Part II: The Power of Place

A conversation with Ximena Ocampo Aguilar, architect and co-founder of dérive LAB in Querétaro, Mexico. (Read this story in Spanish here.)

“Cebras por la Vida” (Crosswalks for Life), infrastructure that dignifies everyday life

Drift through the city guided only by your feelings. Use the map of London to navigate Berlin. Remix a public advertising image to relay a political message. These playful acts of resistance were some of the tools invented by the Situationist International, a political and art collective formed in 1957 and dissolved in the early 70s. (Think: Surrealism meets the city.)

At the time, large-scale urban renewal projects had transformed cities like Paris, New York, and London into generic high-rises, highways, and other hyper-rational design elements intended to eliminate the perceived messiness of mixed-use, street-level life. The Situationists observed how the reshaping of cities into blasé tower blocks had also flattened our interior lives — psychologically alienating people from their environments, their emotions, and each other.

Their experiments elevated everyday acts (e.g. walking to work) as an opportunity for unscripted moments of curiosity, agency, and play that defied the reigning, post-war ethos of optimizing city life for economic production and consumption.

While the Situationists in part mocked the theater of politics with their officious edicts and menacing telegrams to national governments, their rejection of capitalist logic is no joke today. In fact, their reflective exercises are useful to evaluate the value of smart city products and big data. Alternative ways of seeing and valuing city life from the Gehl Institute’s creation of a Public Life Data Protocol to Bianca Wylie’s critique of the commodification of human behavioral data are much needed. As we grapple with how technology and the data it generates is shaping our cities and our identities — from personal wearables to algorithmic decision making — can the Situationist framework help us more critically evaluate our current market-driven urban paradigm?

In the second piece of the series The Power of Place, we talk to architect Ximena Ocampo, co-founder of dérive Lab. Her studio reprises Situationist ideas to design public spaces as unscripted, open experiences and to reacquaint people with walking as a transformative technology.

Walking to discover local architecture in Querétaro, México

How do you define a city?
A city is a living organism. It’s something that is neither given nor defined but is transformed everyday by each of our actions; whether conscientious or unconscious, collective or individual.

Tell us about dérive Lab? What inspired you to start a practice built on the Situationist tradition of unbounded, urban exploration?
The laboratory was founded by Francisco — my partner and husband — and myself. Francisco is a social psychologist and I am an architect and urban designer. We thought that the Situationist legacy of “psychogeography”, defined as the relationship between human emotion and the environment, represents the perfect meeting point between our disciplines. We chose the “dérive,” a Situationist technique of unplanned movement through urban space, as a guide for both our name, methodologies, and our own understanding of the city.

Nowadays, dérive LAB has another partner Chucho (my brother), who is an architect and artist. These three profiles have allowed us to expand our approach to the urban field. Today, we carry out research, design and action projects on three specific scales: public life, the built environment, and everyday objects.

More than 300 people, of which 41 were girls and boys and 18 older adults, writing and drawing about their favorite places and topics in the city in Querétaro, México

What is your approach to urban data? How does it apply to your practice?We love data! But using only big data can be dangerous, as it keeps you distant from the subject at stake — especially for the people who analyze and use data without being there to collect it. Data maintains a distance between people who consume it and the people it represents. I think it rarely produces empathy and often misses the stories behind what makes a city a personal, lived experience: a sense of connection to people around you and the ability to imagine and plan your future. This makes me think of something that the writer Sisonke Msimang said: “stories are the antidote to bias.”

The life of a city is not really about facts, because there is no absolute truth, but many truths, many versions not only about the present, but also about the past and the future of each and everyone of its inhabitants. Data is then only one representation of life without nuances. It can state facts, represent situations, but it is not the phenomenon in itself. Data can suggest a path, but data is not what is important, but what lies behind it. Physical spaces may speak via data generation, but they act much more as a symbol or a node of what a place is, means, and allows. Space is more emphatical than information — space is where our stories happen.

When you lead groups on dérives, what do people find most surprising? What do they discover about themselves through physical spaces?
One of the most common discoveries, especially when we walk with locals, is the notion of distance, which is atrophied by the use of the car and public transport. By walking, people realize how close most neighborhoods or places are and the many fragments that are lost between the origin and the destination. For example, in our recent walks through Hong Kong we explored the smell of the street, as it’s something we can’t normally access by car or on public transit, yet it connects us very powerfully with memories of people, places or situations.

A 21-meter-long table with which people can interact expressing ideas, phrases and drawings of their city in Querétaro, México

Adam Greenfield, urban scholar and writer,, commented in an interview about his book ‘Radical Technologies that “efficiency is a neoliberal virtue.” Do you see your work as trying to challenge our cultural values around efficiency?
Definitely. We believe that efficiency is an economic value that should not necessarily be transposed to social areas or the urban environment.Gaining efficiency in the city often means losing interpersonal relationships, breaking the social fabric and, coming back to the Situationists, sacrificing opportunities to create “situations.” One of our favorite quotes by the Italian architect and scholar of walking, Francesco Careri, is “Chi perde tempo, guadagna spazio” (Who loses time, gains space.)

We believe something very similar when it comes to order, likely influenced by our countries of origin, Mexico and Colombia. Places that might seem to lack order can actually generate new forms of organization and benefits for the population. A great example in Mexico is a tianguis, which is a traditional market that springs up for the day on a different street each week. This might not be completely efficient or easily scaleable, but it creates jobs, brings accessible goods to different neighborhoods, is responsive to varying hyper-local conditions, and distributes opportunities for people to socialize in the public realm.

How does technology factor into your practice?
Francisco always says that “la tecnología es una promesa no cumplida en nuestros países” (technology is an unfulfilled promise, at least in our countries). We are quite skeptical and critical about new technologies, because we believe that the costs (more social than economic) are often very high, mainly in our countries, where more than a third of the population lives in poverty. For example, we are very fond of bike-share systems, but we are aware that these will not serve the majority of the population if the only way to access them is through a bank card. So is technology bringing opportunities or is it just another means of segregation?If we cannot find a real path for keeping the promises of technology to the vast majority of the population in the near-term, then the smart city, as it is currently understood, will be just another neoliberal approach to commodifying and stratifying the city by class.

A trip takes us to inner worlds of cities that are seemingly already known, ignored or brushed past in Querétaro, México

Could you imagine a technology to open people’s perspectives and appreciation for the diversity of city life?
I do not want to sound cliché or romantic, but I think that there will never be a better technology than our own body traversing a space to understand and appreciate the city. How else could we smell different scents, discuss conversations, or run into a neighbor?

I do not deny the importance or necessity of new technologies for our daily life; however, I do not believe we should strive to replace existing ways of moving through and managing cities for technology’s sake. Shared space is one of our favorite urban design concepts; it proposes to get rid of many of the elements that we consider necessary for the order of a street such as traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, signs, etc. to strip the street again so that its functioning depends on our social behavior. That is technology! Maybe we need to re-learn the most basic actions of humankind: To walk. To walk more. To walk better. To walk consciously.

More Resources:
Francesco Careri (2016). Walkscapes: walking as an aesthetic practice.

dérive LAB (2014–2015) Inclusive city design tools

dérive LAB (2015). The First Manual for Shared Streets in Spanish

Editorial El Caminante: Selected Publications

If you’d like to see more stories about human-centered design, smart cities, and data protocols we love, follow the City-as-a-Service blog :)