Carlo Ratti asks “Can make cities through crowd-sourcing?”

What would happen if a critical piece of urban infrastructure—like waste collection—was decentralized and put in the hands of citizens? How reliable and efficient would such a system be? Who would be accountable for its proper functioning? Those are just some of the questions which Lab Team member Carlo Ratti asked today.

Carlo says that when objects ‘talk back’ to us they tell us lots of different stories and when we give information ‘back to people’ so they can actuate change.

The possibilities and limitations of self-organized infrastructure are a ‘hot topic’ and the issues of infrastructure effectiveness, awareness, and results need greater discussion. So in this evenings lecture Dietmar Offenhuper ask can infrastructure be crowd sourced?

Yes, to a certain degree, it probably can. Projects like IBM Smarter City are all about bringing rationality to urban infrastructure. If we consider  ‘legacy’ infrastructure networks, such like traffic signals and electricity, if we add real-time sensors we can obtain a full and real picture of what is happening and where. This information is invaluable for optimizing, innovating and making better use of the assets we already have.

Infrastructure in our industrialized cities has changed significantly since the 1980’s. It has become less ‘invisible’, increasingly participatory and more complicated. As a result of privatization we have a fragmented service provider landscape, the line between infrastructure provider and consumer has become blurry and ambiguous and infrastructure now requires more conscious decision-making (some things you can’t automate such as the decision whether or not to put a greasy pizza box in the recycling bin or the general waste bin!).

City planners talk about empowerment and community engagement but often it’s only participation to a certain degree.  We can enable participation – and get a ‘crowd’ involved – using two methods:

  1. Distributed monitoring
  2. Distributed management and maintenance

Carlo’s ‘Trash Track’ project http://senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack/, Jose’s Water Testing http://www.bmwguggenheimlab.org/berlin-lab-city-projects/235 and my Dynamic Connections Bike Map http://www.dynamicconnections.de/ are all great examples of citizens monitoring their city.

So what do we need to do to crowd-source city infrastructure?

Dietmar suggests, from his Phd research, that:

  • We need to ee-conceptualize the relationship between individual and infrastructure
  • We need more voluntary behaviour change. For example we can regulate recycling but in the end its all about voluntary participation
  • We need more people to contribute.  Social media has shown us that only 2% of Wikipedia users contribute or ‘write’ whilst 98% of users just ‘read’
  • We need to ensure that have representation. Technology can mediate but we need real and appropriate representation.
  • We need infrastructure legibility. How do we read our city? How is it represented in our memory?
  • We need to see the structure and activity of our infrastructure systems. For example in the Trash Track project citizens saw just how complex the recycling and waste systems really were.
  • We need to see ourselves in our city infrastructure system. Platforms such as ‘See Click Fix’ and “Citizens Connect’ give us instant gratification for participating in our cities. Social media has shown us that people like to be seen and want others to see them being seen!
  • We need to see others in our cities systems – I’d define this as ‘we want to see that our neighbours want to see the changes that we want to see and we want to see them participating too’.
  • We want to see the consequences of actions and decisions – That’s why platforms such as footprinted are so successful