"The current discussion on ‘smart cities’ is based on a too limited idea of what a city is"
“We claim that the current discussion on ‘smart cities’ is based on a too limited idea of what a city is. A lot of this ‘smart city’ research conceptualizes the city mainly as a bunch of infrastructure to be managed as efficiently as possible. Urban life of course is much more that getting as quickly as possible from A to B. Rather we want to connect the debate about technology in our cities with a theme that designers, planners and policy makers are traditionally involved in: the social city.” Being interviewed is Martijn de Waal, Director of the Public Matters, an office for strategy and research on the role of new media in society. “We focus on questions like: What does the advent of digital media mean for the urban public sphere? How can we use these same technologies to engage urban publics around collective issues in new ways? How can we give citizens a sense of ownership, the feeling that they belong to the city, and that the city belongs to them?”
About Martijn de Waal and The Public Matters
One of the main projects of The Public Matters (TPM) is The Mobile City, a think tank on the role of digital media in urban design that de Waal founded with Michiel de Lange in 2007. At the time both were working on their PhDs in which the increasing influence of mobile media in our everyday urban lives was addressed. “We wanted to find a way to translate the insights from our academic studies into the practice of urban designers, planners and policy makers. We have addressed digital and social media themes through a series of conferences, workshops and research programs. We always do this in cooperation with partner organizations and are open to new collaborations. Currently I am working on a book called The City as Interface that will explore these issues further – to be published by NAi010 early 2013.”
You mention that the fear of fragmentation is not completely unjustified and that social media on mobile devices has created “series of social islands” within our cities. Would you say that social media has made city dwellers less social or perhaps less aware of what is going on around them in their city?
“Some people have suggested that GPS-navigation has turned driving through the city into the experience of a subway-ride. We get in our cars, follow instructions and forget to really pay attention to what’s outside until we get where we want to be, almost like we’d been underground for the whole way. That is of course an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. Often however it’s not a navigation screen that distracts us from our direct surroundings, but a connection to friends, colleagues, family members, etc. It’s not that we are less social, it is our very sociality that keeps our eyes tied to our screens. In his book New Tech New Ties Rich Ling has shown that mobile media increases social contacts within our networks, at the cost of interaction with strangers. There are various labels for this new social condition. Matsuda for instance calls it a ‘telecocoon’ – meaning that in public space we carve out our own private spaces (cocoons) by retracting behind our mobile screens. However, she warns, we shouldn’t exaggerate. People do shift between various modes of being in public, they do not completely or permanently retract. In fact, these cocoons enable us to make use of public spaces much more intensely. Many people have started working in public spaces like parks and coffee bars with their laptops. Of course most of the time they are focused on their screens, but every now and then they will look up and interact with their surroundings. Which is more than before, when they spent the whole day in the office.”
‘Telecocoons’ – private spaces we create in public behind our mobile screens. How much real life can we experience within our virtual realities?
“The way this dilemma often is formulated presupposes that we have a ‘real reality’, i.e. our physical surroundings, and that this reality should not be disturbed by an external or virtual reality. I am not sure if younger generations experience their surroundings in such a way. Research from Japan has shown that younger generations have started to experience ‘presence’ in terms of connectivity. So, someone is present if he can be reached and connected to, rather than whether he is actually physically present. When groups of friends meet, the meeting starts with the exchange of messages, than a physical meeting is arranged, and after the ‘flesh’-meeting they continue to send each other messages. They experience this as a continuous presence, albeit with varying intensity. If some members of the group couldn’t make it to the meeting, some of those physically present will relay parts of the event to them, and shift back and forth between interaction with group members who are physically there and those who are not. So this idea of the mobile phone as disturbing a physical meeting is likely to be totally irrelevant for them.”
How can governments and telecom providers see to it that public space is better equipped for modern day new media necessities?
“There are various answers to that question, depending on what
level of intervention you are looking at. On a more practical
level: connectivity leads to new types of spatial practices, so you
shouldn’t just equip public spaces with connectivity, but also
adjust the design of these spaces to the new practices. For
instance, some cities are focusing on city wide wifi networks, or
offer wifi in parks or other public spaces like libraries. Now
there is nothing wrong with that, but if for instance there is no
place where I can sit down at a bench or a desk, than the wifi is
not as useful to me as it could be. Of course facilities offered
should depend on the kind of activities that we would like to
stimulate or prevent. Do we really want to turn our libraries into
offices? Perhaps, yes, and then we need more desks and less book
cases. But does the same hold up for a park? Or would we prefer to
stimulate different activities there?
On a more philosophical level, the question is not so much how do we equip public spaces as we know them, but rather: what exactly is a public space when people can always retract in their telecocoons and create private spheres in public? Is there a way we can design either a physical space in such a way that it will remain attractive for various kinds of citizens? Or can we design software interfaces in such a way that they will promote new forms of ‘publicness’?”
How do you see the future of new media and public space?
“The key ingredient to most digital services is that they are
based around reputation systems, that is: digital media make it
possible to measure and make public what individuals are taking
from or contributing to a shared resource. So a ‘public
moment’ appears not because we happen to be at the same space at
the same time, but because we (temporarily) share a communal
resource. That is the optimist take on the future of
public space, and I think it is more productive than the more
dystopian one that states that public space will disappear because
we will permanently retract in our telecocoons, closed off from our
surroundings, even if we are in the middle of what used to be a
Want to read more of the interview? Please click on the link in the See also folder for all the questions & answers of Martijn de Waal.
EUKN, Elizabeth Winkel
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Interview Martijn de Waal
06 Sep 2012, pdf, 77KB