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How design just got more political ... and this is just the beginning

Adam Greenfield is an anarchist, a humanist and a futurist. At this year's Picnic event he delved into the complicated issues surrounding design and ubiquitous cities. Afterwards he sat down with to translate it all back into layman's terms because in the end it is us, the laymen, who will be calling such cities home.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 02-10-2008

Picnic is Amsterdam’s annual symposium in media technology, entertainment, art and science. Adam Greenfield’s talk entitled, “The long here, the big now and other tales of the network city,” offered a fascinating glimpse into the ideas guiding the design of ubiquitous cities. Greenfield is the head of design direction for service and user-interface at Nokia.

It’s not too difficult to conceive of a world designed around embedded sensors that receive and act upon a constant flow of information; where individuals receive and transmit data; and where every wall and telegraph-pole is networked into the system.

What would life in a city networked to allow all sorts of economic, environmental and social statistics to be beamed at us at precisely the time we make decisions be like? “Turn left and you know housing prices are stable or turn right and you know there have been fifteen muggings in the last six months,” Greenfield says.

That’s a sort of people power that will affect our choices and profoundly change what it means to be urban. “Already people use hand devices to search for a restaurant after they see a film,” says Greenfield. “That’s not really that sexy or dramatic, but it is the start of something huge.”

A ubiquitous city is the industry term for a fully networked urban environment. It’s a city where embedded sensor grids, and wireless broadband infrastructure play an integral role in urban living; where regular repeated broadband base stations promise uninterrupted streaming.

Now we have NikePlus. But imagine billboards that know we are coming and flash personalized messages, maps that understand our tastes and direct us accordingly. Sounds far fetched, but cities like Seoul in South Korea are already pursuing networked systems as part of their national identity.

For designers like Greenfield, however, the story isn't about technical wizardry or self-congratulatory gushing over all the possibilities. Rather, it’s the deeper political and philosophical concerns posed by such a reality. “It sends chills down my spine,” admits Greenfield. “We have to be very careful.”

To avoid a newspeak, big brother style disaster, more awareness and a global dialogue that includes the concerns of real people is needed. Issues of control, execution and the politics of design don’t need to be prohibitively technical. In his book, “Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing,” Greenfield delves into that important area where politics, social commentary, design and technology overlap. But the debate requires more input form real people, especially as its regular people like you and me who will be inhabiting these high-tech cities.

For someone like Greenfield who is at once a humanist, a socialist and also a futurist, the delicate question isn’t whether to have ubiquitous cities, but how they should be designed. His position favours what’s called open architecture - frameworks that embrace and include rather than limit and close off – and it's a position he feels passionate about.

“To make any of this acceptable, we must design seamful not seamless systems,” Greenfield says going on to use Mac as an example of a seamless system. “In a Mac everything is designed so there are no hinges or hooks to reach into the system. This means everything is predetermined and works in a way that's inimical to the user’s desires.”

Which isn’t acceptable for a city. Mac works because it’s addressing the needs and lifestyle of a particular type of person. Mac knows its market. The challenge for networked cities is to design complex systems that afford elegant experiences. Like a Mac, the user experience needs to be polished, user-friendly and well-considered, but unlike a Mac it must be seamful.

Greenfield explains: “Everyone should be able to reach in and change the configurations of the system to suit their own needs,” he says. “The people must have a level of control and that is what I’m interested in, keeping control in the hands of the users of the city.”

From a design perspective the challenge then for what might be called information architecture is finding a progressive ground between two very conservative disciplines: namely, architecture and technical design, which despite only being 60 years old is already considered conformist.

“Somewhere in between those two professions is a community of interactive designers and many are motivated by the same humanistic concerns that I am,” says Greenfield. “They come out of the social sciences from a critical perspective and have a social constructivist position instead of a techno-determinist position.”

More than scary mumbo jumbo Greenfield’s jargon really touches on the essence of what matters here. While a techno-determinist says show me the tool and I’ll show you the culture that results from its use, a social constructionist argues that tools themselves are strongly shaped by the specific needs, desires and circumstances of the people using them. Put another way, the techno-determinist believes technology shapes not just culture but the way the mind works. The social constructionist believes that culture plays a central role in determining our choice of one technology over another.

“The truth lies somewhere in between, “ says Greenfield. “Tools to a degree do have an inherent potential and can be used in some ways better than others, but that potential is designed into them by people in a social world.”

Who then are these “in-between” people who will be designing ubiquitous cities? It’s still unclear. Greenfield is against "Starchitects" and master urban planners. He calls himself a modernist and a minimalist but agrees that the world reviles the projects that have resulted from those ideas. “I think the verdict is out on master-planned minimalist environments,” he says. “I like order and control but it’s true that people exposed to it react against it through small acts of creative sabotage like burning cars.”

Instead, he thinks a more organic approach similar to the way the Internet grew could work. “The net is built on end to end architecture and there are a very small number of rules and protocols regarding how packages are switched,” he says. “It doesn’t care what connects to it.”

Life is becoming more and more conditioned by technology and while a lot of wealthy corporations exist to ensure we play a part, no effective advocacy for the ordinary person exists. We are becoming increasingly powerless.

“What’s needed is a community of highly conscious, empathetic, human-centered designers to intervene on behalf of those of us less than thrilled about having to parry WiMAX and RFID and WLAN and GPS,” Greenfield says.

In reality that community doesn't exist yet and there are no guarantees that it ever even will. “So hang on, Greenfield says. “It's going to be a wild ride."

Adam Greenfield participated in this year's Picnic.

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