The Infrastructure of Safety

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, cities moved away from open spaces. If before the barbaric attacks being next to a river would guarantee florid commercial exchanges, with the new historical conditions open spaces turned into an exposed easy target. Unaccessible natural areas became the most popular locations to guarantee the population’s security. Middle Age cities were indeed enclosed spaces surrounded by walls (or water in the case of Venice) and permanently guarded by soldiers. Through the cultural progress started in the Renaissance cities started their way out of the walls and slowly opening up to XX century Modernist urban design , were walls turned into archeological locations to visit.

The topic of the wall is back to our society (XXI century), even though people links through digital social networks that make the whole global population closer. Digital infrastructure is for us what rivers and streets were for Ancient Roman society: it enable connection for personal or business reasons and make people learn diversities of cultures, ideas, habits, lifestyles. Nonetheless the topic of the wall is trendy again. Besides the wall between the US and Mexico’s border, for which there are competition winners (believe it or not – I probably suggest to give a look at Manfredo Tafuri’s books, Antonio da Sangallo might be of help), wall is an urban and architectural “accessory” back to fashion on the topic of urban safety.

In north Italy a new residential suburban area in Treviso has been built within the perimeter of a wall to defend its community from crime. Interestingly enough Treviso is also the land where Palladio built his villas, which were one the first examples of unwalled architecture.

Recent events put attention on people’s security in public space. Nice, Berlin and London’s attacks targeted crowed spaces. The reaction to Berlin attack was to fortify pedestrian area accesses around Europe with concrete barriers. Historic and central areas became mini fortresses surrounded by police, in a similar style medieval castles were guarded by soldiers. Is this the answer? Do we need to fortify our spaces for safety reason? Do we want to go back of hundreds and hundreds of years? Walls belong to the past, together with fortified architecture and urban design (please keep Sangallo and his fellows to architectural historians not to designer). Walls don’t belong to our society and I don’t think that built infrastructure can give any answer to the problem we are currently facing. Besides the economic and unsustainable cost, people are smarter and dynamic. People adjust, while the wall, and any fortified solution, is there for ages with no possibility of change.

The approach I would go for is creative thinking. This article written by Patrick Dunleavy makes an interesting point around the way our security forces around the globe should focus; approach to security changes people’s behaviour, which is the one that can guarantee the safety of urban communities. A ban has limited impact; a way of thinking creatively, analyse data, patterns behaviour can lead to dynamic solutions with longer impact, which also adjust to changes. What I am proposing is a dynamic infrastructure of ideas that can be shared around communities and networks to learn solutions that adapt to local cultures. What I am thinking is an infrastructure of safety, that people from different cultures, background and with different expertises create to collaborate on making our neighbour, city or nation safer. As Dunleavy suggests, one of the 9/11 attacks didn’t reach its destinations; people reacted. I do hope we can prevent to put people in a danger that leads to sacrifice lives. The understanding of how we can create systems that make people prepared to react and act to save lives looks to me a solution that belongs to our time, our way of thinking and our social progress and innovation.

The Design of the City

Our urban environment has never been so fluid than now. From hailing-based businesses, migrations and shift of urban identities, environmental issues, political boundaries and sovereignty claims to data and autonomation, just to name few, the understanding of physical space needs to combine fluid and overlapping information, which do not stay still, but adjust their mutual impact according to local conditions. Urban space is a kind of entropic environment, which agents loop and, by looping, create many different territories, which influence may last seconds or ages, that affect the next iteration.

Within this landscape the question of urban design becomes a challenge. Which are the data to include? Which parameters we need to look at? Which behaviour we should analyse? There are many questions to be addressed, each one with its own complexity, which makes any strategic planning of any urban environment a challenge. One of the most interesting debates on the topic took place in Quito, last October 2016. The UN Habitat conference started a new conversation. By looking at CIAM, and the design guidelines urbanists draw in 1933, Ricky Burdett, Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett’s conference presentation analysed the human value of those points and the impact they had on the city. The Quito Papers depict urban space as a territory that stages the life of its people. From Saskia Sassen’s “Who owns the City, to Richard Sennett’s “Open/Pourous City” and Ricky Burdett’s accent on the value of design in urban planning the conversation places at the foreground the quality of urban space, the streets that people walk on, that people dwell and occupy; the streets that build urban life. I agree, streets and the life that passes through them and gets transformed, are one of the most interesing aspects to observe to understand patterns of human life.

The autonomous car will be soon the way we move. What does it mean for the street? Owing a car will be possibly replaced by hailing on need. People will move for different reasons, if services are provided by digital infrastructure, which, on its turn, provides a series of sub-infrastructures. The working environment might change too. People will commute for different reasons, at different times. The attentions towards sustainability, and thinking a city as a metabolic system, which energy can be transformed throughout its living organs, can make a huge impact on the people who live the city, because the everyday will change. Which would be the daily routine? How and where people will meet? How the space of the city will react, adapt and transform to different fluxes of people?

To design cities according to fix parameters, which foretell economical trends, then growth, looks no more feasible. Google AI Peter Norvig describes AI “coding” as a work in progress methodology that needs to take into account dynamic patters that adapt and learn from entropic and temporary conditions. At a bigger scale, and bigger problems, the city needs to take into account dynamic information and try to understand how its infrastructure might react and adjust to enable behaviour.

Behaviour is produced by the human factor; people make the city, the way they life, they meet and work create the territory for urban life. People are the central value of urban design. This Wall Street Journal article on the hailization of services in the South East Asia demonstrates how trends adapt to the culture. Any innovation confronts territorial resiliency. Any innovation needs to face local culture, i.e. the way people understand their life, to create its own territory. With innovation I include strategic patterns that influence they way things flow. Indeed the city should confront its own people, and provide them the temporary opportunity capable of relating diversities that, together, design the next move.

When totalitarian politics meets society

During the last stage of my PhD, which analysed the relationship between Fascism and Fascist architecture, I became interested in the use of social networks. I started to observe people’s behaviour, how posts change in relations to social networks, how interactions work and which reaction such interactions cause. The reason why I looked in particular at these aspects lays on the value that architecture and urban squares played for the Fascist propaganda. During his government Mussolini “moulded” Rome in order to transform the space of the city in his stage, as theatre does for actors. Pictures of him speaking in Piazza Venezia from Palazzo Venezia’s balcony are striking for the quantity of people he managed to collect in one place. In addition the Fascist year was a sequence of public events people participated to become witnesses and experience the Fascist propaganda. By experiencing and being part of the marches and “Fascist rituals”, people were no longer a passive audience, but active actors, who granted power to the Fascist leader by being there and witness his version of Italian history. Mussolini wanted to be recognised as modern emperor, heir of the Roman great emperors of the past. Nonetheless to be an undisputed leader of modern Italy he needed to bound Italians under one flag and common identity, which was still unclear to the most as Italy became a nation in 1860, after being divided for centuries since the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD. To achieve his goals Mussolini worked carefully on the Italian shared memories of the past: “What if I am the heir of Augustus, Adriano, Caesar? People would believe it, they will recognise my power with no questions, like religion does.

I am been quite disturbed by the recent history, i.e. the emergence of populism around the world. For my three-ish years spent on reading archive Fascist documents, I’ve got a bad feeling. Is it coming back? It has been disturbing seeing people getting used to the worst, and making the worst the new normal.

Back to social networks and the “urban quality” they have, I observed that people’s behaviour resembles “public space” (as it is not public at all) interactions. If on one hand the value of contemporary physical space has decreased, in terms of the social bound it triggers, on the other hand people got more confident with digital social network interactions. Another element to add is the political engagement in social networks, like Facebook presidential campaigns and politicians’ tweets.

Of course we know who is currently the “campion” “politician” on Twitter. Indeed the recents facts of the United States politics, reminded me my PhD thesis. If in 1930s architecture and urban space played a pivotal role for the Fascist regime, nowadays 140 characters do. The use of Twitter for political propaganda is quite interesting. How to speak in 140 characters?

Back to my thesis. Mussolini shaped Rome as the stage of his propaganda. He worked out how people had to behave, by balancing the relationship between empty/solid space. Fascist marches run at a specific pace; they gave rhythm to people’s experience. Marches and public speeches were sophisticated machines that bridged Italians’ collective memory to the present. A BBC programme analysed the way the current US president tweets. The simplicity of the message is not a case; the rhythm of his tweets either. The two together are well balanced; they enter the threads of social networks’ infrastructure, and the way people use them. None of his tweets sounds out of place. Tweets are not a speeches; they are a comments, as anyone’s else. By reading this article from Politico I noticed another similarity with the Fascist leader. The US president’s presidential speech looks like the Roman empire story Mussolini constructed to be recognised as unique and undisputed leader. By portraying a dark age (not even Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring”- “The Two Towers” – managed to give such dark picture); Trump ignites the public with dark mood, which makes anyone feel lost, with no direction and hope for the future. Such state of mind returns a tabula rasa feeing, i.e. makes one think: “where do we start? Is there any light? What can we do?”

Then it comes the next bit. Trump said that he is giving power back to American people, i.e. “if you give me power I will help you to go through this dark period”. Hence the answer from the public perception would be: “Great somebody can help, he can drive us out of such grim present. Let’s trust him and he will help us”. Trump speaks at singular; it looks he doesn’t have any team to help. He is the man. People need to trust him.

I am personally feeling quite lost too, but after observing and reading around I need to react. This is all perception. Politics, as many other storytelling based disciplines, is based on stories one can believe or not. The US president’s reality is not mine. I have hope and I think I am not alone. We can contrast the way the present, and the future, have been portrayed to us by thinking – and making- a different future by taking actions through what we do.

Piazza 3.0

The brand new AmazonGo is a great metaphor of the state of our the real, digital and physical. The detail that Amazon caught quite well is that, indeed, the physical and the digital look as part of the same “whole”. When we describe our interactions with the digital we quite often make a distinction from the physical. AmazonGo represents that this is not true; our interactions with technology tell a different story. To be in the digital is equal to be in the physical; from social interactions, jobs, getting things done, etc. The Seattle based company found, and well combined together, the technological infrastructure to make this happen.

Amazon understands that humans are made of bones, and they like stuff; stuff you can show, share, touch. Even though you make your shopping online you do like the thing. There is not any VR that can generate the same satisfaction of buying a very cool brand new pair of trainers and show them to friends in (at) Instagram or at the pub. The bound we have with stuff is ontological. I don’t believe there is any technology capable of replacing such bound. Even though VR engages the body by simulating other senses – like smell and touch – our physical relationship with our stuff wins. Maurizia Boscagli’s book “Stuff Theory” frames quite well such relationship.

On the other hand the possibility that AmazonGo opens relates to the way we interact with people and space. What can the retail world learn from this? Is it only about retail or it can also extend to our house, place we work, exhibitions we visit, etc. ? What is the opportunity that our everyday space can take from it?

The reason why I used the word ontological to describe our relationship with stuff is because we associate a “human” value to the things we own. Once we get possess of our stuff, whether home or shoes, we assign a value. Value is not universal and it’s not about the stoke market. It is the literal human quality things have for us. It is related to the memories we associate to the object, the kind of experience the object represents to us. There is an embodied process of events encoded in the objects we own. I think it is not projected, as Walter Benjamin described in the Arcade’s Project. What does this mean for our everyday infrastructure? What does it mean for our experience of the physical/digital world? What can the AmazonGo model trigger and generate in terms of the physical experience we have with humans and things? Which consequences are related to the use of technology to smooth, and blur, our digital/physical interactions with humans and things? I believe these are questions to address in order to generate new forms of social opportunities. Where “people” should be?  Is it about a special meal you want to cook for a special occasion? Is it about joining a talk of a new book?

The over celebrated model of the Italian piazza was at the beginning a market. People met for a reason. There was an embodied system of exchange that called other factors, which over time became what we know as “piazza”. What is the piazza3.0?

 

The space in between

The National Gallery in London is currently exhibiting a selection of Caravaggio’s paintings. The exhibition includes also those that imitated Caravaggio’s style. As I was given the space to compare Caravaggio’s work to his followers I understood which is the factor that glues me in front of any Caravaggio’s work: “the space in between”. When I stop in front of any of his work I have the feeling that the painting is meant to fill the space between myself and the canvas. The scene looks as a suspended action, not a frame, but something that is meant to continue . A looping tableau vivant that never gets completed and it is open to a plethora of interpretations. The way light, colours, characters are composed together makes the scene extend beyond the space of the canvas; time and the subject become relative. The space in between doesn’t have any shape; it is an intimate place that each viewer can design through observation. The space transcends any subject, wether religious or mythological. The subject is the pretest of a superficial interpretation; once indeed the subject disappears, the tension of the space in between bounds the viewer to the painting. The tension is made of different factors: light, position of the character, emergence of part of the scene that hides others, etc.  The effect of the painting reaches my senses without any specific reason. The ability of the painter consists indeed in the creation of a suspended place that leaves any viewer the freedom of interpretation. Caravaggio must have been a good observer of street dwellers. His characters’ eyes, facial expressions and body’s posture are his language through which he designs theatrical scenes of chiaroscuros. I suppose that the universality that Caravaggio’s paintings give to any society is given by the freedom each of us has to imagine what we see in it, without any guideline. When visiting the exhibition try to have a go without audio guides!

The Language of AI

In this article from the Harvard Business Review it is recommended to not swear at any form of AI; as they are learning from us it may cost our career. In other words we should start treating AI with respect. Please do not use inappropriate language and think them as kitties.

With Tay Microsoft had quite an experience in learning what happens if you leave your AI follow Internet trends. Humans, we know, are not always nice. In particular the Internet gives us many examples of how human interaction is not always for the good of knowledge.

I would like to reflect on another point though, which calls AI speech improvements. One of the best features Google Pixel offers is Google Assistant. Assistant learns from you and your interaction with the phone, hence the world around you. By learning your behaviour Assistant can anticipate your actions, can join your conversations and interface with third parties like Uber. Google AI relies on an improved “understanding” of human-like thinking and language. As its human resolution gets better you might end up establish an empathic relationship with your AI and treat it as human.

Nonetheless do we need to create different kinds of humans? What can they offer to us, more than mimicry our actions to the point of believing them alive entities? Chatbots are currently used to replicated our beloveds when they pass away, by learning “language styles”. What is the ontological social role, and value, of AI? Do we want them to give us immortality? Do we want them to replicate us? Do they need then to develop human empathy? For which reason? I suppose one way to analyse the context is language. Language, indeed, is the first human vehicle, whether written or spoken, that helps with establish relationships. We do need a form of language to establish any form of connection with the other party. As AI navigate the blurred threshold of quasi-human, as we do, we can acknowledge their “being”, hence their social presence, by giving them a language. Such action blurs the human-AI threshold and makes us, human, look like machines. Is this what we want?

On another hand can machine have their own language, based on the skills and opportunities they cab open for us to live a better world? By changing the way they speak I suppose human perception and understanding of AI might take another route and open different kinds of opportunities for human-machine collaboration.

When Design is the “Shell” of Technology

One of the projects exhibited at the Oslo Architecture Biennale – which is described in The Guardian – tells the story of Mark and the experience he provides through Airbnb. Mark’s homes stage family everyday living. You will find family’s pictures and anything that will satisfy your imaginary of renting a family home. Well, it’s all fake. Mark’s business hacked the Airbnb’s keystone value: dwelling the everyday of anybody’s home with all the memories, artefacts and memorabilia that each of us collect along our life.

Airbnb’s strategy, indeed, uses the human’s perceived meaning of intimacy into a business value (which Mark flipped into the core of his business). The more the host makes you feel home, the more the accommodation will provide the experience – and good rating- you are expecting to live visiting the place, whether you ever been there or not. Intimacy is no longer a private sphere of our being, which takes shape through a series of objects we relate to. Intimacy is something you can sell. Your life goes on market (and rated), as much your image does with selfies.

Airbnb is not the only company “looking after” people’s interiors – with the collection of objects and memories; Amazon and Google are also on the same page. Amazon Alexa is indeed an artificial intelligence capable of sensing the environment. Alexa learns from you, about your taste, what you read, the music you listen, the place you visit, the friends you see,.., the list is quite long; Alexa absorbs your life, so that it can “suggest” Amazon what to suggest to you. Whether in Airbnb your intimacy mimics the social masks you need to wear to perform the character your house is placed in (romantic, modern, family, etc), Alexa moulds the character (you indeed).

Similarly Google is shifting its business approach by changing what made them very successful: search engine. According to this article in the MIT Technology Review Google is ready to introduce Assistant to the public. Assistant is a “third person” that reads you and the environment you are in (physical and digital) to make suggestions. The ambition is to turn Google search from a general page you can type in to a custom, interactive character that suggests information, whether asked or not. Assistant can enter a conversation you are having with friends and make suggestions on the topics of discussion.

Alexa, Assistant and Airbnb make design the Shell (under Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour’s perspective) of technology, at different scale of course. What does design propose more than decorating technology’s performances (both aesthetically and technically)? Is there any value that design adds, besides embodying sensors that can connect you to the Internet? Interiors and products are interfaces at different scales that provide information. We interact with spaces and objects through algorithms that “learn” our behavior to loop information back to the private company, then us. What we achieve is a chewed digested information. If interiors will be probably designed to satisfy the best AI scanning (as currently shopping mall are designed to give shops the most of visibility) and objects to keep us “busy”, what can design do? Probably I need to define what I mean with design. The human passion for making and working with materials, thinking about mechanism, sorting problems, satisfying needs. Does design still performe a service to society?