Urban imaginaries at MAB2020

Biennale. Such a sexy word. I always wanted to be part of one and so I was delighted when the opportunity to organize and speak in a symposium on urban imaginaries during the Media Architecture Biennale (MAB 2020) came my way – even if the event was postponed by more than half a year and ended up taking place online.

The City Otherwise: Urban Imaginaries in Art and Design, featured four amazing speakers: Cristina Ampatzidou, Ollie Palmer, Tara Karpinski, and Maarten Hajer. We offered different perspectives on the question of how artists and designers engage with urban imaginaries as a means to democratize urban futures. This is how I introduced the panel on the biennale’s website:

Urban scholars have increasingly turned to urban imaginaries as a concept with which to interrogate the complex relations between the city’s materiality and the experiences of its inhabitants. The urban theorist Edward Soja describes urban imaginaries as “the mental or cognitive mappings of urban reality and the interpretative grids through which we think about, experience, evaluate, and decide to act in the places, spaces, and communities in which we live”. Urban imaginaries not only capture the way city dwellers make sense of their environment, but they provide a valuable means to consider urban entanglements. As Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner explain in their introduction to the Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries (2019), urban imaginaries “meaningfully interlink the different structures and signs, minds and bodies, facts and subjectivities, actualities and virtualities, economies and ecologies of urban social space”. In this sense, considering urban imaginaries allows researchers to start unpacking the richness of the urban lifeworld.

Urban imaginaries, “our situated and city-centric consciousness”, to cite Soja again, draw from multiple sources, including the cultural circulation of urban images, the everyday practices of city dwellers, and the technologies that mediate them. While the growth of cities has always coincided with the introduction of new technologies into the urban fabric, this process seems to have reached new heights with the rise of the smart city. Networked sensors and the algorithms they feed figure largely in the way cities are imagined and managed, revealing the smart city as an urban imaginary per excellence – a container for innovation and a platform for envisioning urban futures. This, however, raises important questions about who gets to imagine the smart city, and how a plurality of urban forms and configurations may break through the homogeneity of smart city technologies and policies. The role of artists and designers seems especially pertinent here.

Taking at its point of departure the assumption that urban imaginaries and, by extension, the public imagination are central to urban politics, the symposium will explore the relations between urban imaginaries and urban futures. Drawing from art and design projects, research and activism, symposium speakers will engage with such issues as the value of urban imaginaries as sites of collective creativity; the functioning of urban imaginaries as boundary objects that bring into dialogue the social sciences, arts and humanities; the usefulness of urban imaginaries as a means to interrogate and problematize the drive to quantify everyday urban life; and the value of urban imaginaries as windows into the political role of art and design.

Looking backward to the future

In Feb. 2019 I helped organize a wonderful workshop at the Lorentz Center in Leiden University. The workshop was a first of its kind attempt to grapple with the relations between counterfactuals and futures thinking, and was attended by an amazing cast of interdisciplinary scholars from history to engineering, economics to design.

Since the workshop, Elina Eriksson, Daniel Pagrman and I have been thinking about how to consolidate everything we’ve learned, and now our efforts have been published in Futures (and is open access). Here’s the abstract:

While the past is present in all futuring activities it tends to remain implicit and has not received adequate attention by futures scholars and practitioners. In response, this conceptual paper offers a novel framework with which the past can be brought into futures studies in a structured and comprehensive way. We begin by providing a brief account of how the past already figures in futures studies as part of efforts to understand the lingering effects of the past on the future; as part of a drive for ontological pluralization; and as a way to augment more mainstream futuring exercises. We then introduce two past-facing approaches to futuring, recasting and pastcasting, and illustrate their symmetry with the more familiar future-facing approaches, forecasting and backcasting. The symmetry, we argue, is based on shared aims and a shared style of inquiry. We then compare the different approaches and illustrate the landscape of futuring as an interplay of two dimensions: the focus of the activity on outcomes or pathways, and the stakes involved in it.

Alternative Imaginaries for the Smart City

(photo by Judith Leijdekkers; art by Richard Vijgen).

After more than a year of planning and delays due to the coronavirus epidemic, the project, a collaboration with Richard Vijgen and V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, and funded by the City of Rotterdam, is now live! The project builds on a previous project, How to Trip Over Data, and represents a continuation of my thinking about the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary.

Short description: The rise of the smart city as a dominant urban development paradigm has raised concerns about the public’s capacity to make sense of the technologies and policies involved. Accordingly, most efforts to engage the public with the smart city tend to focus on “demystifying” urban technologies – opening up the technological “black box” for public scrutiny.

While raising the public’s awareness of the technical apparatus of the smart city is an important task, we believe that it leaves untouched the more fundamental ideas and contexts within which urban technology is designed to begin with. Such ideas, sometimes referred to as social or urban imaginaries, have so far relied on technology vendors’ view of the city as a complex machine: a set of interconnected systems that need to be controlled and made more efficient.

But what if instead of accepting the urban tech industry’s push for optimization at all costs we asked the public how they see, feel and imagine the city, and developed urban technologies from their viewpoint? Would the public’s lived experience and perception of the city lead to different understandings of what urban technologies should be doing instead of what they can do?

(photo by Judith Leijdekkers).

Fieldwork: Social designer Judith Lijdekkers spent several weeks speaking to residents in two Rotterdam neighbourhoods, Reyeoord and Bospolder en Tussendijken (BoTu). Her detailed field notes were used to generate 6 design briefs that respond to what we’ve identified as important themes – revealed by asking residents what is important in their neighbourhood but remains invisible.

Workshop: We used the design briefs as a starting point for a workshop hosted at V2_, to which we invited 15 technologists, artists, designers, and urban researchers to consider how urban sensing technologies may be designed from the ground-up, reflecting local, neighbourhood-specific characteristics.

workshop facilitation in the age of corona…

Next steps: We’re planning to return to the neighbourhood to engage with residents on the ideas developed in the workshop. We also have plans for an interactive installation, and a series of speculative designs.

Dutch Design Week, 2020

I’m thrilled and honoured to take part in this year’s Dutch Design Week! Although events have moved online I’ll be on-site in Eindhoven to take part in a livestream/talkshow – part of Design United’s Up Close and Personal programme (update: recording available here). I’ll be speaking on one of the programme’s five themes, Silent Power, and have also written a short column on the topic for the occasion.

Trust me, I’m a Designer

Imagine you have just left the bar on your way home after a lovely evening on the town. You may have had a bit too much to drink, but that doesn’t explain the scent you’re smelling, and it certainly doesn’t explain why you are feeling so calm. On your way home you feel a bit tired, so when you spot a bench you quickly sit down to rest. After a few minutes the bench starts to emit loud sounds while vibrating wildly under your body! What does it want? Increasingly tired, with ears ringing, you call a cab. The car arrives quickly, but as it moves through downtown you notice that it is taking an unfamiliar, somewhat roundabout road. Why isn’t the driver taking the shortest route? You finally arrive home and use the app to open your door. The door, however, refuses to open. Puzzled by its refusal to cooperate, you sit down on the steps in front of your house and wonder, is someone playing a cruel prank on you?

When it comes to smart urban technologies the future is already here. Kind of. Networked sensors can be found in more and more places, feeding city algorithms with the data they need to make decisions about the flow of people, vehicles, energy, waste, and more. But as urban technologies become more complex, omnipresent yet unobtrusive, people seem to have less capacity to make sense of them. Simply stated, we don’t trip over data the same way we may trip over a crack in the pavement, and so raising the alarm almost always happens after the technology has already been deployed. Obviously, one doesn’t have to understand how a technology works in order to use it. I can’t begin to tell you how my computer, the internet or the browser you are using to read this column work – certainly not in detail – but it doesn’t seem to affect my ability to write, and yours to read. But if we, the public, want to be able to influence the way technology is designed and how it is being used by governments and corporations, we need to recognise that the design of technology involves more than just finding the most efficient or cost-effective way to do things. 

Design is a human activity that reflects our values, beliefs, imaginaries and motivations. Unmasking how this meshwork of interests impacts the design and use of technology, and with what possible consequences, is the primary task of critical design. Without it, we risk losing our ability to stay ahead of technology, leaving the future to be shaped by others. How do I know this? Trust me, I’m a designer.