Cafe Rooie Nelis in Jordaan District in Amsterdam

Cafe Rooie Nelis in Jordaan District in Amsterdam

The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform organised a workshop and conference titled Social Cities of Tomorrow. The program took place during the week of February 13-17. It was a great event in every way from organisation to the keynote speakers to presentations of different social media projects from throughout the world. Not only that, but it was fun and there were lots of great people doing great work to meet.

See also my posts: Social Cities of Tomorrow Project Showcase and Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops.

Keynote Presentations

Keynote presentations at the conference were given by Martijn de Waal from The Mobile City, one of the conference sponsors, Usman Haque developer among other things of Pachube, Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, and Daniel Hill, an interactions designer from SITRA (Finish Innovation Fund). More details on the keynote speakers is available at the Social Cities of Tomorrow Keynote Speakers page.

Introduction – Martijn de Waal

Martin’s presentation was an introduction to the idea of the conference and overall project. I am pretty sure he worked on it closely with Michiel de Lange, his colleague at The Mobile City, who did an excellent job as moderator of the conference.

Starting with the title, it’s a take on Ebenezer Howard’s book “Garden Cities of Tomorrow” which was designed to address the problems of turn of the century (1900) industrial cities through improved physical design. The idea now is to use new technologies to create communities that can solve today’s complex issues.

The goal is to have highly technical cities, but focused not on technology, but on people. People living in cities should feel an ownership, meaning not that they exclude other people, but rather that they feel responsible for improving their cities.

  • engage and empower
  • publics (groups of people)
  • to act on
  • community shared issues

These are, of course, key aspects of all community-based planning efforts, but what’s important is that new media and technologies are changing how we can perform these activities. Some examples:

  • Open data and data analysis tools can be used to bring out new communal issues and to inform the public (e.g. SensibleCity visualisations like TrashTrack);
  • Applications designed to help users provide planning input or even develop their own plans (e.g. Biketastic at UCLA, and the New York bike share location crowdsourcing map developed by OpenPlans, etc.)
  • New media allows us to organise people in new ways, e.g. collaborative consumption (e.g. car-sharing, airBnB).

Lots more ideas from Martijn’s presentation available at Social Cities of Tomorrow Background and his presentation is on line at: placeholder.

Cappuchino at Cafe de Pels in Amsterdam

Cappuchino at Cafe de Pels in Amsterdam

Usman Haque

Usman started by reminding us that cities are a place for encountering things you don’t understand, and this is a very good thing.

Pachube, the website started by Haque, is an organised list of data feeds from throughout the world. Anyone can add a data feed. The goal is to be a broker for the data from the internet of things. The site serves to promote discovery of data feeds and to begin conversations about what the data means.

The growing number of sensors and feeds means that we are flooded with data, but how does this lead to action?

The first step is to enable people to make sense of the data. Two ideas: (1) we need to have/encourage people to have conversations about the data; and (2) we need to develop applications to make sense of the data.

Haque also described a project where architecture students in Barcelona collected air quality data by wiping kleenex on the sides of buildings and recording the amount of grime they found. Pretty inexact, but quite effective in making the students aware of what they were breathing. Once they saw what was going into their lungs they were ready to take action (they developed a new air circulation plan for their workspace).

The main point is that taking action requires more than technical data, it is a function of culture and politics.

Haque ended by suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t always be trying to simplify things, maybe it’s better to demonstrate complexity and develop tools to deal with that complexity by connecting with people and taking action together, shouldn’t we embrace complexity?

(My comments: Don’t tools to deal with complexity necessarily mean simplifying it? On the other hand, the business of politicians is simplifying issues, and look where they have taken us!)

Haque’s website describes many of his extremely interesting projects.

Natalie Jeremijenko

Natalie Jeremijenko had the difficult task of talking with us after lunch, but succeeded in keeping us wide awake as she described many of her projects. I’ll just mention a few.

Look out for children sign in Amsterdam

Look out for children sign in Amsterdam

The goal is using new media to create a better future. Generating, analysing and acting-on data needs to be opened up. An example from transport, a traffic signal gives power away to the machine, a traffic circle makes everyone use data to make decisions.

(In this example Natalie mentioned that traffic engineers don’t like traffic circles, but in fact most of my colleagues do like traffic circles, they are more efficient in many situations!)

No Parks are small parts of the street where plants replace pavement (cars can no longer park there). The goal is to reduce the surface runoff that is a very significant problem for water quality (it’s easier to deal with point sources and regulations have reduced point source pollution). She described an effort in NYC that included individuals taking ownership for these little “No Parks” by selling pieces of the plot and using the proceeds to pay for the project. Many cities are doing projects to open up the pavement in this way, but I have not seen any that use this level of social engagement before.

Bike Messenger – LEDs on bike wheels connected to a wireless communications. When bikes reach a certain speed the LEDs light-up and display information communicated by roadside senders, for example the number of pedestrian fatalities at the intersection. Good information for everyone and helps make the bikes more visible at night.

Fightpath Toronto, a really wild project where Jeremijenko and Haque set up aerial platforms in front of the Toronto City Hall and let people fly through the open space (connected to cables, although they wore wings). As the people “flew” laser lights were projected that changed based on the sound of the audience. When’s the next installation? I’m going!

Elevator Project, Long Island City for Otis Elevators (?). Jeremijenko looked at how by extending the elevator shaft 30-feet above the building roof, the shaft could help provide better air circulation and help power the building. It also gave the opportunity for installing flightpath take-off areas (platforms for installing the cables) which might even be used for goods delivery (why does an organic artisanal bakery need to use diesel belching trucks to deliver its products?).

Other projects she mentioned: floating lights in NY’s East River that light when fish swim by (video) (along with healthy food for observers to give the fish), AgBags small gardens made from tevek bags (FedEX envelopes) that hang on the side of buildings (together called farmacy), clear skys mask, one trees project planting 6000 genetically identical trees in pairs throughout the Bay Area to observe different growing patterns, and more …

Here’s a couple sites with information on Natalie environmental health clinic and NYU faculty bio.

Old traffic sign used as a table in Amsterdam.

Old traffic sign used as a table in Amsterdam.

Daniel Hill

Daniel also had a tough job, it was getting quite late on a Friday afternoon, but his talk was also mile-a-minute speed through a series of ideas and lessons learned.

The main point of Hill’s talk was that designers normally only deal with a small portion of what’s going on with project implementation. There’s a great deal of “dark matter” that isn’t normally dealt with by designers which impact what gets done and what doesn’t much more than actual designs.

He started with a description of five failed projects he’s been involved with and related these examples to the various aspects of dark matter, which includes all things that make things hard to do including cost, legacy, inertia, scale … there’s no one department to go to for permission to implement these projects. Hill believes we need to redesign the context for decision-making as well as project “content”. The context:

  • Complexity of problems is out of kilter with decision-making process;
  • Interdependent problems;
  • No client for many problems (e.g. global climate change);
  • Huge gap between people making policy and people operating the services (doing the work);
  • More data and further analysis isn’t automatically helping;
  • Diminishing public faith in capacity (of, e.g. government) to deliver;

But someone created this context (in the 18th Century for 18th Century problems), and so it can be recreated. But how?

  • Design studio approach to problem solving (book:
  • Stewardship – staying in touch with projects over time;
  • Trojan horse – using a project to change the process, don’t just seek exceptions to allow projects to be done, seek to change the laws that prevent others from doing the same;
  • Macguffin – plot device named by Hitchcock to signify something that drives the movie but the audience does not care about (think “government secrets” in North by Northwest), here’s where the focus on changing the context comes in, we the designers don’t care enough about the context (regulations, government processes) that impact our ability to do things;
  • Dark Matter – the 83% of the universe that no one has ever seen, but must be there, in our case the institutions in a city, many things produce a culture but you don’t see them;
  • Decision-making Platforms – I started to lose the 8 words about here, but the point here is closely related to dark matter, decisions matter … social media is great for organizing, but hasn’t been so helpful yet helping identify and lead-to what comes next (e.g. Occupy movements);

Government 2.0 is not Government 1.0 with a web 2.0 front end, there needs to be more.

Speed bump sign in Amsterdam

Speed bump sign in Amsterdam.

Hill mentioned Ravintolapäivä the original restaurant day (http://restaurantday.com). It’s a day held in Helsinki where anyone can open a restaurant and serve food to the public. It’s totally illegal, but the government was powerless to stop it. Now it happens twice a year, organised on Facebook. The next one is May 19, 2012. This was an example of how the “Nordic Model” (of providing the same for everyone) could be meshed with the “Anglo Model” (wide variation and diversity) to provide the high overall quality of the Nordic model with the creativity and innovation in the Anglo model.

A possible project is for the city to create an place where people who want to start restaurants can learn the skills needed to do so successfully, hopefully without squashing out the creativity these people bring to the project. Turning this from an intervention to a systematic approach for supporting creativity and innovation.

Five thoughts to end the presentation (because he used to work at Monocle and they always have lists like this):

  1. The world is mutable – although policy makers often don’t think things can change: they can.
  2. Prototype in the political world, the cost of assessing the risk of doing something new is often higher than the cost of just trying it and failing.
  3. Hinge policy to delivery;
  4. Design for scaling up;
  5. >Dark matter matters.

For more on Dan Hill see his blog city of sound, well worth a read.

Keynote speakers at Social City of Tomorrow Conference Amsterdam 2012.

Keynote speakers at Social City of Tomorrow Conference Amsterdam 2012.

The keynote speakers at the panel discussion: left to right: Jeremijenko, Haque and Hill, source: Virtueel Platform.

Panel Discussion

The three keynote speakers took the stage to take a few questions from the audience. Some of the discussion:

Everyone agreed that dealing with the dark matter was a fundamental part of getting projects done. Jeremijenko reported that there was no precedent for her AgBags project, so she had to print things on the bags so they would be considered “signs” and could therefore fall under the city’s regulatory structure. Seven agencies needed to give approval for her fish lights project, and unfortunately, none of them really helped implement the project, they just gave approvals.

Beer from the Netherlands at't Arendsnest in Amsterdam

Beer from the Netherlands at ‘t Arendsnest in Amsterdam

Someone made the point that designers are lucky in the sense that they usually have a client who gives them instructions (design a building for me) so lots of the dark matter is dealt with by someone else (the lawyers), but it’s really these things outside the traditional “client-designer relationship” that really need changing … in that sense design-think is dead.

Technology enables, it does not drive change. There’s a tactical benefit to new technology: often institutions don’t have a standard way of dealing with it, so there’s an opportunity to really change things.

Artists have a great capacity to fail in public, no one trusts them to do anything …

… and with that we adjourned to drinks and conversations.