Reprogramming the City:
Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure


Now that the media and blogging community has had first dibs on covering my latest project, it’s time to talk about it here.

Reprogramming The City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure is a global overview of ways in which existing urban infrastructure is being re-imagined, re-purposed and re-invented to do more in the city. It’s a collection of ideas of how cities can do more with the structures and systems they already have. The exhibition is on at Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space Gallery until September 29, 2013.

The exhibition is an illustration of my belief that the city holds a vast amount of untapped ability. The structures, surfaces, objects and systems that underpin its daily operations have the potential to do more, to perform an alternate function, or assume an entirely new role in the mechanism of the city.

Reprogramming The City explores a new paradigm of urban creativity and resourcefulness that treats the hardware of the city as a platform of opportunity, and infrastructure not as the end result of a previous creative process, but the beginning of a new one.

Light Therapy from Umea, Sweden: Repurposing the city's bus stops as light therapy stations.
Light Therapy from Umea, Sweden: Repurposing the city’s bus stops as light therapy stations.

Reprogramming the City is a collection of some of the best ideas I’ve found in cities around the world that apply resourceful strategies to the existing physical assets of the city. The projects highlighted in Reprogramming the City go beyond being just aesthetic improvements for the city – they represent a new innovative and resourceful approach, transforming the existing physical assets of the city into vehicles to benefit public health, movement, communication, social cohesion and environmental concerns.

UTEC Water Billboard from Lima, Peru: harvesting the air's humidity for clean drinking water in one of the world's most arid cities.
UTEC Water Billboard from Lima, Peru: harvesting the air’s humidity for clean drinking water.

The notion of reprogramming our relationship with the city, and the role design in the city, has always been at the center of the urban design projects I’ve created and directed over the years. A couple years ago I began a wide-ranging research project exploring how a new spirit of resourcefulness was emerging in cities everywhere. This exhibition is the first of many projects that will come out of my ongoing research in this field.

Reprogramming the City isn’t only a display of projects from other cities, it is also a lab of sorts for new prototypes for reprogramming existing urban assets. City Tickets by Mayo Nissen (pictured at right, below) is one such prototyped project being launched in the exhibition. The City of Boston provided a Multispace Parking Pay Machine for Nissen to literally reprogram to provide a model for how the machines could serve an additional function in the city beyond just dispensing units of time for parking.

City Tickets (far right) and idea station for ideas for future parking meter use.

Nissen’s reprogrammed parking pay machine now integrates with the city’s 311 incident/fault reporting system, offering the public an opportunity to print out a list of incidents or faults in the city that have been reported in the area surrounding the machine (broken street lights, potholes in need of repair), and a real-time response from the city as to how the incidents are being responded to. Users can also print out a form for them to submit a new incident or fault report, or simply offer a suggestion for improvements for the area. To the side of the City Tickets prototype is an area for visitors to the gallery to submit their own ideas for what future parking pay machines could do, or be, in the city.

Visitors with a keen eye will realize there are more assets within the exhibition from the City of Boston than just the parking machine. It was very important to me when designing the show that the exhibition be of the city and not just about the city. All display structures, signage and freestanding images are actual street signs, posts, foundations and assorted physical materials provided directly by the City of Boston’s operations department. When visitors are done seeing the displays in the first section of the exhibition, turn around and look behind you. The building blocks of the exhibition – particularly the material on which the images are mounted – then become clear:

Looking behind the first section of the exhibition, printed on Boston street signs.

And all information panels for each item on display are printed directly on repurposed street signs:

The first group of info panels, printed on Boston street signs.

Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure is on view at the Boston Society of Architects BSA Space Gallery, 290 Congress Street, Boston, until September 29, 2013. More information can be found here.

Reprogramming Traffic Lights in Italy

As part of my work with Venice’s neighboring city of Jesolo, Italy, a set of traffic lights are being reprogrammed to become an interactive game of tic tac toe that the public can play.




The city of Jesolo asked me to create a design strategy and serve as design director for implementing it through the city’s public design projects.

Working with a team of students from London’s Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design and an assembled team of Italian and international designers, architects and artists, Made of Jesolo worked with three of the city’s underutilized public spaces, the city’s functional urban materials, and the skill sets of local businesspeople, tradespeople, and municipal crews to create three new projects, made in Jesolo, and Made of Jesolo.

Traffic Lights Creative team: Varvara Guljajeva, Radha Mistry, Ilias Michopoulos, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Marie Durand Yamamoto

Reprogramming The City


This June, my exhibition Reprogramming The City opens at the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space gallery.

A combination of exhibition, projects and events, Reprogramming The City will explore ways in which existing urban infrastructure is being re-purposed, reused and reinvented in cities around the world to change or increase its functionality in cities, and enhance the functionality of cities themselves. The sub-theme of the exhibition, opportunities for urban infrastructure, will carry through into other areas of activity, including exhibited proposals inviting consideration of even more adventurous reuse and re-purposing initiatives of existing urban material stock in Boston and other cities, as well as workshops to generate more ideas.

Reprogramming The City and its related public projects and events will offer unique perspectives on how the existing hardware of the city can be reprogrammed to increase its functionality by employing a new “software” of imagination and resourcefulness.  It is about designing, developing and creating with the city, rather than for it.

Whether it is Edge Design Institute’s project to increase public seating and greenery in ultra-dense Hong Kong by designing a new structure to be installed on top of a wide staircase (title image of this post), or the much-celebrated “Low Line” concept to transform a disused NYC Lower East Side trolly terminal into an underground park (image below), there is a shift in the way cities are viewing their existing physical terrain. Urban objects, structures and areas are no longer seen as the end result of a previous creative process, the beginning of new ones – platforms for possibility.


The reuse and re-purposing of existing infrastructure of urban materials and infrastructure is something I have worked with for a long time, from hands-on design projects such as Made of Jesolo to research vehicles The Urban Guide for Alternate Use, and plenty of writing, lectures and workshops along the way.


Reprogramming The City takes my personal interest and investigation and opens it to an international scale, using documentation from my time in various cities and network of practitioners, to new research and discoveries of what is happening everywhere else. The journey – and work – has only just begun, so come back often or subscribe for updates or previews of work, people and cities I discover and work with along the way.

And of course, if you are in or near Boston in June 2013, please come along – exact dates and event details will be communicated as soon as they are confirmed.

The Potential of Platforms

"Find other rooms which exist in the space." - Yoko Ono, Serpentine Gallery, London 2012
“Find other rooms which exist in the space.” – Yoko Ono, Serpentine Gallery, London 2012

I’m often asked for my opinion or direct assistance to increase engagement in cities and their spaces or services, or even across a company’s existing offering. Frequently, the thing being discussed is quantified as a “product”, a fixed end result of the effort. There’s nothing wrong with the word in itself – shipping product is an attractive notion, but it is limiting. But my first advice is that there is always more value in thinking about creating platforms instead of products.

Products have a finite ability to engage. Platforms are much more resourceful, agile and dynamic. Products tend to be the end result of a creative process. Platforms are more often the beginning of another one. If we embrace areas and services of the city – and the city itself – as a platform instead of a fixed product, and design as catalyst for platforms open to development after the designer steps away, our future possibilities for engagement are wide open.

People Want Platforms
There are plenty of examples of opportunities that open up once products are reconsidered as platforms. Apple’s iOS was never originally intended to be a platform at all. When the original iPhone was released in 2007, Apple wouldn’t allow independent developers to create native applications for the device. If people wanted custom apps, said Apple, they could be created as Web apps and accessed on the Web using Safari, but that there was “no need” for developers to create applications beyond what was shipped with the phone. Five years later, the need and desire among consumers and developers for the iPhone and its OS to be a platform and not a standalone product is clear with 1 million third party applications developed so far, producing $4.9 Billion in revenue for the company in 2012 alone.

We can find parables today in design hacking, urban intervention, street art, and many other examples of DIY actions being taken to transform a fixed environment into a platform for independent development.

Going a bit further into the story of the iPhone as a platform, a lesson can be found that is applicable far outside the tech world. When the original “iPhone OS” was first introduced with the iPhone, developers looked under the hood and found Unix. Beneath the new exterior was a familiar, common interior language which gave developers the intellectual platform to start developing their own apps. As noted, Apple at first refused to allow them into the system, so the early developers jailbroke their phones to allow their own custom applications to run on it. We can find parables today in design hacking, urban intervention, street art, and many other examples of DIY actions being taken to transform a fixed environment into a platform for independent development.

Platforms turn users into developers
A platform mentality enables independent development at a much more agile, micro scale as well. Twitter, for example, was launched with few of the engagement features we now consider to be its core functions: #hashtags, @replies, and retweets were developed by users organically as the service grew. This user-developed functionality bakes-in value as features aren’t rolled out to users, but created by users during use of the service.

Discussions are shifting from “what’s your product”, to “what’s your platform?”

Even outside of technology, or perhaps especially outside of it, embracing a platform mentality can be equally rewarding. The popular DIY design / hacking activities at the heart of the “Ikea Hacker” trend that reached critical mass a couple years ago transformed Ikea in many people’s eyes from a retailer of defined projects to a platform for personal design possibilities. By taking one or more products and assembling them based upon personal needs and preference instead of according to the set instructions, the company’s product line became a platform of opportunity.

As part of my longtime working with and writing about design hacking, I spent a lot of time researching and exhibiting Ikea Hacks, which lead to me being invited to Oslo, Norway several years ago to give a talk about Ikea Hacking at one of the company’s get togethers. After my talk, I met some Ikea execs from the mothership in Sweden, and asked them their thoughts on Ikea Hacking. “We know about it,” said one executive, “we’re just watching and enjoying.”

In the few years since, open approaches to urban planning, tactical urbanism, open design, 3D printing, hackerspaces, open source hardware, and many other cultural and creative developments have shown what a platform-based mentality can have on design, cities, space and consumer engagement. It’s an exciting time, and a long-overdue moment when discussions are shifting from “what’s your product”, to “what’s your platform?”

New Collaboration with MIT CoLab: #oneidea to improve functional city space

My fascination with functional, unsung urban areas and infrastructure is well known. From alleyways to empty lots, concrete corners and utilitarian structures, these anonymous elements of the urban landscape hold vast potential to improve our shared urban landscape. They are the ubiquitous elements of the city we pass and interact with every day, and while they are rarely at the forefront on our attention, I believe that everyone has at least one idea for how they could be improved or put to better use. This is the chance for everyone’s #oneidea to be shared.

MIT CoLab’s #citychat series has been an inspiring chronicle of urban projects and thinking. So it is a great pleasure to work with them to create, as they say, “citychat 2.0” with #oneidea. As MIT CoLab describes the project:

#oneidea is 24-hour Twitter chat in which anyone can offer a single idea for how our cities’ unsung but ubiquitous functional public spaces could be made better places. Over the course of 24 hours, a global visual idea exchange will take place. At the beginning of the 24-hour session, an image will be shown of an urban space and a description of its current use and context. Over the following 24 hours, using the hashtag #oneidea, participants are encouraged to continue the exchange, offering their one idea of how the space could be made better for either its specific use and context, or an idea for how that general type of space could be improved in cities throughout the world.

At the start of the session at 12.00 EST (17.00 GMT) on 5 December, an image of a selected space will be tweeted by myself @scottburnham and @MITCoLab with the hashtag #oneidea. Over the next 24 hours, everyone is invited to share their ideas for the space using the #oneidea hashtag. Ideas can be location-specific to the original image, or more general ideas for how similar areas or objects could be put to better use in every city.

UrfunLab Surat

With a participating audience of designers, architects, and urban enthusiasts following along, people can also take the source image and mock up visuals of their ideas, moodboard them, or share any visual suggestions with the global audience. At the conclusion of the 24-hour session, the original image and all submitted ideas will be posted on the MIT CoLab site, documenting the range of ideas that can be produced in one day, #oneidea at a time, to make the functional spaces of our cities better places.

The seed for the #oneidea initiative was planted while I was having coffee with MIT CoLab’s Alexa Mills, who spoke of her frustrations with the alley her home opens into in Boston. I had some ideas on how to make it better, as did she. But for me, problems are best addressed when they become platforms for idea generation. #oneidea is that platform.

The inaugural space for #oneidea generation will be Boston Alley 424 (above). As Alexa says of her alley:

Every morning I open my door to Public Alley 424. This alley is where cleaners and cooks start their shifts; where rich people park their cars for $400 a month; where college students come and go from their deteriorating apartments; where twice a week a parade of waste pickers sift through trash for valuables before the garbage trucks lumber through; where repairmen of all sorts exchange quick wits before going in to fix whatever is broken; and where rats run amok. Yet people almost never interact in the alley and no one tries to beautify the space. Almost no one even keeps a plant there.

Alexa’s alley is just one of countless overlooked spaces in cities everywhere that hold more value than they currently show. Please join the #oneidea twitter chat on 5 December to take part in a global idea sharing for how to make such ubiquitous urban spaces better.

(For updates and future #oneidea announcements, be sure to follow @scottburnham and/or @MITCoLab)

Reuse and Repurposing of Existing City Materials for New Use: Jesolo, Italy

“…in a climate of aging infrastructure and limited resources.”

These words, at the tail end of an invitation to speak about design challenges facing cities today, reminded me that I haven’t written much about my recent work in Jesolo, Italy (Venice’s neighboring city), which explores new ways of working with limited urban resources, and is part of a larger series of resourceful design strategies for cities I’m developing.

Jesolo, Italy

The language of limitation has been shaping our  dialogue for several years. This is not a bad thing. While there is certain and saddening pain felt by many at the financial end of this “age of austerity” we are told we now live within, there are also positive outcomes to be found. Resourcefulness has returned to our collective consciousness. We are seeing tremendous growth in sharing schemes, recycling, upcycling, design/space/system hacking and DIY and tactical urbanism – shortcomings resulting from either inadequate resources or attention paid are being addressed by creative initiatives to make do with less, inspired at times by ideological preference and at other times by personal necessity.

At the municipal level, cities are experiencing the shame shortcomings felt elsewhere. Yet most cities do not respond in the same agile and resourceful ways that individuals do when faced with the challenge of limitation. Often, this is simply an issue of size. Agility doesn’t scale well. But when the components of the urban machine are broken down, agile and resourceful strategies can be applied within the mechanics to nurture creativity within constraints. This was the approach I took in Jesolo.

As part of EUPA, an EU initiative to explore cultural regeneration and designer and artistic collaborations across multiple cities, the city of Jesolo wanted to enhance some of its public areas to improve the daily experience of its citizens and its sizable summer resident population. The platform was there, the will and enthusiasm were strong, but the funds and resources were light.

The beginning of the journey – Jesolo city material storage yard

Jesolo asked me to come in to create a strategy and creative direction with these components, and fiscal constraints, in mind. The result was a project which uses the existing functional stock of the city, from lamp posts to traffic lights, as the source material for new public designs. The resulting works, to be installed in 2013, are not only Made In Jesolo, but, as the project title says, “Made Of Jesolo”.

Made of Jesolo
At the edge of almost every city a vast storage space can be found, brimming with urban materials, objects and assorted ephemera from its streets; some new, some to be repaired, some in limbo awaiting disposal. These materials are the building blocks of the city – the working stock of city crews, prescribed for the most fundamental works, and services in the city. The starting point for Jesolo began by appreciating the potential of these materials beyond their traditional function. I asked the city to take a new view of their existing stock, beginning with my two favorite words: what if these basic urban materials were repurposed as source material for teams of architects, artists and designers to use as the base material for their own creations in the city?

Working with a team of students from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and a selection of Italian and international artists and designers, the premise was put to the test. Three project teams were given the coordinates of public areas that needed redevelopment and enhancement, and a catalogued image list of the existing stock materials stored by the city for their use.

Below is a sample of work resulting from creative use of the raw materials in storage, and mid-stage renderings of their suggested reuse:

Before: Removed street lights
After: PLAY.A Lamps, an interactive display for public gaming with smart phones by Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva
Before: traffic lights awaiting disposal
After: PLAY.A Lights by Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva
Before: Recovered lamp posts and lighting poles
After: Pipe City, a musical, misting area by Cristina Favretto, Alexander Augustus, Seung Young Lee, Manuel Di Rita, Isabella Mara
Before: Discarded awnings, beach umbrellas
After: Ombra Sopra, public seating installation by Lizon Tijus, Margherita Poggiali, Leticia Lozano, Laura Mergoni

Beyond the fiscal and environmental benefits of reusing and repurposing existing urban materials, there is a pragmatic efficiency to tapping into the city’s material system to delivery design projects. The material stock already exists in the city’s warehouses and periphery storage lots, catalogued and entered into a system of easy retrieval and use, allowing greater efficiency, agility and economy in material sourcing than most projects.

The project also makes use of a tremendous asset held by cities that is often underutilized – the skill sets of the municipal work crews. Municipal employees and city work crews posses a vast amount of skill and knowledge of working with these materials, from supplier relationships to physical use and engineering. Often, these skills are called upon only to execute the most functional application of the materials.

In Jesolo, the designers and artists were instructed to create specifications and installation instructions that could be carried out by the existing city work crews to harness their extensive material knowledge and skills into creative application of the materials in the city. A key moment of urban resourcefulness comes when all urban assets – from materials to material skills – are utilized in the delivery of projects.

New relationships born from resourceful strategies do not only benefit the physicality and economics of the project itself however. An additional goal of the project is to shift the public’s awareness and appreciation of the potential that exists in the functional street elements that surround them each day.

The ubiquity of our surrounding urban components used in their basic state has rendered them almost invisible in our daily lives. To come across exceptional uses of these materials in the city begins to shift our dialogue with the physical ephemera of the city. If the potential for paving stones, lights, posts and fences are realized in exceptional ways in one location, then these same elements everywhere in the city are empowered to possess the possibility of their potential in the eyes of the residents. There is nothing more powerful than an idea, and if we can begin to shift the functional aspects of the city into containers of ideas of possibilities – moments that ask people not to think in terms of what is, but instead, “what if…” – the collective creative potential of the city increases accordingly.

The Jesolo project strategy is just one of many ways in which we can tap into the tremendous pools of material resources and skills that exist in cities in new ways. By employing agile and resourceful approaches to what already exists in our urban environments, alternate uses of the existing urban allows tremendous creativity within times of constraint.

Project Credits

EU-PA is a creative experiment in culture-led urban regeneration that is taking place in four European cities with four partnering organizations: Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, London, England; KIBLA, Maribor; Slovenia; CIANT, Prague, Czech Republic; and The Municipality of Jesolo, Jesolo, Italy. Jesolo-specific credits are:

  • Project Concept and Creative Director:  Scott Burnham
  • Design and artistic interventions: Radha Mistry, Diego Sepulveda-Herrera, Varvara Guljajeva, Cristina Favretto, Alexander Augustus, Seung Young Lee, Manuel Di Rita, Isabella Mara, Lizon Tijus, Margherita Poggiali, Leticia Lozano, Laura Mergoni
  • Production: City of Jesolo, Italy
  • Production management: Marco Demitri
  • Project critics: Tricia Austin, Andrej Bolesla, Mirjana Rukavina, Dejan Pestotnik

Work on Made of Jesolo continues, with installation slated for summer 2013.

Private vs Public: Space, Sharing, Trust and Design – A Talk at Social Cities Amsterdam

Private-Public Space conditions in San Francisco; image by Rebar

Tension between the private and public realm was a recurring component of last autumn’s news, as the users of public space and the stewards of those spaces, both private and municipal, clashed during the Occupy protests. The protests themselves bore the marks of tense private vs public realities, given the immense and disproportionate stores of wealth in private hands vs the wealth and resources the public has access to through earning potential or provided services.

On Wednesday, 15 February as a pre-conference event for the Social Cities of Tomorrow Conference in Amsterdam, I will be introducing an evening’s exploration of the tensions in private vs public space and services and the role design can play in creating trust instead of tension in these contexts. Joining me will be Premsela’s Tim Vermeulen, Michiel de Lange, co-founder of The Mobile City and a new media lecturer at Utrecht University; and Henry Mentink, co-founder of MyWheels. The evening will also be the public launch for the current issue of the Premsela’s Trust Design and Volume Magazine publication series: Public Trust.

I have spent the previous few months researching and working with the relationships between private and public space and services and the correlating connections with trust and design in these areas. Anyone who has gone through a security screening when walking off of the public street to enter a private, ‘secure’ building has experienced the tension that comes when passing through this protective membrane between the public and the private.

In the issue (at left), which I edited and wrote along with some esteemed collaborators, I explore how the rise of the sharing economy has the potential to build trust in a fragmented society and increase, as Robert Putnam termed it, society’s social capital. The first of my articles, The Publicization of Trust explores the breakdown of trust we’ve experienced in political, product, and economic circles, and the ways in which our online behavior and new online systems have enabled new methods of sharing and trust to be created to help diffuse and redress the imbalance. It will be excerpted on this blog soon.

The second essay I wrote for the issue, Public Private Tensions, deals more explicitly with the tensions between private and public space in the city. While projects such as Rebar’s Commonspace intervenes superbly with the Privately Owned Public Spaces of San Francisco to create a balance between the interests of the public and the private owners of the spaces, such balance, as the Occupy protests showed, does not always exist.

That’s a problem, as it is balance – equal and shared mutual interest and its resulting benefit – that builds trust between the private and the public. Tensions between the private and the public are born from an imbalance in these areas – and imbalanced environments are barren of trust. As an opinion piece in the New York Times observed, the Occupy protests brought not only the imbalance of private wealth and public assets into focus, but also “the continued inadequacy of the laws regarding privately owned public spaces”.

Zuccotti Park has become synonymous with both the Occupy movement and the curious hybrid blend of privately owned public spaces promulgating in cities worldwide. Its brief history contains the history of the transference from public to private as well – originally known as Liberty Park, its owners changed the name in honor of one of its chairmen, John E. Zuccotti. Beyond the irony of a park once known as Liberty Park being infamous for a police crackdown on public protest, the longer history of private-public spaces in the city contains equal swaps of public asset for private interest.

Police manning Zuccotti Park. Photo by Seema Krishnakumar, Creative Commons License.

Jerold Kayden, professor and co-chair of the Department of Urban Planning at Harvard University notes that until as recently as 1975, New York’s zoning code seemed to treat public space as a bargaining chip for developers: “…the zoning code offered a simple exchange: one square foot of vacant space at the base of a building for ten square feet of bonus floor area to rent or sell. No mention was made of what to put in the space. The result was a proliferation of forbidding empty places throughout Manhattan.”

The outcome of decades of seemingly disproportionate exchanges with little stipulation for creating benefits for the public is addressed by Kayden in his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, a thorough study of over five hundred of the city’s private-public spaces. Kayden found that the public benefit of these spaces was significantly disproportional to the benefits enjoyed by developers in the exchange of public space for increased building rights.

In effect, the tensions over the disproportionate economics in shared society were being played out in spatial representations of a disproportionate relationship between public benefit and private interests.

In addition to the lopsided exchanges of public space for increased building rights, the impact these ‘forbidding, empty places’ have on the surrounding communities are larger than just their visual character. As New York urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin says, “The public realm is what we own and control … the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows.”

With the imbalance in these spaces, their existence as containers of an ambiguous set of rights and relationships between the public and its space – and a history of being created for the public only to increase private interests – extends similar confused priorities into the wider social realm, and erodes the hopes of trust between public and private realms even further. If our social capital is reliant upon our social association, then surely the character and conduct of our public social spaces play a fundamental role in the building of social capital, and its ultimate end product, social trust.