Book Chapter: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011)

A new book on urban informatics hit the bookstores last December: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011) edited by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs. Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of this impressive collection of case studies, reflections and stories from the front lines of the ever-expanding set of practices that is urban informatics. The collection comes as a result of an HSCNet symposium held in 2009 by QUT’s Urban Informatics Lab .

Strange indeed how different are the time scales inhabited by online vs print publishing, meaning that a ‘new’ book in fact features research outcomes that are two years old, obviously a long time in internet years. And yet while much may have changed since the symposium itself, when the likes of Adam Greenfield shared with eager onlookers his disruptive, eclectic thoughts and musings relating to The City is Here for You to Use, the tangibility of a printed book certainly retains its special charms.

My chapter, ‘Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City‘ features in a section dealing with what is called ‘Creative Engagement’.

As the Abstract reads:

Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis, and photo sharing and social networking sites, have made possible a more participatory Internet experience. Much of this technology is available for mobile phones, where it can be integrated with such device-specific features as sensors and GPS. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen examines how this increasingly open, collaborative, and personalizable technology is shaping not just our social interactions but new kinds of civic engagement with cities, communities, and spaces. It offers analyses and studies from around the world that explore how the power of social technologies can be harnessed for social engagement in urban areas.

Chapters by leading researchers in the emerging field of urban informatics outline the theoretical context of their inquiries, describing a new view of the city as a hybrid that merges digital and physical worlds; examine technology-aided engagement involving issues of food, the environment, and sustainability; explore the creative use of location-based mobile technology in cities from Melbourne, Australia, to Dhaka, Bangladesh; study technological innovations for improving civic engagement; and discuss design research approaches for understanding the development of sentient real-time cities, including interaction portals and robots.


Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.

Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the
arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know that this would
be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of space and the events of its past.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities fluid assemblages of signs and images litter a subterranean landscape which mark the destinations to which Marco Polo has travelled. Polo recounts these destinations to his Emperor Kublai Khan without recourse to a map or a wayfaring guide; we are given little by way of their geography, or any sense of the spatial connections between each recalled location. Instead there are only fragments, the improbable exceptions of remembrance and experience. Calvino’s invisible cities are all given names, women’s names like Irene, Chloe, Raissa, Adelma: Irene, for example, “is the city visible when you lean out from the edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come on” (1974: 112). There are many cities, but always the one: Venice. This is the Venice collapsed or hidden behind its contemporary, over-exposed tourist façade, whose ‘invisibility’ is cultivated as the imaginative potentiality of everyday encounters with a familiar space. Of this Venice there are no general claims made, instead, from the singularity of this one city, are teased provisional cities that capture a mood, a memory, a fleeting gesture, the tracery of a half-glimpsed pattern…

What might Calvino’s peculiar treatments of urban spatiality offer to today’s practitioners of urban computing? M. Christine Boyer (1996: 142) has noted the way Invisible Cities represents a network “much like the matrix of a hypertext, in which the reader can select multiple routes and draw a variety of conclusions”. During the 1960s Calvino was interested in what the combinatory complexities of cybernetics meant as a way of perceiving the world, one that could divide it into a series of discrete, divisible parts, rather than continuous in form, a shift he considered radical in the way it altered the theoretical image of our mental processes. Invisible Cities sees this recombinatory logic of cybernetics in action, allowing for an imaginary projection of urban space via a set of algorithmic relationships that enable places to exchange their form, order, and distances, as qualities assorted “like the letters in a name” (Calvino 1974: 164).

In Invisible Cities this recombinatory logic incorporates not only discrete spatial entities, but also “the measurements of space and the events of its past”. An imaginative projection of the city’s spatiality is thus evoked as intimately temporal – but again, this temporality is not continuous, as in the steady passage of time, but is rather experienced as discontinuous and elliptical. Just as there is no clear linear passage through the spatial environment of the city of Venice, so too there is no clear passage through its shifting temporalities, or the discrete stages of Marco Polo’s journey: “all the future Berenices”, for example, “are already present in this instant” (1974: 146). For this is a temporality that figures like the experience of memory, in which recollections emerge without warning, as discrete, embodied moments, which might flash up at any given time – such as, perhaps, when you lean out of a window in the early evening.

In this way Calvino animated invisible cities as topologies of moments, whose recombinations and recollections continue to haunt imagistic projections and abstract modes of knowledge. Released two years after the publication of Invisible Cities, Jonothan Raban’s Soft City (1974) offered a similar treatment of the urban terrain as intimately personal, and therefore malleable and indeterminate: “Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you” (Raban 1974: 1). The fractured identity of the modern condition was mirrored in the malleability of urban space, as Raban’s narrative itinerary teased out the many from the singular, navigating agitated spaces of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare. The dynamic of cities was presented as “plastic by nature”, criss-crossing both the real and the imagined, the voice of commentary mixing it up with the musings of a wondering, wandering traveler. Dense with labyrinthine alleyways of possibility and happenstance, Soft City presented urban spaces “in our images; they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them” (Raban 1974: 1-2).

Both writers offered their accounts of the city not as scholars of urbanism but instead as conjurors of stories. Jeannette Winterson (2001) has written that “[r]eading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.” At one point in his account of invisible cities, Calvino describes the way Kublai Khan had focused so narrowly on a chessboard of black and white squares that the game’s meaning had eluded him, as it had simply become an abstract piece of wood (Boyer 1996: 143). But when Marco Polo reminded him that this chessboard was “inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple” Khan’s imagination took flight. As Boyer has suggested, in this way Calvino teaches us a lesson: we might reduce events to abstract patterns that facilitate the procedures of logical operations, or we can work to engender or revive imaginary projections – in this case, making words reveal the very tangible qualities of a given object – which in turn might allow for the continued presence of the unfathomable, the invisible (ibid).

This Chapter considers some of the ways in which we might continue to encounter the elliptical invisibilities of contemporary ‘real-time ‘ cities. Today, the ability to graphically enhance our imaging of cities as multi-scalar, networked environments offers profound potentials, introducing an array of new urban management and design techniques using more detailed, real-time urban data. Just as a shapeless dust cloud invaded the continents of Invisible Cities, today’s real-time cities are underpinned by an information architecture of sensors and applications, whose databases express the mutating, multi-scalar complexities of the material world. The ability to visualize these interactions in real-time radically disrupts our conception of the city, by representing urban spaces according to their everyday uses as much as by their physical, built structures. Real-time usage patterns can, for example, be applied to predict the impact of new developments, replacing of out of date census data with predictive models more closely attuned to the complex interactions and spatial flows of the city. Embedded sensor networks reveal that which might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye; like coins rubbed over waxpaper, they make visible a myriad of fluid, complex exchanges between material, social and informational universes.

For many, this computational intensification of the material world retrieves hidden, hitherto banished possibilities, and can be put to disruptive uses (Foth 2008: 19). To Foth, practitioners of urban informatics can act as ‘urban anatomists’, dissecting urban environments and infrastructure by “trying to microscopically uncover the connections and interrelations of city elements”, seeking to “picture the invisible and to zoom into a fine-grained resolution of urban environments”. Peter Hall and Janet Abrams have suggested “[m]apping has emerged in the information age as a means to make the complex accessible, the hidden visible, the unmappable mappable” (2006: 12). The application of hyper-local, multi-scalar and real time mapping techniques, it is argued, present opportunities to expose ‘hidden’ or hitherto invisible relationships, including the relationships between centre and periphery, power and influence (see Sassen 2008; Boyer 2006).

For Dan Hill, there is the potential to avoid grand infrastructural interventions which become “hardwired into the urban fabric” for subsequent generations, and to instead develop a more “iterative, responsive field of ‘urban acupunctures”. Location-aware computing has in such ways been seen to greatly expand the range of possibilities for artists, architects and designers to “re-enchant the world”, offering “a way of making visible all these hidden stories of place” (Crang and Graham 2007: 815). The embedding of microprocessors via sensor web networks in physical environments also enables the informational life-worlds of millions of ‘users’, human or otherwise, to be made visible, such that needs not only of humans but also natural environments can be revealed as diffuse, complex systems of interaction.

But as practitioners of urban computing seek to actively to disrupt established views of the city, visualizing that which has hitherto remained hidden from view, a return to Invisible Cities also prompts us to reconsider the enduring presence of that which still remains out of view in today’s real-time cities. In a sense, many of the potentials associated with real-time mobile networks are predicated on making visible that which might otherwise remain unseen. But the twentieth century has already witnessed many costly lessons associated with relying too heavily on technologies of visual abstraction and representation as a means to progress urban reform. So when we today assess the potentials associated with enhanced, contextually-aware spatial representations of the real-time city, Calvino’s writing reminds us of the need to be remain mindful not only of what this capacity for spatial measurement reveals, but to consider also how we might continue to enfold the ‘the events of its past’ within these emergent, distributed networked configurations.

READ MORE: Chapter in Digital Cities publication From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen. By by Marcus Foth (Editor) , Laura Forlano (Editor) , Christine Satchell (Editor) , Martin Gibbs (Editor) , Judith Donath (Afterword).

Street Haunting SBarns Final-1

The title for the chapter was inspired by reading Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, in which she takes her readers on a walk through London one winter’s eve in search of a pencil. Happily, it’s available online now, and can be read below.

Another inspiration for the piece are the Lost Laneways of Sydney – one of the images from this fine collection is below. It captures a man walking down Exeter Place in Sydney, 1906. Exeter Place was obliterated as part of the Wexworth St Resumption.

Exeter Place Surry Hills, c1906.

Image Credit: SENSEable City Lab, Network & Society Project, MIT 2010

The Death and Life of the Real-Time City

Much of the archives work featured on this site has contributed to a PhD I’ve been undertaking through the University of Technology Sydney. It’s been a long and winding journey – starting out in the Faculty of Computing and IT and ending up in Public History – and finally submitted in August 2010.

Titled The Death and Life of the Real-Time City: Re-imagining the City of Digital Urbanism, this is a somewhat ‘non-traditional’ PhD which traverses a number of different fields and takes in ideas relating to urban computing, utopian images of the city, urban activism during the 20th century, sound practices, and the digital distribution of media archives today.

If you’re wondering how all those ideas fit together, you best have a read. A copy of the unpublished dissertation can be downloaded here.

The Abstract begins like this:

Information and communications technologies are becoming increasingly diffused within the material spaces of the city, generating novel ways of representing complex, hitherto ‘invisible’ urban behaviours in real-time. Many digital urbanists are inspired by the capacity of these network technologies to radically transform our perceptions and experiences of urban space. But how ‘new’, really, is this emergent vision of the city?

My primary interest has been to critically interrogate how it is that digital urbanists approach the space of the city – not only in descriptive terms, in terms of the ‘what is’, whether that be current GPS-enabled bicycle trips or mobile phone usage patterns, but by projecting a kind of anticipatory urban imaginary which agitates for ‘what might be’ and in doing so, is implicitly critical of the status quo.

By digital urbanists, I basically mean those practitioners and researchers who are excited by the potential for urban computing – wireless networks, mobile devices and so forth – to alter the way we use and understand urban spaces. Just as the term ‘urbanism’ is sometimes used to denote a passionate interest in, or engagement with, the vicissitudes of urban life, I’ve used the term ‘digital urbanism’ to capture a largely optimistic engagement in the potential for urban computing technologies to reform cities.

MIT SENSEable City Lab 2010. Project: Network & Society

I’ve been fascinated with the rise of digital urbanism because it stands quite apart from the orientation of many cyberspace cheerleaders of the 1990s, who predicted the demise of the city. Where previously the anti-materiality of this post-urban fantasy had looked to the Internet as a kind of utopia of pure space â?? where a virtual world of pure information served to ‘decontaminate’ natural and urban landscapes and annihilate geographical constraints, today’s real-time communications are instead championed as potentially enhancing the behaviours of the city.

The concept of the real-time city is only one of the many ways in which ‘the city’ is being re-visioned using contemporary network technologies. It’s associated primarily with the work of practitioners of urban informatics, a discipline championed by researchers such as Marcus Foth, Anthony Townsend, and Howard Rheingold, along with industry practitioners like Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dan Hill, Senior Consultant at Arup and creator of

In my thesis, I approach the concept of the real-time city a bit more broadly than it is usually understood within fields like urban informatics, because I’m interested in it not as a functional term but as an aspirational term. The real-time city, I argue, serves to project a particular vision of the city, one whose performance rests on the capacity for distributed computing to ‘enhance’ representations of cities as complex urban systems, often using data visualization techniques to capture otherwise ‘hidden’ data flows between distributed computing devices, including mobile phones.

My central concern with this vision is its reliance on technologies of visualisation, which are used to offer better representations of urban complexity. Despite the emphasis on urban complexity, my contention is that this vision nevertheless progresses particular, and in fact quite restrictive, notions of the urban. I’ve found that many of the claims of digital urbanists tend to pivot around the revelatory capacity of real-time networks to ‘make the invisible visible’. In its approach to the city, this entrenches an intensely visual agenda which is evident across much of urban studies, setting certain parameters around what can be ‘seen’ and what remains ‘unseen’ in the life of the real-time city.

I treat the emphasis on visual abstraction as a concern, not only for its tendency to privilege the visual over other sensory modes of urban experience, but also for its privileging of a formalistic, design-led approach, which tends to engage with systems design at the expense of social process. Such tendencies have not gone unnoticed; the architect Peter Eisenmann recently decried practices associated with digital urbanism as a ‘new, virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it [is] posed under the banner of a neo-avant guard technological determinism’ (cited in Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, 2008).

So that’s where Jane Jacobs comes in, with her seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1965). Urban planners during the 1960s were enchanted by the potential to introduce greater order into the city – think of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City – and put forward models of ‘urban renewal’ which could be easily replicated across other cities. Death and Life was essentially a tirade against these practices of post-war American planning, mourning the way American cities were being transformed into forests of high-rise buildings, leaving their citizens ostracized and isolated, and subsequently undermining the vitality of American public culture.

Jane Jacobs on her bicycle, New York 1960s.

Aghast at the impersonalized urban landscapes transforming modern American cities, Jacobs urged that greater attention be paid to the values of locatedness and connectedness to place. In a strong but gentle polemical style, Jacobs argued that urban spaces worked best when strangers could easily encounter each other, when children played on the street, and when planning decisions could be made at a local level, rather than through centralized planning bureaucracies and the imposition of abstracted ideas about cities.

The challenge Jacobs presented to modern urban planning was therefore not just about the particular technique of urban renewal being promulgated by the American planning profession at that time. It also concerned, more fundamentally, its claim to be reviving urban spaces through new approaches to urban development, which relied heavily on techniques of urban abstraction. To Jacobs, such techniques famously represented ‘the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served’ (1965: 25). Rather than resorting to a plan, a grid, or a highway network, Jacobs reconceived cities as disorganised collections of haphazard incidents and accidental encounters between strangers.

Robert Moses’ plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Across contemporary urban planning and architecture today, Jacob’s target of post-war modernist planning tends to be framed for its tragic failures, a product of the over reliance on the urban spatial form as a basis from which to alleviate social ills, seeking to reform or renew built environments while leaving social relationships intact. Jacobs’ polemic is required reading for today’s students, who are taught of the failures wrought by these modernist regimes, and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned. Indeed, the criticisms she waged against the profession might today be considered planning orthodoxy: in particular, the need to avoid widely-replicable, abstract urban schemas, and to instead take into account the local conditions that give rise to productive diversity.

In recalling its title, my thesis is not so much interested in what Death and Life had to say about the ideal conditions of urban form, the length of city blocks, the presence of mixed industry, etcetera, as its symbolic and now historic project of re-imagining ‘the city’. In challenging the conventional wisdom about how to understand cities, part of the radicalism of Death and Life was its steady insistence that the trickiness of cities can be as evident in everyday interactions on downtown sidewalks as it is in the abstracted representations and codifications of specialised disciplines. So the title of my thesis draws from Jacobs to affirm the continuing importance of this central challenge as it applies to the emergent fields of digital urbanism today.

Somewhat working against the grain of conventional approaches (if you can use a term like ‘conventional’ in relation to a relatively nascent field of practice!), my PhD has gone on to retrieve some different practices and perspectives, drawn from the fields of critical spatial theory, cultural geography and sound studies, to re-imagine a ‘real-time’ experience of the urban terrain. Through a practice-led response, I’ve re-imagined the digital terrain as a historical topology that enfolds within it different time-spaces – what I’ve cheekily called the ‘real times of space‘.

This practice has made tactical use of the mobile device as a listening platform, capable of retrieving the substrata of today’s digital terrain through its archival audio traces. Working in Sydney, Australia, I’ve retrieved the ambient resonances of particular moments in the life of the city in the way one might navigate a memori topi, using archival sound traces to facilitate experiential audio-visual interactions with the past-presences of an urban space.

This practice has tried to figure out a way of navigating the digital-urban terrain not as a networked space of contemporary connectivity – the perpetual present of real-time interaction – but also as a way of experiencing what Doreen Massey has called a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ (for space, 2003, p.109). Massey has been influential for me here – in an exhibition catalogue for Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Museum in 2003 Massey writes of the times of space, , which is not quite totally spatial in its privileging of the present, but open to loose ends, to connections yet to be made. If we shift the concept of ‘real- time’ away from that of the networked connectivity of the present, to the ‘loose ends’ of space’s real-times, what practices might that lead to?

Here I’ve turned to sound, and specifically ambient sound archives of city spaces, as a way of listening in to the resonant traces of past moments. By doing so, I’ve hoped to enrich the spatial imaginary of the real-time city and its digital practices; to not only illuminate the contours of its networked connectivity, but to also listen, and learn, from what we might retrieve when we return to its forgotten spaces.

Ultimately, I’m totally fascinated with the rise of urban computing, and the potential for spatial technologies to re-shape not only the way we use cities, but also the way we imagine them. Nevertheless, I believe it’s time for more critical debate about the extent to which technologies of urban computing can themselves reform the deeper institutional and political practices that underpin the production of contemporary cities. From Web 2.0 to City 2.0 – how might that take shape within institutions of urban governance?

Listening in to the city’s recorded geography might help to answer that question. When we do listen, we hear that the agitations of urban crisis are not so new, we can listen to the mistakes of urban modernism, and can perhaps begin to recall the dangers of believing reform is something to be designed by only a few.