Open source is not only for programmers, technicians and nerds. It is a philosophy that will increasingly challenge social and economic conventions.
What if we also start (re-) imagining the city as open source?
After all, the city is not only the sum of private domains and interests but also a social construct and project, comprised of places where one does not need to re-invent the wheel, where one can put existing knowledge, tools, infrastructure and productive power to new use.
We should not limit our understanding of the built environment to libraries, universities, roads and squares but also consider the information and ideas that flow through the city and are generated by city life.
This idea is certainly not new. In many ways, it was a crucial part of the foundations of ancient Athens and of much of democracy thereafter. Indeed, it is telling that the contemporary focus on technology has once again brought credibility to an open source outlook.
“The city is the source of the common and the receptacle into which it flows.”
- Antoni Negri in Commonwealth
Since its articulation in Athens, the slow disappearance of this idea and practice was brought to attention at the end of the 1960′s in Garrett Hardin’s essay ‘The tragedy of the commons’ and was thereafter only been slowly taken up by economists.
Only recently – when these insights came back to haunt us as part of the financial crisis – questions surrounding ‘externalities’ and ‘commons’ are receiving the attention they deserve.
In that light, the slight extremism or at least impatience with which Negri emphasizes this concept in Commonwealth is understandable. Indeed, his radical approach doesn’t make the argument any less true.
In short: people living together, sharing ideas and working together create value. One can certainly discuss how this value is shared or distributed, but one goal remains essential: to confirm these fruitful urban sources, to maintain their accessibility and to increase their power of application; thus, keeping them open source.
It is exciting to apply these concepts to the spatial dimension of a city, where they could generate new insights for – and initiatives by – many people, thereby establishing the idea of the city as an open source project.
A previous project from The Cloud Collective serves as a pragmatic example. It involves a neighborhood built mostly in the 1970s, near the centre of The Hague, The Netherlands. The north side of the neighborhood consists of a very large complex containing some 400 dwellings, office spaces and parking garages that are isolated by large scale infrastructure. The other parts of the neighborhood comprise a varied distribution of flats and private houses with the. south side still containing some typical canal houses.
So what to do with these outdated dwellings, empty offices spaces and garages, insecure passages and neglected public spaces? Our multidisciplinary team (consisting of a sociologist, urban designer, industrial designer, real estate developer and an architect) diagnosed the problem as an urban ‘stalemate’: the neighbourhood was taken hostage by a dwelling cooperation that lacked financial means but owned almost all the buildings (including empty parking garages and offices) and a municipality with equally insignificant means, but nevertheless in charge of the huge public spaces.
Our proposal was to begin solving the problem by playing and accepting more players to the game. From the neighborhood’s existing qualities we developed a spatial structure that functioned as a playing board with its own rules of engagement. This framework generated strategic insights needed for people to suggest initiatives and place them in context with others. We then proposed a constellation of modest but effective measures by different parties that could be more than the sum of their parts.
We showed that only by keeping passages – now simply perceived as insecure – open for the public, possible commercial activities on the north would have a chance of developing and/or surviving. We showed that by letting other partners and concepts into the exploitation of the parking garages, one could generate money to restructure the dwelling complex. We showed that attractive offers to inhabitants to buy their apartments could enhance connectivity with surroundings and provoke creative renovations. And we showed that all of this could have a much bigger impact on the area than creating yet another patch of grass.
Not surprisingly during this process, we began looking for tools to comprehend the wide range of strategic dimensions of the location. Were the inhabitants as powerless as presumed by the dwelling cooperation? Was there room for specific commercial activities according to surrounding competitors, demographics and infrastructure? What plans – large scale and small scale – had already been made. What potential did the local real estate market hold? Supporting data for these questions can be found on the internet.
To answer these questions and many others, we developed a simple online GIS (Geographic Information System) system called Cumulus (without the EHV), that could bring together a large amount of data from diverse sources to reveal strategic insights about the situation.
At this point, a pilot version of this system is online for members of our collective and other interested people to play with. It shows demographic neighborhood data and locations of most businesses and public functions in the Netherlands. It offers different kinds of map styles and simple analysis tools like proximity, density and spatial queries.
From this, the motivation for the Cumulus EHV project can easily be understood. To renew the open city project is a continuing ambition.
In the end, the leap of the open source philosophy is to realize that we can not solely profit from scarcity – keeping things for ourselves and selling them, but also by opening and sharing our surpluses. In precisely this lies the joy of open source and city experience alike.
Cumulus EHV is an interactive installation shown at the Dutch Design Week 2011 in the Madlab – Emergent Art Centre, located in the former Philips factories in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. It shows a virtual image of the city based on extensive data from a variety of sources. It invites people to take direct control, exploring urban processes as a video game, simulation and city panorama. A variety of temporal, programmatic, social, infrastructural dimensions are shown in combination with the generation of strategic insights and initiatives.
‘Projections on air’ is an interactive installation, also forming part of the Dutch Design Week 2011 and commissioned by the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Several lectures, all treating relevant themes for contemporary architecture and urbanism, are projects on a screen filled with a wide range of influences, references and theoretical projects. The visitor is invited to sit underneath and become aware of both the complexity of these themes as well as the possible richness of solutions.
Recently The Cloud Collective launched the free web application ‘Ruimteondernemer.nl’ (spatial entrepreneur) which looks for space according to one or more criteria.
You want to live in the vicinity of a supermarket, elementary school and a train station? Or you are looking for a business location that combines a recreational area with good parking facilities and a lot of high income people nearby?
With the help of a huge amount of topographic, demographic and infrastructural data and the addresses of all kinds of private and public facilities, the ‘Ruimteondernemer.nl’ answers those questions.
Parts of this text were written for a presentation of Cumulus EHV for Hacking the City / Pulse / Madlab during the Dutch Design Week.
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