As I started writing this, it was hovering around 39˚C here in Sydney. Gusty, burning hot air. Too hot. It could not have been more different to New York, where I'd been a week or so earlier, where the temperature had been hovering around -7˚C and down to -15˚C with the windchill. I was in Manhattan for a Microsoft Research event: their annual 'social computing symposium', and this year was loosely focused on 'the city'. Many thanks to Tom Coates + Matt Jones, Liz Lawley, Clay Shirky et al for the invite.
Here are my notes on the event, with a dash of local colour thrown in for good measure.
The venue was the now near-legendary ITP at NYU, set in a typically sturdy building on Broadway, around Greenwich Village and the other relatively opaque NYU buildings, so I was often tramping around in the scruffy, rough-hewn nature of American urban fabric - I'm always struck by how different the various surfaces of the street are here, compared to Paris, say; Manhattan's are muscular, tough, fractured, brutish; I like it.
The surrounding streets were festooned with discarded Christmas trees. The relatively low-rent retail around here had a discernible air of desperation about it ("40% off sale price!"). The recession is far more evident than in Australia.
Walking to and from the hotel on Union Square was a particular pleasure for the three days I was there. The soundscape of Manhattan is immediately and easily familiar, shaped by the buildings such that it bounces around the streets: the rattle of distant subway under your feet, accompanied by a welcome draught of warm air blown up through the sidewalk; the chatter of hundreds of different dialects; the rolling thunder of supersized trucks careening through the rough and ready streets; the bawls and drawls of homeless and helpless; fragments of cellphone conversation; Dirty Projectors on the iPhone; eventually, the freezing wind howling round the blunt edges of my hotel ... For all that insecure New York is now often gripped in the fear that the party has moved on, that it is no longer the centre of the world, or the locus of American creativity, or that the US itself sometimes now feels like an un-developing nation, that it is beginning to unravel at the seams, or is at least being leapfrogged by others ... For all that, New York is still utterly beguiling, every single time. Beautiful.
This year's Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium had pulled together a fine set of people including Genevieve Bell, Julian Bleecker, Ben Cerveny, Tom Coates, Anil Dash, Russell Davies, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Adam Greenfield, Liz Goodman, Usman Haque, Tom Igoe, Natalie Jeremijenko, Steven Johnson, Matt Jones, Jennifer Magnolfi, Mike Migurski, Nicolas Nova, Ray Ozzie, Clay Shirky, Kevin Slavin, Molly Steenson, Linda Stone, Alice Taylor, Anthony Townsend, Duncan Wilson and many more. (A little US-centric, understandably.) Some old friends, some new ones, many I didn't know. Given the combination of social technology and the city, and the timezone, this was a great group of people.
The event stretched over two days, with series of talks grouped into loose themes followed by breakout sessions to pick apart what we'd heard. It more or less worked. Some of the talks were very good indeed; others just OK, but all were interesting on some level.
The most compelling talk was Kevin Slavin's, which is already being spoken of as one of the great presentations of the 21st century. If there were a Nobel Prize available for Powerpoint, Slavin would be a shoe-in for this round (although I have a sneaking suspicion it was Keynote, and thus disqualified). It was a majestically imaginative construction, a teetering house of cards, each new level beautifully delivered, veering from the physics of stealth bombers to the overwhelming dominance of high-frequency trading in the stock markets, via the early history of trading in lower Mannahatta, to today's NYC where real estate transactions in an entire sector of the city are dominated by optimising the physical proximity of algorithms to the mass of telecommunications infrastructure that is the 'carrier hotel' of 60 Hudson Street, before all of financial services ascends into the singularity and leaves this corporeal realm behind.
Something like that, anyway. Virilio 2.0, live on Broadway.
He was preceded by the dauntingly/hearteningly prolific Steven Johnson, who had just finished the manuscript for his latest book a couple of days previously. All of Johnson's books are worth reading, just as his projects from Feed to Outside.In have been worth watching, and the forthcoming book would appear to be right up my strasse, concerning the relationships between urban form and innovation and creativity. (Actually, it'll be interesting to see if it's 'innovation' or 'creativity'. Two very different schools.) Johnson's talk was tantalising, in that it described the routes taken by some of his trains of thought, but not that much of the content. Yet.
There were some Johnson-esque graphs (as he joked, it's obligatory to draw some when Clay Shirky is in the room) indicating relationships between creativity and size of city i.e. the bigger the city, the more innovative (don't worry; he went a little further than that). The measures of creativity will surely be explored more in the book too, for here they seemed a little over-focused on techno-scientific measures (products, patents etc.). Creativity of course also includes things like ballet, painting, stand-up comedy and gardening, few of which would register in such a measurement; but for that matter, would also include innovative services like the iPod, which have been predicated on very few patents (just ask Nokia), but rather, in the words of Patrick Whitney, protected and defined instead by a more "systemic nature of innovations and by trademark". Equally, I'd be interested in explorations of creativity (or perhaps innovation) applied outside of technology or creative industries sectors, but in manufacturing, agriculture etc.
Perhaps these activities might show up, but this initial definition should be an interesting section of Johnson's book. Equally, size may matter, but cannot quite be such a direct relationship - again, using that US techno-scientific measure, the hundreds of cities in China that are bigger than their US equivalents would simply not show up. Yet many are surely creative - and equally perhaps many are not.
I'm sure Johnson's approach will depend far more on the relationship with form than size, and here I hope he goes beyond 'the swerve' and Jacobs-isms - as useful as they are, I think we have a wider laboratory of urban environments at this point, as I tried to outline in my recent notes on New Songdo City.
The graphs he drew - which you can almost see in the above photo - indicate the direct relationship between metabolism and mass in animals, and so also indicate the biological and open systems theory angles that Johnson often approaches the subject from, which combined with a natural feel for Brooklyn-esque urbanism, tend to offer fresh insights to the field.
With my 'designing creative clusters' hat on, I cannot wait to see what he's come up with as Johnson tends to synthesise previously disparate concepts with considerable skill and imagination, and communicates them wonderfully well.
Sandwiched in between Slavin and Johnson, a good old-fashioned technical demo. And one that worked. Blaise Aguera y Arcas demonstrated the new Bing Maps interface. I wasn't expecting much. I was blown away.
There are videos of Blaise talking about this around the place, so I won't go into too much detail, but what impressed me were the Silverlight-enabled transitions between the various zoom levels, the smooth switching of projection from 2D to isometric to tiles of angled aerial photography to street level, and the incredible integration of PhotoSynth at this street level. I'd been wondering about a genuine application for PhotoSynth for years, but with the latter on-hand, Bing Maps can even 'go inside' certain buildings - usually museums, galleries, admittedly - into 3D user-created photo-worlds.
It gives you pause for thought - although Google Maps has a massive lead in this market (as Flash does over Silverlight for that matter) these things - being non-physical, free, and with little embedded personal capital - can be relatively easily displaced. There is little friction.
Equally interesting is comparing Google and Microsoft's approaches here. An over-simplification perhaps, but with PhotoSynth providing a form of user-generated creation of the building/street, Microsoft are deploying emergent, colloborative processes at that scale, whereas Google are driving a car with a camera on its roof around every street in the world (more or less) to create their StreetView. Which is a top-down strategy if ever I saw one. Instead, Google deploy their bottom-up processes at the 2D map scale, via MapMaker etc. (although Building Maker is blurring the line here, with emergent process at the building scale. If that gets integrated into Maps, as it surely must, that's interesting. With buildings, Google users do structural engineering; Microsoft users paint the facade with photos and do interior decor.) And if this paragraph was a diagram it would look like this:
The afternoon session, concerning government, was less impressive. They didn't really focus on urban governance, which would've been useful, and few participants appeared to have much idea of the processes, politics and issues in that world. Having said that, Anil Dash was excellent: amusing, insightful, cleverly-structured and inspirational.
An obligatory Post-It note exercise, envisioning urban applications, was sandwiched in between these two sessions.
The morning of day two was 'curated' by Tom Coates and Matt Jones, and concerned 'the city as social technology'. After Tom gave a scene-setting presentation characterised by verve, imagination and an incredibly distracting clip of the monkeys and the monolith from 2001, Molly Steenson gave a great presentation that at first glance concerned the history of computers and architecture, yet really dealt with issues of design, agency and artificial intelligence in architecture.
I particularly appreciated Molly's evident ambivalence with Christopher Alexander, something I share, and also that she handed round some actual physical artefacts, in the form of the proceedings of 1960s ACM conferences on computer graphics and the like. It was a whistle-stop tour of Ivan Sutherland's famous Sketchpad demo, Marvin Minsky, J.C. Licklider, Negroponte's early work (The Architecture Machine, which is delightfully dedicated "To the first machine that can appreciate the gesture".) As we use AI increasingly on projects, albeit at the basic levels of agent-based modelling for instance, it's fascinating to reflect on the lengthy history of this work.
Duncan and I then gave our talk about our various projects. I should apologise here for running out of time. It turns out that one presentation plus one presentation does not equal one presentation. It does in fact still equal two presentations. Who knew? Either way, I think the presentation went well, and we were fortunate to be able to take over Ben Cerveny's workshop session to continue the conversation, as Ben had business to attend to.
Usman Haque followed us, with a hugely entertaining, almost totally off-the-cuff discussion, which genuinely engaged the punters. He ran through a series of statements he'd "heard around the place" - most of which revolved around applying web metaphors to urban environments - asking whether people agreed with them, before revealing he didn't agree with any of them and outlining what he did believe. It was feisty, scattershot, funny, engaging and insightful. As a rhetorical tactic, it worked, and I happened to agree with just about everything he did believe in, for what it's worth. A couple of references to follow-up: Stanislaw Lem's Peace on Earth and H. Von Hurster's 'On Self-Organizing Systems and their Environments'.
The 'breakout' sessions split four ways afterwards, with Matt Jones, Nicolas Nova and Jennifer Magnolfi all leading sessions I would've liked to have participated in. But Duncan and I were leading the other, and so we continued our talk of instrumenting urban environments.
The group involved Haque, Jeremijenko, Goodman, Bell and Yahoo Research's Elizabeth Churchill amongst others. Duncan showed videos of his work on the "stabilising" of the Millennium Bridge, perhaps one of the first high profile sensor-based projects Arup had done. It never fails to intrigue people. The first video showed the swaying of the bridge on those first days; the second showed the trials once the dampers had gone on, wherein crowds of volunteers, many adorned with sensors, walked back and forth across the bridge. The rather saucy name given to the phenomenon discovered by engineers and researchers during this process - 'synchronous lateral excitation' - also caused a stir in the workshop.
Following this, Natalie Jeremijenko led a great discussion about the role of the designer/engineer in projects like this, and what levels of agency they/we have within the contemporary development process. We eventually got onto the harsh cut-off in built fabric development processes, wherein little information on the inhabited phase of projects - the ongoing design phase, as adaptive design would have it - is gathered, and certainly rarely acted upon by professional designers or developers. Tough but important questions; exactly what such a session should be. Genevieve Bell, Natalie and I had a good chat afterwards, in a curious but enjoyable little "Australian" cabal, holed-up in frozen NYC.
(This 'breakout' discussion maybe indicated one of the few problems with the symposium - that few present had experience of actually working with city governments or property developers, say, on urban-scale projects that affect either governance or built fabric (some certainly did, outside of Duncan and I, but by far a minority). Of course side-stepping existing structures is a valid tactic in terms of achieving change; not everything must be reinvented from within 'the system'. You still need to know what to side-step though. While I'm being critical, there was also a tendency to grasp for biological metaphors and insights when thinking about the city - and perhaps more understandably, urban systems. While there is considerable insight to be gained from such approaches - and biomimicry in particular, from a design perspective - there is also considerable difference with cities, and citizens, and the way they work. Equally, although many here came from different backgrounds a way of thinking has emerged concomitant with developing web-based structures and systems, and we might have benefited from further external references - a biologist, an architect, a landscape designer, a policy-maker, say. Then again, this was a social computing symposium after all.)
For some reason, the afternoons for both Monday and Tuesday weren't as good as the mornings had been. I'm not sure whether this was due to the sessions themselves, or fatigue (and certainly my jet-lag kicked in big time on Monday, so perhaps it was just me). Yet maybe the afternoons tended to fall apart because the conversations stimulated by the morning needed some time and space to be expressed. This drifting focus wasn't just due to the event being in Manhattan, and therefore surrounded by distractions, as people did stay in and around ITP in the main. It's just that the conversation needed to dissipate, that half-formed reflections needed to be articulated. So it tended to, and attention was lost a little in the afternoons as a result. That's how I read it anyway.
The aforementioned Anil Dash Show was an exception on the afternoon of the first day. But I cared little for the presentation on governance structures of Burning Man. As Matt Jones commented at the time, perhaps there's a gene for appreciating Burning Man which seemed lacking in many of us. Actually, I don't think it's genetic - I just suspect that Burning Man is rubbish. But then I've never been. And I'm English.
Tuesday's afternoon session on (urban) games was also a little variable, though Kati London of Area/Code gave great overview of some of the best work in this area, including their own fine work. Dennis Crowley of FourSquare was also very entertaining, but if the technocratic/biological metaphor had been slightly, well, pervasive throughout the two days, so had been the game metaphor. As longer-term readers will know, I've previously focused on football, and video games such as Grand Theft Auto, as metaphor to some extent, but generally in terms of notation of interactive systems, and exploring the (creative) tension between the individual and a system. But the idea of competition and point-scoring - of seeing everything as a game - becoming an overriding metaphor for everything (with its tendency towards individualism and acquisition) is limiting at best.
For notes on other talks, Liz Goodman appears to have the most complete set. The absence of notes from a talk above means little or nothing.
After New York, down to California and a couple of days in the Arup San Francisco office. Though I was working for most of it, it was good to briefly catch up with friends there too, and then finally get out for a bit of a walk on the last afternoon. If I'd been strategic, I could've gone to San Francisco Federal Building to complete my hat-trick of Morphosis buildings but didn't make it. Next time. Still, I feel I got under the skin of the city a bit for the first time. Report: San Francisco is largely appealing.