Sensing and Searching the City
By Linda Carroli
Arts Hub
January 2009

Shortly after attending the Urban Screens event at Federation Square, Melbourne, in October, I received a copy of Urban Informatics: The practice and promise of the real time city. Both the book and event present varied practices and research focused on the dynamics of the city’s media, cultural and information ecologies, particularly in relation to urban and public screens. As a handbook for research, Urban Informatics, edited by Dr Marcus Foth, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT, is an impressive collection of scholarly work grounded in the premise that cities are swarming with movement and networks and that the social and media ecology of our cities is never still. ‘Urban informatics’ is a field of inquiry that is inherently concerned with systems of collecting, retrieving, sharing and storing information about, in and through the city: it is concerned, in part, with the mediation of urban life. Urban Screens presented an artistic and conference program that considered the changing relationships between culture, the city and the screen – from the very small screens of mobile phones, iPod and other mobile devices to very large architecturally embedded public screens. This composite of ideas and experiments resoundingly reminds us that as our cities are changing so too are our experiences of them. Ours is an era of abundant and transformative computing and these critical engagements expand our awareness of how technology and information equally shape and are shaped by the city. What is particularly pleasurable about these discussions is their inherent transdisciplinary and collaborative ethos: urban planning and design are increasingly technologically engaged and enabled; cultural planners are realising the importance of cultural, design and artistic capacities that are released through emerging platforms and architectures; researchers are developing new knowledge in the areas of anthropology, sociology and design; and artists are contributing to alternative and interventionist placemaking activity. For the urban professions, these social networks and spaces offer new methods for spatial analysis, visual preference, simulation, community consultation and public engagement.

In his introduction to Urban Informatics, Anthony Townsend comments that our urban environments require a particular approach to transdisciplinary research: driven by the formation of communities around topics, researchers can speak the languages of multiple disciplines.
Urban Screens was initiated by German urbanist, curator and consultant Mirjam Struppek in 2005. Focused on the theme of ‘mobile publics’, developed by Dr Scott McQuire and Professor Nikos Papastergiadis from the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, the 2008 event addressed four streams: art, technology and public space; urban screens as a new public sphere; urban regeneration; and cross-cultural public networks. With two full days of conference proceedings as well as a key note session, the Urban Screens events prompted interrogation of some of our assumptions about public and social space in the urban realm given the rapid uptake of both mobile and fixed technologies. Are these technologies, with their network capability, enabling new opportunities for interaction with the fabric of our cities and each other? Are they changing the shape of our communities and are we imagining new communities? Urban Screens' keynote speaker, Saskia Sassen, spoke to the theme of ‘heavy metal realities and fuzzy logic’, positing the lightness of new technologies and economies against the heaviness of urban form and industrial economies. Concerned with the form and density of cities, Sassen’s richly worded presentation presented the ‘heavy metal realities’ of community, places and economics. As an example, she discussed Zaragoza’s Digital Mile Project which endeavoured to embed digital technology in a mile long corridor of the city. It is an attempt to ‘urbanise the technology’, which can have the effect of ‘making the technology concrete’. More importantly, Sassen said, “the purpose should not just be to teach people, but for those of us who know the technologies to discover what the practices of people are and how to marry those practices of technology”. In negotiating the closed master categories of ‘global city’ and the ‘global slum’, she argued for a need to open up the discourse, to dig in the penumbra, and unsettle meanings. Every space produces possibility: “the slum enables the possibility of complexity”. For Sassen, places and technology come together (or are brought together) complexly: as we experience the homogenization of place, there is also a recovery of place and ‘placeness’ where differences are revalued.

Urban Informatics
is a magnificent volume drawing together 29 essays exploring themes and territories such as: participation and deliberation; engaging urban communities; location, navigation and space; wireless and mobile culture; and urban futures. As a handbook for research, the essays emphasise research methodology, particularly those wrought of collaborative and transdisiplinary work. Several of these essays take urban and public screens as the focus of their research and many focus on cultural and communication projects - such as history, public art and mapping - grounded in community involvement.
  The book also offers some pathways for how staid and sometimes technocratic professions, like planning, might metamorphose. For planners, designers and artists, the book presents an array of exemplars of innovative collaborative practice. Many of the texts are clear that technology does not replace community, culture or democracy, but rather, as a tool and through processes of mediation, enables the communications that keep our communities, cultures and democracies flourishing. In Michigan, USA, for example, placemaking and community planning are the main strategies for urban reinvention. Technology is integral in this process, enabling participatory planning while also expanding the scope of and depth of participation. The approach also includes a ‘citizen planner’ program. Participatory planning can only succeed if there is mutual understanding between citizens, planning officials, developers and government policymakers. An online portal, Picture Michigan Today, allows communities to actively contribute to and understand the planning process. What is compelling about this type of project, even though it may not be considered a cultural activity, is that it involves citizens in ways that mean they narrativise and envision the city in ways that inform its future development.

In her discussion at the Urban Screens conference, Mirjam Struppek cited projects that negotiated the fields of design and planning, including some that met with community resistance and antagonism. Struppek makes the point that for many high tech projects to succeed, developers need to be convinced of the value while architects and urban designers need to understand new materials and design methods. In Australia, the inclusion of some unique cultural or social elements in a development can be factored into the developer’s contribution or community dividend as well as a demonstration of innovative design values. However, if the local community isn’t convinced, then there’s probably a need to rethink the community engagement and consultation strategy. Communities can be rightfully suspicious of cultural engagement overtures, which tend to be the first charge of gentrification, then some other urban development presumed to catalyse a deluge of impacts. While revitalization may intend to impart positive associations of placemaking, the arts can occupy an uncomfortable and compromising place in gentrification processes.

Mike Ananny and Carol Strohecker,
in their contribution to Urban Informatics, describe the design and installation of a public, large-scale interactive projection screen, TexTales, which operates as a public opinion forum. The authors explain underlying concepts, such as the socially constructed nature of public opinion, and explore interaction and participatory design methods to identify those elements that are necessary for creating expressive urban spaces. This attention to critical design practices ensures that several elements - ‘intermodal’ conversations; authoring for nomadic and unfamiliar audiences; interplaying public and private messages; and framing, editing and censoring dialogue - are measurable and factored into an integrated design method. For this study, TexTales involves groups of young people taking photographs of everyday city life and events. Using custom software the general public and passers-by are invited to annotate the photos with SMS text messages. Over four European incarnations of the project, the researchers developed an understanding of how urban spaces can be more than 'venues for public opinion'. Through TexTales, they were able to explore the idea of how cities can become “objects to think with”. While they acknowledge the need for ongoing and longitudinal study, they conclude that the integration of new media forms can lead to a deeper appreciation of how people “envision their roles as expressive city citizens”. At Urban Screens, similar questions were posed by FACT’s Patrick Fox who proposed that some media and screen projects have effectively enhanced community life and communication. The nine year project Tenantspin engages Liverpool based community groups and citywide residents in public and social media making. As the city pursues its regeneration plan, Tenantspin works deep in the community, training locals in media production to tell their stories. The local and person is refracted through the global prism of the internet and large public urban screens. Also at Urban Screens, in discussing young people’s engagement with mobile technology in Japan, Yoshitaka Mori emphasised the prevalence of DIY, user generation, content sharing and the like in mobile tech use. He also noted the phenomenon of the ‘Net Cafe Refugees’. An emerging demographic of young homeless people, with email accounts and mobs, negotiate the city by spending their time (usually nights) in internet cafes looking for and creating work. While homeless, they are highly connected and social. Resonating with Sassen’s comments about possibility, Mori observed that the internet and mobile technology enabled the poor to ‘survive’ in the current era. While this nomadic group may, in many ways, be placeless or displaced, they remain somehow connected and at home in their networks. Occupation is a particularly faceted idea in this context: shifting in meaning across vocation, invasion and sited. What could a planning platform like Picture Michigan Today and TexTales mean for this group of urban nomads?

As the final essay in Urban Informatics, Mark Shepard’s essay, Extreme Informatics addresses the idea of the urban screen as a ‘skeuomorph’, an anthropological term that describes “material artifacts that simulate an aspect of a previous time using a technology that has superseded it”. He explains that skeuomorphs are often used to make the ‘new’ look familiar, comfortable and accessible and cites examples such as the mechanical shutter sound made by digital cameras. Shepard argues that the large-scale urban screen operates as a skeuomorph that serves the smooth transition of integrating digital information systems into urban environments by perpetuating design logics regarding ‘the public’ and ‘public space’ that do not reflect the ways in which we access, share and distribute information today. He cites and comments on several examples of locative media, personal informatics and public authoring, such as the WAAG Society’s Amsterdam Realtime and Proboscis’ Urban Tapestries, building a case for a ‘de-saturated city’. That is, he suggests that a critical issue for urban informatics is in exploring alternate ways by which urban information systems can be used “to sort, parse, slice and dice” the suffusion of information already situated in public space. He argues that urban screens tend to introduce more information into the physical urban realm. In the future-fiction of the de-saturated city, information is offloaded from “the material substrate of the physical city to the personal, portable and ambient displays of urban information systems”. More importantly, a potential project for urban informatics is to ‘subtract from’ rather than ‘add to’ the visual field of the city, potentially reducing the visual pollution in a city rather than seeking to attract the already divided attention of ‘consumers’ or ‘tourists’. This necessitates some reconsideration of the materialities of the city, as Sassen had suggested in her Urban Screens key note, as well as deeper consideration of spatial, technological and social implications.

What is personally most interesting across these two compendious projects,
Urban Informatics and Urban Screens, is the work that engages participatory, social and cultural practices of space (and this text has described a mere handful). The figure and ground, the lauded medieval city and Euclidean ideals of spatial planning seem to denude the urban realm as a place of habitat, occupation and sociability. Planning and design programs teach their students to start with the public space, to fix it in time, material and space. After considering these projects, there is an apparent need to fixate on the less tangible and smaller social and relational spaces in the urban realm. We are equally at home and situated in our social networks as in buildings, plazas and streets. Across these texts and presentations, between inflections of tool and media, other conceptualisations of urbanism are offered.
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