Greenfield and Shepard on Urban computing

Reading "Urban Computing and Its Discontents" by Adam Greenfield and Mark Shepard was a good move, as I am currently cobbling some notes about locative media and urban implications. This book is part of as a series called "Architecture and Situated Technologies Pamphlet" which addresses the implications of ubiquitous computing for architecture and urbanism. I won't go into all the aspects of this pamphlet and will rather focus on the elements I found relevant for my own research and activities. I found it very insightful with regards to (1) the implications/impacts of urban computing on architecture/urban environment, (2) the methodological discussion about how architects, "technologists" and user experience researchers can benefit from each others.

So how Greenfield and Shepard describes the implications of ubicomp/everyware/ambient informatics? I spotted 6 types as these excerpts show:


  1. These projects [locative media] share a common interest in altering how we locate and orient ourselves within cities, and subsequently navigate through them. (...) it suggests a shift from material/tangible cues (streets, squares, rivers, monuments, transportation hubs) to immaterial/ambient ones through which we form our mental maps. [other cues to be added to what Kevin Lynch described in "The Image of the City"]
  2. location-based services (...) operate on the scale of individual patterns of movement. What about information that has the potential to affect larger patterns of movement and activity within the city? (...) dynamic signs that correlated data gathered from throughout the local area, that inferred higher-level fact patterns from this data, and then everted them, made them public in that larger-than-life way
  3. expand the reach of signage and advertising in dense urban spaces. (...) What happens when mobile and pervasive technologies are used to subtract this kind of information from the physical world, reducing rather than adding to the visual field of the street? (...) “Every extension is also an amputation.” [McLuhan] (...) So what happens when all that crashes—as it surely will from time to time? (...) What happens when you’ve got a generation of people who are used to following these ambient cues around, and the cues go away?
  4. redefines surveillance (...) the ability to correlate disparate datapoints, to draw inferences about probable patterns of behavior, to anticipate emergent phenomena
  5. You’ve got privacy issues: do you tell people that you’re gathering information from them? If so—and I hope you do—how do you inform them in a way that lets them make a meaningful choice as to whether or not they want to be in this place?
  6. You’ve got issues like deconfliction and precedence to consider: whose orders have priority in this space?


Another aspect of interest here is the discussion about where architects and technologists sit. Adam advances that architects are "further along in imagining what cities look and feel like under the condition of ambient informatics than technologists are". To which, Shepard agrees by claiming how architecture is indeed one of the oldest “situated” technologies since buildings have long been designed to adapt to different sites, climates, or cultures over time. However, he thoughtfully criticizes the way mainstream work treat "interactive" architecture by focusing on a limited mode of interaction in which system only responds to input. Referring to Cedric Price, he details how "designing truly responsive systems entails more than the technical manifestation of a one-to-one reaction between input and output (simple goals). Higher-level interactions involve conversations between people and buildings that are capable of mutually learning patterns of activity and adapting to changing intentions (complex goals)".

Mark goes on by explaining how our experience of the city is not only shaped by urban form but by various media and ICT. The challenge is then not to oppose the virtual and the actual as a "strict dichotomy" but rather a continuity or a gradient. This argument is very close to a talk by Christophe Guignard I've attended last summer, in which he compared technologies with the light spectrum.

A last quote I found fundamental concerns the methodology Mark Shepard suggest to move forward:

"it would open new sites of practice to the architectural imagination. By studying the complex set of spatial practices people engage with (and through) computing in urban environments, architects would be better positioned to ascertain which aspects of the built environment are truly relevant today, and which need to be completely reimagined.""

Why do I blog this? currently working on writings and talks about how ubicomp affect the urban environments, this material is close to things I already noted, so it's good to see some resonance. The notion of locative media as cues to be integrated in Kevin Lynch's typology seems now very common as I stumbled into it few times this week.

The whole pamphlet is very valuable and the confrontation (well it's not that much of a confrontation) of Adam and Mark's ideas is very insightful. More importantly, the discussion about technological determinism at the end is a topic that would need to be more investigated as it often lead to dramatic issues, especially in the press with conclusion such as "the end of space" or "X and Y technology will modify the shape of our cities" without any nuance. I'll blog a paper by Antony Townsend about this later on.