What I’m talk­ing about is part of a project/obsession, real­ly, that I have with the notion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, par­tic­u­lar­ly urban­iz­ing inter­ac­tive net­worked tech­nol­o­gy. Now, the city’s a big sub­ject. I was glad that you brought up also the green­ing. I work on all kinds—some of you may know that (I feel like Miss City.) I work on many aspects of the city. This is just one lit­tle slice. It’s the begin­ning of a project. It’s a bit of an exper­i­men­tal set of thoughts that I’m going to share with you. And the city has of course become a strate­gic space for all kinds appli­ca­tions of the new tech­nolo­gies. And I’m think­ing of sort of computer-based tech­nolo­gies. There is Cisco Systems. There is all kinds of inter­est­ing counter, sort of against pow­er, ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing. There is a lot of it.

I stand back and I ask myself the ques­tion how much of this type of tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ty embed­ded, deployed, in urban space has actu­al­ly been urban­ized? And I’m not total­ly sure what the answer is. I real­ly see this as a ques­tion that is on the agen­da. Because just about every­body, every firm, etc. is think­ing how do I use the city? At one end how do I make mon­ey off it? And at the oth­er end how do I democ­ra­tize it? How do I give voice? How do I pro­duce dis­trib­uted urban spaces, a dis­trib­uted urban­i­ty? So I do think it is an extra­or­di­nary project.

For me, the notion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy real­ly is part of a larg­er sort of effort that I’ve been work­ing on for a very long time. And it starts with the notion that inter­ac­tive tech­nolo­gies— Well, tech­nolo­gies that enable inter­ac­tive domains deliv­er, give, their tech­ni­cal capac­i­ties through ecolo­gies that are more than just the tech­ni­cal capac­i­ty itself. 

Now, I start­ed work­ing on this I don’t know, twenty-five years ago, it feels more like a hun­dred years ago. And I was for instance—just to sit­u­ate the project—comparing how does finance, high finance, use these tech­nolo­gies ver­sus civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions? In many ways, they use the same fea­tures, the same prop­er­ties. But it’s like a Phillips curve, a point of inter­sec­tion. They use the same tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties, but they’re com­ing from dif­fer­ent points and going to dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tions. And so that alert­ed me to this notion that the actu­al inter­ac­tive tech­nol­o­gy real­ly operates—and that is why I am inter­est­ed in inter­ac­tive, by the way—it real­ly oper­ates in a broad­er ecol­o­gy.

Now, soon­er or lat­er it had to hap­pen to me—I arrived at the ques­tion of the city. What if that larg­er ecol­o­gy is the city? Now, the city is a far more com­plex, far more anar­chic space, than either civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, which can be quite anar­chic but not quite as anar­chic as the city, and of course in finance, which has a very clear aim though it some­times los­es out with that kind of clar­i­ty.

And when I look at a lot of the ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing that is hap­pen­ing, a lot of it—not all of it—is actu­al­ly track­ing, mea­sur­ing, giv­ing feed­backs. But they’re feed­backs that are infor­ma­tion. And they reveal often more about the tech­nol­o­gy than about the city. When I look at how tech­nol­o­gy is used in infra­struc­ture, I find that a lot of it is actu­al­ly enabling or alter­ing, etc. a giv­en infra­struc­ture. I’m left with the ques­tion, what am I real­ly ask­ing when I ask how do we urban­ize the tech­nol­o­gy? Urbaniser la tech­nolo­gie, en français.

And so a first step for me is the city is not just the mate­ri­al­i­ties. There are the peo­ple, their prac­tices, the sub­cul­tures, you know… It’s sort of real­ly a con­glom­er­ate of things. That notion of the city allows you to sort of under­stand that the city is capa­ble of talk­ing back. It talks back. Think of Rome. If Rome would have stayed where it was, it would be dead today. It would be dead. The only rea­son that Rome still exists as a city—think of Istanbul, any of our old cities, Marseilles, prob­a­bly. It’s because it keeps talk­ing back. It talks back in many many dif­fer­ent ways, and there­by sort of enacts the incom­plete­ness of the city. 

And so to me this notion of incom­plete­ness, this notion of talk­ing back, are two crit­i­cal vari­ables to begin to under­stand, to begin to mark, if you want, an ana­lyt­ic ter­rain where we can think about urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy. It is not enough that it be inter­ac­tive just in the most ele­men­tary way. There is a lot of inter­ac­tive tech­nol­o­gy right now in the city. You can go buy a train tick­et and the machine talks back, etc. but that’s not the kind of inter­ac­tive that I’m think­ing about.

And so a first sort of a way of think­ing about it is this notion of the city, but let me just put it in terms of cityness, a term that I sort of at some point found myself using and I sort of like it. I have a few very sil­ly slides, by the way. They have noth­ing to do any­thing seri­ous but I love them. They’re all made by artists and the names of the artists are at the bot­tom. So a first notion is for instance take an oil rig—you know what that is, right?—and urban­ize it. Here it is:

This is a design by archi­tects; again the name is at the bot­tom. And to me this is extra­or­di­nary. You don’t total­ly elim­i­nate, but by God you’re talk­ing back to that oil rig. You are mak­ing some­thing out of it. I don’t want to make too much out of this one. But I do think that that oil rig is much bet­ter than this: 

Shanghai Tower, Thornton Thomasetti

This to me deurban­izes space. Now, I’m just talk­ing about urban mate­ri­al­i­ties to get at my sub­ject.

Davide Luciano, Mypotholes

Now, more play­ful are some of these series—you may have seen them—about pot­holes. The city talk­ing back. Could this pot­hole in the road, street, where your car sort of gets hurt—is this the pot­hole as the prover­bial hole where Alice in Wonderland sort of dis­ap­peared? Making wine—I select­ed this one because we’re in France. You know, use the pot­hole— Or fish­ing. These are ele­men­tary ways of think­ing how urban space even in its most ele­men­tary ver­sion can actu­al­ly talk back.

Image by Bradley L. Garrett from Geographic Fractalisation”, used with per­mis­sion

There are lim­its. This is dead urban space. This does not talk back. It would take a lot of effort. Similarly with this:

Image by Bradley L. Garrett from Geographic Fractalisation”, used with per­mis­sion

Brand new, under­uti­lized. So when I say that the city talks back, I am actu­al­ly sug­gest­ing that it can only hap­pen under cer­tain con­di­tions. And here I saw this beau­ti­ful site. I love the lan­guage there, you know. There he goes, one of God—” I just real­ized there’s God in here. that is not why I loved it, by the way. One of God’s—” I can’t even read it. “—own pro­to­types.” This is what I want to get at: A high-powered mutant of some kind nev­er even con­sid­ered for mass pro­duc­tion. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

In many ways, I think that cities are a bit that way. They are weird. And they are all these mix­es. And [there’s] also some­thing about them that they do not die. When you think about our good old cities, they have out­lived empires, king­doms, republics, multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions. They live on. And they live on, I think, because they’re incom­plete. And because they talk back.

So when we’re begin­ning to sort of try to bring in the ques­tion of the tech­nol­o­gy, one first step for me is this notion of open source urban­ism that I’ve begun to play with. Now, when you think about open source, and going back to that ecol­o­gy that I talked about at the begin­ning, in a way the hack­er or the open source per­son is going to the same space but it’s a dif­fer­ent ecol­o­gy of ele­ments. So then the ques­tion becomes what would it mean to do open source urban­ism? What does that actu­al­ly entail? And sec­ond­ly, sort of what does it mean if we start to think about the city as the hack­er of a giv­en tech­nol­o­gy, of a giv­en space? 

Another very lit­tle ele­ment, I don’t know if any of you fol­lowed that project that was pre­sent­ed in a book called Sentient City—some of you may know that—which is the too-smart city. The garbage can that spits back the garbage. The bench that evicts, ejects, the per­son who sits on it. There’s a whole series; it’s very amus­ing. But how can we begin to think about some­thing that is either the image of the city as the hack­er of a giv­en tech­no­log­i­cal space—in this case intel­li­gent cities would come to mind—or open source urban­ism?

Now, I have a whole vari­ety of lit­tle ele­men­tary first steps that I like to take with this kind of mate­r­i­al. And part­ly, to give you a very ele­men­tary image, this notion of talk­ing back, there’s a famous episode that I love to talk about because it shows people—but the most ele­men­tary capac­i­ty. (This is not high tech, this is just you know…practice.) There was a park in New York in the 1980s when I had just arrived in New York. Riverside Park, which now is a beau­ti­ful gen­tri­fied park, etc. so now it’s not an issue. But at the time it was known [for] hav­ing mur­ders, assaults, you didn’t go there. At some point, people—they hadn’t arranged it—began to have dogs because the whole neigh­bor­hood was dan­ger­ous. Then, you have a dog, you have to walk your dog. In walk­ing the dogs in mass­es, bat­tal­ions, of dog­walk­ers, they actu­al­ly reap­pro­pri­at­ed the ter­ri­to­ry of the park. Now, one might think of that prac­tice, and you can mul­ti­ply the exam­ples, as a kind of soft­ware. People’s practices—cityness—as a kind of soft­ware that can then be con­nect­ed. How do the prac­tices of peo­ple—

Now, I know that we’re going to hear all kinds of accounts that illus­trate what I might call the urban­iz­ing of these tech­nolo­gies. When it comes to intel­li­gent cities, which I was also asked to address here, I think that one of their problems—and I’m talk­ing not so much smart city with ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing, but absolute­ly the intel­li­gent city as a mod­el. Cisco Systems, you know, Songdo is one exam­ple. Masdar is slight­ly dif­fer­ent. And frankly there are hun­dreds of them being planned. They to me deur­ban­ize tech­nol­o­gy. Because sure there’s a lot of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty in all that embed­ded tech­nol­o­gy. And there cer­tain­ly is knowl­edge accu­mu­la­tion, there are feed­back loops, adjust­ments to the prac­tices of a giv­en inhab­i­tant of a par­tic­u­lar build­ing, etc. There is all of that. The tech­ni­cal capac­i­ties are at work. It is inter­ac­tive, etc. But is it a deur­ban­iz­ing of the larg­er space that is the city?

And so I say yes, part of the prob­lem is that they’re a closed sys­tem. They aspire to being closed sys­tems. And the city is not a closed sys­tem. The city is open, incom­plete. These sys­tems, I am not suf­fi­cient­ly knowl­edge­able about all the engi­neer­ing aspects. But it seems to me that these are sys­tems that real­ly need a cer­tain lev­el of con­trol to func­tion. Which means that they’re pret­ty closed.

Secondly, they are enact­ments, almost exclu­sive­ly, of the engineer’s log­ic. And com­ing back to my exam­ple of finance or civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, what these users do whether it is high finance which is real­ly push­ing the devel­op­ments (sad­ly to say) in that tech­nol­o­gy, a very high-end user, or civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions which most­ly are not so high-end users, their log­ic is not the log­ic of the engi­neer. Their log­ic is the log­ic of finance, the log­ic of Amnesty International, of what­ev­er it might be. And they work pre­cise­ly because they sort of have an inter­est­ing inter­ac­tion with the engineer’s log­ic. But it also means that the ABCD that the engineer’s log­ic has embed­ded into that tech­nol­o­gy does not nec­es­sar­i­ly get ful­ly exe­cut­ed. And that is why so many pre­dic­tions, I think, are wrong. 

So once you’re deal­ing with an inter­ac­tive domain, as opposed to a data pipeline or what­ev­er infra­struc­ture you’re deal­ing with, the fact that the user’s log­ic is not the same as the engineer’s log­ic means that there already is some sort of hack­ing hap­pen­ing. Whether it is finance or a civ­il ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion or what­ev­er it might be. So the sec­ond point about intel­li­gent cities, the fact that they are an enact­ment, and in a closed domain, an enact­ment of that engineer’s log­ic already tells me that they’re going to have lim­it­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties, lim­it­ed poten­tial.

Now, the third issue with intel­li­gent cities is that they don’t make vis­i­ble the tech­nol­o­gy. The tech­nol­o­gy should be vis­i­ble. This is some­thing that I have talked about for a very long time, that all of this stuff should actu­al­ly be vis­i­ble. Because then it is inter­ac­tive. Then some­thing begins to hap­pen. It becomes part of mul­ti­ple ecolo­gies. The tech­ni­cal infrastructures—the pipes, what­ev­er it might be—becomes part of mul­ti­ple ecolo­gies depend­ing on who is look­ing at it, who’s using it, etc. All of these fea­ture that I think I could use the same images and describe cities, all of these are absent in the core of these intel­li­gent cities.

So, one image is obso­lete­ness. Those sys­tems, the hard core of the intel­li­gent city sys­tem, is going to be obso­lete because of that closed­ness, because it’s sim­ply enacts the log­ic of the engi­neer. And this is one image. This is from a Chinese artist; I’m sure some of you seen this. And this is even bet­ter. All these fan­cy struc­tures, obso­lete. Now, it is here that I see the extent to which this deur­ban­izes the city. It kills them. It makes the whole city obso­lete.

Now, I am not at all against using all kinds of tech­nolo­gies. But I do think in the case of the city—not all tech­nolo­gies but many technologies—we need to urban­ize those tech­nolo­gies. So the image that I have again is this notion of urban­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy, open source urban­ism, the city as hack­er, and sort of the the foun­da­tion­al core image for any inter­ac­tive tech­nol­o­gy, incom­plete­ness. Because the log­ic of the users does not 100% cor­re­spond with the log­ic of the engi­neer. And out of that incom­plete­ness comes in a way the mutant capac­i­ty that that has for cities, in short, a long life, and that for a lot of these inter­ac­tive domains, espe­cial­ly if we begin to embed these tech­nolo­gies in urban space, becomes essen­tial if they’re going to sur­vive and we don’t wind up with all those piles of obso­lete mate­r­i­al. Thank you very much.


Discussion

Moderator: Thank you, Saskia. A few questions for you. I think you touched on that, but do you think we will see in the near future a switch of power between countries and cities. Because we see that cities are becoming centers of innovation, centers of huge technology usage. A lot of new things started from states or cities like forbidding smoke, etc. So do you see cities taking the power on the international scene more than countries?

Saskia Sassen: Well, I think that power is a variable. And so the DNA of a lot of these interactive technologies is more akin to the DNA of a city. And in that sense, national governments, national states, are closed, highly-formalized—that is why cities have outlasted those kinds of systems. So they have a problem certainly at a time when we are trying to deploy all kinds of technologies.

Now, the national government, the state, has certain powers that cities don't have. For instance, since you asked me, the environmental question. So, I think that if the COP meeting that just happened, if it would have been last fall, if it would have been cities in charge of the discussions, we would have gotten action. Cities are in a vanguard compared to national governments. Good national governments pass some good national laws, you know, which we need. But cities, in the United States right now we have eight hundred cities, no matter how regressive the politics of the mayors, who have sued the national government—it started under Bush, actually—for not implementing strong enough laws. Cities are hit by a lot of this stuff immediately, in a very material way.

So in essence the city is in a very different position. It is quite possible, as you suggest in your question, that this is a time when cities are actually concentrating a certain kind of power. But I think that the power of the city is a distributed power. And that makes me think again about this notion of open source urbanism. You know, there is something about the city that no matter [how] concentrated high-rise buildings in the center, you know, it sort of filters… So I think that the city is such a different algorithm from the national states—

Moderator: Both of them are mostly complementary rather than… It's not one or the other—

Sassen: No no no, it's complementary. It's always complementary. But anyhow, yeah. I think I answered that question.

Moderator: This is my my personal question I sneaked in. I see all these changes coming and I wanted to ask you would you rather be the mayor of Detroit or Paris. You know, Detroit has—

Sassen: Detroit.

Moderator: —everything to rebuild and—

Sassen: Detroit.

Moderator: —Paris is kind of cluttered—

Sassen: I have zero doubt. Paris is almost perfect. I make a joke now, don't take it too literally. No, Detroit.

You know, we have one thing that is happening is European artists are coming to Detroit because there's a lot of space. It is a little like East Berlin, you know, after the Wall came down. Where artists just went and you just squatted in buildings. Detroit has enormous potential. Urban agriculture, of course, is a big one for Detroit. I smile because it is also an irony, but it is sort of interesting. So, I would rather be the mayor of Detroit.

Moderator: More potential. Somebody asked on Twitter how much of this type of technical capabilities you described are deployed in urban space is actually really urban? So I think the question— It's mostly technologies that were intended to be urban, or they became urban because they were hacks…

Sassen: No. I think that a lot of these technologies don't necessarily start with an urban concept. it's just that this is like a moment of encounter. Here were the technologies happily doing their stuff, blah, blah, blah. And here were the cities happily doing their messy stuff. And this is a moment of encounter. Now, the encounter is shaped by multiple forces; some of it is pure business. I cannot tell you how many invitations—I've said no to all of them—I get from big meetings where they want to discuss—business meetings—where they want to discuss how can they sell whatever it is that there were develop[ing] in order to implement it in cities. But I do think that it is an interesting encounter.

Now, this question of urbanizing. A lot of the technology per se… You know, some of it might be urban. Social media are social media; that does not necessarily mean that they're urban. However, if you come back to this image that if you're dealing with interactive technologies, there is that larger ecology of elements that goes beyond the technology. That includes users, with their own logics, their own cultures, their own ideas. At that point, a technology embedded in interactive technology, embedded in a city, is dealing with a larger ecology. So the city can actually urbanize that technology.

And I love this notion of the city as hacker. You know, if you think, the hacker enters—or you know, the new WikiLeaks thing of…wiki hacker— We know there are all kinds of new things and new innovations there. So I think that the city does talk back. The city can alter. So Technology X can go to one kind of space or come to the city. And so a big agenda for research or debate is how many technologies that are really good—and again I'm thinking about interactive, but there are others. I just focus on interactive. How many of these ought to be urbanized? What would it mean?

So it can't be just a set of options on a screen. Not much happening there, you know. It has to be that you're producing a third space. And I think that third space is a kind of urban software that is a mix of peoples and spaces and needs and the garbage question and the potholes and I don't know what all. But the pothole, [acts out tapping on a cell phone] you know this device where we can all say certain you know, satellites, etc. "Big pothole there." I mean that is already a bit more. It sounds elementary. But the pothole question if you live in a city is a big one—especially in American cities. The French…perfect roads. But you can't say that in New York, you know.

Moderator: You spent maybe a bit too much time in Paris, because we have challenging roads in France. A last question. I live in Switzerland, and some people say about Switzerland that it's the opposite, it's a country becoming a city. And you have access to— I just moved from the city back to the country, and I feel like I have almost the exact same experience in terms of technologies. I have the same Internet access. I have the same IPTV. And do you think technology is kind of blurring the frontier between city and not-city?

Sassen: Well you know, it's not… Sure it can help that. Of course, absolutely. But it's not only that that is blurry. You know, we really have a return of—like right now in New York, in American cities, the big fashion is urban agriculture. So New York City has a 112 farms. It's a live website. And every day or every week they are hoping to add more. So I have a link to that website because I think it's very interesting. I mean, it's like almost… Chicago has passed ordinances where all roofs have to be green. Now, that's not rural necessarily, but this duality of models, the urban: cement, the rural: green.

And of course the Chinese— I was invited to speak at the Shanghai Expo. And they are a bit neurotic right now about the rural areas, for all kinds of reasons that I cannot develop now. But they literally asked me to think aloud (they know that I like to think aloud like I just did with you people here) about a territorial format that encompasses both the urban and the rural, so that neither is fully urban nor is the other fully rural. And what you described about Switzerland, Switzerland has that a bit, actually.

Moderator: Exactly, we have the same services wherever you live. It's a very interesting model. Thank you very much, Saskia Sassen.

Further Reference

Lift France 2011 page


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