Under the Cobblestones, the Maas

For a few weeks during November and December 2016, commuters exiting Rotterdam’s striking central station encountered a series of billboards situated along Kruisplein – the plaza that leads from the station southward toward the river Maas. The billboards depicted 12 alternative visions of a future Rotterdam. They were commissioned by the New Institute (Het Nieuwe Instituut) and were created by local designers.

(The billboards along Kruisplein)

Creating imaginary urban futures for public consumption is not new. New York’s World Fair of 1939-40, for instance, featured not one but two futuristic cities called Democracity and Futurama (I’ve written about the Fair here). More recently, the Museum of Vancouver, in collaboration with Urbanarium, held a similar exhibition from January to May, 2016, titled Your Future Home. While the Vancouver exhibition addressed fairly technical categories of urban design (residential density, public space, transportation and housing affordability), the visions located outside Rotterdam’s central station engaged with a mishmash of technical and aspirational categories such as inclusivity, new technology, sustainable prosperity, innovation, mobility, bottom-up, quality of life, circular city, vacant buildings, densification, energy transition and urban streets. Both exhibitions, however, were created by professional designers and architects, and were meant to stir discussion about urban design.

The exhibition came in response to a specific policy proposal: Woonvisie 2030. The controversial proposal sought to reduce the city’s stock of low-cost housing units by 20,000 and replace them with 16,000 higher-end units. Citizen groups that opposed the proposal forced the city to hold an advisory referendum on November 30, hoping that it would compel the city to re-evaluate the proposal and galvanize a strong opposition to what they saw as yet another act of gentrification in a city that lost close to 30,000 low-cost units since 2000. Alas, their plan failed. While opposition to the policy won a majority in the referendum (72.5%), turnout (16.9%) was lower than the minimum required to validate the referendum (30%). As consequence the policy could be green-lighted without further input from the public.

As the exhibition’s curators state, the 12 visions sought to expand and add nuance to the debate on the proposal.

The exhibition does not seek to provide advice on whether to vote for or against the City of Rotterdam’s urban development vision, but aims to challenge the city’s residents to think about how they want to live in the city fifteen years from now and thereafter. Alongside statistics and policy resolutions, it is important that designers’ visions are also part of the debate about something as important as the city’s future, especially in a city with such a rich tradition of experimental urban design. (source)

Looking at the different visions I was struck by several features. First, five of the twelve were driven by technological innovation. Take for instance this vision by Spark Design & Innovation:


Not only does this vision address the theme of mobility through a single technological driver (the electric car), but it also seems much too close to the present to actually evoke a radically different way to imagine the city. Further, while it adopts a narrative that reflects the Dutch values of autonomy and self-sufficiency (according to which electric cars can be seen as the next step in the evolution of bicycles), it neglects other important Dutch values such as efficiency and collectivity (contra Hofstede’s cultural indicators!). Shouldn’t a future Rotterdam seek to correct the mistakes made by its post-war designers and reject the prominence of cars in urban design?

Innovations in mobility drove several other visions such as De Straten (‘The Streets’) by Maxwan Architects + Urbanists (to which I return below), and Skycar City from MVRDV:


The coming decades will radically alter the city: a new kind of metropolis will be born, without roads and without traffic lights. We will park in the sky! The city will become truly three-dimensional! The city will liberate itself from the ground. Urban density will be lifted to a higher level. Welcome to Rotterdam, Skycar City!

But what would such ‘liberation from the ground’ mean for pedestrians? Will there even be pedestrians?

A different techno-utopian future was featured in a vision by Atalier van Lieshout. Here, the city will transcend the (perceived) tradeoff between sustainability and material prosperity and become both by building an underground nuclear reactor that will power all of the Netherlands. The generated wealth, oddly, will then be used to collectivize the harbour, making everyone even richer. But will this reversal of neoliberal economics produce rich individuals or a rich collective? It isn’t clear. It also isn’t clear how happy Rotterdammers will be living on top of a nuclear reactor.


A second striking feature of the visions presented in the exhibition was the degree to which they were relatively pragmatic. Only a few of the visions were flashy and provocative, while the rest seemed fairly levelheaded, practical and, well, Dutch.

Take for instance The Stairwell from ZUS, in which Rotterdam’s empty offices can be turned into housing units by the simple addition of external staircases and useable facades to existing commercial buildings.


Similarly, there’s nothing flashy about the proposal from West 8 urban design and landscape architecture:

The ultimate Rotterdam street is a lively urban street with a mix of living and working and a diverse range of housing, with pavements, trees and the promise of a river. The street and the buildings are raised above the highest flood line. The Maas whispers.


The Happy Street depicted in the vision (and which gives it its name) looks like it could exist anywhere, the only sign of locality is the crane in the background, evidence of the street’s proximity to the port. Nonetheless, this vision integrates an important environmental factor: the street is located above the Maas’s highest flood line (although it’s unclear whether this vision already takes into account the anticipated impact of climate change on the regions waterways). What looks like the standard mixed-use street so popular with current urban designers is set in relation to the river’s natural ebb and flow, albeit, happily floating above the river’s pulse, almost oblivious to the flows that underlie it. “The Maas whispers”, but can the residents of Happy Street hear it?

Much like the previous visions, the one by &RANJ Serious Games assumes that an already existing technology holds the key for a new urban epoch. In this sense, it merely projects the present onto the future.


In the digital city of 2030, physical reality and virtual reality will be fused into a fantastic hyperreality. The city makes room for our imagination: it is no longer bound to the laws of time and physics but can take on all manner of forms. The city is tailored to each individual. It is a playground, a game in which the inhabitants can have unique, meaningful experiences and in which they can make, break and repair the rules.

Turning the city into a playground for its citizens’ imagination strikes me as a very appealing proposition, but the vision is eerily similar to the dystopian world imagined in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Wouldn’t such a gamified, customizable, blended reality end up producing a hyper-individuated experience of the city, one that is antithetical to the kind of urban sociality so many citizens crave? Must we be ‘alone together’ in the city of the future?

As Martijn de Waal argues in The City as Interface (2014), with their emphasis on efficient, customizable experiences, such technological visions conjure a libertarian ideal of urban citizenship according to which city dwellers are approached foremostly as individual consumers. They may be free to “organize life according to their own insights”, but as consequence reduce their involvement and solidarity with others.

As these visions make clear, the arrival of new technologies is expected to create new relationships between city dwellers. But it can also redraw the relations between urban forms and the natural environment – the interfaces between the artifactual and the natural. Take for instance the vision offered by Maxwan Architects + Urbanists I briefly mentioned above:


In a clever homage to the very space in which the billboards stand (the premise of the city’s old zoo, the traces of which can still be found in proximate street names such as Diergaardesingel (‘zoolane’)), the vision features a green city centre made possible “when in a certain sense the car got its own brain”. Nature, in this vision, is invited back into the heart of the city once the car is no longer king in Rotterdam, albeit, it remains visibly and neatly confined. In a sense, nature becomes a complement of the “silent, elegant, almost invisible” characteristic of future cars; more of a trace of the nonpresence of automobiles than an entity in and of its own.

Nature plays a more central role in what are perhaps the two most provocative visions in the exhibition. In Felixx Landscape Architects & Planners‘s vision, the abundance of free renewable energy enables the transformation of the Kralingen Plas (lake) into a phantasmagoric pleasure dome, complete with both snowy and tropical landscapes. Ski-lifts and flamingos co-exist; Jevons’s Paradox be damned!


In this vision nature becomes the material out of which human pleasure and decadence are manufactured. It’s an artificial nature, nature sans nature. It signals the completion of the modernist project – the substitution of nature by manmade objects – the logical conclusion of the Dutch experiment in conquering nature.

In the second vision, Resillience by De Urbanisten, the city is visibly in the process of returning to its original, swampy origins. Monkeys, birds and humans share the re-wilded urban landscape as a sign of co-existence.

We live in a delta
In a city of ebb and flow,
Of to and fro,
Of give and take,
Everyone is welcome.

We do our dreaming together,
In a wonderful bath,
Fed by the warmth of the city.

Rotterdam is complete
Nothing is lost.
Whatever remains
Is a wellspring for the new.


Nature, in this vision, becomes a marker of a new hybrid urban form. A true symbol of a different urban experience – one in which nature is allowed to breech its confinements in neatly drawn canals, fields and parks. Not a remnant to discard nor a remainder to cherish, but an equal urban force whose presence is as significant as that of the built environment in the background. Without it, something is lost. With it “Rotterdam is complete”.

In this sense, this last vision represents not only a new relation between the city and the river that gives it its pulse and livelihood, but echoes the spirit of those anonymous Mai ’68 sloganeers: if we stop trying to repress them, the presence of already existing urban realities can be liberating and transformative. Under the cobblestones, the Maas.


* with thanks to Jotte de Koning for help with translation and to Emma Puerari for sharing a chilly winter’s excursion to the exhibition.

A few reflections following ICT4S


(The Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam was the site of the conference. source)

My first ICT4S was lots of fun. There weren’t as many participants as in previous years (at least that’s what I’ve heard from those who have attended before), but those who came to Amsterdam proved to be both engaging and friendly. I’ve heard lots of very interesting ideas, were impressed by several research projects, and even found myself moderately hopeful about the future.

Having a day to recuperate, here are a few terse reflections:


The conference was quite intensive and intentionally convivial. Instead of the standard academic practice of having a few papers presented frontally in a panel, usually followed by (often bland) discussion, here each paper was presented to a very small group (up to 5 people) sitting around a small table. Participants had the chance to select the papers they would like to discuss (based on a first-come-first-serve mechanism using sticky notes), and were then able to really engage with the author. Authors, on the other hand, had to present in 3 rounds, each lasting about 45 min (including discussion). Win-win for everyone, I think.

It was also great to have a moderator (more like a facilitator) throughout the two main conference days. It helped steer and stir things and draw more connections between the keynotes, papers and workshops. Peter Woodward did a fantastic job adjusting the atmosphere, prodding speakers and keeping people engaged.

The big news: decoupling

Perhaps the most impactful research presented were two papers that showed evidence (from Germany and from Sweden) that the growth of data has now decoupled from energy use. This means that the rate of energy reductions in data centres and communication networks has outpaced the increase in the material footprint caused by the massive growth of new data. I hope some version of the Jevons paradox will not render these developments meaningless…


(‘Hygiene’, wood carving in the council room of KIT)

Thinking about the future can be liberating

One of the important lessons I’ve learned in the Computation Within Limits workshop is that co-creating future scenarios can evoke a truly liberating effect. While many participants started the day mired about the grim reality of our inability to keep within the planet’s ecological limits, after a few hours of co-designing future scenarios many of the discussions turned to values, worldviews and cultural conditions. The limits, to some extent, were left behind, replaced by more hopeful views of the future. And that suits me just fine.

Who doesn’t want to be smart?

If I had a dollar for every time the words ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ were appended to a technology or process I’d be able to buy the world’s largest stockpile of stroopwafels (can you dig it?!) It seems like the cybernetically inspired tendency to conflate ‘adaptive’ with ‘smart’ has found a perfect match with the irresistible temptation to make ‘intelligence’ the objective of every technology. (but at least the word ‘disruption’ only came up a few times).

Innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation breeds innovation 

Listening to the keynotes it occurred to me that the imperative to innovate is often understood as a demand for newness instead of a drive for meaningful, positive change. But in so many cases that newness has only marginal advantages (if any), yet may cost more in terms of material impacts if we are to produce a whole new generation of artifacts. Where would all the regular toasters go when smart toasters take over?


(‘Volkekunde’ (ethnology), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

From smart homes to wise dwellings

There’s more than just a modicum of irony that the best paper award winner, which coincidently also won the ‘people’s choice’ award, suggested that instead of focusing on the technological affordances of smart homes we should look at the way traditional homes (in this case in the warmer countries of the Middle East) took advantage of natural processes to keep their interiors livable. Innovation by reversion?

Can research mirror values?

It was a bit discouraging to see that many of the research projects presented had little to no longitudinal aspects. It’s tempting, and often encouraged by granting agencies, to look at new phenomena or invent new devices or new methodologies, the upshot of which is that very little is done in terms of revisiting past research. This way we not only lose opportunities to learn about the deeper impacts of design, but also limit our capacity to collectively build a knowledge base of what works and what doesn’t. In this sense it’s a bit ironic (again!) that research on sustainability is itself not very sustainable.


(‘Handel’ (trade), wood carving in the council room of KIT)

We are the world (not)

The vast majority of the research presented had to do with European countries and contexts. Given that the majority of participants came from those countries it is somewhat understandable, but I would think that what happens in China, India and other ‘emerging’ economies will impact sustainability futures no less (and perhaps even more) than whether Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands are able to reduce the environmental impact of their digital infrastructure. And if the hope is that ‘western’ innovation could then just be exported to other domains then we haven’t really learned much from the checkered history of international development. Which leads me to ask…

Who’s missing from the conversation?

My own, non-quantified impression is that the majority of conference participants came from the engineering world, and were mostly interested in the material impacts of large technological infrastructure (energy utilities, data centres, communication networks, digital devices). I think it would be great to have more social scientists, humanists and artists take part in future conferences. This may inject some discussion about real people (and not prototypical ‘users’) and about the social, cultural and political contexts within which ‘they’ engage with technically-mediated sustainability. It would also be very nice if at least some of those people and contexts would represent the developing South and marginalized communities.

ICT4S 2016, Amsterdam

(Image by Sally Reeder. source)

I’m super excited about participating in the upcoming ICT4S conference, which will take place in Amsterdam, August 29-September 1 (only an hour by train from my current location in Delft!) I’ll also take part in a pre-conference workshop titled ‘computing within limits‘. Here’s the one-pager letter of interest I wrote:

To be honest, the notion of biophysical or computational limits does not play a central role in my work, nor does it occupy a significant part in my thinking about the intersection of ICT and sustainability. Of course biophysical limits – the carrying capacity of the planet, etc. – are inseparable from the way I understand the necessity and urgency of promoting sustainability, but they do so only implicitly. They are there, and they set the other dynamics in motion, but rarely take centre stage.

With that said, limits are indeed front and centre in my work, albeit these are social, cultural and political limits, and they are there mostly to be overcome. These limits relate first to our capacity to understand the intricate, complex and emergent relationalities that underlie sustainability (and unsustainability); second, to the cognitive and cultural limits of our ability to think in more elongated terms – to consider mid- and long-range futures instead of focusing on short-term incentives; and third, to our ability to intervene in the constellations of power that undermine the availability and success of both small- and large-scale solutions to our ecological crises. In other words, I wonder how interactive media can help us grasp the complexity of the challenges we face, compel us to consider our relation to futurity, and promote our ability to act as agents of deep societal change. In this sense I see the questions raised by sustainability as crucial to the emergence of civic media and the designerly cultivation of a new political imagination, both of which are the focus of my current research.

I tend to believe that the only limits to technological innovation that respects biophysical phenomena are established by our own (cultural) imagination and (social) conditions of possibility. So whether we choose to mitigate or to adapt to the consequences of life in the Anthropocene is ultimately a question of how we may evaluate (and hopefully transform) our capacity to own the future. This viewpoint and its implications for design and research would be my contribution to the workshop. At the same time, I am very curious about the meaning and implications of “computing within limits” for a world where unfettered consumption, large subsidies for the energy industry, and clandestine international treaties with grave environmental implications are still very much the norm. I look forward to discussing these and many other interesting topics with other workshop participants.

Lets Make the Petrified World Speak, Sing, Perhaps Dance

In his fantastic The Once and Future World (2013), Canadian author J.B. MacKinnon notes that one of the considerable challenges facing pro-environmental action results from what biologist Daniel Pauly calls the “shifting baseline syndrome.” Simply stated, each generation takes the present situation as the baseline from which change can be gauged. Thus, writes MacKinnon, “The way you see the natural world around you determines much about the kind of world you are willing to live with” (MacKinnon, p.37). It it is in this sense that “Memory conspires against nature” (ibid., p.21).

I was recently reminded of MacKinnon’s association of memory with the capacity for transformative action while reading Herbert Marcuse’s last major work, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978). There, among other observations about art’s essence vis-a-vis social relations, Marcuse argues that much of art’s revolutionary potential is premised in its ability to remind us of our frustrated dreams, hopes and desires; to remind us that the existing reality is only one of many possible realities. He writes:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. (Marcuse, p.72)

Marcuse adds that if, as Horkheimer and Adorno famously wrote in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, “All reification is a forgetting”, then “Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance” (Marcuse, p.73).

landlords game
(the original version of the board game monopoly was designed by Elizabeth Phillips to illustrate “the problems associated with concentrating land in private monopolies.” source) 

Seeking a method to evoke political awakenings, Walter Benjamin articulated a similar idea, what he called “dialectical images.” In his unfinished opus later published as The Arcades Project (1999), Benjamin explains that dialectical images “carry over the principle of montage into history” by evoking “flash-like” moments of understanding: stirring constellations in which utopian hopes are juxtaposed with their frustrated (un)realization to produce an “awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been” (Benjamin, p.461; p.458). By the way they embody multiplicities and produce a play in conjecture, we may say that dialectical images anticipate what Deleuze & Guattari would later call “lines of flight.”

But is the capacity to create dialectical images exclusive to artistic vocabularies and techniques, or could they be produced by other means? Can digital media, for instance, provide the conditions for overcoming the forgetting MacKinnon laments, evoking the historico-political awakening Benjamin yearns for?

While perhaps a bit too literal, digital dialectic images may be instantiated by virtual reality (VR) technology. The Owl, for instance, is a VR viewer that allows users to dynamically looks at different renditions of a single geographic location. Peering into a device shaped like one of those nickel-operated binoculars you find overlooking tourist attractions, users can see how a place looked like in the past or how it may look like in the future, and compare it to the present. This has practical applications for urban design – especially in the context of public engagement on potential development proposals – but perhaps it can be used more expressively, in more provocative ways.

(rising water levels in Marin County seen through Owl. source)