The Ideas and Ideals in Urban Media Theory and Design

This week the book From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen edited by Marcus FothLaura ForlanoChristine Satchell and Martin Gibbs was launched by MIT Press. The Mobile City’s Martijn de Waal contributed one of the chapters in which he investigates several urban ideals that underlie the design of urban media.

The Ideas and Ideals in Urban Media Theory

Over the last decade a new set of media, technologies, software, and cultural practices has emerged that changes how we experience the city and shape our urban culture. They range from the mobile phone to GPS navigation; from iPhone apps to “smart”systems that optimize traffic circulation; from listening to an alternative soundtrack on an mp3 player to using a smart phone to locate friends or nearby sites that matchesone’s interests.

There is no single name or discourse for these technologies. Labels range from“ubiquitous computing” to “locative media,” from “ambient intelligence” to “theInternet of things,” and from “the sentient city” to “urban informatics.”1 Nor do thesetechnologies have a single point of origin or trajectory of deployment—althoughmany do have their genesis in military research programs.2 Some are rolled out bygovernment agencies that want to bring order to and control urban space. Others aremarketed by profit-driven telecommunication companies trying to provide their customerswith personalized services. Sometimes community workers take up the technology,hoping it can enhance mutual understanding between different culturalgroups. There are even artists who work with these very technologies to critique theirrole in promoting a consumer based society or bringing about a “society of control.”And then there are the actual users of the technologies that often appropriate themin slightly different ways than intended by their designers or marketers.

What all these urban media—the catchall term that I will use in this chapter—havein common is that they no longer adhere to the anything-anytime-anywhere-newmediaparadigm of the 1990s.3 Rather, they are centered on location-sensing capacitiesand aim to intervene in or add to a specific here-and-now. Their exact interventionsdiffer, but as the examples given above show, urban media are making deep inroadson a diverse range of activities of place making—be they the top-down deploymentby government agencies or the bottom-up appropriation by urbanites in their everydaylife.4

In relation to the main theme of this book—the opportunity and challenges forsocial participation and engagement—two different ways of theorizing urban mediaurge themselves on us. One would be to focus on the affordances of urban media andwhat these could mean for civic life.5 The main question then would be, How doesthe utilization of these urban media—as the outcome of an intricate process of designand appropriation—reshape our urban society?

In this chapter, however, I would like to turn that question more or less around.Rather than looking at the way technology reshapes urban culture, I want to investigatehow ideas and ideals about the city also reshape technology. What role do ourideas of what a city should be play in the design and appropriation of urban media?Technological and Urban ImaginariesThe shaping and appropriation of technology in relation to society represents acomplex process that involves many different actors—from designers to governmentpolicymakers and investors, as well as users—all of whom have their own preferencesand interests. The material characteristics of the technologies themselves factor intothis relationship as well. Here I want to point to one specific yet important elementin these complex assemblages: the performative role of what I will call the urbantechnologicalimaginary.

As Ann Galloway has convincingly shown in her. “A Brief History of the Future ofUrban Computing and Locative Media” (2008), it is impossible to reduce the introductionof new technologies to a single idea by a single actor or institution that is rationallyrolled out, step by step. Galloway points to different “forums for negotiating”that play a part in deciding “what we want and what we don’t want,” among whichshe numbers open markets, institutional regulation (courts, government agencies,NGOs), special-interest groups, and grassroots activism.In this negotiating process, Galloway explains, expectations play a very importantpart. Differing visions on technology—deliberately utopian or dystopian—are utteredin this process, and these may become performative. These visions, hopes, and fears—rational or irrational, fact based or emotionally appealing—may directly affect governmentpolicy decisions, design criteria, investment by venture capitalists, people’sstances toward a new product, and so on. Similarly, Flichy has called these performativeexpectations the “technological imaginary” (Flichy 1999; Marvin 1988).In the field of urban development we find similar “imaginaries” at work. Is not thewhole history of urban planning—from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Disney’sgated community, Celebration, in Florida or Korea’s “smart and sustainable city,”Songdo—a history of (sometimes misguided) attempts to turn imaginary urban utopiasinto forms and volumes, bricks and mortar? “Urban imaginaries,” writes Jude Bloomfield(2006, 46), “focus on sensory and emotional experience and practices, on theimprint of collective memory on imagining how the city could be, on the different,often conflicting social constructions of the city’s future.”

In the development of urban media the technological imaginary and the urbanimaginary come together to form a technourban imaginary. Central issues in thedebates in which the technourban discussions are shaped include: What exactly is acity? How do we expect it to function? Who has which rights? How should we ascitizens—with all our differences—live together in an urban society? How can we usetechnology to realize these ideas? Or how do new technologies jeopardize these ideals?More formally, the technourban imaginary is shaped around both ideas of what acity is (Is a city primarily a bunch of infrastructure or should it be understood essentiallyas a community?) as well as around urban ideals (What kind of community dowe want the city be; how and to whose advantage should the infrastructure bemanaged?). Technourban imaginaries often combine these two framings in a particularapproach of what a city should be.These particular technourban imaginaries play a role in the design of many urbanmedia technologies. Sometimes they are made explicit in the discussion around theirimplementation. At other times they are left implicit. Often they relate to particulardisciplinary framings of technology and society, and they almost always build on (orexplicitly want to counter) historical framings of urban culture. In the rest of thischapter I would like to bring out a few of these technourban imaginaries at work inthe design and appropriation of urban media and investigate how they relate to participationand citizen engagement.


The first technourban imagination I want to discuss here can be found in a designapproach called “u-City.” This term—short for “ubiquitous city”—has been coined bythe Korean government in an attempt to promote an industry around the design of“smart cities.” The central idea is that urban computing should make urban life morecomfortable, efficient, and easier to manage. The focus is on systems of smart trafficmanagement, or smart objects such as tires that give off warnings when the pressureis too low. Another interest is the development of personalized services like receivinga message when your children have arrived safely at school. Hwang (2009) calls thisidea “The City as a Service.”

We see similar promises in other discourses on ubiquitous computing, uttered atconferences, through advertising, and in professional publications, where new technologiesare brought to the market to either increase efficiency or help personalize thecity through friend finders or recommendation systems. The goal is to put people incontrol of their surroundings. Ubiquitous computing, it is argued, will create “seamlessexperiences” where computers operate calmly in the background.6This particular way of understanding the city can be linked to a historic modernistidea of urban technology in which the city is envisioned as a collection of efficientlymanaged, ever-improving technological infrastructures whose successive rollout willbring us a better life. In their book Splintering Urbanism (2001), Stephen Graham andSimon Marvin trace this idea back to the mid-nineteenth century and connect it withthe scientific positivism of that era. Dazzling new technologies like electricity or moremundane ones such as sewer systems would lead the way to a better life. Ambitiousmunicipalities, they write, wanted their cities to be a “blaze of light,” “rearing out ofthe darkness of the surrounding non-electrified regions” (p.46).7These discussions on the benefits of the new infrastructures were held in concertwith the first debates on the ills of the modern industrial metropolises that gave birthto the discipline of urban planning. This new professional field hoped to solve socialproblems like slumming, bad hygienic conditions, and the threat of social revolt bythe emerging underclass by bringing a new unitary spatial order to the city. Howexactly that was to be carried out varied according to which urban imaginary theseplanners subscribed to. Ebenezer Howard envisioned garden cities with a cooperativepolitical and economic structure, whereas Baron de Haussmann wanted to bring orderto the existing city with his broad boulevards that simultaneously were to increasehygiene as well as the authorities’ ability to assert military control over the masses.At the same time, and on an important point, the u-city discourse of the twentyfirstcentury also differs from the modernist infrastructural movement of the nineteenthcentury. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin point out that in the modernindustrial city, the ideals were universal access to infrastructure networks such as theelectrical grid or the road system. These infrastructure networks integrated all citizensinto the same technological system on the same level. Perhaps the most importantaspect of Haussmann’s urban imaginary, they state, was the idea to use infrastructuralinterventions to create a unitary city.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, utilities and infrastructure are nolonger seen as public services equally accessible by all, or as integrators that hold allthe smaller elements together in a bigger system. Rather they are seen as marketablecommodities sold to specific consumer groups. The modernist unitary ideal has givenway to a post-Fordist and neoliberal one. For instance, a “smart toll road” will adaptits pricing scheme to demand: the busier the traffic, the higher the toll.Such technological systems might make the city more efficient and tailored toindividuals, yet these systems also address their users very differently. Whereas themodern infrastructure addresses its users as equal citizens, these personalized infrastructuralservices address them as “individual customers.” This could create newforms of inequality. Graham (2005) speaks of an emergence of “Software Sorted Geographies”and Lieven De Cauter (2004) warns of the emergence of a “Capsular Society.”Such developments could even create a shift in the relations between citizens and thecity. Do people still see themselves as citizens—with all the rights and duties involved?Or are they starting to think of themselves as customers, which sets up a differentrelationship between the “customer” and the owner of the system as well as betweenusers themselves?8

Although this critique is valuable, driving it to extremes also risks overlookingopportunities that dynamic pricing systems and flexible services may allow for civicengagement. The problem that Graham and Marvin have diagnosed is not so muchthe technology itself, but the urban imaginary of a neoliberal city of services. Yetcouldn’t these same infrastructural technologies also be deployed in the service ofother urban imaginaries—for instance, an environmentally sustainable city?Take for instance the Smart Cities project at the MIT Media Lab. The way the cityis framed is again as a collective of infrastructures: “Buildings and cities can usefullybe compared to living bodies. They have skeleton and skin systems that provide shelterand protection to their inhabitants, metabolic systems that process inputs of materialsand energy to support daily life, and now artificial nervous systems consisting ofsensors, networks, and ubiquitously embedded computational capacity.”9 Yet here theapplication of ubiquitous computing is applied to making the city environmentallysustainable. The project includes a design for a new city car that can be rented througha dynamic pricing system. Popular routes and times of day are more expensive thanother times and routes. The goal here is not to maximize profit or to provide exclusiveservices to the rich, but rather to allocate scarce resources such as natural resourcesand mobility as efficiently as possible.

Urban Flaneurs and Situationists

The second technourban imaginary that I want to discuss here is one often found inthe world of locative media art (Tuters and Varnelis 2006). In this imaginary, two oldurban tropes play an important role: Walter Benjamin’s flaneur and Guy Debord’sSituationist International movement.Over the last decade, many artists and designers have criticized the commercialapplications of urban media, such as those based on the ideal of the u-city. They pointout that the urban-technological imaginary of a personalized city tailored to one’sprivate preferences, while blocking out undesired places or people, endangers some ofthe essences of their own urban ideal: a city in which play, serendipity, and curiosityplay an important role.

On the centennial celebration of the Futurist Manifesto, American researcher EricPaulos published the “Manifesto of Open Disruption and Participation” (2009), whichmade the case for such a conceptualization of urban culture: “We claim that the successfulubiquitous computing tools, the ones we really want to cohabitate with, willbe those that incorporate the full range of life experiences. We want our tools to singof not just productivity but of our love of curiosity, the joy of wonderment, and thefreshness of the unknown.” In the domain of locative media art10 we have seen anumber of experiments that match Paulos’s call and have turned the urban imaginaryof efficiency and personalization inside out. The project You Are Not Here—A DislocativeTourism Agency, for instance, lets its participants experience the city space in anextended way. In this project a map of Baghdad is projected on the city grid of NewYork and participants are invited to make their way to a number of “Baghdad touristspots” through the streets of New York. When they arrive at the corresponding locationin Manhattan, they will find a sticker with a phone number. When dialed, theywill hear a story about Baghdad.

The recent interest in “psychogeographic” artist interventions like this one is alsoapparent in art festivals that have emerged over the last few years, such as the Confluxfestival in New York that wants to investigate “everyday urban life through emergingartistic, technological and social practice. . . . Over the course of the long weekendthe sidewalks are literally transformed into a mobile laboratory for creative action.With tools ranging from traditional paper maps to high-tech mobile devices, artistspresent walking tours, public installations and interactive performance.”11As Dimitris Charitos, Olga Paraskevopoulou, and Charalampos Rizopoulos (2008)have pointed out, projects like “You Are Not Here” clearly reflect the ideals of the1950s–1960s Situationist International. This group of artists, writers, and architectscentered around Guy Debord worked to counter the rationalist city models tailoredto the consumerist logic of the “society of spectacle” with an approach centered onsubjective experiences of the city, including areas and experiences marginalized in thedominant way of thinking about urban culture.12

Williams, Robles, and Dourish (2009) have pointed out that the Parisian poetBaudelaire and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin also form an importantsource of inspiration for many urban media practitioners. Here the image of the“flaneur” is often invoked as the “solitary and thoughtful stroller” that wandersaround the city casting his glance at the turbulence of the crowds, picking up itsidiosyncrasies as seeds for his own thoughts and feelings. Or as Kracauer has put it:“To the flaneur the sight of the city were like dreams to a hashish smoker” (quotedin McQuire 2008, 42). Williams, Robles, and Dourish (2009) note a similarity betweenthis fin de siècle mode of being and a design approach encouraged by Paulos andBeckman, who write: “We marvel at mundane everyday experiences and objects thatevoke mystery, doubt, and uncertainty. . . . How can we design technology to supportsuch wonderment?” (quoted in Williams, Robles, and Dourish 2009, 7)?

Although a design approach based on the principles of wonder, surprise, confusion,or dislocation may indeed enrich the experience of the city, it is not without its critics.Williams and colleagues (2009) find the position of the flaneur too detached. Onewonders from a safe distance about urban phenomena, but the flaneur is never reallyengaged or called into action. Flanerie “privilege[s] passive voyeurism and imaginationtending towards illusion. The alternate mobilities, inhabitations and appropriationsalive in the city (homelessness and immigration, among other things) are left for examinationby someone else” (Williams, Robles, and Dourish 2009, 7). Kazys Varnelis (2009)has attacked the rise of interest in Situationism on similar grounds by suggesting “Situationism’sfatal flaw is that . . . its goal was always to valorize individual experience overthe collective.” There is thus a fine line of which designers working from this approachshould be aware. While indeed locative media could aim to provide alternative experiencesin the city, there is also the issue of how to truly engage the user.

The City as an Operating System

The third technourban imaginary I would like to bring out makes use of a metaphorin which the city is compared with computer systems. Here, the city is understood asan “operating system” or an “information processing system.” This approach to citiesunderstands them as complex systems in which the city mainly functions as a marketplacewhere people exchange goods, information, and cultural practices.13Agency is usually located at the level of the individual who is driven by his or herown goals and desires, yet on an aggregate level particular customs, legal codes, orinstitutions may emerge over time, thus hardening specific practices and power relationsin stone, law, or today, software code. Once emerged, these same customs, codes,or institutions may enable or restrain future actions and goals of urbanites.14 Theyform the kernel of a civil society, so to speak.

Although the metaphor of the operating system itself is new, this way of framingthe city also has its roots in earlier debates on urban culture. It is for instance relatedto the thoughts of Chicago School researcher Louis Wirth. In the late 1930s, in hisinfluential article “Urbanism as a Way of Life” (1938), he laid out how the density ofthe city leads to cultural specialization, a spatial segregation of lifestyles, and a breakdownof rigid social structures.

Now, critics claim, a new urban operating system is on the rise. Wirth’s OS wasbased on a combination of high density and the spatial proximity of different groupsof urbanites who, for the most part, remain strangers to each other. The “urban OS”of our time is written in software code, can sense individual actions in real time, andcan aggregate these into data that can be used to actuate all sorts of actions. This,Anthony Townsend (2000, p5) claims, changes the metabolism of urban life. Forinstance, through the mobile phone “decision-making and management of everydaylife is increasingly decentralized,” which means that the city system becomes “morecomplex and less predictable.” Townsend call this new complex system the “real-timecity” “in which system conditions can be monitored and reacted to instantaneously[and at a distance].”

This idea of the city lies behind much of the work of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. Inmany projects, the labs make use of the tracking affordances of urban media, tracingthe whereabouts of people, city buses, or other objects throughout the city. This datais fed into a system that aggregates this information in real time and can be used indifferent contexts. For instance, public transport could be adjusted to real-time movementsof people in the city. Here the city is conceived as an operating system that—through various real-time sensor networks—generates all sorts of (aggregated) datastreams. One of the goals of urban media designers is then to build relevant services—for either consumers or citizens—that make use of and build on these real-time datastreams.

In the future these developments may lead to semantic knowledge bases. In anarticle on the SENSEable City WikiCity project, the researchers project a future inwhich you can ask your urban informatics device questions like “what is the bestplace—with regard to my current location, weather forecast, environmental conditionsand other factors—to fly a kite today” (Calabrese, Kloeckl, and Ratti 2009)?Now that may seem like a somewhat trivial affair, but of course this depends onthe sort of questions you might use to personalize the city. Change the questions, andthis approach may even empower new groups. Over the last few years, reports havesurfaced about African farmers who receive market prices at different locations fortheir produce by SMS and so are able to negotiate better prices. Small shopkeepers—again in Africa—order their supplies by SMS rather than driving to bigger cities, or usethe phone to schedule appointments with clients. People who work in the informalor semiformal economies can organize their life and their use of the city more efficientlyand increase their knowledge of social processes and market conditions.

The City as a Commons

A fourth technourban imaginary frames the city as a commons—a set of resources thatbelong to the collective of citizens. Technology is then brought in to provide tools forcitizens to collectively take care of their city. Examples are the use of wikis to allowfor collective planning exercises (see Schuilenburg and De Jong 2006), or the use ofreputation systems that allow for trust in collective action with unknown others (seeRheingold 2002).

Artist Usman Haque’s installation Natural Fuse is an interesting example that bothillustrates and questions this approach. Participants in Natural Fuse receive a flowerbox equipped with watering equipment as well as with a bottle of vinegar. They alsoreceive an electrical appliance such as a lamp, radio, or fan. The flower boxes andelectrical appliances are linked to each other and (via the Internet) to the similar setsbelonging to other users.

The central idea is that the CO2 digestion of the plants in the network offsets theCO2 emissions caused by the use of the electrical appliances. If all the participants inthe network use less energy than their plants compensate for, the system will waterthe plants and they will grow. However, if all users in the system consume more energythan can be compensated for, the system will start to kill plants by releasing thevinegar in the soil of the plants.This means that if individuals use too much energy, other people’s plants will bekilled. On the other hand, if they choose to conserve energy, that means someoneelse in the system may make use of the CO2-absorption capacities of their plants,allowing others to temporarily use more energy. A switch on the set illustrates thischoice. Users can set their system to “selfish” and thus consume more energy thanthey offset with their plants, or they can set the switch to “selfless.”Natural Fuse thus turns the energy management into a commons—a space andresource shared by and accessible to all participants. The idea of the commons is basedon the old British custom of the communal pasture where all herdsmen in the communitywere allowed to graze their cattle.

However, the collective management of a commons runs at a great risk. It will onlywork if participants are willing to cooperate and allow for mutual accommodation. Ifparticipants only follow their own rational self-interest, the commons risks overgrazing.As Garrett Hardin (1968) has written, “The rational herdsman concludes that theonly sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. Andanother. . . . Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compelshim to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.”Can we thus conceive of an urban media system that promotes the collective wellbeing?Could we conceive of some sort of peer-to-peer governance model that couldprevent overuse of scarce resources?

This is (as I have demonstrated elsewhere) the question that Natural Fuse addresses;it illustrates the opportunities of an “urban energy commons” as well as the problemof the tragedy that bears the same name. It challenges our thinking about the viabilityof a networked urban commons. Yet it does not provide any definite answers: Wouldcreating awareness through direct feedback mechanisms about the impact of rationalselfish behavior be able to prevent it? Or would we instead need complex reputationsystems? Or perhaps sentient bookkeeping systems in which our allotted ratios arekept or traded? Can we do this through peer-to-peer technologies, or do we needcentral institutions that act as trusted third parties (De Waal 2009a)?

The City as a Community of Strangers

The next technourban imaginary that I would like to bring out is the idea of the cityas a community of strangers. Since the rise of the modern industrial metropolis, theoristssuch as Simmel, Sennett, Jacobs, and Lofland have pointed out that the maincharacteristic of urban life is to be surrounded by strangers who will remain strangers.Yet at the same time, one has to share resources and live together with these strangersand relate to their differences in some way or other (Simmel 1969; Sennett 1969;Lofland 1973; Jacobs [1961] 2000; McQuire 2008).Both Jacobs and Lofland have demonstrated how the working of the city streetscan build trust between strangers. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobsdescribes how out of the many trivial repeated interactions of everyday life, a senseof trust between strangers is built up over time. Waiting together at the bus stop,exchanging small talk in the corner store, it is these kinds of interactions throughwhich people become “familiar strangers” to each other. Jacobs states that “the sumof such casual, public contact at a local level . . . is a feeling for the public identity ofpeople, a web of public respect and trust and a resource in time of personal or neighborhoodneed” (p. 67).

Jacobs has been critiqued for a nostalgic take on her cozy West Village city life,whereas such mechanisms in the city at large were thought to be impossible to maintain.Social geographers and urban sociologists such as Blokland and Ray (2008) haveconvincingly shown that such public familiarity is indeed a lot harder to find todaythan a few decades ago (also see Blokland 2005). Urbanites have become more mobileand their patterns of daily life are less synchronous, decreasing their opportunities forrepeated interaction.

In the domain of urban media there is, however, a large interest in remediating ortranslating the idea of public familiarity with the help of digital media. In a way socialnetworks like Twitter and MySpace do allow a sense of public familiarity even thoughone is not in the same place or same time. On the other hand, it could be argued thatsuch networks are mainly made up of people who already know each other and thusdoes not do much for the building up of public familiarity—even though it is technicallypossible to “follow” or “befriend” strangers based on a geographic location.Perhaps one of the best-known examples that builds on this idea of public familiarityis the project “Familiar Strangers” and the Jabberwocky application that came outof it. Jabberwocky is a mobile phone application that allows users to see if any familiarstrangers are around—people that one has encountered before at other times andplaces. The authors of the paper hope that in this way a sense of feeling at home oreven trust and solidarity can be promoted: “We believe that the extensions to thisrelationship using small personal wireless objects and applications on existing mobilephones can allow individuals to more acutely gauge their social relationship to people,places and the crowds around them over time. We also believe that such tools arecapable of encouraging community solidarity, even transitory solidarity” (Paulos andGoodman 2004, 3).

The City as a Public Sphere

The last technourban imaginary I would like to discuss is the idea of the city as anactive public sphere. This imaginary too departs from the notion that the city consistsof strangers who must live together: the focus is now on how the city allows them tobe confronted with each other, to exchange ideas, and to debate the future of the city.Often this ideal is juxtaposed with the suburban ideal of homogeneity. Urban citizensamong others, Richard Sennett claims, should not retreat to their comfort zones, butinstead should embrace the complexities, differences, and conflicts that urban lifebrings about (Sennett 1970, 1977, 1990, 2001).

Over the last decade we have seen many urban media projects that in one way oranother seem to answer Sennett’s call (albeit sometimes indirectly). There is forinstance a whole range of geoannotation projects that allow citizens to mark up urbanspace with their own ideas, histories, or thoughts. Often the hope is expressed thatthese projects will lead to an exchange of insights.In an article in the 2006 Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Lily Shirvanee expects that thesharing of experiences through locative media could lead to what she has called “socialviscosity.” The stories collected could work as crystallization points for (imagined) communitiesor starting points for processes of exchange, deliberation, or contestation.Shirvanee suggests that “this viscosity of space is perceived as a bond that may exist notonly between people with established relationships who can find each other ‘on thestreet’ in a mobile context, but also between strangers, thereby inspiring a new communityand, possibly, creating the potential for a more democratized public space.”An example is the project Textales that uses an urban screen to bring about a sitefor contestation in the city. The initiators organized workshops in which participantswere asked to make pictures of political issues that affected life in their neighborhood—such as housing inequity. These pictures were shown on an urban screen inthe neighborhood and passersby could comment on the pictures by sending a textmessage that would be displayed on the screen. In an article on the project Annayand Strohecker (2009) directly refer to theories on democracy and deliberation andhope that a project like Textales can help to form “issue publics” around particularconcerns in which a “collective epistemology” might arise “that helps us to considerour own viewpoints and those of our fellow citizens.”


I have now shown six technourban imaginaries at work in both the design and appropriationof urban media. This list is not meant to exhaustive. Rather I wanted to bringout a number of different and sometimes conflicting perspectives on what the cityshould be and how technology is thought to bring that ideal about. I wanted to showthat whereas we often focus on the impact of technology on urban culture, the reverseis also true. Many urban media are purposely designed to remediate traditional ideasabout urban culture.

Also, the neat categorization I have made here serves an analytic purpose only.Several of these technourban imaginaries could be combined. In fact, it could beargued that projects whose main focus can be reduced to a single framing of what acity is are often problematic. For instance, advocates of the city as a set of personalizedinfrastructures might miss important points about the fact that a city is also a communityand thus contributes to the balkanization of urban culture.

Similarly, many art projects that do address the city as a (political) community havetheir own critics. Many of these projects are noncommittal. Their duration is oftenshort, their audience is a small self-selected crowd, and only seldom is there follow-upthat might turn these art projects into a more sustainable addition to the experienceof the city. Could they be integrated in the infrastructure of the city in a more durableway? In short, designers of urban media would do best to address several framings ofthe city at once. This criticism—although important—does not mean that these artprojects are meaningless. What many of them at least do well is tease out the technourbanimaginaries at work in the shaping of urban media. These can be valuablecontributions to the general debate.

Only by bringing out these often-implicit urban ideals can we engage in the discussionof how these urban media can best serve society. That is what I have tried to dohere. By highlighting the urban ideas and ideals at work in discussions on urbanmedia, I hope to show that the process in which these technologies are designed andappropriated is an open one. And even though one or two of these urban-technologicalimaginaries may dominate the debate and design of new services, there are alsoalternatives.

NotesThis contribution builds on and elaborates some of my earlier work on this theme, especially De Waal 2009b. I also build on the notion of latent ideals in urban media as described in Williams, Robles, and Dourish 2009.1. See for instance Galloway 2008 for an extensive list of different labels.

2. An important impetus for the development of urban media was the decision of the U.S. militaryin 2000 to make an unscrambled version of the GPS system available to the general public.From then on, the signal has been accurate enough to pinpoint users of GPS devices on streetlevel rather than somewhere in a neighborhood. Many Location Based Media now make use ofthis location-sensing technology.

3. This shift from “placelessness” to “situatedness” has been theorized by Tuters and Varnelis2006, Varnelis 2008, as well as Shepard and Greenfield 2007. On a formal level, Mark Tuters andKazys Varnelis (2006, havepointed out two main characteristic affordances of what they call “locative media” that enablethis shift from “placelessness” to “situatedness.” One is the capacity to annotate places, “virtuallytagging the world.” The other affordance has a phenomenological quality that enables “tracingthe action of the subject in the world.”

4. As Lefebvre has shown, the experience of place is always a negotiation between the physicaltop-down design and ordering of space by governments, architects and developers, and thepersonal trajectory of its inhabitants—their history, memories, and symbolic interpretations ofthe space. Urban media can thus be understood as an extra layer somewhere between Lefebvre’stop-down representation of space and his bottom-up representational space.

5. Hutchby (2001) has defined affordances as the “functional and relational aspects which framewhile not determining the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. In this waytechnologies can be understood as artefacts which may be both shaped by and shaping of thepractices humans use in interaction with, around and through them.” The term affordances“stress[es] that the range of possibilities for interpretation and action is nowhere near as openfor either ‘writers’ or ‘readers’ as the technology as text metaphor implies. . . . We have to acceptthat technological artefacts do not amount simply to what their users make of them; what ismade of them is accomplished in the interface between human aims and the artefact’s affordances”(p. 450).

6. Mark Weiser’s influential article “The Computer of the 21st Century” (1991) and his publicationco-authored with Seely Brown, Designing Calm Technology (1995), are often referred to inthis debate. See also Anne Galloway’s (2008, 113) take on the history of ubicomp, in which sheexplains how “the desire to have computing so seamlessly and efficiently embedded in our dailylives is grounded in a profoundly utopian vision connected to cultural and historical notions oftechnological ‘progress.’” At the same time she argues that Weiser’s claim has often been misunderstood.Although he argues for an “invisible” technology, he also stresses the importance ofseamful experiences.

7. Graham and Marvin (2001) connect this positivist outlook on urban infrastructures withbroader social developments. For instance, the urban reform movement inspired by this idea“was led by sanitarians, engineers, urban planners, and the growing middle class” and they“equated the efficiency of infrastructural systems with the quality of the entire civilization”(p. 44). The regulation of water for instance played an important part. The scientific discoveryof bacteria and the privatization of bodily hygiene played was important for the ideas about thesanitized, hygienic city, and the emergence of underground waterducts.

8. See also my earlier contribution about this debate (De Waal 2009b).

9. William Mitchell, Welcome!,

10. The term “locative media” started to surface around 2003 as a label for art projects that usedlocation-based technologies such as GPS receivers. Genealogies of locative media often trace theterm to an artistic workshop organized in 2003 by Marc Tuters and Karlis Kalnins together withthe RICX Media Centre in Latvia (see for a description of the workshop).The phrase “locative media” was initially invoked to demarcate this technological art practicefrom two other fields. The first was the artistic practice of “” that focused on the placelessexperience of cyberspace through the computer terminal. Locative media art was to break downthe barrier between the physical world and a virtual world. It aimed to use technology to connectthe database world of the Internet with the experience of real places. Second, the term “locativemedia” claimed the use of these technologies for art practice rather than for commercial servicesthat had started to develop under the name of “location-based services.”

11. See the Conflux website, “About,”

12. Others also point out links with Constant’s infrastructural urban utopia New Babylon orArchigram’s advocacy for using technology to empower people to shape their own urban infrastructure(McQuire 2008). Similarly, the experimental interest of locative media art can also belinked to the vocabulary of 1960s architects such as Team Ten, who “were the first to seek a kindof town planning and architecture that could bring about pleasure, uncertainty, relaxation . . .and even disorder” (Rouillard 2007, 17).

13. See for example Anthony Townsend (2009, xxiii): “In the pre-electronic era, face-to-faceproximity and the clustering of functions was the most efficient means of replicating, transmittingand searching for information in social and economic networks. Over time, new toolsaugmented this function, but in a sense the city itself is our original greatest informationtechnology.”

14. This vision is brought forward in De Landa 2006.


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More about the Book:

From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen

Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement

Order the book: Amazon

Marcus FothLaura ForlanoChristine Satchell and Martin Gibbs

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.

About the Authors

Marcus Foth, Founder and Director of the Urban Informatics Research Lab, is Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow with the Institute for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology.

Laura Forlano is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University.

Christine Satchell is Senior Research Fellow at the Urban Informatics Research Lab.

Martin Gibbs is a Lecturer in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.


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)