Talk in Paris about the invisibility of the digital city

Yesterday, I was in Paris to attend a Villes2.0 event (a sort of urban computing symposium) organized by the french think tank FING. The theme of the afternoon was "Cities and mobility: new urban perspectives. It was a quite packed conference with lots of interesting speakers coming from different fields such as transportation operations (RATP), sociology, entrepreneurship, design or big french technological companies. My presentation was about the invisibility of the digital city. If you've read Dan Hill post last week about the "street as a platform", it basically starts from the same point: cities of today are filled with digital services that Hill's blogpost describes very nicely. But most of the time these services are invisible.

My point was to show that there was a paradox here: since urban computing (as derived form ubiquitous computing) is partly meant to make explicit/visible some phenomena that are invisible, it's quite surprising that it itself invisible! I took some examples such as Tunable Cities (revealing electromagnetic fields) by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Rabby, the D-tower (to reveal emotion in cities), Beatriz Da Costa's pigeon blog systems that reports about city pollutions and of course the huge list of location-based services (Intel's Jabberwocky to reveal familiar strangers).

To some extent, the "disappearing computing" paradigm that Mark Weiser described has been some taken to the letter that digitality services are invisible. There is a very intriguing and recursive tension here that can be summarized by this dilemma: "how to make visible invisible techniques that aim at making visible the invisible". It sounds like a tongue twister but that's the reality faced by some urban companies I discussed with after my talk. The other layer of complexity is also "urban computing" has a huge component that is often left out: it is sometimes "unexpected ("imprevisible" in french) given that some parts can fluctuate (network signals, GPS accuracy...).

The other part of the talk was a sort of examination of the solutions to make the digital city more "visible". I took the example of the availability of Wifi and other services.

I started with signs: like the "((o))" that shows wifi presence in Switzerland or the lovely "Internet" signs that you spot all over the place (especially in exotic countries where they're often put with flowers). I also showed Timo Arnall's graphic language for Touch to describe the visual link between information and physical things.


In addition, the use of location-bases services themselves (as a sort of information-"push" system) that would deliver information to people based on their location. I spent here a little bit of time to explain why lots of them fails to do so.

Then I've showed some examples of cluster of services like phone/wifi booth and insisted that the future was closer to a JCDecaux mobile furniture I've seen in Mexico: a sort of billboard with a chair (used by people who wax shoes). In a sense clustering various services - digital and not digital - is a solution currently to make services more visible. For example, in Switzerland in railway station, you often have photographing booth+picture printing+phone booths+wifi+vending machinges next to each others.

(Left picture by Fabien Girardin)

Instant printing of photography

There are also new devices such as Wifi detectors, even on shirts that can explicit the presence of open networks. Those of course are gadgets and possibly meant to be integrated in other devices. I am wondering why phones does not (yet) have a WiFi indicator; my Nokia E65 phone can get Wifi but I need to do complex tricks to know if there's a network that is available.

And finally I advocated for more complex modes of interactions and that is not only a matter of "seeing" the digital city but rather to perceive it. Here I discussed podotactiles as an example of a different way to "feel" the city. As you may know podotactiles are textured strip which runs along the edge of the metro/tram station platform or even sidewalk, which one can feel with the feet. What I find interesting there is that (1) it's both about vision and proprioception, (2) it's not yet-another-device that gives you location-based information but a rather contextual marker in the environment. The street pavement as an interface if you will.

podotactile of some sort

My last point was about the users of such systems who often realize the presence/availability when there are physical/digital frictions: breakdowns, adaptive behavior from other users (you see a person employing a laptop while sat on church's stairs), or when you see specialist fixing a problem (network problem, broken cables), etc.

Thanks Thierry Marcou and Fabien Eychenne for the invitation! I'll post my notes about the other speakers soon.