Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: a matter of ‘U-City’ or ‘U-Citizens?’

I just finished reading Marcus Foth’s Handbook of research on Urban Informatics. It’s an edited volume as thick as a fist, packed with essays that when taken altogether give a great overview of this exciting new interdisciplinary field of research and design practices.

So what exactly is urban informatics? Roughly said, the field includes a wide array of computation practices that are related to the shaping of city life. Topics vary from integrated software solutions that optimize high way traffic flows to the design of ‘smart public spaces’ to ‘citizen science’ projects that map pollution in a city neighborhood. Yet, urban informatics is not the same as urban computing. It is not so much about the technology (computing), but rather about its implications for (human) city life:

Informatics with its implied reference to information systems and information studies, slightly shifts the attention away from the hardware and more towards the softer aspects of information exchange, communication and interaction, social networks and human knowledge.

The book starts with a few more theoretical essays on ‘urban informatics’ which are followed by a broad range of accounts that describe experiences with designing and implementing urban informatics technologies. It also includes anthropological reports on how people appropriate these new technologies in an urban situation, or better: how people appropriate the city by using these new technologies.

When reading the book, two aspects struck me. The first deals with the implied urban ideals that can be found in many of the experiments described. What do we expect of a city, and how can these new technologies be employed in order to fulfill those ideals? The second aspect turns that question slightly around: how will our idea of what an ideal city is in the first place, change when many of these technologies gain prominence? Perhaps, urban informatics is not just about employing technologies to fulfill someone’s urban ideals, but rather its adaptation forces us to reconceive the idea of what a city could be.

Let’s start with the first. Different actors involved in the shaping of urban informatics use different – often left implicit – starting points from which they start designing, rolling out or using new technologies. In fact I encountered two different (though not necessary exclusionary) paradigms that could be called ‘U-City’ and ‘U-Citizen’. ‘U-City’ is short for Ubiquitous City, and was coined by the Korean government. It perceives the city mainly as a collection of infrastructural services geared towards citizen-consumers. The chapter that lays out this Korean vision talks about roads that know how many cars drive on them, tires that give off warnings when the pressure is too low, and personalized services like receiving a message when your children have arrived safely at school. In this framework, urban informatics is about developing a toolkit that makes urban life more efficient, and helps individual consumers to customize the city in their own image. The authors indeed speak of ‘The City as a Service’. A somewhat similar approach is found in an article about the Senseable City WikiCity project. The authors bet on a future in which real time data about the city can be coupled with a semantic toolset, so you can as ask your urban informatics device questions like ‘what is the best place – with regard to my current location, weather forecast, environmental conditions and other factors – to fly a kite today?

Many of the case studies in the book start from a different perspective that we could call ‘U-Citizen’. Here the starting point is the idea of the city as a community of citizens. Urban informatics is not employed to necessarily make their life more efficient (neither is this option necessarily excluded). Rather it is hoped that urban informatics can play a role in the formation of a better public sphere or strengthen the ties of a community. There is an article about using urban screens to promote discussion about and engagement with local community issues. There are also accounts of artists working with locative media to bring out local stories and memories. Eric Paulos a.o. contributed an article about the use of the mobile phone as a ‘citizen science’ measurement tool that can be used to collectively gather environmental data by activists and grass roots initiatives.

Of course, ‘U-city’ and ‘U-citizen’ are not necessarily binary starting points for the design of urban informatics technologies and services. Elements of both could also be combined. Yet I think it is interesting to explicitly bring out the often latent ideas on city life that are invoked in the design and employment of urban informatics.

This approach has been picked up by a number of researchers recently (See for instance Eric Paulos’ Manifesto of Open Disruption and Participation published on the centenary celebration of the Futurist Manifesto). In the Urban Informatics Handbook it is elaborated by Amanda Williams, Erica Robles and Paul Dourish. They find that many of the implicit assumptions of urban life are based on a number of philosophical discourses on urban culture.

One of the main ideas they came across is the understanding of the city as a ‘dense ecology of strangers. A social condition both liberating and alienating.’ This stance can be recognized in many locative media services. For instance many of these services try to promote the ‘serendipity’ of the urban experience, that hallmark of the modern industrial metropolis created by that dense ecology of strangers. Other location based services do exactly the opposite: they are employed to ‘tame’ the very unpredictability of the modern metropolis, by connecting you with your friends, informing you about the safety of a neighborhood, or telling you that some of the strangers around you are actually ‘familiar strangers’.

In discussions about these services, often tropes are invoked that emerged in discussions about the rise of the modern industrial metropolis, about a century ago. The theories and descriptions of the French poet Baudelaire, and German philosophers and sociologists Georg Simmel en Walter Benjamin are often taken as starting points. Especially the idea of ‘the flaneur’ is still popular amongst designers and artists. Although I find those auteurs still relevant for our understanding of urban culture, it is also refreshing that in this volume, Dourish a.o. critique the unquestioning adaptation of their theories for the development of current day technologies.

The ‘flaneur’ after all was an ideal-typical urbanite that emerged in a particular time in history: when Baron de Haussmann cleared the inner city of Paris to make way for his broad boulevards. As amongst others Marshall Berman, Scott McQuire, and in The Netherlands René Boomkens have pointed out, these boulevards should be linked to a whole range of parallel developments. Apart from political, hygienic and military motives behind their construction, the boulevards played a part in the scaling-up of the market-economy and the easy movement of the mass-produced goods to the new department stores. At the same time these boulevards also provided new ways to flaunt one’s identity or pass a leisurely Saturday afternoon. They led to new cultural practices for the emerging bourgeoisie, and even created a new type of public space where the bourgeoisie was confronted with the poor still living in the urban slums behind the boulevard’s stately facades. A whole new way of urban culture emerged as a byproduct of all these developments.

This brings me to the second aspect of Urban Informatics that took my interest. If indeed it is true that the Parisian boulevards in coherence with broader social movements created a whole new way of urban culture at the end of the 19th Century, than perhaps the arrival of urban informatics in combination with other societal developments will do something similar in our days. Rather than trying to employ urban informatics to remediate an urban ideal based upon the dense ecology of the modern metropolis, we should try to understand what kind of new forms of urban culture are taking shape. This is the path that scholars like Mimi Ito, Scott McQuire, Kazys Varnelis and others have been pursuing over the last few years.

A number of articles in Urban Informatics do address this point of view as well. Dourish a.o. for instance argue that rather than taking particular urban forms as a starting point for the study of urban experience, our understanding of the city could benefit from a situated analyses of individual experiences within cities. Andrew Townsend compares the rise of urban informatics with the advent of aerial photography. Both led to a new way of visualizing the city that had consequences for the way in which we understand it:

if aerial photography showed us the muscular and skeletal structure of the city, the revolution in urban informatics is likely to reveal it’s circulatory and nervous systems. I like to call this vision the “real-time-city” because for the first time we’ll see cities as a whole the way biologists see a cell – instantaneously and in excruciating detail but also alive.

Now most articles do not elaborate extensively on what exact new forms of urban culture are emerging through the deployment of urban informatics. That is only logical: much of these technologies are so new that we haven’t seen many mass adaptations yet. Most articles describe experiments rather than broad sociological shifts. This book thus gives a good overview of where things are heading, and from what latent urban ideals and perspectives urban informatics is employed in different disciplines and institutional contexts. It also made me realize that enough territory is still uncharted and that this is a promising starting point around which a new discipline could take shape.

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  1. Great article as usual Martijn! It strikes me that the way you formulate these contributions to the ongoing discussion about new media technologies and the city in terms of ‘U-city’ versus ‘U-citizen’ departs from only one side of the coin, the city. U-City departs from urban theory, questions the impact of new technologies on city life, and focusses on changes to the urban status quo. U-Citizen departs from media/technology theory, questions mediated ‘digital citizenship’, and focusses on actively constructing new forms of urban life. In both views, media are the active agent, and urban culture the passive receptor that is either ‘impacted’ or ‘socially constructed’ by new technologies. Wouldn’t it be helpful to turn it around and also question the influence of urban culture and identity on the shaping of media technologies, so as to see them as ‘mutually shaping’ each other? This is already happening, I guess, in the examples you mention under U-Citizen, although I agree with you that many of these projects still use very 19th century concepts.

    But how then can we come up with new terms? It is interesting to see how metaphors of the body are often invoked when thinking about the city. I haven’t read Anthony Townsend’s article, but from your quote he seems to say that our view of the Modern City is imagined very statically by aerial photography as a “muscular and skeletal structure”, while our imagination of the post/late-modern city is much more dynamic and ‘mobile’ since urban informatics reveals its “circulatory and nervous systems”. Applying a ‘mobilities paradigm’ to our imagination of current cities is very tempting, but as Tim Cresswell has shown in his book “On The Move” (2006 pp. 7-8), such a dynamic metaphor has already existing much much longer. The early modern city too has been understood dynamically through the image of blood circulation. “Urban planners and architects sought to maximize flow and movement. Words such as artery and vein began to appear in the texts of the new urbanists”. So mobility and flow aren’t that new in conceptualizing the informational city characterized by it’s various configurations of ‘hybrid spaces’… Perhaps a good start could be to say farewell to physical metaphors like the human body, and start looking for practises that take place in both physical and digital spaces at the same time (e.g. play).

  2. Interesting!
    You might be interested in this article by our guest writer Urbanist Carl Kerchmar…. http://www.spottedbylocals.com/the-end-of-the-flaneur

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)