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?


Once Upon a Time the Bell Rang

When life didn’t know what Internet was and the most advanced technology was based on horses, the rhythm of the everyday in the western Christian world was marked by the bell in the city tower. You can still experience it in some remote villages lost in the Italian countryside.

From morning odes to vespers time had its phased, organic rhythm that organised the day. The pace of the everyday was perceived as much linear as circular. The linear sequence of events made one look forward towards the future; the circular loop assured the possibility of something better to come because of the sense of continuity; the present was perceived as an extension of the past; the future as projection. The perception of time as linear loop belongs to humanity: it protects from the “unknown” and makes one look forward: “Next year by this time I will be….”

In my PhD I looked at the disruption that in 1920s technology provoked to the rhythm of the everyday. Mechanic production was detached from the reassuring linear loop. Modernist life appeared broken in fragments: there was no sense of beginning and, equally, no end. Just a series of random fragments that can be meaningless arranged in a plethora of different sequences on the conveyor belt. Bucolic time is over. The mechanic rhythm of the everyday upset the relationship humans have with nature.

Globalised humanity is reshaping the way Romanticism shaped the concept of nation, borders and belonging. We live an uninterrupted time, which crosses east to west, north to south. We communicate with people living in any corner of this world, as long as there is a device connected to the internet. There is no day, no night. The dystopian sense of time, as shaped by machines that can operate at any time, is our reality. The value of time, as a sense of dwelling space, is perceived as a network of connected points; space, and the sense of belonging, is a cloud haunting our bodies. Do we feel to be anywhere?

In ancient Roman society leisure was an important moment of the everyday. It was the time to think, to talk, to debate and argue. In other words it was a very social event, although part of private life. For the rule of pausing negotium (the time for business), leisure helped the acknowledgement and understanding of the surrounding. Leisure time can be still experienced in Italy when people sit on the streets and squares and argue about local and global politics, or observe passers-by.

The value of a city and its vitality don’t rely on any aesthetic quality, but on its citizens’ engagement and the power of connection.

Technology is a medium that enables and supports human behaviour. Nonetheless the experience component is currently the main offer we get, which makes us feel always connected. Being always connected is perceived as sense of belonging; we exists, thus we tap, pinch, and so on. To be connected means to dwell space. However when we live the digital space there is no time to think; information takes continuously our attention, with no break. The experience of information, via technology, is an uninterrupted flow of data, which rarely transforms in content. Information is just noise that catches our attention, for the time which is good enough to induce a particular behaviour.

Experience is no longer the notable event of our life, which we remember as memory; experience is a form of entertainment, which contemporary capitalism needs to get people behavior. To step back and think what we really remember is quite difficult, even though we have our Facebook timeline that recalls what happened in the Facebook past. Is it our lived life what social network reflects to us? Is there a life that transcends the photos we post, the information we share and the activity we engage with the internet?

Still don’t think it’s a technological problem, but human.

The Infrastructure of the Urban Cloud and the Dichotomy of Private and Public Space

The intricacy of the city is deployed by the system of streets, cables, people. Similarly the Internet is based on connections, which allow information to circulate and get exchanged. The challenge that private network companies, economists, politicians and policy makers are facing is the concept of “interface”. It is not only a matter of interfacing information, but interfacing people that use information, likewise streets, cables and people do in physical space. If people are happily interfaced – with other humans or machines – it is possible to generate information derivatives, which are more valuable than the original primitives. The interface is then the key. The interface is real, it is not abstract, as “data”. It is something that you can interact with, touch it. Nonetheless the interface is a gateway that facilitates information traveling through it. What is the relationship between the world of interface and the urban space?

If looking at the scale of the city, smart city studies are generally looking at big data and, most importantly, at data consume/production variables. The way people and things consumes information is the contemporary commodity. The consumeristic data society  generates markets and, also, political patters. As “The Economist” describes, data are currently key values to win elections. “Democracy” doesn’t happen any longer in the polls but in Twitter or Facebook.

Similarly Alphabets is investing capital on connecting the city, physically and digitally. The Sidewalk project is a platform that aims to design the infrastructure 2.0. Urban data are the system by which cities render their social section. By combining and interfacing many aspects of the everyday – from commuting, to shopping and meeting friends or family – it is possible to understand new directions, and, most importantly, how to “drive” them.

The ubiquity of data  is possible through the interface and, most importantly, to the personal relationship we have with it, which is scalable. We hold an object in our hands or in our wrists but the scale is just apparent. The object can scale up and down by means of the connection it is enabling, which happens in any time and any space.

The question I would like to ask is, who owns my private space, if any is left? While writing I am in a specific space, physically. Digitally I am in many spaces, which are facilitated by the number of interfaces I am using and help me to organise my day. From the exhibition I would like to see, the trip I would like to make or the food I would like to eat.. Is this “space”? Is this private or public? Is space defined by my interface?

This lecture from the LSE gives a very interesting perspective on the subject. Professor José van Dijck describes what a platform society is by looking at the private and public. I cannot agree more. If we want to talk about cities, the concept of the private V public is one of the most important elements to be analysed. Urban space looks at the dicothomy between private and public space since its origin. The relationship between them renders the quality of society and politics. The way people coexists together is quite pivotal. An unbalanced system might lead towards social decay, that does affect society. To affect what people are allowed to wish, hope and desire for their life affects urban space and, with it, innovation, curiosity and any of the human qualities which has been driving human being towards a better world to live.

Cities are not made of buildings; city are made of people. Urban form is given by the way people interact. Indeed the space of the public and the space of the private need to understand diversities, whether physical or digital.

In this blog post I zoomed in and out, with the intention to look at infrastructure from a different perspective. The cloud infrastructure can enable urban innovation in the specificity of people interactions.

Cities are made of streets


Ragusa Ibla, Italy 2013 ©Laura Ferrarello

Different kinds of factors – like economy, climate change, career opportunities, education, etc. – transformed contemporary cities in megacities. The freedom we achieved last century through cars transformed dense urban agglomerates into spreads of houses that blurred the border between the “inside” and “outside” of our cities. Concrete have been poured horizontally, thus transforming the environment. Cities like Los Angeles are no longer an anomaly; LA, indeed, became model for those contemporary cities that need to cope with the problem of scale, and how it does impact the quality of everyday life. Public transportation is on the agenda of LA mayor Garcetti, who is tackling the problem of mobility through infrastructure improvement. You can travel to Downtown by taking the Metro from Culver City, which will be soon extented to Santa Monica.

Nonetheless I don’t believe that infrastructure only can help with improving the everyday of our cities. I grew up in the fringe of a small city in southern Italy, Enna. The contrast between historical centre and suburbia was, and still it is, quite clear for the possibility of moving around. Once at the centre car is pointless – although people use it for habit. You can reach the extreme parts of the city by walking for 20 minutes max. Once out of the centre distances are still small, but car is the most used means of transportation. What is the reason? Shops. The centre is a sequence of small and medium size businesses that crowd the streets and make them alive. Daily groceries can be moved on small trolleys; you can go for shopping, taking a coffee or a drink with friends in 5- 10 minutes. The fringe is a no-place. Old style urbanism, and bad administration of public space, affected the quality of urban extensions. Cars crowds the small pedestrians looking for small spots to park the car. No many shops around. When I walk I look like a weirdo. Paradoxically I can compare this small city to LA. Completely different scales. Mobility culture quite similar.

Everyday we witness more and more problems with health, which causes have many factors; mobility is on top of the list. Our bodies have been designed to move; we need to balance the quantity of energy we feed our body with. Nonetheless the design of the streets has a tendency to detach housing with services; it makes cars the most used medium to reach even the basics – like water, milk, bread. I find quite interesting some current urban studies that look at the relationship people have with “mobile” food, i.e. food that happens on the streets. Food truck journeys have been analysed in LA and Washington DC. The geo location of Twitter data revealed that food trucks cover badly served areas. Location became the litmus paper of low service areas.  However the network of food trucks increased the presence of people on pedestrians. This article from The Guardian Cities describes the relation between mobility and diabetes. Bad quality food and time spent on cars are key factors that need to be tackled to think a solution.

Scale is not a problem that concerns the territory as whole; micro scale at the local dimension can trigger solutions. If our streets get more crowds of “stuff” – shops, grocery, cafes, etc –  which distance is perceived manageable, it would possibly make people walk. Possibility it would be a nice experient to try out.