Contradiction of Urban Storytelling

During one of my news shuffling over the Internet I ended up collecting two articles which describe a quite similar topic: the controversy of displaying objects in public space to influence communities’ affection to the nation – and the related sense of belonging – through crafted narratives. One article from the BBC describes how the artist Sebastian Errazuriz “vandalised”  the AR Ballon Dog Sculpture virtually displayed in NY Central Park through Snapchat. The other one describes how monuments, and the reason why they are built, are still top topics of public debate.

Both stories revolve around the “value of public displaying” as an action that imposes a specific narrative crafted by the author and represented by the object. In the Snapchat AR Ballon’ case the controversy is subtle: a private company virtually “occupies” public space which is “vital to open up a dialogue” (Sebastian Errazuriz). For the artist this is worrying because, if not stopped – or at least addresses – it could become a potential trend where private companies are allowed to use public space to generate marketing focused engagement. This action is quite different from a traditional billboard, which generally visualises a message that any passersby might engage with or not depending on interests (nonetheless this is something under transformation as Piccadilly Circus new LED screens demonstrate through embedded sensors which track people to generate interactive content); under this light the human presence in public space is a rich source of data which can be used to target anyone’s life, ie the space people inhabit through identity to influence habits and everyday rituals.

Being aware that contemporary social life takes mainly place in the virtual space of social networks, where personal and professional relationships are built, digital interactions do influence people’s lives. Nonetheless digital space is still an unruled (or under-legislated) territory that can target private citizens to shape and direct tangible choices and decisions. Indeed digital actions are not virtual, they do have physical and tangible effects, even though not clearly acknowledged.
How can digital social space achieve the equal level of public understanding currently recognised to physical spaces? How can digital space trigger behaviour that supports public debate?  For its own terms public space is supposed to be the place that keeps dialogue among and across citizens. It is the space of encounter which members are given an equal rule and right. Nonetheless such equality becomes unbalanced when an object representing a narrative directs and clusters opinions that flat and direct the level of debate. A public monument is indeed the tangible visualisation of a commissioned story. Who owns the truth in public space? Are still monuments media of liable common identification? Are they able to describe the plethora of stories community members share? Do they still work as communication media entitled of tell collective narratives? History per se is a controversial topic, which course of events is written by parties and monuments are the tangible visualisation of such biased realities.

Interactive and experience based contemporary society could perhaps introduce new values that would change both the digital and physical space in terms of public debate. Indeed as place designed for communities public space needs to keep its role of teaching new generations the facts of the past. For what the City Lab article describes is the monument still the right media to use? How can public space become a place capable of hosting the plethora of identities that characterise our cities?

Both the AR Snapchat Dog and statues are interfaces that contribute to enforce narratives from those in power. If in our society private corporations like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat become the political authorities that own the space where we interact, share ideas and make social connections, what would be our culture? In the near future will be engaged by “branded” Nelsons (Trafalgar Square monument)? Will Nelson serve the politics of Google, Snapchat, Facebook by transforming his history for their marketing campaign? Will we be passing to future generations values associated to brands and how brands would like us to think? There might be another different route to follow, which works through the engaging aspect under which digital reality has been developed so far which can make a different use of public space as the actual place where different historical events, belonging to different culture, take place across time. Public space could indeed display the plethora of cultural identities that built its own agency across time.

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Urban Data for Smart Creative and Participated Thinking

Since “Big Data” became the currency of our society for influencing the process of decisions-making across many fields (from finance, to politics, retail, manufacturing, transportation, etc), a wide range of sensors have been designed to record and display information that substantially influence  the understanding and designing of digital and physical scenarios. In 1854 Dr John Snow demonstrated that cholera was not transmitted by “bad air” but contaminated water. He reached this conclusion by observing the map illustrating the number of deaths and wells in the neighbourhood of Soho in London. Indeed data helped build the case to review the existing scientific knowledge by linking the dynamics of transmission to the related environmental factors. Data played a key role for outlining the connections in the context. Nonetheless in our society data are employed otherwise. In urban planning, for instance, the information data generate doesn’t look at the context but focuses on what data literally display, which only gives a “partial truth”. Quantitative data help place related scenarios in context, but they don’t interpret, understand and evaluate information. It then follows that decision-makers across fields are half-blinded for the trust they put on data-visualiser instruments, which are not able to display the full picture.

To make the most of data in a urban related environments I would ask the following questions: what cities are for? Why do we live in cities? Why do we have cities in first place and not small urban clusters spread across the territory?

These questions shift the perspective of observation and put attention on the opportunities cities offer in terms of work, connections, diversity, entertainment, you name it. Indeed cities are special systems of places, which overlap and clustering make the reason why we want to live close to each other. Under this light why are urban data mainly used to design the most efficient system to produce value and to move, “store” and educate people?  Should the reason why people  move, live, make value and educate be the most relevant question to ask? This article from Citylab nicely analyses the problem by giving voices to the actual citizens, who explain what sensor based-data can’t actually offer.

The formula of engaging urban dwellers in the design of urban strategies through participation reveals a plethora of opportunities. By dinamically switching the lenses of observation participation can design flexible and sustainable ecosystems that include and embody the complexity of everyday life. In the essay “The Methodology of Participatory Design” Clay Spinuzzi describes how participation is a method first tested in the work environment to empower workers and the knowledge they build across time through experience. With participation tacit knowledge gets a pivotal role; the process of design is dynamically updated in relation to it and built across the participants’ engagement. For such value participation in urban design can offer better pictures of the diverse and complex dynamics any urban environment shapes – from mobility to housing – to develop custom solutions, which can be updated in relation to the surrounding context. In this paper I argue that data become a pivotal design strategy when used by the authors. In other words if data become matter of design that empower the general public of creative thinking it is possible to design resilient and sustainable cities that understand both the territory and the related community. The designer’s role is to oversee, understand, interpret, facilitate and create the dynamic tools that interface people, environment and infrastructure via technology. Under this light participation is a design tool that guides the process of shaping the dynamic outcomes by means of collaborative and dynamic processes that build places  through participants’ tacit knowledge and designers’ expertise .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mobile Cities

Few days ago the tech news world was been dominated by the Amazon’s Whole Food acquisition. Different sources speculated around the strategic value Whole Food has in Amazon’s current business, as the Seattle company has been already experimenting on grocery from a delivery perspective (AmazonFresh) and location (AmazonGo). Where does Whole Food stays? Reading this article in Wired I sense that the company is looking for a wider spectrum that possibly aims to join the physical and the digital world, by means of people, cities and infrastructure. The Wired article points out that AmazonFresh has a delivery problem: i.e. even though fresh vegetables are delivered to you in instants of (Amazon) time, there is a “pick up” issue. Customers are not always available for pick up, thus making any purchase ready for bin. With AmazonGo the company made physical the digital web experience. By removing “human employees”, customers can stroll around the shelves and leave with no queue; the app identifies individuals, and their shopping list, thus making the payment touchless. However the problem is that customers actually need to go to the grocery store; the convenience of having custom deliveries falls, which has been Amazon strength since the beginning.

Moby Mart is an automated grocery store, which “satellites” around the city. Imagine a food truck, but with some embedded AI, which can read on demand customers’ needs and keep food fresh until needed. Of course the project is only a prototype, but it is very fascinating in terms of the conversation it opens on automated mobility, urban design and digital/physical infrastructure. Imagine that still becomes obsolete and shops, services, etc are able to move around the city like Uber. A dynamic urban space, which deletes centuries of urban planning and creates different kind of places, which parameters are no longer defined by residence/green/retail/industry etc but on the relationship people make around the physicality of a place.

I might be quite optimist and, of course, I am concentrating only on the positive opportunity I can see emerging. However the possibility of creating a city based on human networks, which become triggers of social, economical, leisure, political opportunities sounds exciting.

The near future looks like the Plug-In City  Archigram envisioned in 1960s. The innovative perspective the dynamic Moby Mart scenario offers is the elimination of the shell, the physical confined space that creates the building/city, for a mobile, fluid and dynamic space of interactions, like digital networks already achieve in digital space.

Architecture that builds values

 The Economist 1843 Magazine ‘s  article, ” Versailles in the Valley”, frames quite well the current trend of digital corporations – like Facebook, Google and Apple – in building headquarters which represent the brand values. Versailles was the palace that Louis XIV built to centralise his power through parties and events that entertained Parisian aristocracy; the Versailles in the Valley symbolises a similar status. Facebook, Google and Apple campuses are palaces, which make tangible the politics of the brand. Whether sustainability, sharability, “open source”, etc brand palaces look after the physicality of the images that makes them real (it’s a kind of skeuomorphism). If in the past values were represented by statues carrying specific symbols (snake, flames, mirrors), nowadays building are asked such role. The way the building is experienced from a human perspective, materials and human interactions are factors that represent the company. They are not random; they come from society. However there is nothing new in this methodology; building monuments had been a political strategy that leaders from the past knew very well; if in the V century BCE Pericles gave shape to democracy by building Athens, Mussolini designed Fascisms through Rome urban planning, which extended to the whole Italian peninsula. Apple, Facebook and Google campuses (the word campus is already controversial in this specific context) are media that gather users’ imagination. They are tangible outcomes that shape digital intangible interactions. As drivers of people’s imagination, they enable transferability of something universal (as values are) to something specific to the company. Will community be understood as Facebook? There is also another effect; values can buy people’s trust if the message reaches the audience. If one of those values, which I believe in, becomes the company’s one I trust the company as we share the same values. As consequence I trust what the company does, without questions, which is a risk for my criticism and ability to make choices.

I guess the challenge we need is to keep universal words as universal, and avoid any specific identification that might lead to an even more constrained world of thinking and find our own solution, credo and ability to articulate our thought independently. We need to handle our trust carefully. We design our lives through our choices. Our actions and decisions make a huge difference in society; being responsible of those is our own priority.

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.