Sentient City workshop @ IABR

Open podium event: presentations of the Sentient City workshop. NAi. Rotterdam. 6.11.09.
by Elena Tiis

After a one-day workshop aiming to develop “approaches toward urban computing and locative media applications, systems and infrastructures for near-future urban life in Rotterdam”, the results were presented at the Open Podium event of the Architecture Biennale.

By way of an introduction, IABR curator Jennifer Sigler notes that the exhibition has a blind spot. In its concentration on physical urban space it elides the effects of digital networks. This is why the Biennale comprises also a week-long (4th – 8th November) program on the theme of Connectivity.
Curated by the Mobile City bloggers Martijn de Waal and Michiel de Lange in collaboration with Mark Shepard of the Sentient City Survival Kit, the workshop investigated the importance of “the digital” for urban space. Shepard, in his lecture the previous day, had used Jane Jacobs’ idea of the sidewalk ballet and transposed it to the notion of the ‘informational ballet,’ a kind of invisible layer of urban space which architecture should have a chance at influencing.

In introducing the project sketches, Michiel de Lange describes the Mobile City as a knowledge network, aiming to bring together professionals from various sectors. The first part of the presentations showcased the results of the workshop, which was about critical design interventions and explore what “digital” means for the city. In the second part, Shepard’s Sentient City Kit was presented.

The projects of the day comprised:

1. “Nuggit”, which is something you have to offer – a skill, staff or a situation. It’s a kind of service without currency exchange. One becomes a nuggeteer by offering a nuggit, which is whatever one is offering in time and space, for a moment, or for a certain duration or on the spot. Walking someone’s dog for twenty minutes while waiting for the bus might be a nuggit. This is done by opening Nuggits on one’s smartphone and signaling one’s willingness to offer something.

2. “Goede Reis” team took the OV-chipkaart system (a public transport card with RFID, which was recently introduced in the Netherlands) as their starting point. The goals of the project were to raise awareness of the data collected by these cards, to improve social interaction and increase serendipity. The medium or location for these interventions are the turnstiles/ticket control machines in public transportation. The idea of the project is twofold: First, after you swipe your card, the machine says something about you so that the person entering behind can get a conversation going. The cardreader displays inferred information based on the travel information of the person, for instance “she’s late today!” Secondly, it aims to bridge the boundaries between the social, cultural and spatial aspects of the city by an LBT (location based task). This is one’s “score” for city exploration; the card tracks the areas of the city that are familiar and unfamiliar for the person and recommend exploring unknown areas and allocates points on that basis. Traveling to the south of the city although normally residing in the north is to significantly increase one’s score.

3. “Landmarks” team was concerned with making the “after” of events more visible to the point of actually making it mandatory for biennales and festivals. The timeline for a landmark would be as follows: initial event idea →going to the local government to get the event permit; in conjunction with this, one must agree to produce a landmark for it → the event produces an augmented reality landmark, a living monument capturing the experience in pictures, memories, text and sound which stays on as a reminder after the festival in question has finished.

4. “What clicks on the street” is about taking the Dutch “probleembuurt” (Dutch government terminology for a ‘problematic neighbourhood’) and reconsidering a “problem” as a space of negotiation. It is a way of getting at the qualitative information behind street noise and movement for the purpose of mediating what is considered a problem by different people. The point is to find unexpected ways of addressing intrusion; there should be a kind of “leakage” of personal information about the situation, producing an intimate message about the origin of the sound or situation in question. This would take the form of unexpected notes published on shop receipts, soundfiles via Bluetooth or “junkmail”.

In the case of all these project sketch presentations, there seems to be a palpable concern with bridging what one might term the modern metropolitan remove, or the anonymous façade of interactions in the city. All project an actual interest in spying upon the details of a stranger and a fascination to inscribing memories onto physical urban space. Indeed, “Landmarks” goes as far as to stipulate that this might be something mandatory in the case of festivals. The more disquieting, intrusive and even coercive edge of technologies that track and control is thus repurposed as something that can have benevolent uses.

The second part of the event opens the Sentient City exhibit with the presentation of Shepard’s survival toolkit. The toolkit is about imagining tactile objects in response to the transformation of urban culture. By taking a playful stance and imagining a type of “urban computing”, it wants to know what happens in an over-coded city as digital information on mobile devices comes in interface with urban space. By taking jabs at the future and as one example of critical design, the kit fabricates things which are relating and sensing.

Shepard’s four concept sketches for survival in the Sentient City are an exercise in the archaeology of society that does not yet exist. By reconstructing a future possibility, we can get to know in the present the kind of future that we could want. These items address the social, cultural and political implications of the Sentient City, in response to computing leaving desktops and information processing entering urban realm, modifying our behaviour.

1. GPS Serendipitor (like a Tom Tom, but one which picks out a route which one hasn’t used before to get from A to B)
2. RFID Under(a)ware (underwear that has vibrators sewn into it which sense the presence of RFID tags)
3. Ad-hoc Dark Roast Travel Mug (a travel mug which sends subversive messages to one’s fellow passengers)
4. CCD-Me Not Umbrella (an umbrella which hides one from CCTV monitoring)


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