Three philosophical questions about the ‘sentient city’ – a response to the exhibition Towards the Sentient City

At certain points in the history of architecture and urban planning, the internal debate on how to apply new technologies surpasses the boundaries of the discipline.

At those times, the hopes and fears found in the disputes between architects, policy makers, engineers and planners are extended to a broader discussion about urban and societal change. Then, the central issue is not merely how to solve a specific spatial problem with the help of new technology. Rather, the debate starts to revolve around its possible impact on urban society at large. What does this new technology mean for urban culture, what impact does it have on how we shape our identities and live together in the city?

When those questions emerge, Dutch philosopher René Boomkens argues, the professional debate has turned ‘philosophical’.

The exhibition ‘Toward the Sentient City’ – running at the Architectural League NY until November 7 2009 – can be understood as such a philosophical enterprise. On display are five commissioned projects that make use of ‘sentient technologies’ or ‘ubiquitous computing’ – technologies that are currently ‘coming of age’ and promise to change the way we experience the city.

Yet, this exhibit is no World Fair where we are to marvel at the new new things, born out of the brains of our smartest engineers, flaunted on shiny pedestals, stirring up our imagination, arousing our desire, promising us an ever better future. Nor is it a disciplinary affair where architects and media designers exchange ‘best practices’ of how to best make use of new sensing and actuating technologies.

Curator Mark Shepard wants to ‘raise questions rather than pose answers’. The goal is not a peek into a future that is ‘just around the corner’. The exhibits should rather be understood as ‘conversation pieces’ that expose some of the hidden assumptions of a new engineering discipline and the way it is appropriated in social-technical situations. And rather than performing ivory tower criticism, the exhibition also lays bare alternative trajectories.

So if this indeed is a philosophical exhibition, let’s have a look at how some of the basic questions of that discipline are addressed. These being of course – to put it somewhat bluntly – : ‘who are we?’, ‘what can we know?’ and ‘what is the good life?’ – or in the context of urban culture ‘how are we to live together in the city’.

About sentient technology and Urban computing

Before we start answering those questions, I will have a closer look at the technology that is the centre piece of the exhibition. Increasingly, Shepard states in his interesting curatorial statement, it is the ‘dataclouds of 21st century urban space’ that shape our experience of the city. All over the city, ‘intelligent’ applications have started sensing what is happening around them and reacting to it – be it smart traffic lights or cctv camera’s whose images are computer analyzed for suspicious behavior.

Add to this the increase of tracking devices such as cell phones that most urbanites carry, and as a result the city has become ‘sentient’. Shepard explicitly refers to the Latin roots of this term to explain what he means with that term: ‘Sentience refers to the ability to feel or perceive subjectively, and does not necessarily include the faculty of self-awareness.’

Now of course it is not the city itself that perceives or even is sentient, but rather the combined apparatus of tracking and sensing devices – operated by different actors – that note what is going on in the city and output their impressions in all sorts of data streams. Neither is this emergence of the sentient city a singular movement driven by a centralized bureaucracy or company, established at a single address to which one could send a letter of complaint or e-mail a feature request.

The field of what could be called ‘urban computing’ consists of plural research traditions, performed and commissioned by divergent actors all with their own motivation and implicit understanding of what a city is or should be. They vary from government agencies that want to bring order to city space, politicians that would like to promote citizenship, companies that want to offer personalized services, community workers that hope to promote solidarity or mutual understanding, artists that want to criticize consumer culture and urbanites who may embrace, adapt or reject some or other of these offerings. (1)

The sentient city thus should be understood as an ‘assemblage’ of all those different actors that all employ their own logic. (2)

The subjective feelings of the sentient city

What then should we make of Shepard’s notion of ‘subjective’ perception? It is my guess that he has chosen this term to foreground that the data streams generated by the Sentient City may seem like an example of objective fact gathering, whereas in reality it is far from it.

For starters, the decision of which data to collect and which to ignore and how to classify it, is already a highly political choice. Next, the data generated by the Sentient City is interpreted by software algorithms and actuation devices, and there is nothing objective about that either. It is a highly normative process, where subjective values, legal codes and power relations are turned into software code on the base of which sentient technology decides, acts and discriminates.

This foregrounding of the normative side of the sentient city goes against the grain of the discourse of ‘ubiquitous computing’ that plays a dominant role in the debate on the sentient city. In ubicomp, an application is usually thought successful if it makes the computer disappear. While we carry on our daily routines, computation technology – calmly operating in the background – will make our live more easy, efficient or exciting – whatever way we would want it. Not only does it do away with the need to interact with those beige boxes on our desktops (which of course is not a bad thing per se), it also renders the subjective decisions at the heart of its social interventions invisible and presents them as natural.

Question 1: Who are we and who is acting?

Now, this brings up issues of agency, and thus leads to the first of our three philosophical questions: the ontological ‘who are we’. Does the way we employ new technologies alter the way we think of ourselves? Does it alter our relationship with the world around us and the objects in it? Does it create a shift in how we think about ‘agency’?

On a side note, a lot of interesting things could be said about the relation between sentient technology and identity. Anecdotical accounts of for instance Esther Polak’s installation Amsterdam RealTime (in which people are traced through the city with GPS-device) show that the collection of data could lead to a new type of reflexivity: the ostensible objective data about participants trajectories through the city at times clashes with their cultivated self-images (one might think of oneself as a urban flaneur, whereas the data now ‘proves’ that one has only travelled between the couch at home and the cubicle at the office).

Or what to think of services that based on their analysis of your urban trajectories assign you to a lifestyle profile that from then on is used to recommend places to go, activities to undertake and people to meet. Would you eventually subscribe to such a continuous lifestyle address made to you by your mobile phone? (see also my article on Sensenetworks)

Interesting as those questions might be, they are beyond the scope of Toward the Sentient City. This exhibition mainly brings up issues of agency, as well as our relation to the (natural) world around us.

For instance the exhibit Amphibious Architecture makes us aware of the invisible underwater world of the Bronx and East Rivers. When fish swim by, a floating collection of leds in the river emanates an undulating purple shine on the water surface. One can also inquire the fish by means of a text message about the quality of the water. Poetic and playful as it might be, as Shepard writes, this exhibit ‘encourages us to expand our view of what constitutes the city and its citizens.’

Not only does sentient technology may ask us to redefine our ontological categories, it also addresses the issue of agency within the category. Do sentient objects, like those in the project Too smart city have an agency of their own? Are they truly ‘intelligent’ as is sometimes claimed in the ‘smart city’ rhetoric that is part of the ubicomp discourse?

In this exhibit a moving city bench ruthlessly kicks off its users after its built in sensors and algorithms have determined the allotted quota of leisure time has expired. Now who exactly evicts the unsuspecting stroller from his lunch spot? The bench? Its programmer? The larger assemblages and discourses in which norms about appropriated city behavior are determined and encoded into the software? Is the bench – in the words of Bruno Latour – a mere intermediary that passes on rules and information that are shaped elsewhere? Or is it a mediator, an element that plays an active role in the constitution of those norms and values?

Question 2: What can we know?

A second and related philosophical field that Toward the Sentient City addresses is that of epistemology. Does the information gathered by the sensors in the sentient city lead to new ways of gathering knowledge and new insights?

The exhibit Trash Track by MIT’s Senseable City Lab actively addresses this question. For this exhibit, trash items such as paper cups are tagged with a gps-device and mobile phone chip.

After it has been disposed of, the item sends text messages with its location, so we can follow its track from recipient to waste disposal site. The hope expressed through this project is that knowing will lead to a change in doing: the fact that we know where our trash ends up should make us more aware of the problem we create by throwing things away.

Now, what is at stake epistemologically is not just a newly gained knowledge on the whereabouts of our lost keys, runaway dog or thrown away coffee cup that will make life somewhat more (dis)comfortable and may lead us to behave differently.

What indeed is new is the fact that data from many different sentient sources can be aggregated in real time and give us a grasp of what is happening in the city that we never have had before. Elsewhere Anthony Townsend (who has contributed to this exhibition with the project Breakout!) has argued that this shift in perception is comparable to the introduction of aerial photography. I quote at length:

‘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. … and as these capabilities become more widespread, the real-time city could become a place where everyone is an amateur urban planner, using urban informatics to understand the larger impacts of their everyday decisions. That, so fundamental a shift in our perception of our civilization seems to be something worth working towards’

This new ways of gaining knowledge about the city may have huge consequences for the way we perceive and act in the city, and Townsend even sees opportunities for democratization.

Yet could it also lead – if you will allow me another detour, this time through the work of Jane Jacobs – to a new form of architectural hubris? In the early 1960s Jacobs pronounced the ideology of modernist architecture dead on the ground that they had reduced urban life to too simple a formula. From their Olympian vantage point modernist planners had thought that they could calculate the exact needs of a population based on a handful of variables. Take the population number, divide it by a health rate and you get the number of hospitals needed per square mile.

The problem, Jacobs argues, is that modernists understood cities as problems in disorganized complexity, whereas they are problems in organized complexity – meaning that every change in a single variable doesn’t only change the outcome, but also directly influences the other variables at work.

The ‘health rate’ in this example is not a static given but dependent on many other variables: the number of parks, the means of transport, diet, etc. And all those variables are intricately related tot the value of other variables. Ville Radieuse, Jacobs claimed, was the ‘triumph of mathematical average’. Instead she argued we should think of the city as a ‘process’, and to understand the processes at work urbanists should look for the catalysts that speed-up or slow down social processes in the city. Their tool being the microscope rather than the telescope.

Now, I wonder what would Jacobs make of the urban information systems that for instance have come out of the Senseable City Lab? Would she embrace them as illustrations of the organized complexity of the city? Can we now finally take in all the variables at work? And if so, can we base our planning practices on this new found knowledge – also by reacting in real time to changing conditions? Or would she still be suspicious of the data, finding it too abstract to act upon? After all the many data streams we now have may reveal quantitative aspects of urban conditions, but what do they teach us about the qualitative experience people have of them? (see also Michiel’s report on a presentation by the Senseable City Lab at Picnic 08)

Question 3: How should we live together in the City?

Let us now leave the d-tour and turn back to the main path: the third and last stage of our philosophical quest. If indeed the sentient city produces new ways of thinking about ourselves and a new type of knowledge, the question that remains is an ethical one: to what aim do we apply these new found insights? What is our definition of ‘the good life’ that we hope to lead through the use of these technologies?

Again, Toward the Sentient City proposes alternative trajectories to some of the dominant developments in this domain. Many sentient city applications that are currently in development have an implicit idea of the city as a collection of services and infrastructures to be managed as efficiently as possible.

Alternatively they offer personalized versions of the city through search and discovery devices. Other initiatives depart from control and security-issues: they use sentient technology to prevent potential unrest or allow or deny access to certain users.

Combined, in a dystopian scenario, these appropriations of the technology might contribute to what Belgium Philosopher Lieven de Cauter has called a ‘capsular society’ – a city of privatized capsules with different functions – dwelling, shopping, consuming accessible only to those with the right rfid-chip in their wallet.

Are alternative trajectories thinkable? Yes, Toward the Sentient City states. The projects Breakout! and Natural Fuse propose alternative ways of thinking about urban culture.

Breakout! addresses the issue of the urban public sphere. The project problematizes the public sphere as a sphere that only comes into being if urbanites actively engage with the space and with each other. It is not just a space that is pronounced as such by a city government. So how can the urban public sphere be animated in an interesting way? And by whom?

How can we as urbanites take responsibility for it? How can we turn public spaces in the city in an inspiring meeting place, by means of grassroots organizational tactics? Break Out provides urbanites a toolset that addresses this question from the perspective of organized work. The project wants to promote exchange and cooperation between workers in the city by claiming public spaces in the city as an office and by providing structures to organize meet-ups and brain storming sessions for urban creatives.

Natural Fuse addresses the idea of the city as a commons – a space and resource shared by and accessible to all its citizens. The idea of the commons is based on the old British custom of the communal pasture where all herdsmen in the community were allowed to graze their cattle. The drawback of such a system is that it is prone to self-destruction, a process that Garett Hardin has labeled The Tragedy of the Commons. As he writes

… the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited.

When every herdsman keeps on adding cattle, the commons soon will be overgrazed, and no one will be able to benefit from it any longer. Close personal social ties or traditions could perhaps keep the rational herdsman from prioritizing the appraisal of his individual benefit and from adding too many cattle. However in a modern society that has done away with traditional role-patterns and depends on more abstract interdependencies, such social restrictions seem much harder to enforce.

The concept of a commons thus assumes cooperation and mutual accommodation. Could sentient technology play a role in the allocation of limited resources between citizens? Could it lead to the emergence of some sort of peer-to-peer governance model, that could prevent overusage of scarce resources? (3)

This is the question that Natural Fuse addresses. This project consists of a city wide network of plants that are linked to electric devices. The central idea is that the CO2-digestion of the plants in the network offsets the CO2 emissions caused by the use of the electric appliances. Each individual chooses whether he wants to be selfless (conserve electricity) or greedy (use electricity). However, when the total consumption of electricity in the system surpasses its CO2-absorption capacity, the system will actively start to kill the plants.

Natural Fuse thus beautifully illustrates the opportunities of an ‘urban energy commons’ as well as the problem of the tragedy that bears the same name. It challenges our thinking about the viability of a networked urban commons.

Yet it does not provide any definite answers: Would creating awareness through direct feedback mechanisms about the impact of rational selfish behavior be able to prevent it? Or would we rather need complex reputation systems? Or perhaps sentient bookkeeping systems in which our allotted ratios are kept or traded? Can we do this through peer-to-peer technologies, or do we need central institutions that act as trusted third parties?

Toward the Sentient City thus doesn’t give us any emphatic leads about which way the technology will take us. It succeeds in bringing up many important questions and diverting the discussion on the sentient city from a path of technological determinism to an open ended affair, a concern not just for engineers, planners and architects but for all of us.

Toward the Sentient City is curated by Mark Shepard and organized by the Architectural League of New York. The exhibition is on display at the Urban Center, 457 Madison Avenue, New York, NY from September 17 to November 7, 2009.

(1) Ann Galloways PhD thesis A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and Locative Media is highly informative in giving insight in different discourses around urban computing
(2) See Manuel de Landa A new Philosophy of Society for a theory of assemblage.
(3) In Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold has also written about technology and the organization of a commons

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. 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. He is 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.