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Human desire in the cognitive city

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.

The conference

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.

The city

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.

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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.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 4, 2011 at 12:20 | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for that feed­back. I can total­ly relate to the points you’ve missed. We’ll keep that in mind when we think about the next con­fer­ence.

  2. Posted March 4, 2011 at 12:23 | Permalink

    love­ly. very well put post.

  3. Kars
    Posted March 4, 2011 at 19:17 | Permalink

    Johannes, thanks for get­ting back to me and con­grat­u­la­tions on the con­fer­ence. It was ace.

    Toby, you’re too kind.