Reprogramming the City: Article Series for Boston Society of Architects

The Boston Society for Architects recently asked me to write a series of articles for them outlining strategies for “The Resourceful City” by reprogramming existing urban infrastructure to serve new urban functions. The four-part series runs this month, and the first two installments are up now.

The overall arc of the four parts is about urban resourcefulness and exploring alternative potentials for the city through the reuse and reprogramming of its existing buildings, objects and spaces instead of tearing things down and starting over again. As urban citizens, we are dealing with two realities. We have come to terms with the fact that our resources are finite, whether material, financial, or spatial. We also live in agile times – our cultural, economic and political relationships are in a constant state of flux, and often the physicality of our structures and cities are not able to respond to these shifting dynamics. Reprogramming the City introduces agile and malleable responses to a usually rigid urban environment. The existing city is the infrastructure we have inherited; it is our shared hardware. Strategies to reprogram what we already have is the software.

The four parts of the series are below:

The Resourceful City, Part 1: Reprogramming Buildings

The Resourceful City, Part 2: Reprogramming Space

+ The Resourceful City, Part 3: Reprogramming Infrastructure

+ The Resourceful City, Part 4: Reprogramming Possibilities

I hope you enjoy the series.

If you would like to keep track of my future articles or projects, please subscribe for RSS updates. Thank You.

Hacking the Kinect to Prototype New Connections In Urban Spaces

In September I was invited to participate in “Builders at Play”, a quick-hit session in Amsterdam which functioned as something of a public space hackathon, finding ways in which connected technologies can transform public space.

My starting point was something I’ve long been obsessed with – desire paths. Desire paths are the footpaths created by the public when the formal paved routes of a space don’t represent the most efficient, or desired, route between points A and B for the public, and they chose their own paths, their desired paths, as shown above. I wanted to find a way to capture the desired movement of people in a public space and use this incidental movement as a tool to enable a sense of contribution, connection and ownership between individuals and the shared spaces of the city.

Working with designer Jon Stam (centre, above) and programmer and Studio MSP guru Mattijs Kneppers (far left), we identified a space in the NDSM area of Amsterdam and set out to create a system to transform it into a platform for aesthetic narratives created by the movement of the public.

The beauty of only having a couple days to create a prototype for a project is that you instantly shift to hacking and rapid prototyping mode. So we grabbed a Kinect, some cables, a few blocks of Styrofoam, booked some time on a CNC machine, and went at it to communicate our idea. The full narrative outlining the concept and the playback system we devised for the space during night time follows. For those who want the quick walk-through of the concept, our summary presentation can be found at the bottom of this post; for an even quicker bite, here’s a video of us demoing it:

Concept Overview
We hacked the Kinect to serve as a prototype of a public camera overlooking the space, layering it with the ability to pick up a single object or colour on a visitor when they enter the space, and then remember that object and track it as it, and the person, moves through the space. If visitors to the space want to remain anonymous, they simply enter the space and walk through. If someone wants to take ownership of their movement in the space, they touch in at one of the check points with an RFID tag on their key fob, and they are given a unique colour path, which which they can draw something in the space, and then download an image of what they’ve drawn with their movement if they wish.

As the visitor walks across the space, his path leaves a trail in the grid of LED lights are embedded in the surface of the space. The next visitor to enter the space will see the trail left by the previous visitor, and other recent ones as the ghost of their travels are held by the LED lights in the pavement, each previous path fading slowly with time. The space holds a living history of its use throughout the day, and becomes a canvas for those who have ID’d themselves when they entered the space.

Night Time Use
The space holds the memory of its use at night. When dusk falls, a playback of the daily travels through the space begins, each path glowing and traffic patters growing as the timeline of the space’s use from the previous day is played back over night, as this video shows:

Through this playback of the day’s movement in the space, a relationship builds between those who use the space during the day and those who use it at night. The brightness and density of the light paths in the space at night will depend upon the traffic patterns in the space during the day – the more traffic during the day, the brighter the space will be at night. Ultimately, the normally ephemeral qualities of safety and security in the space at night become factors created and influenced by its use during the day.

For those who use the space both during the day and at night, the relationship between the two realities will form. Perhaps a few co-workers will be gathered to create some crazy shapes in the space during the day for them to enjoy as they come home that night. Or paths will be formed in circles to see if pedestrians at night will follow.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, every night, the design of the space will be different, directly correlating to the use of the space during the day, its animations, patterns and luminosity being the creation of those using the space 12 hours earlier.

Platform for Play
People are not the only thing able to be tracked in the space. Someone can place a ball on the square to be ID’d, and it will be tracked as well as it moves throughout the space. Children can enter from different entrances and invent a game where their movement become games pieces on a large urban board.

The space no longer becomes a passive area for its population, but an active participant in their daily lives, enabling creativity, connection, safety and narrative to be built during its daily use.

Platform for Data
In addition to the personal and narrative relationships enabled by use of the space, the space will generate data for use by the city. Data created by the space will be visual use patterns; data of the visual flow and use of the space.

So – there’s the outcome of an enjoyable couple of days in Amsterdam. Well, every day in Amsterdam is quite enjoyable, but these, especially so.

For the technical minded who’ve stuck with it this long, here is Mattijs’s Max/MSP map of what the Kinect was doing behind the scenes (click to enlarge):

Mattijs would like to add that his Max/MSP set-up was supplemented with CV jit.

Roadsworth Book Released

The pleasure of being asked by Roadsworth to write the introduction to the first book chronicling his work was only outdone by seeing the book itself when it arrived in the mail recently.

I’ve followed Roadsworth’s work with great interest and appreciation over the years. His sense of play and imagination in his reworking of the most functional elements of the urban ephemera – its pavement markings and signage – have drawn the sustained interest of street art lovers (and authorities) and made him one of a handful of artists who have moved the goal posts of street art and have changed public perceptions of the form.

Famously, when Roadsworth was arrested in Montreal in 2004 and brought up on 53 different charges for his work, the local authorities went big with the story. Radio shows hosted public call-ins to ask the public what the city should do with Roadsworth now that they caught him. The public response caught many by surprise. As one caller said, “What should the city do with Roadsworth? Leave him alone.” The divide between authoritative and public perceptions of street art was on full display.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Roadsworth on several occasions, and getting to know him personally over time. So when he asked me to write the introduction to what is thus far the definitive book of his work, it was an honour and a privilege. As I write in the introduction:

Roadsworth’s work plays with more than the visual language of the city; it plays with our relationship with the city. It returns us to the moment in our youth when the streets and sidewalks could hold moments of our play and humanity, before we learned that they were the domain of structure and order. His work asks questions in a streetscape of absolute instructions, and invites double-takes and smiles in areas where you’re supposed to be quiet and fall in line.

Granted, I’m partial to this book, but it is a worthy overview of his work through the years. From his earliest middle-of-the-night visual interventions of street markings to his recent commissions, along with his well-documented brushes with the law in-between, it provides a solid visual catalogue and narrative of the development of a remarkable artist.

Roadsworth (left) and I during a magazine photo shoot

You can find more information about the book, and a downloadable excerpt, from the publisher’s page here, or get a copy from Amazon here. Resisting the temptation to write an entire second overview of his work here, I’ll close as I close my introduction:

When first discovering his early work, I once joked that looking at images of his reworked street markings made me wonder if there was a supplement to my driver’s instruction manual that I had missed when I was learning the language of the street. As his work has expanded over the years to encompass so much more of the urban ephemera and our relationship with it, that missing manual would now include a vastly expanded range of images, objects and relationships that we need to learn in the city. This book could be that manual.

My thanks to Roadsworth for the invitation to contribute to the book, and to all who read and enjoy it.

Talking About Urban Futures and the Internet of Things at PICNIC, Amsterdam

On Wednesday, 14 September, I will be giving a talk and taking part in a panel discussion on the topics of Trust and the Internet of Things as part of PICNIC 2011 in Amsterdam.

The PICNIC Festival is an annual three-day event that blurs the lines between creativity, science, technology and business to explore new solutions in the spirit of co-creation. This year’s theme is Urban Futures, with a focus on sustainability, infrastructure, society, design and media. PICNIC Festival 2011 takes place from 14 to 16 September at NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam.

The event on Wednesday is the second of a discussion series on the relationship between trust and design following the premiere session earlier this year in Milan. It also coincides with the publication of the second issue of Trust Design, done in collaboration with Volume Magazine. The current issue, Trust Design and the Internet of Things, edited by me, explores how trust can be designed in our future cities as the Internet of Things makes our urban realities increasingly data aware.

The issue features an introduction by myself, with contributions from Kevin Kelly, Bruce Sterling, Joost Grootens, Julian Bleecker, Adam Greenfield, and others. You can read more about the current issue here.

Urban Hacks Design Competition: €500 for Best Re-Purposed Urban Object or Area

Urban hackers and DIY urban designers gather round: The Urban Guide for Alternate Use is hosting an urban design hacks competition to find the best examples of urban re-use and re-purposed urban design.

To encourage and celebrate resourcefulness in the city, EXCHANGE RADICAL MOMENTS! Live Art Festival is awarding a prize for the most innovative re-use of an urban object or area for a new purpose. The GO11 Award is a €500 prize for the best examples of design hacks and re-use in the city – the winner will receive €500, and their work will be presented in the festival magazine, published October 2011. Winning and shortlisted entries will also be presented as part of the Exchange Radical Moments festival in Berlin on 11/11/11.

I created The Urban Guide for Alternate Use as an online guide to urban design hacks and examples of individual design resourcefulness in the city. The response has been tremendous in the short time since it has launched, and I’m looking forward to discovering all sorts of new urban design hacks and re-purposed objects courtesy of the GO11 Award.

Please contribute your urban hacks and re-purposed design ideas or discoveries on the GO11 Award submission page here.

Next: Talking Future of the City in Chicago

On Tuesday 7 June I will be in Chicago speaking as part of Future of the City: The Arts Symposium. The symposium is produced by The University of Chicago, who describes the day as “a one-day gathering of leaders who are shaping the cultural landscape of Chicago and beyond”. The event website continues:

Arts and culture are proving their power as economic and social catalysts for the creative transformation of cities. Strategic collaborations between government, businesses, foundations and academic sectors have helped to rejuvenate neighborhoods, inspire civic and community engagement, and incubate the next generation of creative entrepreneurs. We will explore these themes, related research, and public policies as they apply to Chicago and other urban centers.

I love Chicago, partially because my family name is so intertwined with the city’s landscape, but mostly because it’s simply a fantastic city that I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like. If you are at the symposium, please say come say hello, and if you’re not, but you’re in the Chicago area, do get in touch.

SHIFTboston: Barge 2011 Design Competition

SHIFTboston has announced another in their increasingly impressive lineup of design competitions to consider future design and architecture opportunities for the city of Boston. THINK: FLOATING SENSORY EXPERIENCE has a deadline of 4 March. More info from SHIFTboston follows:

SHIFTboston is calling on architects, installation artists, designers and landscape architects professionals and students to design an experience installation on a barge in Boston’s Fort Point Channel. Competitors are asked to develop a concept which might include one or all of the following components: recycled/recyclable materials, water, plants and perhaps digitally fabricated parts. We would like designers to create a unique SENSORY EXPERIENCE for barge visitors by experimenting with a variety of interesting materials and applications in order to provide a TACTILE, OLFACTORY and VISUAL experience.

We expect elements such as: water (spray, steam, shallow pools, piping), comfortable lounging spaces, lighting, sound. We would like competitors to explore a closed-loop system. We prefer design elements which will NOT require grid-based energy. Competitors should seek alternative energy sources, laws of physics and environmental fluid mechanics.


  • The winner will present his/her concept at the SHIFTboston BARGE Forum at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
  • The winning design will be fabricated and installed on a barge. The finished barge will be open to visitors during the months of September and October of 2011.
  • All finalists and eligible entries will be promoted on the SHIFTboston blog and website and will be come part of the SHIFTboston BARGE book.

Stefan Behnisch, Principal and Founder of Behnisch Architekten, Stuttgart Germany, Venice CA, and Boston MA
Michael Cantalupa, Senior Vice President of Development of Boston Properties, Boston MA
Kathryn Dean, Principal of Dean Wolf Architects, New York NY
Olympia Kazi, Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute, New Yok NY
Timothy Kirwan, Managing Director of the InterContinental Boston
Matt Johnson, Associate Principal of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Boston MA
Richard McGuinness, Deputy Director of Waterfront Planning, Boston Redevelopment Authority, Boston, MA
Hillary Sample, Principal of MOS LLC, New Haven CT, Cambridge MA
Craig Scott, Principal of Iwamoto Scott Architects, San Francisco CA

Sponsors and Partners
The ICA/Boston
Boston Society of Architects
The Friends of Fort Point Channel
Barging IN