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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The challenges of our time in the city _Sakia Sassen at Venice Biennale

Some reflections with sociologist Saskia Sassen on the increasing political agency of urban space in global cities and the decline of the nation-state: Sassen’s lecture last month was entitled When the fundamental challenges of our time materialize in the city. In an overflowing lecture hall, she accompanied us on a journey through the different places and passages of her research on the “state of things” in urban and global sociology. In the aftermath of the events taking place around the world, this was an opportunity to explore her thinking on the growing political content of the actions undertaken in the urban space of global cities in relation to declining politics in the nation-state. An interview from Venice by Claudia Faraone on Domus

Claudia Faraone: Starting from your earlier reflections on globalization, we notice an evolution from the materiality of the global processes at a city scale, to a smaller and activ(ist) scale, that of cities’ public spaces. It seems a quite logical shift, assuming that globalization has reduced the powers of the nations through the disintegration of borders (both material and not), re-producing the conflict, once internationally produced, inside the city. In sum, inducing an urban conflict. Is it in those cities where critical mass has accumulated, and significant actions and movements have been enacted, that politics plays out nowadays?
Saskia Sassen:
 Yes, that is how I see this shift, though from the beginning I have argued that the growing concentrations of capital power in global cities also brought with them added meaning to the struggles against gentrification, for the rights of immigrants, against police brutality. The local struggles taking place at the level of a block or a neighborhood or a square were in my view global struggles…the making of a globality constituted through very localized issues, fought locally, often understood locally but which recurred in all globalizing cities…Today’s street struggles and demonstrations have a similar capacity to transform specific local grievances into a global political movement, no matter the sharp differences in each of these societies. All these struggles are about the profound social injustice in our societies—whether in Egypt, Syria or then US and Spain.

When you talk about “open-source” in respect to urbanism, especially in Smart-Cities critics, it seems there is a double use and meaning of it, very stimulating. On one hand, open-source technology is the tool to get within a network of people and thinking, where cities are both like stages, theatres of events, and symbols of people or media’s imaginary. On the other hand, the term “open-source” is used to name a way of making urbanism, in which inhabitants participate of the “making” of the city in which urbanism is being considered as a political practice. Would you share this interpretation? Could we say then that the “open-source urbanism” will be something in-between? Trying to put together the incompleteness and indeterminacy of the city, always changing and transforming through its actors (not always the inhabitants) and these latter. 
Yes, I think your list of cases and examples is good…it gets at some of this. But I think in my own research I am more interested in developing/discovering that in-between space, and yes, you said it right that incompleteness and indeterminacy of the city. It will take practical and technical knowledge and it will take art!

Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York and co-director of its Committee on Global Thought.

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