City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Men watching data, Brisbane 2008

A few months ago, Scott Burnham kindly asked me to contribute to the exhibition catalogue for Urban Play, a project he conceived and then developed with Droog Design.
It is being sponsored by the city of Amsterdam and is premiering there
this September. In Scott’s words, "Urban Play is about placing the
individual at the heart of the city’s development and encouraging
creative interaction between the individual and the physical city". You can also find out more at the Experimenta site.

Scott’s posting up focus pieces on some of the interventionists featured in the exhibition, starting with the quite brilliant work of Gilberto Esparza, a Mexico City-based artist who creates ‘Urban Parasites’, "small robotic creatures made from recycled consumer
goods which wander, climb, crawl and explore the marginal areas of the
city." (Check the videos at Scott’s site.)

To my small contribution: Scott asked me to write something about ‘the adaptive city’, noting some of my previous entries, such as ‘Punching holes in Ciutat Vella; adaptive urban form in Barcelona‘ and ‘Architecture and interaction design, via adaption and hackability‘. That was pretty much it by way of direction, so I had some free rein to take those thoughts for a walk, and introduce them to some more recent ideas around urban informatics and urban information design, the impact of real-time data and collaborative planning on urban form, and so on.

I’ve reproduced the full essay below. I believe the other contributors to the catalogue were to be Usman Haque on open source architecture and Richard Reynolds on guerrilla gardening, so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on. Many thanks to Scott for his considerable patience, and for asking me to contribute in the first place. It’s a relatively speculative, deliberately optimistic piece, continuing some ideas from ‘The Street as Platform’. Hope you find it interesting.

The Adaptive City

City, heal thyself.

The scale of cities is
limited by the technology of the age. With a pre-industrial city, scale
was defined by how far and how effectively water could be transported,
or the range of goods and services delivered on foot or via animals.

cities of the industrial revolution transformed by rapidly building
ways of distributing water and other basic amenities over a larger
scale, shock cities emerging from an engine of mechanisation. Water,
waste and energy were shifted over far greater distances through the
construction of gigantic sewers, water supplies, gas and electricity
networks and ultimately mechanised transportation. These cities had
developed a kind of artificial metabolic system, enabling growth
throughout the 20th century.

Eventually they reached urbanism’s
psychological limits in the form of sprawling suburbs. At this point
scale had outgrown the post-industrial city’s ability to react and
respond to change. Cities become gridlocked, congested, with
under-supply of affordable housing and over-supply of unaffordable
housing, doughnut effects of depressed inner-urban cores, then inverse
doughnuts of an emptying outer suburbia as oil prices start to suppress
mechanised movement. City governance no longer fits this urban form.
Stretched taut to breaking point, the city’s fabric snaps in numerous
places. It’s too big, too fragmented, too complex.

These cities
have become essentially inhuman, increasingly manifestations of the
over-extended artificial metabolism rather than the citizen.
Constructed at the scale of cars and other material resources rather
than people. The most important markets now are financial,
informational rather than physical, and thus do not provide firm enough
bindings to fuse communities to place.

There is much wringing of
hands all round, at least within the professions concerned with the
city. Meanwhile the new shock cities of the so-called emerging
economies career down the same cul-de-sacs at breakneck speed.

the enormous and chaotic urban systems of the global south appear to
provide an alternative model to an academic mind, but there appears to
be little that individual agency there can do to construct a collective
sense of urban progress. These cities are highly strung in a series of
tensions arising from an wildly uneven topography of development,
leapfrog technologies like mobile phones and WiMAX co-existing with
barter economies and shanty towns.

Rewinding through the development
of urban form, we find the remnants of cities constructed before the
artificial metabolism, tucked away in the ancient centres. The old
hutongs of Beijing formed a kind of continuous skin over the lived
city, enabling a co-operative, dense habitat for centuries until their
recent ongoing destruction. The blocks, alleys and courtyards of
Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella are so conjoined as to create a hermetically
sealed membrane. The Walled City of Kowloon in Hong Kong could
accommodate near infinite variation, adaptation and internal growth, as
if New Babylon, despite its anarchic and essentially intolerable
conditions. The old city of Tokyo before The Fire was made of light
wood and paper, such that an earthquake could only rearrange the pieces
with minimal damage to their inhabitants, with simple reconstruction
occurring as soon as the roofs stopped falling. Even in intrinsically
modern New World cities like Brisbane, the ‘timber and tin’
Queenslander house, mutations of South Pacific vernacular architecture
and colonial exports, are systems that are lived in, operated,
maintained and adapted by their inhabitants, ultimately binding citizen
and built fabric into a intimate relationship.

These urban forms
appear ancient but are actually ageless, their fabric woven so tightly
as to heal over self-imposed wounds effortlessly, shifting shape to
enable change. Punctures in the fabric would be quickly sealed, and
generally by the citizens themselves. Ciutat Vella will witness a block
removed daily, as if a loose tooth, only to be filled again within
days. The built fabric in this part of Barcelona is more like a
continuous textured skin rather than discrete streets, blocks or roads.
Urban life is constructed through shared density, diversity and the
physicality of public space, enabling quotidian chance interaction with
strangers, with change.

Yet though they comprise a supremely
adaptive system, these city forms could also be stifling havens of
poverty, rife with disease, malnutrition and limits on the possibility
of the wider city. The mechanised creation of the Eixample to the north
of Ciutat Vella enabled the city to draw breath and develop, with its
own admirable model of adaptive architecture.

Yet the urban form
benefited from a reflexive, responsive urban system nonetheless, a kind
of everyday architecture and shared social framework that comprised a
direct relationship between the action of the citizen and the city, a
sinuous nervous system in which urban form and collective governance,
of a sort, fluttered in response to the patterns of behaviour on the
streets in real-time.

Fast forward, and some have written of the
this century’s cities developing new artificial nervous systems, to
supersede those articulated metabolic systems of the 19th century.
These newer nervous systems, not centralised but distributed, and
predicated on digital networks of networks in which every object is
informational and every movement or behaviour is trackable, could
combine to form a new kind of lattice-like informational membrane,
hovering magically over the physical fabric of the city. As if one of
Calvino’s imaginary cities comprised solely of information, a limitless
multidimensional data-based shadow structure represents the life of the
city in real-time.

Not all of the life, of course. There are limits
to such models, as there are limits to the perceptive capabilities of
sensors and of filters to interpret the data. Real life continues in
parallel with the real-time city model. In an inversion of the body,
where the human subconscious is capable of processing vast amounts of
data not perceived by its conscious self, the real-time city model can
only capture a tiny fraction of the information present within the
city. So the city information model cannot approach the subconscious of
the city, but can provide a facsimile of consciousness.

by networks of sensors, the data emerging from the new nervous system
appears limitless: near-imperceptible variations in air quality and
water quality, innumerable patterns in public and private traffic,
results of restaurant inspections, voting patterns in public referenda,
triggers of motion sensors, the output of heating ventilation and air
conditioning systems, patterns of water usage, levels of waste
recycled, genres of books returned at local libraries, location of
bicycles in the city’s bike-sharing network, fluctuations in retail
stock controls systems, engine data from cars and aeroplanes,
collective listening habits of music fans, presence of mobile phones in
vehicles enabling floating car data, digital photos and videos locked
to spatial co-ordinates, live feeds from CCTV cameras, quantities of
solar power generated and used by networks of lamp-posts, structural
engineering data from the building information models of newly
constructed architecture, complex groupings of friends perceptible in
social software multiplied by location-based services, and so on.
Myriad flows of data move in and around the built fabric. As many or
most objects in the city become potential nodes in a wider network,
enabled through the natural interoperability of systems influenced by
the Internet and its open-source philosophies and standards-based
protocols, this shimmering informational field provides a view of the
entire city.

The built fabric becomes less important than the
behaviour of the city itself, and we finally have a sense of the
latter. As Reyner Banham suggested all those years ago, services and
infrastructure become far more relevant to the way the city feels.

these urban informatics do become manifest in the built fabric
nonetheless; they have a potential physical presence, as the model is
only partly concerned with drawing data from the city. It also feeds it
back. Urban information design emerges in a call-and-response
relationship with informatics, filtering and describing these patterns
for the benefit of citizens and machines.

The invisible becomes
visible, as the impact of people on their urban environment can be
understood in real-time. Citizens turn off taps earlier, watching their
water use patterns improve immediately. Buildings can share resources
across differing peaks in their energy and resource loading. Road
systems can funnel traffic via speed limits and traffic signals in
order to route around congestion. Citizens take public transport rather
than private where possible, as the real-time road pricing makes the
true cost of private car usage quite evident. The presence of mates in
a bar nearby alerts others to their proximity, irrespective of
traditional spatial boundaries. Citizens can not only explore proposed
designs for their environment, but now have a shared platform for
proposing their own. They can plug in their own data sources,
effectively hacking the model by augmenting or processing the feeds
they’re concerned with.

If a group of interested parents suspect
that a small playground added to the corner of their block might
improve the health of their kids, with knock-ons for nearby educational
facilities, cafés and the natural safety of a more active street, they
can wrangle these previously indiscernible causal relationships into a
prototype and test their new designs, garnering the requisite public
engagement along the way.

Everyday design could become a
conversation within social software networks, and citizens have data
and tools that urban designers can only dream of. In fact, professional
urban designers have this data too, and thus their practice is

The model is already being built. With only the simple
visualisation of data scraped from the management systems of
bike-sharing networks Vélib’ and Bicing we can already see the pulse of
the city, Barcelona’s bikes heading to the beach into the sun, whereas
their Parisian counterparts saunter from the Périphérique inwards to
the centre, mirroring the city’s intrinsic wider rhythms of work and
play. Systems deliver immediate information on air quality to mobile
phones when texted a zip code. The smokestack of a power station in
Helsinki is illuminated with high powered laser to provide feedback on
output to the surrounding neighbourhood, who alter their patterns of
electricity use in response. Collaborative mapping projects feed
voraciously from every aspect of published public data about a
neighbourhood, and create maps of crimes, film locations, lost and
found postings, and building permits, creating a new hybrid of
journalism. Bicycle networks are built along the routes that people
have already indicated they take, plotting their journeys on shared

With a wider set of data, fed back in imaginative,
multi-sensory and distributed fashion, what stories of the city might
emerge and how might they affect the way the city sees itself and thus
behaves? And how might citizens use this data, how might they add their
own feeds, weave together their own filtered aggregations of everyday
data? Could it provide a platform through which citizens learn about
the city, and are then able to better build the city?

If so, the
city becomes shaped by side-effects. Each action produces a torrent of
metadata describing that action, which can be aggregated and combined
with other data in order to provide rich representations of city life.
The individual informs the model, and thus development, through their
behaviour. Paths through parks emerge where people walk, rather than
the other way round. This is subconscious collective adaptation.

there is possibility for more active conscious interventions too. To
enable this, the informational city must be reconfigured with a series
of seams, hooks, handles and portals. In the language of code, the city
itself has APIs, through which information can be read and written,
enabling a self-reflexivity that in turn enables the city to adapt,
just as those early cities were able to through physical proximity. A
panoply of varying smart meters, sensors, and schema are required to
feed data to the model, and so the only possible technical architecture
is an open one. This openness also provides safeguards against misuse,
opportunities for creative hacking and enables a vast set of possible
outputs. As openness informs the model, with more data-sources
providing a richer model, the aggregate is open too, a web service that
citizens can immerse themselves in just as much as city officials and
planners. The model is something everyone can touch, as it is comprised
of everyone. It encourages interaction, reflexivity and adaptation.

this is not a sawn-off SimCity. This is not a simple series of
parameters unfolding with algorithmic predictability. This complex
lattice allows for unforeseen events, mashes together previously
disparate data-sets with abandon. The influence of contemporary
informational thinking means the data is captured, stored forever,
easily addressable and processed continually without a particular
end-point or raison d’être in mind. Instead the data is allowed to play
out its own rhythms and textures. To see what arises.

despite its detail, the important aspect of the model is not the model
itself, but how its presence affects governance, the city, and the way
people feel about their city. This platform only comprises a subset of
the city’s actual behaviour, in which individual and collective
unpredictability – the stuff of distinctive cities – cannot be absorbed
in real-time. Yet it provides the nearest approximation to the
real-time city, behaving more like contemporary web service than
traditional urban governance and moving closer to the older nervous
system shared by the ancient city limited by scale and physicality.
This new, distributed nervous system flexes over far larger urban
forms. Governance becomes more akin to gardening, tending a system by
homeostatic nudges, responding to the everyday patterns of movement in
the city yet also able to look back over a vast terrain of data to find
deeper meaning.

Urban planning is a history of metrics,
measures and commentary. This is a new systemic, service-based
approach, balanced between the cold, hard averaging of statistical
analysis and the hawk-eyed urban observations of William H. Whyte and
Jane Jacobs. It takes an informational viewpoint that says: "draw data
from everything it can". No matter how banal or inconsequential the
data seems, the model remains open to its potential. It can give us
historical patterns and real-time interrupts, live from the street.

citizens, the model provides an interface onto the same processes, the
same city. It gives them a user interface for governance, in which they
play an intrinsic role. Holes in, say, the service of the bike-sharing
networks are visible to all, over data feeds and multiple diverse
platforms, and a delayed letter from the government department
responsible, promising a subsequent investigation, is no longer going
to be seen as an appropriate response. Where professional design
interventions are not required, the city designs itself. With the model
as common platform, there is sufficient data to indicate the likely
impact of improvements, experiments, and adaptations to the city. A new
mode of civic engagement emerges.

Urban design takes place in a
shared space, and so evokes a tacit recognition that design is an
ongoing social process. Thus, design and governance must be adaptive
and continuous, fluctuating in response to use. Where urban design was
oriented towards the macro, individual micro responses were often only
resistant, subversive hacks – in some cases inspired, in others
inspiring, but more about checking unwelcome development than
co-creation. Yet this new shared space for urban design is neither
macro nor micro; it’s somewhere in-between.

To be a shared space,
its seams are clear, providing affordances for interaction and
contribution. Certain basic rules about privacy, security and graceful
recognition of people’s right to their personal data are intrinsic to
the system being trusted. The clumsy surveillance culture of CCTV and
speed cameras is seen as ludicrous and long-forgotten. The eyes of the
street itself – now enhanced by the data of the street – ensure safety
and responsible behaviour, within constraints set by the neighbourhood.

the promise, these technologies are beset with potential flaws. Or
rather, there is immense potential for the culture around being unable
to adapt accordingly. Will architecture, property development and urban
governance be able to deal with a system which indicates the pace the
city is actually lived at, which indicates how designs are actually
used and abused, which requires an ambient ongoing service design
model? Can the capital costs be spread over the life span of urban
fabric, rather than delivered up-front? Can the power relationships
implicit in a top-down governance system be reconfigured into this
shared space? Can such a technology ever be designed appropriately, in
order to avoid misuse, privacy and security issues, or just poor user
experience design? Might a simulation simply distract from physical
reality, rather than enhance it?

Sadly, the history of technology
and the city is not actually one of smooth implementation, shared
standards, and open access. It progresses awkwardly, in fits and
starts, rather than smoothly and equitably. Yet the history of urban
development itself is also awkward. Nonetheless, here is the hint of a
promise that a city could heal itself, as if the adaptive membrane of
earlier cities is present at the scale of later cities.

As Jamie
Lerner has said “If you can design the city, you understand the city,
you respect the city.” The new technologies of urban informatics and
city information modelling enable citizens to reflect on their city,
engage in the design, adapt their behaviour and the city around them.
It could well lead to a new understanding and a new respect, and so to
a new city.


9 responses to “Essay: The Adaptive City”

  1. namhenderson Avatar

    Another thought provoking piece which is easy to read and enjoyable yet also clearly identifies the new practical realities which have for so long been merely theoretical promises within the realm of adaptive urbanism and networked infrastructure.


  2. Fred Oliveira Avatar

    Brilliant piece, Dan.
    Somehow (and really, it’s 5am, so it is hard to explain my synapses) this essay reminded me of Koolhaas’s Junkspace, in which he writes:
    ‘Mankind is always going on about architecture. What if space started looking at mankind? Will Junkspace invade the body? Through the vibes of the mobile? Has it already? Botox injections? Collagen? Silicone implants? Liposuction? Penis enlargements? Does gene therapy announce a total reengineering according to Junkspace? Is each of us a mini-construction site? Mankind the sum of 3-5 billion individual upgrades? Is it a repertoire of reconfiguration that facilitates the intromission of a new species into its self-made Junkbiosphere?’
    Like we have mutated, so has the city. To serve us no doubt; but in a way, to breathe by itself.


  3. Adam Lee Avatar
    Adam Lee

    A brilliant article, thank you for posting it. I have recently read WIkinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams which was recommended by my university lecturer. However as a final year architecture student, is was very business orientated book, to which I have been trying to develop an architectural understanding.
    I have created a research blog where I am posting my thoughts and ideas, comments are helping me understand this process with mass collaboration and open source with architecture.
    You make reference to Italo Calvino in this article, I wonder if this imaginary city would come before Trude and after Chloe…


  4. Christian Avatar

    I really thought-provoking piece. Our purceptions of what ‘urban’ should be have changed so much in the last 4 decades. It’s not just functionality that is taken into consideration any more.


  5. sambit Avatar

    think of the city and of yourself
    a brilliant piece
    really makes me wonder: if we can keep up, when this happens?


  6. Shivani Guglani Avatar
    Shivani Guglani

    Hey Dan,
    This is a beautiful essay I have read in some time now. I was wandering do you mind if I try to put this in a visual context on maps and sketches. Would like to share the same with you.
    Thanks for sharing the article.


  7. Dan Hill Avatar

    Of course, Shivani, please do.


  8. thesis writing service Avatar

    Of course! It’s like you’re reading my mind!
    P.S. To the blog owner: the reply button doesn’t seem to work. It just opens an empty space, with no textbox for name or comment text.


  9. paper writing service Avatar

    What you wrote a realistic look at the issue. Much appreciation, at least from me for the great, i really like finding views that are informative worthwhile anyway.


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