the possibilities of ICT from a creative, design-led perspective, re-thinking how information changes streets and cities, neighbourhoods and organisations, mobility and work, play and public space.

Dan started off his talk “soft infrastructure” with a particularly vivid example of soft infrastructure attacking, i.e. not behaving as it should be, as he spent four days getting from Australia to Zurich.

It may not matter how good the hard infrastructure is, it is the soft infrastructure that affects how you feel, what the experience is like.

At ARUP, a hardcore engineering firm, Dan deals with interaction design, software design, IA, service design, looking at the wider context of the organisation, systems and people, urban design, urban informatics. But not only.

Soft infrastructure is also about business models, the legal and political context, the belief systems and the social and cultural fabric.

Dan then takes a step back and showed the movie “The City”, the Regional Planning Association of America’s plea for community chaotic cities and urban sprawl (watch it here: part 1 and part 2).

Another example of that mindset is the book New Movement in Cities (1966, featuring several pre-Archigram diagrams from Warren Chalk, Ron Herron and Dennis Crompton) that shows a city of arteries and tubes, and a clip from the magisterial 1963 film Hands Over the City, directed by Francesco Rosi.

What happened?
Why didn’t these visions of the future turn out differently?

People happened, not technology.
Social, cultural and political belief systems changed.
Industry moved out of cities, and finance moved in.
And the leisure society didn’t happen at all.
The city became valued by pocket calculators (something to slice and dice).

Soft infrastructure gives us a few possibilities though, and one of them is the possibility to bend the physical city, e.g. through informational approaches to transit (examples are MIT’s City Car project and the Volkswagen 2028 project).

Both these projects are based on freedom and availability, but not on ownership.

The city of the future is the walking city, the biking city – with human-scaled, walkable urbanism, augmented with informatics.

These interventions – e.g. bikesharing – change how the city feels without changing the physical infrastructure. Other ways of doing this is by providing people with real-time information about their city.

This makes you feel as if you are in control of the transit network and not the other way around, and pulls the transit network back down to the level of people.

Another change that informatics is bringing about is that work is becoming invisible. You don’t know anymore what knowledge workers are working on. So how can we make this invisible work visible again?

The latent promise of informatics is that things can indeed change in response to information, and we need to use user-centred design techniques in this context.

Read also this excellent post-talk reflection by Dan, which contains several of the videos he presented.

Anne Galloway

There is no video of the talk (yet) by Anne Galloway, which is too bad, because she is quite an engaging speaker and my notes are not too great.

Anne Galloway (site | blog) who teaches design and computation arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, recently completed a PhD in sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, which involved an ethnographic study of the design of mobile and pervasive technologies for urban environments. Interested in connections between technological, spatial and cultural practices, Anne’s current research explores how actor-network theory and critiques of everyday life can help people understand and shape emergent technologies.

When envisioning the future city, we also have to address people’s expectations, promises and hopes. These however are not qualities we have, but actions we do. We expect. We promise. We hope.

They make some futures and not others.
They guide our activities and provide structure & legitimation.
They attract interest and foster investment.
They define roles & clarify duties.
They offer visions of how to prepare for opportunities and risks.
They mobilise resources at global, national, institutional and individual levels.
They warrant the production of measurements, calculations and models.
They broker relationships between different people & groups.
They build mutually binding, obligations and groups.

What if we imagine the future city as a gift we want to give people?

Gifts are powerful, but gifting is tricky business.

The gift
– what is the relationship between the giver and the receiver?
– what can each expect of the other?
– how do you know she evens wants your gift?

– how will you know if he appreciates your gift?
– what will you do if she dislikes your gift?
– how will you act if he misuses your gift?
Have you ever gotten a great gift you didn’t use?

Now let’s think again about gifted cities. Cities that provide us with ‘interesting information’ and feedback loops, for free, for us to use.

But what am I going to do with that?
What are we going to do with these presents?

Citizens, the argument goes, can use these data to take political action, to better map the environment around them.

But this requires first of all that we want to be data collectors and that we have the ability to make sense of the data we collect.

The new urban citizen in other words creates “gifted risks”
– when active citizenship requires access to technology, people without access effectively become non-citizens.
– when scientific data are the most appropriate types of evidence a citizen can collect, political action relies on conformity to existing structure of knowledge and power.

So in conclusion, when you are building the new city,
– what kind of future city do you hope to give?
– what kind of city do you hope to receive?

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