Cities, Dublin, and the future of the metropolis

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Urban design shapes lives in fundamental ways, and a recent spate of books, movies and exhibitions have seen a revival of interest in urbanism. Here’s my piece focusing on the Hack the City exhibition that tackles some of these issues.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR CITY TO BE?

From The Irish Times, July 23rd, 2012

From the outside it looks like a typical Capel Street shop, but once you pass through the glass doors you’re met with a buzzing workplace filled with teams of young techies glued to their computer screens, gadgets and cables and sheaves of paper competing for desk space, Post-it notes decorating the walls like peeling wallpaper.

With the intensity of their focus, you might assume that these people are budding tech entrepreneurs, striving to invent a new platform in the hope of changing the world. In fact it’s not a new platform they’re working on but one of the oldest: they are examining innovative ways to use technology to solve the challenges of urban life.

This is Idealab, a week-long experiment in crowdsourcing urban innovations, and it is a fascinating glimpse at how technological ingenuity is trying to improve city living. Idealab is part of the extensive Hack the City exhibition that opened this week at the Science Gallery in Dublin, although “exhibition” barely begins to describe it. It’s an eclectic, wide-ranging and hugely ambitious project, equal parts civic activism and act of conceptual creativity.

“The whole focus of the programme is to address current and future city needs but specifically who controls our city, and what role we want to play in it as citizens,” says Hack the City’s lead curator, Teresa Dillon, hinting at the ambition behind the project. “How are you going to engage citizens in the wider debates in relation to crowdsourcing or looking at how we’re going to manage our resources? Some of the solutions to those are technical solutions.

“The most pressing issues were dereliction, crowdsourcing public services, open transport systems, and safety and wellbeing in the city. The whole focus of the Idealab was to put out a call for designers, architects, developers, creatives, thinkers, people who had potential solutions to those questions.”

Ultimately, she says, “hacking the city is about reclaiming it”. As such, Hack the City is part of a resurgence of interest in urban design and policy issues, both here and internationally. Just in the past few years Dublin City Council has been involved with initiatives such as the Designing Dublin project, in 2009, the annual Innovation Dublin festival and Pivot Dublin, which very nearly succeeded in having Dublin designated as World Design Capital 2014.

TED, the Californian conference dedicated to showcasing “ideas worth spreading”, this year awarded its annual Ted prize not to a person, as it usually does, but to the idea of the City 2.0, a repurposing of the city model for “a future in which more than 10 billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably. The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom.”

Reflecting this, a number of books have been covering these urban issues. Triumph of the City, by the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, became a surprise bestseller, and Ryan Avent of the Economist scored an ebook hit with The Gated City. This summer the Museum of Modern Art in New York is showing Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, a flagship exhibition dedicated to examining architectural possibilities in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis. The documentary director Gary Hustwit, whose previous subjects have included typefaces and object design, won considerable acclaim with his film on urban design, Urbanized.

What could account for this focus on urban affairs? Can it be that, as the Ted curator Chris Anderson recently put it, “cities are the great hope for our future”? With most of the world’s population now living in cities, and the rise of megacities across China and vast metropolises growing across the developing world, there is an acute need to focus on the fundamentals of urban design. The long-term economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century will demand a host of solutions, and the perception is growing that our urban spaces can provide many of them.

Integral to finding those solutions will be the application of emerging technologies, and it’s not a coincidence that both Hack the City and Ted’s City 2.0 appropriate computer terminology, as the Hack the City programme notes: “The hacker mindset is one which finds ingenious solutions to systemic problems, whereby materials are maximised and systems disassembled and reassembled in order to create new alternatives. We have applied this mindset to . . . address future and current city challenges and needs.”

Fortunately in that regard, Dublin is not short of ingenious, technologically savvy people. As Dillon points out, Dublin’s role as a technology centre is not just of economic benefit but also provides the city with priceless human capital. With Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others operating here, there is an abundance of innovative and entrepreneurial talent, and IBM has based its Smarter Cities Technology Centre in the city – appropriately, IBM is one of Hack the City’s partner organisations.

CITIES HAVE ALWAYS been engines of innovation and economic growth. In the words of the urban theorist Richard Florida, “Dense and interactive connectors, cities are economic and social organising machines.”

“The whole basis of urban economics is agglomeration,” says Dr Brendan Williams, director of University College Dublin’s Urban Environment Project. “Basically, where you have the skilled labour pool, the skilled sets of services available, you get the synergy effects that build upon each other. What you’re looking for is spillover effects. You can see the logic of it: bringing together different groups of people, the talents of people and the moneys of people has historically produced those sort of positive effects.”

Allowing for rich pollination between industries and knowledge pools is a key benefit of urban spaces, but it’s always a good idea to kickstart that process. “Initiatives like Hack the City are really great projects,” says Dublin City Council architect Jeremy Wales, “in that they force us to really think about how we can look at the city differently, as a system, as resources that we have, how can we think about these in a completely different way.”

Looking at those things in a different way is part of Wales’s job: he’s part of a seven-strong team at the council called the Studio, “set up as a kind of innovation lab. We act as facilitators for ideas to get into the city, and out as well. We have mixed backgrounds from across the organisation, and because we have less resources we have to think differently, and we need new road maps for that. We’re looking at creative processes such as this one.”

The challenge, then, is to design our cities so that they may most efficiently allow that innovation to happen. That design isn’t restricted to a city’s physical space; increasingly, it encompasses also the vast amounts of data that cities produce, from traffic and transit information to crime statistics to general demographics and varying population density.

Idealab is partnering with a Spanish cultural innovation group, Platoniq, to marshall the ideas being generated; Enric Senabre Hidalgo of the group describes the rich potential of urban information. “The data can lead to new solutions when it’s shared,” he says. “It works when it’s the property of everyone, and that relates also to public spaces – they work best when it is more shared, and that means also shared responsibility for the data and the space.”

Such an approach might seem more abstract than building public parks or streets, but the impact can be as tangible – US president Barack Obama’s first chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, made his reputation by masterminding an initiative called Apps for Democracy, which opened up the data stored by Washington DC’s municipal government to software developers in order that they might use the information for a range of smartphone apps and other uses.
The benefit was immediate and lasting – interestingly, the initiative’s original name was Hack the District.

INEVITABLY, ATTITUDES TOWARDS our cities and towns have changed dramatically since the property boom came to a crashing halt – but perhaps it might be a positive shift. Instead of considering our urban spaces as a vast Monopoly board to be traded, we might be able to appreciate them as a complex organism that needs tending and cultivation.

The sort of shared ownership of the urban commons that is so important to the prosperity of a city was replaced with a market-based sense of property ownership instead. “What makes the city healthy and wealthy is actually the people and social industry and enterprise that’s going on – it’s not speculating or using the city as an asset to be traded,” says Wales.

“The city is much more complicated than that. In a way I think the city was being hacked during those times; all those values that a city should have were just being forgotten about. Now this project is about reappropriating the city and its values, looking at bigger issues, such as community and enterprise, as part of the city infrastructure.”

In that regard Williams is optimistic. “If you actually coordinate and manage things more efficiently you start to get a lot of knock-on spillover effects that improve the totality. It’s on the smaller scale that change begins, and gives people a better sense of place. The details matter, so starting with the smaller things and co-ordinating better is obviously a great help.”

Starting with the smaller things might be a perfect description of the approach taken by the teams at the Idealab on Capel Street. Improving the totality, however, is certainly their goal.

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