Digital Cities: Hybrid Placemaking in the City

This is the fifth post in a series of excerpts from my graduate research at Cornell University; each has been adapted for the purposes of this format. To read the full report, in all its technical glory, please visit my website.

Previous Topic: Social Networks, Who Cares?


History has often ascribed the activity of a city to be that of a living organism; a place where the roads, parks, and squares serve as arteries for citizens to connect and co-create. The analogy serves the physical domain well; however, as interactions amongst citizens rapidly switch between the physical and digital domains, the structure of communication begins to closely represent that of a social network (luckily we understand those).

With this framework we can begin to evaluate the modern urban dynamic at scale — a construct that enables actors within the city to seamlessly collaborate with a growing populace of different cultures, languages, and preferences. In order to begin we first must understand how the digital and physical domains can invite interaction, why their collision can scale intra-city communication, and whether this intersection can be measured to target urban innovation cycles.

Code and Space

Almost 60 years ago Kevin Lynch published “The Image of the City,” the study became foundational in its attempt to identify what makes a city memorable to those within its bounds. To Lynch citizens viewed the quality of a city as a function of their ability to comprehend its structure, navigate its streets, and generally make sense of its physical attributes. He boiled down these concepts into two fundamental principles serving as the axes about which planners can orient urban design interventions. Kevin Lynch’s Principles of Urban Quality:

  • Imageability — the emotion a city incites
  • Legibility — a sense of urban clarity (the city’s layout is logical)

By fusing bits with atoms we can reexamine his argument of the city as defined by the combination of its physical and digital presence. The result is a hybrid informational sphere where digital media serves to augment brick-and-mortar as a complementary layer hovering over the city — an access point for citizens as they probe the imageability and legibility of a place. This dyadic relationship formed between the digital and physical space — what urbanists have variously termed Real Virtuality (Manuel Castells), Software-Sorted Geographies (Steve Graham), and Code/Space (Martin Dodge) — rejects Malcom McCullough’s belief that “if you can do anything, anytime, anyplace, then in a sense you are nowhere” (Offenhuber, Dietmar, Ratti: 2012).

Scaling the City

The theory of social navigation tells us we are predestined to be attracted, digitally and physically, to clusters of activity. As cities densify and expand due to this attraction principle, so too do urban networks of interaction. As networks becomes denser, the probability of an individual’s contacts being connected (local clustering) remains constant; thus, both the total size of the urban social network and interaction within it grows superlinearly with the city’s total population.

This scaling of connection and communication within the urban network suggests a digitally enhanced city may be able to facilitate rapid dissemination of information and innovation throughout the population by leveraging our knowledge of how content spreads within social networks. The prospect of urban innovation being tied to expansion of the urban social network is an attractive proposition. If true, the network will require fewer points of influence and utilize existing points more efficiently.

What could this mean?

Assume a model city in which each human interaction contributes to the total productivity of a city; as the network expands interaction between the citizens increases, which in turn provides social economies of scale for the efficiency and productivity of the individual. If total creative productivity of a city is a function of the sum of individual productivities within the urban network, then as the city’s population grows, demand for regular access to civic resources declines and use of these resources becomes more efficient.

No one writes code like this (good luck to you if you do), but this is what Unsplash considers “code”.

// Boston ❤️s Yelp

In 2015 the City of Boston partnered with Yelp in launching a citywide competition around the city’s open data portal (health inspections) and the company’s robust dataset of customer reviews. The scope of the competition quickly expanded beyond the local talent with developers all over the world contributing innovative product ideas and actual code. It was a heavily collaborative environment with teams collaborating with each other to co-develop crowdsourcing algorithms crawling both databases.

…innovative products combined network analytics and sentiment analysis to provide lightweight, scalable, solutions than the government operating alone…

The winning team collated historical restaurant health evaluations with over 230,000 Yelp customer reviews to produce a forecasting algorithm. If adopted the winning algorithm would improve the City of Boston’s evaluation efficiency by 30–50%. Yelp might integrate their API into the data to leverage its predictive algorithm so that it could inform networked users of potential hygiene concerns when considering restaurants.

This is a beautiful illustration of innovation provided by superlinear scaling of interactions through an urban network — individuals came together to collaborate on a problem, their interaction increased overall productivity of the group which delivered an innovative solution, this solution drove efficiency for all actors involved (City of Boston, Yelp, citizens), and productivity and efficiency is scaled within the urban network as a whole.

Accelerating Civic Roots

No single node within the urban network can match the innovative ability of the network as a whole; therefore, any top-down smart city initiatives should be skeptically approached if their implementation disregards community co-creation. History shows adoption of these solutions will see their investment in digital technology unfold in one of three scenarios:

  1. Installation is successful, but the product fails to find demand and decays from agency and citizen disinterest
  2. Some initial adoption by the populace, but the product’s rigidity renders its application useless and is unceremoniously abandoned by users
  3. Ubiquitous adoption by users, but the use-case defined by the users doesn’t match the city’s intended initiative

The final scenario is perhaps the most poisonous of all — urban planners and digital strategists politically can’t close the product due to user adoption, but they have no reasonable adaptive use-case for its existence. City officials may refocus attention on developing new products to fit the original initiative, but under increasingly constrained budgets, civic technology teams will abandon iterating on products without measurable impact on government initiatives. In this case, the successful product is relegated to a sort of civic purgatory where it won’t be maintained for public use and slowly deteriorate in value to users interacting in the network.

…you can define your product’s use-case, but in the end your users will define how your application will be used…

The failure is viewed by the urban network negatively as a waste of money and time, civic technologists lose motivation, and users feel betrayed by the disrepair of a resource they once coveted. We’ve seen the dangers of negative evaluation within the network (see my last post); with the negative experience still fresh in their minds, citizens will begin to write-off future civic technology products produced by the city — regardless of their quality or relevance.

The Citizen to City Government Connection

Broadly, citizens hold weak ties to all stages (local, state, federal) levels of government engagement. Further weakening the citizen-city social tie is only at the detriment to the civic layer’s continual ability to provide access to services, while decay on the network is manifested as a loss of innovation potential as node interaction stalls. Whether a smart city initiative is digital or physical, a bloated system materializes as a liability for the future.

“…yesterday’s smart city, today’s nightmare.” — Richard Sennet

Civic leaders should evaluate the social ties of their urban network and tap the sociability of the city to reframe products within a digital mindset — user-focused, open functionality, and iterative development. The nexus of this new point-of-view rests at the intersection of iterative digital design and over 40 years of public participation knowledge supplied by urban planners. By extending the invitation to collaborate, meeting with citizens in the community, and discussing their needs first, urbanists will find stakeholder engagement increases for both the digital product and continual product collaboration. It manifests as a voice for the people presented by the people, an undeniable call-to-action when raised to political representatives.

A Change of Perspective

A participatory digital mindset forces city officials to recognize how little value a smart city initiative adds without direct involvement with the urban network of interesting and accessible citizens. Unfortunately this message is often misunderstood as a mandate to build entirely new cities, in the vision of the politician and engineer, and then invite the populace to interact. If the Songdo International Business District doesn’t jump to the forefront of your mind, then please Google the development and take notes on the lessons to be learned.

The absence of participatory planning in the utopian cities of tomorrow ensure they will remain dormant — smart cities without a soul — constructed for a population that was never considered, and one that will never come.

There is no escaping the political context of digital initiatives and how social objectives are often not of equivalent relative value; however, a network of citizens is weakened when it is forced to rely on some higher power to make decisions for them. A hybrid placemaking model is built on the social, spatial, and digital means to facilitate social interaction; therefore, with the loss of social interaction and the abandonment of our digital means, we are no better off than where we started.

A digital city is built from the bottom-up, by its people and for its people, granting it flexibility to provide aid to those most in need by accessing those most capable of helping.

End of Excerpt

Next Topic: Your ‘Digital Awareness’ Is Worthless


I welcome your feedback; keep in mind this is only a part of a series in which we’ll fully vet the concepts proposed here. Opinions are my own.

Further Reading

Relevant Research

Bilandzic, Mark, and Daniel Johnson. 2013. “Hybrid Placemaking in the Library: Designing Digital Technology to Enhance Users’ On-Site Experience.” The Australian Library Journal 62 (4): 258–271.

Fabien Firardin et al. 2008. “Leveraging Urban Digital Footprints with Social Navigation and Seamful Design.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

John Forester et al. 2011. “Learning from Practice in the Face of Conflict and Integrating Technical Expertise with Participatory Planning: Critical Commentaries on the Practice of Planner-Architect Laurence Sherman.” Planning Theory & Practice 12 (2): 287–310.

Lynch, Kevin. 1960. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Markus Schläpfer et al. 2014. “The scaling of human interactions with city size.” Interface.

Offenhuber, Dietmar, and Carlo Ratti. 2012. “Reading the City — Reconsidering Kevin Lynch’s Notion of Legibility in the Digital Age.” In The Digital Turn: Design in the Era of Interactive Technologies, by Barbara Junge et al., 215–224. Berlin: Park Books.

Peter Bull et al. 2016. “Harnessing the Power of the Crowd to Increase Capacity for Data Science in the Social Sector.” ICML Workshop of #Data4Good: Machine Learning in Social Good Applications.

Ratti, Carlo and Anthony Townsend. 2011. “The Social Nexus.”

Russon, Hollie. 2015. “More Inclusive Governance in the Digital Age.” Data-Smart City Solutions.

Samuel Arbesman et al. 2009. “Superlinear Scaling for Innovation in Cities.” Physics Review.

Vanky, Anthony. 2015. “The Elusiveness of Data-Driven Urbanism.” 103rd ACSA Annual Meeting Proceedings, The Expanding Periphery and Migrating Center.