Technology & Urban Space: A Manifesto

Adam Greenfield

An invisible and intangible overlay of digital information now enfolds the physical city, and increasingly determines our engagement with it

Urban_space

  1. We find ourselves at a moment in history in which the nature of cities, as form and experience both, is under pressure from a particular class of emerging technology. The advent of lightweight, scalable, networked information-processing technologies means that urban environments around the world are now provisioned with the ability to gather, process, transmit, display and take physical action on data.
  2. As a result, that which primarily conditions choice and action in urban places is no longer physical, but resides in an invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds the physical city. That is, our experiences in such places are no longer shaped exclusively, or even predominantly, by our physical surroundings, but by the interaction of code and data.
  3. While it is impossible to know for certain just how much of the activity going on around us on any given street is there as the explicit result of a network sounding, it is clearly both a non-trivial and a growing percentage.
  4. Our ability to use the city around us, our flexibility in doing so, and just who is able to do so, will be shaped by decisions made about the technical design of objects and their human interfaces, and the precise ways in which such objects are connected to one another and made visible to the network.
  5. There are many modes in which information raised to the network can re-enter the world. The most obvious is for that data to be mediated by a personal networked device, and acted upon at the level of individual choice and behaviour.
  6. A second clear category of interest is when this data populates urban media interfaces, which is to say the wide variety of shared, situated display and interaction surfaces of all sizes, which increasingly layer urban space.
  7. A third order of output is when data is expressed as a dynamic alteration to the physical form or other performative qualities of buildings, circulation networks and other infrastructural systems. We find ourselves in the liminal realm of physical form as the dynamic expression of some discrete measured condition.
  8. Independent of the platform on which they’re displayed, the velocity and complexity of the data we are presented with suggests that it will increasingly be conveyed to us in the form of data visualisations that in and of themselves may be both dynamic and interactive.
  9. An expansive range of everyday urban tasks currently mediated by analogue (or only passively networked) means, from physical access control to the ability to participate in economic transactions, are increasingly mediated by a single, converged interface object: the smartphone.
  10. … or disappearing into behaviour altogether.
  11. Just as Pierre Bourdieu argued that we learn the social roles and performances expected of us, in part, from our engagement with material and manufactured objects, we now learn those roles from our interactions with digital interfaces.
  12. Digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.
  13. We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed non-biological, nature, from drones to algorithms.
  14. These inevitably have their own embedded rhetorics and immanent logics.
  15. Equally, there is a determinism implicit in the software used to design spatial relations, from 3D design packages to agent-based modelling tools.
  16. The grandeur in determining the conditions of urban existence increasingly resides with those who produce networked objects and services, and the interfaces to them.
  17. The technologies we are concerned with here achieve their effect not as discrete objects, but as functional ensembles.
  18. In many ways, the capabilities and affordances associated with any given ensemble remain distressingly hard to understand, even to people exposed to them on a daily basis.

This is part of Adam Greenfield’s 100 point manifesto on technology and cities published in issue 3 of cityscapes. It was originally published on his blog Speedbird

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