7 Billion Urbanists: Urbanism in the digital age: towards the contributory city?

7 Billion Urbanists: Urbanism in the digital age: towards the contributory city?

Intelligent city, equipped city, augmented city
For architects and urban planners discourses around the city of the future brought about by the Smart City industry seem hard to believe. How can one believe in a future of the city reduced merely to services, in a context where systems of technological connectivity have the ability to create an intelligent city? The city evolves constantly and its ontological complexity is inexhaustible. Reducing the city to just a system in which more and more services are present constitutes a double bind.

First, this approach does not help rethink the basics of 21st century urban organisations. Up to now, this ‘smart’ city is researched solely in the light of a superficial optimisation of dysfunctional urban systems, as these systems were conceived long before environmental awareness and the Internet revolution. Furthermore, improving quality of life in the city through the exponential increase of digital services for the city’s passive consumers flies in the face of certain recent sociological developments that encourage active citizenship ; citizens as creators of their own services rather than paid-for services that create exclusion. Faced with these facts, how can we find a suitable formula that would articulate the different expertise, create a communal and human sense and go beyond specialisation?

Urbanism needs an update
New elements can now serve as a remedy for the current state of affairs. Human societies are today experiencing a deep transformation defined by some as “the digital metamorphosis”(1). The disruptive aspect 1 of this metamorphosis profoundly affects political, economic and social organisations. Meanwhile, the proliferation of tablets and Smartphones generates new possibilities of engaging civil society at every moment of the day and night. They can be engaged in all sorts of activities that used to be closed to the public. This also generates quantities of data for which we cannot yet imagine the terms of use(2). The issue is now not the digital city but the city within the digital age. Therefore, how can the knowledge of urban developers meet the hybrid contemporary world; a world whose physical and digital dimensions are so intertwined? How can we bring quality and sustainable benefits to the city using the dialogue and solutions discusses in these encounters? How can businesses benefit also so that their solutions produce greater public interest?

The aim is to take advantage of these new technologies to create crossover models and foster synergies in fields where compartmentalisation, isolation and energy waste prevail. This requires cultural change, establishing new alliances, creating concepts that are relevant and full of life, as well as the development of appropriate tools. Urban developers must fully acknowledge the digital metamorphosis. The impact of the digital in architecture and urban planning is often reduced to the role of improving the rendering tools of a project. Yet beyond the ability to modify plans more easily or to produce more and more realistic perspectives, what they need to see more acutely is that these tools are connected in every way and they articulate the micro-local and the global. Buildings, objects and people relate through modes that change ways of living, working and learning. The apartments of self-employed workers question the office space; MOOC questions 3 the schoolroom, telemedicine requires us to rethink retirement homes. As a development project to create more liveable cities, the complex challenge is to articulate these transforming elements within buildings, for both their internal and territorial configuration.

Progress has been made with for example, the transition from rigid master-plans to guide plans are at work. These advances are pertinent but they are still infrequent and operate at a small scale. To regain control over a new urban world that seems hard to grasp, urban planners, architects and developers could update their concepts and
renew their practice in order to integrate contemporary social and technical innovations. This could be done specifically by working with the public to create collaborative working conditions, from the conception phase of the project to its completion.

Into Practice: the contributory city and collective urbanism
More than ever urban developers now have the ability to give coherence and meaning to urban territories that are subject to contradictory constraints. This will not happen by remaining indifferent to the digitalisation of the world. On the contrary, it is through the analysis and interaction with digitalisation that we will be able to augment
the vitality of territories and increase people and organisations’ ability to realise projects. New alliances between politicians, industries, residents, practitioners and researchers can and must accompany this change. The world of research fosters these approaches in depth just like the “Futuring Cities” initiative brought by the Mines
Télécom Institute in which we participated. “Futuring Cities” is a prime example of a project that demonstrates the ability to bring together public interest, technological innovations, industry and urban territories. Besides, our practice takes place via two directions:
 
The first direction is cultural. It is linked to the “deliberative imperative”(4) (l’impératif délibératif) that has increasingly developed in the last few years within but also outside the digital realm. This direction faces a certain exhaustion of participative democracy, notably in discussions with uncertain outcomes along with the persistent crisis of representative democracy. Here, it seems that the digital possesses a conceptual and practical vitality, which can potentially unblock pre-established orders. In the context of a political transformation, which operates through ‘doing’, openness, and the transparency of the decision process, collaborative practices and open innovations are put forth. In the last few years, we have developed strategies to research the conception of cities and its potential synergies by looking into the concrete utopias of the pioneers of Internet and free software.(5) This resulted in the creation of the UFO start-up, dedicated to the making of digital tools that materialise this vision.(6)
The second direction is epistemological. The goal is of course not to simply import and apply the concepts and practices of the digital, but rather to appropriate them and have them as a conceptual framework to rethink the city and its inhabitants. We now need to update our understanding of the city. The city is a plural and heterogeneous object, composed of urban assemblages of human and non-human agents arranged in every possible combination, together with infrastructures and information. These assemblages take many different forms, which can become productive (the emergence of collective projects, exchanges) or destructive (a tendency of individuals to recline on themselves). The resilience of a city is a precious quality in our current age of uncertainty. This resilience will depend on the diversity of the assemblages, their ability to renew themselves and give power to the city inhabitants and innovation; in the prospect of creating urban spaces for collective individuation.(7) We believe that the emergence of such places requires new ways of thinking urban planning.
 
From the digital to the city: swarm intelligence, agility and neutrality
Our architectural and urban practice has often been linked to technology through projects such as Orange Labs as well as many urban planning projects for web businesses. Creating a technological start-up to initiate our own urban projectsallowed us to have an intimate understanding of the digital. Through open access, as
well as our collaboration with one of the most important video game editors(8), we selected three main principles that are originally from the digital world: swarm intelligence, agile development, neutrality of networks. We offer to translate these three principles into the physical world through the concept of the contributory city. Swarm intelligence presupposes that a group of autonomous individual behaviours can contribute to sustaining the vitality of a global and common order. The change from the Smart City to the city of intelligences entails getting closer to the notion of empowerment. The goal is not to change roles but rather to sustain a more open articulation of eachother’s skills. Digital tools are transversal; these types of innovations affect practices. The challenge is to succeed in integrating the disruptive quality of the digital in processes and urban landscapes that are constrained by time and legal frameworks.
 
Agile developments replace linear strategies and iterations with interactive blocks of coding that are semi-autonomous and infinitely reconfigurable. We translate these characteristics in urban form through a new methodology we developed called flexible urban design. Interactive and shareable digital renderings as well as fractal geometry are an integral part of this way of making projects.
 
Digital network neutrality ensures that “telecommunication operators do not devalue the communication networks of its users but simply remain the transmitters of information. This principle allows all users, no matter what their resources are to access the same network in its entirety” (9). By transposing this principle to urbanism, the goal is to guaranty that certain spaces of the city remain undetermined and opened to innovation. For cities the key concept can be termed innovation through assemblage. This entails securing architectural urban spaces that welcome a combination of social and/or technical programmes. These spaces can transform in a singular and temporal manner. They are temporary autonomous zones(10) that will augment the creativity and resilience of a territory.
 
The methods and tools developed by UFO and applied by R+P(11) have already been put into practice in places such as Rennes, Montpellier, Evreux and Helsinki. We are now researching with the city of Ivry the conditions and possibilities of installing an interactive map that will allow civil society and other participators to partake in the development of the Confluences project.
 
Conclusion
Saskia Sassen notes that the city of the future model proposed by industrialists that promote the Smart City “misses this opportunity to urbanize the technologies they mobilize, and futilely seeks to eliminate incompleteness.”  In line with Sassen, we defend the idea of the integration of technical systems by civil society. This integration is a democratic issue, which gives the ability to fully experience the complexity and quality of the urban. If they accept to de-centre their role through collaborative and open practices that stem from digital culture, urban developers will have a key role to play in creating a common horizon for the city of the future.
 
Clément Marquet Philosopher, SES Telecom ParisTech Department, Nancy Ottaviano architect, PhD students in Urbanin Planning, LAALAVUE UMR 7218 CNRS, Alain Renk Architect and Urban Planner, City Adviser for the MinesTélécom City institute, founder of UFO and R+P.
 
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  1. Jutand F. (dir.), La Métamorphose Numérique, Editions Alternatives, Paris, 2013
  2. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/20140620/news/ctbigdatachicago2014062... (accessed on: 29/06/2014)
  3. Massive Open Online Course, open source courses that allow participants to follow an education viathe web.
  4. Blondiaux L., Sintomer Y., « L'impératif délibératif », Rue Descartes 1/ 2009 (n° 63), p. 2838
  5. Broca S., Utopie du logiciel libre, Éditions du Passager Clandestin, Paris, 2013, p19: “Concrete utopia is [...] closely related to the present, in its three dimensions. As a critic, it highlights aspects of the social world that are all the more unacceptable in that they are not irremediable. As a set of practices, concrete utopia is embodied in actions and movements. As a positive vision, it shows the aspirations of a specific time.”
  6. For more details view our UnliåmitedCities app: http://unlimitedcities.org/ as well as analyses by Ottaviano N., 2014, “Villes Sans Limite : Rouages d’un dispositif d’innovation” Actes du colloque 01Design9, Europia, Lille, pp.99114.
  7. Ars Industrialis, Stiegler B., Réenchenter le monde, la valeur esprit contre le populisme industriel, Champs, Essais, 2006.
  8. UBISOFT, French firm created in 1986, currently a world leader in the video game market.
  9. https://www.laquadrature.net/fr/neutralite_du_Net (accesed on 30/06/14)
  10. Hackim B., Zone d'autonomie temporaire, TAZ, Éditions de l'Éclat, [1985] 1997.
  11. R+P agence d’architecture et d’urbanisme http://www.rparchitects.org

Article by 7 Billion Urbanists 
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