Understanding the cultural dimensions of cities (for urban computing)

Williams, A. and Dourish, P. (2006). Reimagining the City: The Cultural Dimensions of Urban Computing. IEEE Computer, 39(9), 38-43. The paper aims at changing the view of cities as they can be perceived in "urban computing": it's essentially an overview of how cities should not be seen as a generic concept that is made of infrastructures and people living in them. Much rather, the authors advocates for viewing them as a product of history and culture. In a sense they described to what extent how infrastructures, city-dwellers and their practices are entwined to answer the question "What cultural dimensions frame research in technologies for city life?". Doing so, they bring forward three "urban themes":

"Friends and strangers: (...) Others see them as embodiments of communitas, social togetherness, belonging, and mutual support. [Lovegetty, Dodgeball.com] (...) pervasive computing technologies are commonly depicted as being capable of transforming strangers into friends who are available for social (frequently heteronormative) interaction. (...) Paulos and Goodman’s device, Jabberwocky, detects the people its user encounters in travels throughout the city, lighting up when it detects someone the user has encountered before. While not designed as a friend finder, it nonetheless renders spaces intelligible in terms of occupancy and patterns of hidden and potential familiarity. (...) Mobility: (...) we share urban spaces with people who, due to disability, economic status, immigration status, employment, race, caste, and other reasons, find themselves unable to move about easily or, conversely, have mobility forced upon them. (...) Legibility: (...) cities as informative environments that inhabitants can understand and interpret."

So, once integrated, what does that bring to the table? Williams and Dourish interestingly gives 3 directions:

"see spatial distance, regional familiarity, and personal contact not simply as instrumental aspects of cityscapes to be “overcome” by new technologies, but also as contexts within which new technologies must operate.

Second, we should adopt a broader view of the city’s occupants, their activities, and the conditions in which they conduct those activities (...) While urban computing has focused primarily on the city’s image as a setting and container of action, we argue instead for viewing the city that we experience every day as a product of historically and culturally situated practices and flows."

Why do I blog this? The paper definitely echoes with my interest in space as a way to affords social and cognitive interactions. By highlighting the importance of cultural dimensions, the paper is IMHO a pertinent read about how to better think the city as a complex system in which the context matters. Hence the problem of thinking about urban computing as an easily generic design problem for which outcomes can be transferrable or sold everywhere. This definitely helps criticizing normative design such as the so-called intelligent house or smart information systems about public transport that companies want to throw on the markets.