Saskia Sassen on open sourcing urbanism

Excerpted from Saskia Sassen:

“We can think of the multiple ways in which the city talks back as a type of open-source urbanism: the city as partly made through a myriad of interventions and little changes from the ground up. Each of these multiple small interventions may not look like much, but together they give added meaning to the notion of the incompleteness of cities and that this incompleteness gives cities their long lives, thereby outlasting other more powerful entities.

In sharp contrast, I think that the model of “intelligent cities” as propounded by and the telepresence efforts of Cisco Systems misses this opportunity to urbanize the technologies they mobilize, and futilely seeks to eliminate incompleteness. The planners of intelligent cities, notably Songdo in South Korea actually make these technologies invisible, and hence put them in command rather than in dialogue with users. One effect is that intelligent cities represent closed systems, and that is a pity. It will cut their lives short. They will become obsolete sooner.

Beyond the imagery of open-source urbanisms, can we strengthen this positive scenario of the city’s incompleteness by actually deploying open-source technologies in a variety of urban contexts?. Can we urbanize open-source technology?

As a technological practice of innovation, Open Source has not quite been about cities, but about the technology. Yet it resonates with what cities have and are at ground-level, where its users are. The park is made not only with the hardware of trees and ponds, but also with the software of people’s practices. How can we forget the turnaround of New York’s Riverside Park from being a no-go zone to being a park for all those who wanted to use it in part because dog-owners started to walk their dogs in large numbers. Having a dog was itself a function of feeling insecure in a city of high murder rates and much mugging. But the city allowed people to talk back: get a dog, walk your dog, go in groups, and you recover the territory of the park. The proliferation of farmers’ markets was also not a top-down decision. It resulted from a mix of conditions, primarily the desire of city residents to have access to fresh produce. Here we see that a thousand individual decisions created a possibility for viable farmers markets.

Technologists, urbanists and artists are beginning to “urbanize” technology (see the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia, the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, and much of the work gathered at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit at MoMA). When this happens, the city becomes a heuristic space: it talks to the average resident or passer-by, it can make the most advanced applied technologies that can be used in cities visible. The city also makes visible the diversity of spatial forms through which these technological applications work, becoming legible even to the passer-by. I have long thought that all the major infrastructures, from sewage to electricity and broadband, should be covered by transparent walls and floors, so if you are waiting for the bus, you can actually see how the city all works and begin to get engaged. Today, when walls are pregnant with softwared capabilities, why not make this transparent? All our computerized systems should become transparent. It creates its own public shared domain.

Yet Open Source is different from those technologies and technological applications. I see in Open Source a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs or urbanize what might be an individual initiative. And yet, it stays so far away from the city. I think that it will require making. We need to push this urbanizing of technologies to strengthen horizontal practices and initiatives. Leading urban civic institutions tend to verticalize this work of making the urban. But they do matter.

Here the appropriate technology is more akin to developing an urban Wikileaks—vertical institutions that begin to leak and thereby enable citizens to work with at least some of what is useful in those leaks in the ways they see fit. This is akin to horizontalizing what is now vertical, imposed by top-down authority.

There is much work to be done. Recovering the incompleteness of cities means recovering a space where the work of open sourcing the urban can thrive. Developing an urban Wikileaks would take cities in a very different direction from the intelligent city model—and for the better.”

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