As I write this I am on a train to Utrecht, the last leg of my journey home from Berlin. I was there for Cognitive Cities, a conference on urban computing, data visualization and related subjects. It’s been a hell of a weekend — a few minor flaws aside, the conference was great and I got to explore the city and experience some of the joys it has to offer. The thing that has me thinking though, is the contrast between the conference’s focus on certain ways of knowing the city, and how I got to know it myself. There’s a gap there.
On Saturday I found myself surrounded by the faded glory of Heimathafen Neukölln. Cognitive Cities presented a single track of speakers who addressed various aspects of the current and near future implications of technology for urban life. I was happy to see a community that’s been emerging for a while physically gather for what I think was one of the first times. The program was an excellent reflection of what’s been going on around cities and technology and design. It made connections, but also highlighted contrasting opinions.
- There were manifestoes for the opening up of data, and the need for equal sharing in it from Adam Greenfield. These highlighted how problematic the notion of public space has become in our networked age.
- Quite a few talks centered around ways of measuring city life, and displaying it. Anil Bawa, Matt Biddulph and Dietmar Offenhuber all talked about this in some way and what stuck with me most is that, with no prior knowledge, machines can get a pretty good sense of what we’re up to just from the data.
- And then there were odd and wonderful talks such as Dannie Jost’s deregulating ramble on structures, Georgina Voss’ lovely tour of things laymen build for their homes when they are given Arduino and Juha van ‘t Zelfde’s demo of the nascent Urbanode, a thing that lets you play with buildings.
- Finally we had Warren Ellis’ genuinely scary tale of ghost hunters and earth lights and how we might be getting into a lot of trouble by unleashing all this electromagnetic wizardry on unwitting urbanites. Through our technologies the ghosts of future and past alike speak to us, and we should listen well.
Before and after that wonderful Saturday I found myself party to a frantic exploration of bars and clubs around some of the more interesting areas of Berlin. We had drinks in what seemed like a never ending sequence of often gritty, improvised living-room like cafes. On Saturday we went searching for a club named Horst Krzbrg and accidentally came across a public toilet turned into a venue for local bands and were witness to some of the angriest, loudest Swedish noise I’ve ever witnessed. We carried adapters with us and charged our iPhones wherever we saw the chance. These ghost boxes were our means of traversing the city. We carried no guidebooks, we made no plans beyond where to go next. On Sunday, in the late afternoon after an organic curry wurst we decided to go to Berghain and that did it for me. That set a new benchmark. It’s a club that opens on friday night and hosts a continuous party for the whole weekend. It is situated in an enormous building which reminded me the Tate Modern’s turbine hall but dark and gritty and packed with an — ahem — colorful mix of people of various inclinations. I was gobsmacked. Here’s a city that allows for something truly uncompromising and alive to emerge.
And I started thinking: why was there so little discussion of these things at Cognitive Cities? Why were so few of the talks grounded in human experience of cities on the ground? Sure, some of the speakers mentioned reasons why people flock to cities, but in very general terms. And when it came to what people do in cities, we were predominantly treated to sterile though pretty visualizations of human action in the aggregate: phone calls, public transit, checkins… When it came to improving urban living, there was very little attention for anything besides the work-related. Which means that all those other activities that make life meaningful and pleasurable were left out. The reasons why we play games, why we make art, why we come together for a drink and a chat. The social and the playful.
Reconciling the two
So at the next Cognitive Cities, I hope to see a continuation of the work in spaces such as open data and mapping and so on. But I would equally like to see talks about life on the ground, and what it means to design for cognitive cities at the human scale. At a conference like this, we shouldn’t leave our passions for city life at the door.