We are increasingly accustomed to relying on technologies to read and process data referring to the past, in order to interpret the present and predict the future. At the same time, a growing number of studies show that the number and types of variables governing our societies is in constant change. As the natural world reacts to change by experimenting with the evolution of new species that are not necessarily destined to survive, so we should take momentary distances from the deterministic application of data-driven predictions. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Karl-Heinz Machat propose a number of possible scenarios in which the Eyes of the City are made to blink from time to time, allowing for alternative modes of urbanity to be tried and tested. Half strategy, half tactic, these glitches offer the space in which to measure the agency of the unpredictable at various scales.
For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.
Big Data – the comprehensive collection and analysis of data – and ML offer a powerful combination to sustain the effective and efficient management of modern urban societies . Employed well, it facilitates nowcasting and forecasting, greasing the city machinery. This improves decision-making by all relevant urban stakeholders, from policymakers to businesses to city dwellers. The “eye of the city” is both promise and realization of stability, predictability and evidence-based rationality in the practical governance of daily urban life – a continuation of a dream of enlightenment that originated in European cities some three hundred years ago and that inspired generations of urban policy.
The implicit assumption of data-driven algorithmic decision-making, however, is that the past reflects the present and informs the future. At best, this notion applies in times of incremental changes and clearly defined overall objectives: if the goal is clear and reality changes slowly, data can help decision-makers optimize their choices. It breaks down, though, when changes are rapid and the overall trajectory not only fuzzy but substantially unpredictable. In such phases of radical change and unclear direction, conventional data-driven planning breaks down, and so does data-driven ML. There simply isn’t enough training data available to gain sufficient clarity of how the future will look.
Ironically, the very tools that enable data-driven predictions and rational decision-making and promise stability through predictability have been fueling a series of fundamental and rapid disruptions of both economy and society: electronic commerce through data-rich markets that far exceed the matching and transaction efficiency of conventional markets; social networking platforms that seamlessly connect people with each other at scale; increased automation of routine human decision-making tasks that endanger what had been perceived to be “safe” human jobs, such as mid-level office work. Experts disagree on the size of the impact this has on labor markets and employment, with displacement figures of about fifty percent being touted . But there is widespread agreement that the skills needs and job demands over the next five to ten years will be very different from the supply available. This may exacerbate tensions within society, undermining stability and prompting social unrest.
With such radical disruptions in the air, data-driven predictions will have limited value to stabilize human societies, especially when many humans have to live together in tight spaces, such as in the urban context. Because times of rapid change aren’t predictable, and because the interventions the predictions suggest may prove to be ineffective. Therefore, there is an urgent need for an alternative planning strategy for an age of urban disruption.
Fortunately, such a strategy is available, and we can glean the core determinants of it by looking at how nature reacts to radical shocks. When life is challenged in this way, evolution switches from a relatively linear process of steady progress to an all-out dynamic of massive experimentation, creating an enormous richness of variation aimed at maximizing the chances that at least one variant may do well under the changed circumstances. The rapid, almost explosive blooming of many different species in times of disruption may look enormously costly – after all, many such trials will end up being errors, many new variations of species will not survive – but is incredibly efficient for life overall: its goal is to ensure the survival of life itself.
Manfred Eigen, a renowned theorist on evolutionary dynamics and complexity, contends that for evolutionary processes to be triggered successfully a system needs to be off-balance. “Evolutionary optimization could never occur under conditions near to equilibrium.”  In perhaps a somewhat surprising way, therefore, rapid evolution requires disequilibria. Further, if evolving entities -- representing specific features and qualities -- can interact, the landscapes of fitness develop dynamically, too, and the optimization function is frequently being updated. This way the production and testing of genetic variations continue to run, avoiding premature conclusion by reaching a predefined and static optimum.
Keeping these insights from evolutionary processes in mind, we argue that we need to take a page from nature and apply the strategy of deliberate experimentation to our situation. In the context of our deeply data-driven, connected and efficient urban lives, we suggest that such experimentation is best achieved by creating random information holes – moments of “un-information”. We suggest nothing less than that the eye of the city, trained to be comprehensive, ubiquitous and always “on”, should embrace blinking, not as a bug but as a feature, as a fundamental mechanism to enable accidental social connections, unexpected human interactions, and unforeseen cognitive insights.
This is in line with rich literature about the benefits of human forgetting: from giving individuals second chances to evolve and contribute to society to accepting moral values such as forgiveness (as has been shown it is hard to forgive without forgetting). But human forgetting also plays a crucial role in empowering individuals to focus on the present and to realize the future as something that can be shaped rather than being fully predicted and even determined by the past. Humans that have difficulties forgetting to feel so tethered to the past and their past actions that it inhibits their capacity to decide in the present. Human forgetting thus performs a useful function in enabling human action. Moreover, at an organizational level, too, forgetting is crucial: it enables organizations and firms to remain adaptable and agile, to adjust to changed circumstances, rather than to cling to outdated processes. That is why many highly innovative companies, for example, have instituted initiatives of “unlearning” and technologies of digital forgetting.
But this thinking is also in line with the link between (collective) memory and urban space . It builds on Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s “Barcode” preservation scheme for Beijing, which pointed out that there is too much information in the historical and present urban texture and argues for omissions, the urban non-place, that would allow interpretation and assessment of specific potentials for future intervention . Gordon Matta-Clark, in the 1970s, did something similar to individual architectural objects: by cutting through houses, and removing structural continuity and logic, he created spaces with access to a building’s intrinsic intelligence and beauty . At the same time Lebbeus Woods, in his drawings, proposed that any building, any urban structure, should have at least one room or area that would require to be conquered by its users; not effortless but in a peaceful sense, calling them “freespace structures”, free of any kind of predetermined meaning or usefulness." .
Inspired and encouraged by these lines of thought in a variety of fields, we propose to use interventions in a variety of urban contexts that aim to disengage incessant data flows - for some city users, for some time. Much as the human eye, even when open, is never always gazing, but blinks from time to time, we'd like to call our proposals the Blinking Eye, and foresee the following typologies:
• The Social Island: At airports, train and subway stations, in traffic jams, individual passengers or small groups of them experience incidental and temporary connectivity loss. Or at the level of a single city block, data connectivity on sidewalks ceases for a couple of minutes.
This will disrupt the digital routines of humans. They might get bored or displeased with having to take a break from being glued to an always-on lifestyle. But soon people will do what humans by nature are programmed to do: watch other people, become cognizant of their surroundings. And, perhaps even make contact with others especially if they are in need of information or orientation (having lost connectivity as well). These speedbumps for urban digital nomads make them – once in a while - gather and perceive the unfiltered, un-digitized analogue world around them, potentially leading to a richer and more complex understanding of our world as well as our cognitive processes.
• The Data DMZ: Across a small area of prominent urban significance all data streams are being blocked temporarily and without prior announcement (think center of Central Park, NYC, or Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris; Boboli Gardens, Florence; Tiananmen Square, Beijing; public gardens, parts of parks and squares in cities around the globe).
Unlike in places of social trans- and interaction (see above), places of significance prompt tourists to consult online information sources, leading them to “see” these places through curated eyes. In contrast, our proposed intervention - the localized and temporary scarcity of instant information that quick retrieval of encyclopedic knowledge offers - instigates speculation and fantasies about what can be found at those places. Perception and appreciation of present design, shapes and structures might prevail. Inquisitive visitors, knowing about the potentiality of temporary disconnectedness, will have to prepare beforehand or learn about after the visit using their mnemonic skills, raising awareness of spatial qualities and meaning of a place but also highlighting the contingent (and constructed) nature of memory and experience.
• The Meta-desert/haunting: Unannounced and again for a temporary period, access to location data (such as GPS) is inhibited or appear in foreign glyphs; all ratings/rated services will disappear, leaving individuals with the duty and the liberty of unencumbered choice to explore on their own, and to be disconnected from rating and recommendation systems that by preserving and perpetuating the value of past experiences, diminish the opportunity for surprise.
To break the spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies users of such systems will be given the chance to evaluate advertised offers and venues by their own ontologically formed standards. Unfamiliar sets of glyphs and symbols re-introduce an atmosphere of possibly being lost in an indecipherable environment. This way, innate skills for pattern recognition and interpretation will come into play and produce alternative strategies for gaining orientation and information and enabling decisions in unfamiliar surroundings.
• The Terrain Vague (for Lebbeus Woods): Randomly, visual and other surveillance installations will blackout for an unannounced and limited period of time. Sublime signs will advertise location and duration during the blackout. Authorities will not be notified in advance either.
In order to catalyze experimental behavior, computer-generated choreographies of lighting, reversing the otherwise flow of light to the camera, will animate the site. Moving spotlights reacting to users, parts of street lighting providing dynamic patterns and rhythm create an instantaneous stage.
People can thus explore social acceptance, space and control independently from norms enforced by authorities. Will people stop by and start to play with light and shadow? In the end, who owns that space? Perhaps some sort of temporary, spontaneous community emerges. Or, equally thinkable, nothing happens at all -- there will just be ephemeral, void spots in the ever-denser matrix of physical und virtual observation.
• Data Economics Flowbreaker: In congested areas, huge streams of data are flowing back to data harvesting industries. At some point, for some time, this flow will be halted or, better still, a stream of synthetic data will be substituted, giving individuals and areas the chance to reconfigure and reappear while meta-information processing and delivery is blacked out. This is taken a cue from human physiology, where the rerouting process in our brains that selectively weakens synapses also effectuates the removal of old memory traces, as well as encodes new spatial perceptions.
Similarly intriguing will be to see how the data gathering industry reacts: perhaps by accepting the temporary loss (and thus amplifying the data that could be gathered) or perhaps by developing contingency algorithms making up for such temporary interruption of data influx, possibly becoming less addicted to every single bit of authentic user-generated information.
The fundamental idea behind these interventions is to temporarily take random people out of the connected datasphere of predictive efficiency and thereby to create a time and space for the unexpected – inefficient at first but with a sustained potential for new connections and interactions. They are intended to let people “trip over“ their usual practices and realize a randomly generated moment of social randomness that may lead, much like in evolution, to bouts of innovation.
We rely on serendipity as a fundamental principle for delivering unintended experiences and unsought discoveries. For instance, unexpected disorientation drives the perception of others, objects, surroundings. The need to navigate the building blocks of urban intelligence, necessitates reading, interpreting, and defining what material is there. And the urban handshake enables unanticipated social interaction. Moreover, if Big Data and ML is emphasizing and amplifying the insights hidden in data, it is about time to conceive of such data not as exogenous sources of wisdom, but as endogenous flows that can – and ought – to be actively shaped. By creating temporary disruptions in human activities as well as resulting data streams, we aim for cherishing and embedding the unforeseen.
The plan is not to optimize on possible new, valuable connections derived from a smart algorithm that has decided it could be societally beneficial if one meets a particular other, but to optimize for random trial and error. This deliberately injects chance – unpredictability – in order to induce variation and experimentation for a time of disruption.
- 1 - Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data – A Revolution that Will Change How We Live, Work and Think (HMH 2013; Cheers Publishing 2012)
- 2 - Frey, Carl Benedikt and Michael Osborne. The Future of Employment (September 17, 2013), https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf
- 3 - Yanai, Itai and Martin Lercher. The Society of Genes (Harvard University Press 2016)
- 4 - Eigen, Manfred. From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity A Treatise on Matter, Information, Life, and Thought (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013)
- 5 - Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete – the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press 2009; Cheers Publishing 2012)
- 6 - Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press 1992)
- 7 - Koolhaas, Rem. Preservation is Overtaking Us (Columbia GSAPP Transcripts, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City 2014)
- 8 - Sussman, Elisabeth. The Mind Is Vast and Ever Present, in Gordon Matta-Clark: You Are the Measure, ed. Elisabeth Sussman. Exh. cat. (Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2007
- 9 - Woods, Lebbeus. Eight Diagrams of the Future; weblog August 8, 2010 (https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/eight-diagrams-of-the-future)
About the Authors:
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford. Before that he served on the faculty of Harvard University for a decade. He is the author and co-author of over a hundred articles as well as a dozen books, including the awards-winning "Delete" and "Reinventing Capitalism" as well as the international bestseller "Big Data".
Karl-Heinz Machat studied drawing with Wolf Vostell, and studied medicine, philosophy and architecture in Innsbruck, Dallas and Los Angeles. He studied architecture with Peter Cook, Neil Denari, and Lebbeus Woods.
As an architectural and media designer, he deals with the use and impact of information technologies in real and virtual environments. He is co-founder of heiKE/NZ webarchitects and has carried out projects in Austria, USA, Singapore, UK, Italy and Switzerland.
In addition, Karl-Heinz Machat is a lecturer at the Institute of Design/studio2 at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Innsbruck since 2003, with a focus on design studios and architectural media theory.
Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.
"Eyes of The City" section
Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.
Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South China University of Technology - Sun Yimin)
Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao
Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)
"Ascending City" section
Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci
Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)
Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li