Open Source Urbanism

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University,proposes that urbanizing technology can can allow people to better “talk back” to cities and implement user-driven change. This in contrast to the drive for “smart cities” from many global mega-companies which are trying to control everything – usually with their proprietary technology – she suggests that these control fantasies will lead to  more rapid obsolescence than a more open sourced version which is built form the bottom up similar to open source software.  An op-ed from New York by Saskia Sassen from domus

Where change is perceptible, rapid change makes change itself even more visible. Velocity becomes a concrete condition, not just a measure of speed. Rapid change in cities has highly legible moments—the material reality of buildings, transport systems, re-placements of modest shops with luxury shops and of modes middle-classes with the rich professional class, a bike-path where there was none—and they can be both good and not so good. Further, when rapid transformation happens simultaneously in several cities with at least some comparable conditions, it also makes visible how diverse the spatial outcomes can be even when the underlying dynamics might be quite similar.

All of this brings to the fore the differing degrees of openness of cities. I prefer thinking of this as the incompleteness of cities, which means that they can constantly be remade, for better or for worse. It is this incompleteness that has allowed some of the world’s great old cities to outlast kingdoms, empires, nation-states and powerful firms.

Let me take the imagery of incompleteness further. Powerful actors can remake cities in their image. But cities talk back. They do not take it sitting. Sometimes it may take decades, and sometimes it is immediate—see for instance the thousands of Stuttgart’s residents who staged protests in August 2010 to stop the demolition of part of their old train station and the felling of hundreds of 200-year-old trees in the Schlossgarten to build a new high-speed transit hub. They succeeded. Yes, it is only part of the station and none of this is going to turn back the powerful forces of gentrification there. But it is a way in which the city can talk back.

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.

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Web-Based Participatory Research

A listing of some of the resources and researching live information gathering for urban dynamics from [polis] Kind of like crowd-soucing without the crowd?

The Internet is being used in exciting ways toward participatory research on cities. Beyond facilitating collaboration between academics, it is widely expanding the range of participants. Approaches include decentralized fieldwork, interactive microstudies and map-based data feeds. They are developing so quickly that the best way to understand them is, most likely, to participate.


Training youth mappers in Nairobi’s Mukuru settlement. Source: Map Kibera

Decentralized fieldwork includes as many people as possible, filling in data that contributes to sound policy, design, technology and other potential improvements to the quality of life in cities. Participants play an active role in expanding the research base, often taking responsibility for quadrants near their homes. These studies are similar to collective knowledge bases like Wikipedia or Wikimapia, but they address specific research questions. They are continuously updated and freely accessible online. Related initiatives include Community-Based Participatory Research (not necessarilyweb-based, but an important precursor to these ideas), Open Humanities PressMap Kibera and Sparrow Hills Ecocenter youth phenological studies.

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