(Running notes from LiftAsia08, in Jeju, Korea)
Adam Greenfield, of Nokia Design, talks about "the long here, the big now and other tales of the networked city". It's not a tech talk, it's about the emotional aspects of living in a networked city: what it's gonna feel to live there?
I think we can get a decent idea about it by looking at the way people right now are using mobile phones and other contemporary digital artifacts. With mobile we are edging already into a truly ubiquitous experience, "mobiquity".
One of the very first things that I think we can get rid of is the notion that the physical element is the sovereign element in our life. No longer are our choices dictated by the physical space. Think at when we walk around in a shopping mall talking on the phone: our movements are not determined by the architecture around us: it's determined by "where we are", that is, on the cell phone.
Dogma: that which primarily conditions choices and actions in the city is no longer physical, but has become the invisible and intangible overlay of networked information that enfolds in the city.
These are some of the potentials that I see happening:
- the long here: layering a persistent and retrievable history of the things that are done and witnessed in a place, onto that place (example: Oakland Crimespotting project; Flickr geotagging, giving geographic coordinates -- GPS -- to pictures),
- the big now: locally, making the total. real-time option space "massively parallel", giving you a sense of all the potential of a city (examples: London's Making bridges talk, by Tom Armitage: hooking up bridges with sensors and interfaces to the web so that they can twit -- Tower Bridge twittering and blogging when it's opening and closing; the idea is for the city to tell what the city is doing; or the New York Talk Exchange, mapping incoming and outgoing phone traffic from and to NY.
- the soft wall: there are less happy consequences, inevitably these technologies will be used to deny or degrade a space, to exclude people, to make them difficult to find, to put them under surveillance, for differential permissioning (some are allowed in, others not).
We will see new patterns of interaction: information about cities and patterns of their use will be visualized in new ways made available locally, on-demand and in a way that can be acted upon (ie. via mobile devices). Nothing in the world is as interesting and useful as information about one place, when you are actually in that place.
We will also see the emergence of addressable and scriptable surfaces around us: façades as interfaces, etc.
We are moving from browsing urbanism to search urbanism. That's really gonna change the way we use the city, from passive consumers of reality to active users of it. What kind of places will those cities turn out to be will be up to us.
Where will this happen first? As Mimi Ito says, every culture has an "alternative technologized modernity", which is proper to it. Each place needs to have to make its own choices about this. Every bus in Helsinki for ex is a Linux server that is constantly broadcasting information about the bus' whereabouts.
Interactive cities visionary Jeff Huang (from EPFL) asks: how can we merge digital/social/interactive technologies with our physical cities to foster better communities? This is a fundamental design question. Good cities is an emergent phenomenon if you get the design of the underlying architecture right. What is really lacking is the way technologies are applied in cities, they're often wrongly designed. The most obvious appearance of ubiquitous technologies are essentially surveillance cameras and media facades (big electronic billboards used to bombard people with commercial messages -- see Times Square). You can compare what's happening in cities with the first generation of what happened on the Web: at the beginning companies had web pages to advertise their products to users; but the Web has moved along. If I had to summarize in one sentence what we have trying to do when we are designing a project for the interactive city, is to push it towards a more empowered, social medium (from passive consumer to empowered urbanite).
Project Listening Wall: a project to give walls ears, so that they can listen to what's happening in the room.
Project Swiss House/Swissnex: a network of 22 "nodes" around the world for Swiss scientists/researchers/creators abroad to connect back to the homeland: each of the buildings are connected, and even "collapsed" (looking at the wall in one is like looking into the space of the other, because that wall is a connected big screen).
Project Seesaw connectivity: learning a new language in airports.
Project Beijing Newscocoons (in the picture above): a set of pulsating objects that live and breathe, displaying user-generated video clips, pictures, stories, and blogs from geographically distant sources and that interact with the people surrounding them.
So the answer to the original question (how to merge digital/interactive with physical cities to foster better communities?): go beyond the passiveness of media facades and surveillance cams; go from passive to interactive, to social, to co-creator; tap into the social and tactile dimension; there are issues (good business model or public good?) and sustainability questions.
Soo-In Yang, a Korean architect working in NY, works on how buildings communicate with each other. Talks about his "Living City" project, a project to link buildings to one another so they can "talk" and share information and even sometimes take collective action. For example we know that in Korea the sand blowing over from China are a problem: so imagine if the buildings on the eastern part of the city could "warn" the buildings downwind so that they could "get ready". These things are possible because of advancements in ubiquitous computing, sensors and chips and wireless connectivity are becoming cheaper, etc.
Other idea: experiment with air and building facades as public spaces. Air is something that everybody shares in a city; measuring and communicate its quality allows to take action. Buildings can be owned by individuals but facades are more difficult to "own" because it belongs in the street. Facades could really become alive and sense things and communicate things and become interactive, that's a further space we could become an ecology of information and interaction.
(Seoul, btw, has sensors measuring air quality, and public information diplays and maps sharing the information in real time).