Essay: City-Making as World Making | Made By Us

Made by Us

The New Institute, the Netherlands’ new national institute for the creative industry, invited The Mobile City to help it develop an ongoing dialogue around the concept of smart cities between Chinese and Dutch architects, media makers and designers.

In the mid-1990s, the Council of Europe commissioned the eminent French philosopher Pierre Lévy to investigate a new technology that – as it foresaw at the time – would without a doubt have a major cultural impact: the Internet. Lévy reported back to the council by means of the book Cyberculture, a seminal work that has shaped thinking about the Internet ever since.

At the time, the term “cyberspace” was still in vogue as a name for the activities of the pioneers who had recently started exploring the new medium. Cyberspace was envisioned as a new frontier, a digital realm separate from our everyday lives. “Netizens” – the people who used it – gathered in “virtual communities” and “digital cities”. According to Lévy, the canonical genre of cyberculture was the “virtual world”, which for him didn’t just mean the 3D fantasy worlds of computer games and online arenas such as Second Life (concocted much later) but also the worlds of information and databases being presented on the emerging World Wide Web.

According to Lévy, these new virtual worlds needed a new kind of place-maker: the “engineer of worlds”. The engineers of worlds would be “the major artists of the 21st century”, Lévy predicted. They would make the world of data inhabitable for us. Whereas architects and planners engineer our physical worlds, cyberspace would be the domain of information architects who would shape our networks into attractive places to hang out, linger and discover things, meet up with others, or just explore for ourselves.

In the 15 years since Lévy wrote his book, something remarkable has happened: the digital world of cyberculture and our everyday life-worlds in physical space have become more and more intertwined. Nowadays, some speak of the mobile phone as a “membrane”: the thin layer of our electronic screen allows us to pull in those elements of the data world that are relevant for the physical sites we find ourselves in. In turn, this membrane also lets us upload our experiences from physical space to the data world, so that they become available to others, as when we update our status in social networks.

Others have called smartphones “territory devices”, because we use them and other digital media tools as compasses or dowsing rods: they help us to carve out a space for ourselves, guide us to relevant locations, and enable us to learn about the temporary functions of particular physical sites. The “program” of the city is effectively moving up into the digital world, where a layer of software and interfaces sorts out the physical city for us. We learn what is happening where in the city through listings on websites, updates on social networks, recommendations through specialised apps and direct messages from friends. Moreover, they allow us to temporarily change the functions of the physical place. Thanks to network technologies and online listings and marketplaces, wi-fi-equipped parks become offices; homes become restaurants; apartments become hotel rooms. Community groups meet in empty office buildings, and artists use flashmobs to reclaim the streets.

This shift has consequences for the professionals Lévy called the “engineers of worlds”. It’s hard to maintain separation between the worlds of architecture and data design. With Lévy, we maintain that the engineers of worlds are the cultural place-makers of the present day. Yet they no longer operate solely in cyberspace but design data worlds that allow us to operate in the real, physical world. Similarly, architects are becoming more and more aware of the power of these digital worlds to extend the experience of the physical worlds they engineer.

We have invited three engineers of worlds to participate in Made by Us. They operate at the interface of the digital and the physical and explore what the linkage between those worlds can mean for city-making – the complex process in which institutions, designers and citizens bring the city to life. These engineers work in three different disciplines. The first, augmented reality, is a technology that literally and visually adds layers of meaning to the user’s physical surroundings. The second, data visualisation, is an aesthetic practice that allows us to use data we produce in our everyday urban lives to better understand temporal and spatial developments and incorporate them into our designs for and uses of the city. Finally, urban gaming temporarily alters the cultural and social logic of a physical site, allowing us to explore it in new, playful ways.

The three “worlds” presented as part of Made by Us echo another insight of Lévy’s. He argues that virtual worlds are open systems – platforms, not finished artefacts. The works presented here are more than just artistic objects created by three Dutch auteurs. Each of them invites users to take up the platform and use it to create their own worlds. “The artistic artefacts of cyberculture,” Lévy wrote, “are works of flow, process and incident that do not lend themselves to archiving and conservation.” His “engineers” may create all kinds of virtual worlds, but ultimately it is the users who populate it, fill it with their data, and (re-)make it into their own. This is the kind of open platforms that can contribute to a city that is indeed “Made by Us”.