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.


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