The discipline of design, in all its forms, empowers individuals to explore the diverse qualities of personal experience and to shape the common qualities of community experience. This makes design an essential element in a new philosophy of culture, replacing the old metaphysics of fixed essences and natures which Dewey critiqued throughout a lifetime of work directed toward the experimental nature of inquiry after the philosophic and cultural revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Furthermore, design is inquiry and experimentation in the activity of making, since making is the way that human beings provide for themselves what nature provides only by accident. There is a deep reflexive relation between human character and the character of the human-made: character influences the formation of products and products influence the formation of character in individuals, institutions, and society.
A while ago the Architectural League of New York put out one of their Situated Technologies pamphlets exploring the concept of Micropublic Places, in which the intersection of ambient intelligence, human computing, architecture, social engineering, and urbanism act as sites for re-imagining the public realm (in this reading the idea of public realm is taken from Arendt and Latour as, “a contested space ruled by antagonism rather than conformism”).
One only has to take a closer look to realize that technical objects have always been things in the original sense of the word, merely concealing their complicated networks of relationships under smooth and perfect surfaces. Confronted with things like cars, nuclear reactors, baby milk, mobile phones, etc., we are forced to acknowledge “external” forces that exist within things. So Latour writes with good reason, “What the etymology of the word thing … had conserved for us mysteriously as a sort of fabulous and mythical past has now become, for all to see, our most ordinary present”. Moreover, in a globalized world, things—including the accidents they cause and their potential misuse—connect us more than kinship, identity, or territory. We have become cosmopolitans gathered together by things rather than by nationalities.
This is important to consider as we attempt to solve the wicked problems confronting us. How do we make visible what is hidden, how do we give representation to things that have never been afforded such? And when we do, how does this impact cultures of decision-making?
Contemporary cities don’t resemble the Greek polis. Rather, they are gigantic households in which private matters take on public relevance. Under such circumstances it is hard to find a place to represent Greenland’s glaciers or the migration flows from the South, or, for that matter, any form of the avant-garde. But we know for sure that the local problems can’t be solved without taking into consideration global warming, global migration, and time battering the earth. How do we give them a voice?
Corral de Bustos, population 11,000, is a small town in the pampas of Argentina. Papa Mignolo grew up there, my grandmother still lives there, and we are related to roughly half the town. The playground adjacent to the central plaza is where my brother received a huge electrical shock, and where I split my chin open on a see-saw.
In December of 2011 I went back to visit with the boy’s Canon EOS-1 VH (using Kodak 400 TX film). Though the trip is just a few months removed, the black and white film does an amazing job of manifesting fading memories and capturing the omnipresent nostalgia I feel for Corral de Bustos, even when I am there.
This gate, and the wall it is attached to, is the only thing remaining of the house where my father grew up. My grandfather would smoke cigarettes by the gate and watch the world go by, while my father and his cousins played in the street.
The old train station adjacent to downtown Corral. Buses now bring people in and out of town at laughably odd hours.
This is probably the second most common sight in the pampas. The first? Everyone and their mother playing soccer.
Monsanto has largely taken ove the agricultural landscape with soya monocrops.
Old grain silos.
Downtown Corral de Bustos. I swear this was taken in 2011, not 1970.
Should you ever find yourself in Corral de Bustos, go to here. We ordered lunch and dinner from La Cuisine for over a week and everything was mouthwateringly-amazing.
This is my grandmother's house (the small part; the large building in back is a warehouse). She's lived here ever since I can remember, and not much has changed. Even the photos on the walls remain the same...
The night of the great asado. I was so full of meat and wine I forgot to take photos, but this happened about an hour before and still serves to trigger my memory.
Temporally the events are rather far apart (about 15 years), but causality-wise they intricately entwined. ↩
What is the Startupbus? A 3 day hackathon on wheels throttling towards SXSW at 75mph. Buses full of developers, designers, and hustlers leave from 12 cities with the goal of creating and pitching a startup upon arrival in Austin. Complete strangers thrown together to combat tight deadlines, motion-sickness, patchy wifi, and other obstacles all intent on making something great. Is it crazy? Totally. Is it awesome? Undoubtedly so.
A week ago I returned from an insanely amazing and sleep-deprived week of making (both products and friends). Together with the most kick-ass team of creative trouble-makers I could have ever wished for we created Happstr, an app that tracks and analyzes happiness.
I'm still working on a longer post about all the shenanigans and learnings from the trip, but I wanted to take a moment to encourage everyone to consider applying for the bus next year. If you want to challenge yourself, meet amazing people, form new friendships, and shift your perspective, the bus is definitely for you. Want to know more? Come to the Startupbus Demo night on April 5th (details forthcoming), where you can learn more about the Startupbus, listen to pitches, and talk to some of the folks who were on the bus this year.
I'd also like to send out special love to Eastmedia for sponsoring my trip, and Simplereach for making sure I came home safe and sound.
Oh! And be sure to check out Louisiana's bus application, which has set a new bar for 2013:
New York has about 244 neighborhoods, depending on who you ask. Some large, others small, and many nested within each other like Russian dolls. The differences between them can be bold or subtle, obvious or hidden, and not always available to the immediate senses. Bringing these differences to light, providing insight and context to location, is something NabeWise is just a little obsessed with. A few weeks ago we released Version 2 of our mobile site, combining geolocation with quantitative and qualitative data to provide profiles for neighborhoods as they are traversed. Because the new mobile experience is vastly different from its predecessor, I thought it might be interesting to capture the reasoning and process that lead to the version we have today.
The first mobile site we built was feature rich and duplicated a considerable amount of the desktop experience. We even included city maps and neighborhood overlays with the option to track your location in real-time, which was totally awesome when taking the train up to Boston and zipping through all the neighborhoods in Queens, but fairly cumbersome otherwise. In product meetings we'd discuss technical approaches to speeding up the application until one day we finally realized we didn't want a faster version of the current app, but a different app entirely - an app whose sole purpose was to answer the basic question, "Where am I?"
There are a number of different ways people navigate cities, two of the most common being destination directed (going from point a to point b) and discovery directed (wandering by whim and serendipity). When trying to reach a specific destination people generally care more about the how (how do I get there?) and the specific where, while people who are taking a more exploratory and less directed approach care more about the what and the general where (where am I and what is its story?). Google Maps does a stellar job pinpointing the specific coordinates at which you happen to be standing and what streets, stores, and intersections are nearby, but it doesn't help very much with the slightly less specific context and general where embodied by a neighborhood.
And that's what we wanted our mobile app to do – provide an answer to the question of general where, and in the process maybe even settle a few bar bets.
With a freshly defined purpose we set out to discuss details which, naturally, requires beer. We hashed through possibilities and potentials, argued about functionality and features, and threw around ideas until we settled on a core set of content. We dropped the city map and location tracking, search, and even navigation in the process. It was a gruesome battle, but in the end we were rather satisfied with our work.
Sketching on a stack of paper wireframes we explored a variety of interface ideas. The narrowed, focused set of content we had selected led us in new directions and demanded to be handled appropriately. At every step of the way the temptation to add “just one more thing” was strong, but we disciplined ourselves, asked why at every turn, and ultimately prevailed in keeping the app focused on that one question, “Where am I?” So focused in fact, that the site boasts only one button which reads, “Where am I?”
Visually the mobile site inherits from the web app, though the background is new and is actually a map of SoHo from the early 20th century. Bendy (our friendly NabeWise llama) makes an appearance on the error screen, which generally pops up if you are in a city we don’t currently cover. Neighborhood information is displayed in a vertical list eliminating the need for extra taps. While we removed any form of global, structured navigation, there are a few different ways you can navigate:
Through neighborhood containment, which is what we call our system for determining relationships between neighborhoods. If you happen to be in a neighborhood that contains or is contained by another neighborhood, we’ll show you the surrounding context and ways to view those neighborhoods.
Physically navigate to another neighborhood
It’s the second method of navigation I love about version two; you must physically move yourself in the world to navigate through the site. The idea of transportation paths and patterns as interface is intriguing, and while our site only scratches the surface, it’s a topic I’ll continue to explore.
And so we’ve launched! If you’re in any of the cities we currently cover, definitely check it out. It’s not the kind of app that will bug you 20 times a day or make you feel overwhelmed with information; rather it’s the kind of app that’s there when you need it, with enough information to help but not hinder, and let you go about your day when you are done.
Going with a web approach allowed us to explore mobile ideas available to all platforms. While native apps are in the product roadmap, we knew we wanted to build out the web side first. ↩
In New York it’s not uncommon to overhear people arguing about what neighborhood they are in, especially at bars ↩
Core content: description, photograph, reputation, top attributes, real estate values, reviews. ↩
The Project for Public Spaces defines placemaking as a formal process of improving public spaces, but I'm wondering if there isn't personal or vernacular form of placemaking that occurs as an emergent property of individual and community behaviors. My brother, with a masters in Urban Planning, says that placemaking only pertains to the process at the formal level and ceases to have meaning in informal settings. So what do we call this form of intrinsic placemaking - what is the name for the behaviors that help us understand and connect to a place?
I've been thinking about this recently because of two articles from the December 5, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. While the subject matter is dramatically different, both consider place through personal and communal lenses. You'll need a subscription to access the articles in their entirety, but the quotes convey the basic gist. I'm going to pour another beer and engage my brother in a deeper discussion. Hopefully we'll come up with something...
I gradually became aware that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority, that the geography of my city was the geography of my soul. Physically and metaphysically, I was placed.
Because anonymity was well nigh impossible and privacy literally incomprehensible (there is no word for “privacy” in Bosnian), your fellow-Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them. If you somehow vanished, your fellow-citizens could have reconstructed you from their collective memory and the gossip that had accrued over years. Your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical corollary was the architecture of the city.
In which the author tracks his personal history from old Sarajevo, to Chicago, to new Sarajevo and begins to understand place through the process of learning a new city and remembering the old.
In each of these cases, I would argue that the street, the urban street, as public space is to be differentiated from the classic European notion of more ritualized spaces for public activity, with the piazza and the boulevard the emblematic European instances. I think of the space of “the street,” which of course includes squares and any available open space, as a rawer and less ritualized space. The Street is a space where new forms of the social and the political can be made, rather than a space for enacting ritualized routines. With some conceptual stretching, we might say that politically “street and square” are marked differently from “boulevard and piazza”: the first signals action, and the second, ritual.
Resolve to do lots of writing along the way. Much of it will be routine note-taking, but you should also write reflectively, to understand: make outlines; explain why you disagree with a source; draw diagrams to connect disparate facts; summarize sources, positions, and schools; record even random thoughts. Many researchers find it useful to keep a journal for hunches, new ideas, random thoughts, problems, and so on. You might not include much of this writing-to-discover-and-understand in your final draft. But when you write as you go, every day you encourage your own best critical thinking, understand your sources better, and, when the time comes, draft more productively.
In his talk, "New Soft City" during Interaction '10, Dan Hill emphatically illustrates an approach to urban informatics that utilizes the fabric of the city as a medium for visualization ((While not discussed in much depth, he does mention two trends that inform this position: 1) The ease in which screens can be co-opted for the purpose of advertising and 2) the efficacy of urban screens is dramatically decreasing as people learn to block them out)).
Hill presents a diverse range of projects he's been involved with over the years, the majority of which attempt to expose consumption metrics externally and make the invisible visible. All of the projects are incredibly inspiring (checkout the responsive architecture project for the design of the Masdar City Center), but I'm particularly struck by the collaboration with the State Library of Queensland for Sense and Sustainability, a platform for public art. For this project, the building housing The Edge was layered in a sensor network in order to capture data generated by the building, which was then turned into an API. Dan has already written about the street as a platform, and I think the building as API is a nice corollary.
In combination with initiatives like the EEML, a protocol for sharing real time sensor data, and the open source approach of the Urban Versioning System, a framework is starting to emerge that will give people the vocabulary and material to experiment with more complex feedback loops. We'll have access to data generated not only by our social and financial activities, but by our environment as well. While I'm not sure what this means for urban growth and development or where it lies in dialogue around "smart cities", I do think the four questions Dan closes with are something to consider:
How do people expect systems to behave?
How does information work as material?
How should we extend the capabilities of people, buildings, and infrastructure?
More specifically Urbanized, the third film in Gary Hustwit's design trilogy (think Helvetica and Objectified) will be screening in New York on September 20th. Additional bonus: Gary and friends will be there to discuss the film and take questions afterwards.
The central question Urbanized asks and explores is, "Who is allowed to shape our cities, and how do they do it? Unlike many other fields of design, cities aren’t created by any one specialist or expert. There are many contributors to urban change, including ordinary citizens who can have a great impact improving the cities in which they live. By exploring a diverse range of urban design projects around the world, Urbanized frames a global discussion on the future of cities."
Speaking of Urbanized, Urban Design Week will be happening in New York from September 15th - 20th. More interesting than the non-existent schedule is the open call to re-imagine the city, in which architects, designers, artists, and urbanists are asked to take an idea submitted by the public and turn it into a proposal. There seems to be a trend of government organizations adopting the practices of start-ups and design (hackathons, design thinking) in order to rapidly explore ways in which to improve the city. This is hot on the heels of Reinvent NYC.GOV and NYC Big Apps, both of which make heavy use of existing data sets and APIs.
From August 3rd to October 16th, the BMW Guggenheim Lab will be in New York exploring the theme Comfronting Comfort which examines, "notions of individual and collective comfort and the urgent need for environmental and social responsibility." The lab is a six year project, running on two year cycles in which one theme is explored across nine cities, so in another two years the lab will be back in New York with a new theme. The longer-term vision and cyclical nature of the project is intriguing and will hopefully produce some meaningful and innovative solutions to current problems.