A critical reflection on the complex—and at times controversial—relationship between the city and new urban technologies.
The “Eyes of the City” exhibition opened in Shenzhen on December 22, as part of the 2019 Shenzhen UABB Biennale dedicated to the topic of “Urban Interactions.” The exhibition explored the relationship between design and the space of a city “with eyes,” where pervasive technological apparati succeed in reversing the twentieth century paradigm of urban anonymity. For the opening weekend, the curatorial team organized a dense series of talks, seminars, and lectures to expand on some of the questions raised by the exhibition. A second event, held in early January, discussed how urban infrastructure is shifting to digital software. Finally, in April, two panels reflected on the possibility of an “Urbanism of Pandemics” and the role of “Tender Machines” in the world of design. As members of the curatorial team, we employ some of the ideas and suggestions that emerged during this curated series of talks to expand on the reasons why the “Eyes of the City” can be a useful category for contemporary architectural and urban design.
The pandemic is prompting us to rethink basic categories of thought. Personal rights that were assumed to be non-negotiable in mature democratic societies are being renegotiated on the national and transnational level: we may be willing to let our governments control us, after all, if this means a faster and safer exit from total lockdown, and a smoother progression through the next phases of adjustment. At this stage, it is not as important whether or not we will give in to technological surveillance or we will find alternative ways to minimize contagion on a wide scale, as much as the fact that both directions are at the center of public debate in the face of emergency. The “Eyes of the City” are an integral part of either, and only a measure of the extent of their agency in the different folds of urban space can give design a role in the discussion.
The idea of the “Eyes on the Street,” famously described by Jane Jacobs as the virtuous social glue of urban commons, has been turned on itself by digital technologies, their pervasiveness as well as pressing rate of change, and their effects onto public and private spheres of life. For Jacobs, individuals looking out their window and walking in the street were relevant as part of a specific collective that would somehow aspire to, and work towards, the public good; conversely, in the City with Eyes, individuals are part of a myriad different communities, but they are most relevant as distinct from any collective, as sources of data to be used by public and private alike. Drawing on the ideas circulated during some of the events organized in the context of the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale, we trace a picture of the ways in which these questions precipitate onto the different types of new public space, and how design can have an active role in their understanding.
“Imagine real, cyberspace, make-believe space, random space, responsive space, tele-control space, space-time continuum, which is a kind of a modernist idea, reversal space, improvisation space, recursion space, duration space, occasional space, filtration space, augmented space, incarnation space, retrieval space, endorsement space, proliferation space, stacking space, compressible space, foldable space, iteration space, generalized space, concord space, mirrored space, map space, complementary space, crossover space, airline space, nesting space, jump cut space, transit space, symbiosis space, parasite space, grafted space, imitation space, collection space, puzzle space, miniature space, insinuating space, distribution space, replication space, advertise space, plug in space, gravity space, omnipresence space, index, optional, simulation, resonating, progressive sequential, mini space, parallel space, intercross space, descript space, aerospace, surveillance space, platform space...”
All of these spaces, and the new forms of publicness and public domesticity that we find in them and that we are experiencing on an unprecedented scale are being addressed as an environmental product of a centuries(millennia?)-long technological enhancement of the human body. For Nicholas Korody, co-founder of Adjustments Agency, and Marina Otero Verzier, director of Research at Het Nieuwe Instituut, the conversation should revolve around the question of tender machines, and the relationality and instrumentalization of different forms of labor and as many forms of care. The notion of machine tenders—or tender machines, with a nod to the intriguing ambiguity of the phrase—addresses the modes of construction and institutionalization of operable categories beyond the binary of human and non-human. If we can recognize and trace the entanglement of bodies and machines that precipitate onto the space of the city, perhaps we can make projections of where we can go from here, and be open to the possibility of different and more porous collectives that can be activated in space.
“We are interested in the ways in which the term machine tenders already uses a sense of humanness in a sense, but also shows that the machine is always tended and the machine is never entirely not human. We’re also interested in the derogatory ways of describing certain forms of machines as human, in terms of labor that can be mapped along existing racial gender or class-based divisions or hierarchy. [This] leads to a conversation about whether an actual tender machine might be a machine capable of tenderness or a machine capable of performing labors of care.
Finally, tender in English is a mechanism to extinguish a debt. A legal tender is anything that’s accepted as a payment for debt, typically cash or currency. In other words, it’s a technology itself, which is a foundation for capital accumulation and exchange. I think what we’re interested in is the way that specifically other kinds of financial technologies could be understood as being always interfaces and hybridize relations.”
Where does the city come in?
The almost infinite instantiations of the interface between physical and digital, and public and private, reek of a sense of possibility that goes hand in hand with a general sense of disconcertment at the fact that physical space may, in fact, prove less representative than digital space of a certain type of public, or commons. Therefore, conceptual devices are needed in order to read the new city as a complex system that can be designed. Representations of the smart city concept usually lead us to understand the various layers of the city as a system of superimposed organizational mechanisms that entertain a smooth relationship of action-reaction over one another. For architect and urbanist Paola Viganò, design as a discipline and as a practice can— and should—be looked at as the obvious tool to make this layering measurable and operable:
“We think there are orders that are not hierarchical. So we work on the micro-structure. We work on the pre-existence of differences, on the coexistence of the different nationalities, on the spatial hybrid. We work on the intelligentsia of the spreading of temporary urban condition. We work against the extreme specialization of space, against the creation of center and periphery, or continuity of space, because the continuity of space can get out and in or beyond the periphery of a center, and [operate at] a larger scale and more balanced territory conditions, so as to generalize accessibility or integration.”
The physical matter of the city swallows up any isotropic, simplifying layer, and makes it more complex, as we are all experiencing in these days of confinement. For writer and researcher Martjin De Waal, it is the concept of license (Elsden et al. 2018) that can help in understanding urban space as a superimposition of discontinuous rules that precipitate onto physical form:
“On the one hand, what you see is a service that consumers can use. On the other hand, it’s also a system that gives a license or permission to one car to have priority over the other, or to one car or one person to use a particular street at a particular time [when other cars cannot use it]. For us, this shift is really interesting to talk about, [in regards to] public space in the network society and from the perspective of platform urbanism, where we do not have transport but all kinds of urban systems, which are organized and mediated through these digital platforms. If you look at it from the perspective of a ‘license,’ you don’t [only] see efficient services, but you also get to ask different kinds of questions: who gets the privilege in the first place, how it is organized, and how this is made transparent to people.”
Conversely, the concept of city as a platform works through a deep analysis of inhabitants’ behavioral trends in order to construct models that are replicable to understand and design future developments. The MIT Sensable City Lab carried out a research project to measure the relationship between the space of the city and the spread of dengue fever; in order to do so, they used a dataset of mobile phone records to retrace a connection between mobility and contagion patterns:
“What we can do with this dataset is to identify where people live and where people work, identify the main commuting flows and use this to test if these commuting flows can determine where there is a disease spreading. […] What we are doing is we are building an agent-based model, specifically for dengue spreading. Assume people are commuting between their home and work, estimate if a disease is starting from one specific location, how it spread throughout the city. […] What we are thinking about since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is exactly this question. How can we relate human mobility inside the city? […] We know this dataset we used for them is not going to be good enough for disease spreading, where human face-to-face contacts are important.”
Clearly, dengue fever is quite different than COVID-19; as Kondor and Bojic anticipated, the main focus of their current work is to understand if, and how, the method employed in this past research can be usefully applied to the current situation. To understand how to capitalize on previous work is at the core of scientific research: the tension is between the exceptional character of this (and each) specific contingency, and the generalizable traits that can allow us to profit from an incremental body of disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that specific and localized entanglements of political, social, and economic trajectories are making it hard to apply abstract models onto increasingly complex urban spaces. It is becoming clear that the only way to have any depth and gain any traction as designers, is to look at specific places and actions. This may not be the time for typological thinking, but rather the time for political, situated thinking. Each specific instance of the City with Eyes—and the City with Eyes in lockdown mode—has its own rules, follows its own logic, and has specific effects on the way the city is designed and lived in. The same technology, employed in Shenzhen and in Rotterdam, falls onto different spaces, affects different categories of people, and is shaped by a different system of rules and institutions.
On-the-ground work is effective because it starts from real instances of practice, and upon those builds categories and models. Curator and writer Linda Vlassenrood offers an insight into a wide-scale process of data collection in the neighborhood of Dalang in Shenzhen. A survey to which 350 inhabitants responded allows designers to gather data on the local understanding of space, in a perspective of improvement.
“Basically we want to bring all data together to make one big dataset to see what types of elements we can take out of it and how we can recombine them. As I said already, it is a social issue, it is an urban issue, it is about the urban organization and it is a challenge to combine all of this, but I think it’s one of the necessities. When we talk about public spaces, it is not just building a square and hoping you’re done. It’s also how you can make the city open and flexible, especially the Dalang neighborhood, because it is a vibrant place and [it prompts the question of] how can you keep that energy.”
Design is increasingly more about constructing the conditions within which decision-making can be made effective in a specific place and time, rather than about form, function, surfaces, and lines. Generative design tools are intended to expand the institutional trajectory of design actions and give it legitimation through the use of first-hand, localized data. In this sense, the public ideally takes an active part in the conversation and constructs its own space within the constraints that designers have set as defining of that publicness.
“As we all know, different public spaces are formed very differently, from outdoor to indoor, from playground to even spaces like restaurants. They usually cater to different groups of people, some might be more inviting for business groups, some might be for teenagers. How are we going to be able to plan for spaces that will be able to respond to so many different needs? We are thinking about creating a tool that would be accessible to lots of people who would directly participate in a process, understand about planning and how spaces are designed, and also give feedback and understand if that feedback can affect the result of the design. Sometimes you can just draw a line and it will come up with complex and comprehensive results. Sometimes you can just move around some signal stickers and then it will tell you very sophisticated results.”
The various conversations that were organized around the topic of “Eyes of the City” have allowed very different and very relevant positions to come together around a wide and controversial topic; they have also allowed for an advancement of the arguments that those positions carry forth, and this is certainly the highest aspiration for an act of curatorship. We hope to hear more of these questions, and we will certainly do everything we can to carry out the conversation as long and as wide as possible.
Cover image: “Eyes of the City” Exhibition Venue in Shenzhen. Courtesy of UABB