PICNIC07: The City Is Here For You To Use, Adam Greenfield

Not so much about play, more about cities. Comes from user experience background of developing large-scale web sites. Cares about human experience, not devices.

"How I learned to be an urbanist": Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Bernard Rudofsky

They worried about cars, traffic, overplanning... we've killed the street without that (though not in Amsterdam where lots of this hasn't happened, as in Seoul).

"The repeating module of doom": Manhattan streets look like a background of a video-game. Walking 10 blocks along the street, you get into a cycle of the same large brand franchises/chains repeating themselves.

Cities keep you deliberately confounded in order to keep you there and spending money. Las Vegas and malls are examples of this: a persistent sense of delocation.

And the environment is actively being made hostile: stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery. e.g. postboxes covered with spikes to stop people sitting on it; Tokyo park benches designed to be uncomfortable to sit on, impossible to sleep on, etc.

Mobile devices get us withdrawing from society, instead of engaging with it.


Adam GreenfieldNostalgia is for suckers. How can we rediscover what it takes to make cities, again? Ubicomp is the answer! Informatic systems embedded into the environment, communicating wirelessly, imperceptible, and post-GUI.

To ambient informatics, and beyond! Information processing at different scales: body, street, etc. Nike+, RFID, etc. Urban information processing. Shinjuku lamp post which reacts to RFID contact with helpful information: infrastructure that has more agency than it used to. All this giving rise to a new model of interaction: e.g. Octopus in Hong Kong, where the entire transaction between card and reader happens in a dance choreographed by women (in particular) swinging their bags over the reader as they go through. A complex set of protocol exchanges turned into a dance.

How will the positive side of this play out?

One natural thing we do with information is visualising it. e.g. Stamen Designs' cabspotting; Paris visualised by wi-fi hot spots; and we can use these visualisations to pipe information back to people inside these places. e.g. maps of street crime made available to mobile devices.

(What are the second-order effects of a closed feedback loop like this - I avoid an area because they are areas I should avoid, so less people go there, so there's less scrutiny...)

Some of these inputs regulate the shape of buildings - e.g. living glass, with sensors that respond to CO2 levels in the room and opens windows to let in oxygen automatically; the incredible Blur Building; the carbon tower, with active lateral balancing based on inhabitants, weather and seismic conditions.

Also: addressable/scriptable objects, screens, surfaces: RFID, augmented reality, semacode/semapedia.

Upshot: a city that responds to its residents and other users (e.g. weather) in real time. "The city is the platform".

These systems will be used to reinscribe class boundaries.

The downside: overlegibility, everything is explicit and there's no room for ambiguity or plausible deniability. Everything is stated, announced, and made social: maybe we don't want our friends to know where we are all the time. Emergent behaviour: we'll have to accept the cost of this.

The upside: more efficient use of natural resources and infrastructure. e.g. letting people how long they have to cross the road before the lights change, saves lives!

New ways to use the city based on these devices. e.g. Nike+ lets Adam run in NY and compete against friends running in London and SF.

So what (whimsically) could this look like, in Amsterdam?

  1. Coffeeshopper: using sensor networks in coffee shops to break down potency of waste products, to identify coffee shops by strength of product;
  2. Red Light 2.0: service providers wearing an anklet and the window is a touch display exposing charges, language spoken, etc.
  3. WhiteBike (beta): free, LBS-tracked bicycles deposited around the city at random. At the end of the day a programme specifies optimal route for pickup, taken by a truck.

"Systems are for cities, and cities are for people"