Are fast, cheap, and disruptive ideas for urban planning and civic improvement better than traditional ones?

In recent years, there has been a nascent movement of designers acting on their own initiative to solve problematic urban situations, creating new opportunities and amenities for the public. Provisional, improvisational, guerrilla, unsolicited, tactical, temporary, informal, unplanned, participatory, open-source… These efforts cut across boundaries, addressing architecture, landscape, infrastructure, and the digital universe, and run the gamut from symbolic to practical, physical to virtual, whimsical to serious. But they share an optimistic willingness to venture outside conventional practice and to deploy fresh tactics to make the world a more sustainable, accessible, inclusive place.

The description above refers to Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, the exhibit organized by the Institute for Urban Design for the United States Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Here was an array of projects devised by architects, designers, media artists, ecologists, and other “urban practitioners” focused on creatively re-using existing city infrastructure and highlighting its hidden potential, often using fairly cheap technology to make use of hitherto underexploited urban data—pretty much performing software upgrades on an infrastructure (the hardware) that was thought to be maxed out and outpaced.

The projects ranged from “Amphibious Architecture,” which staged a data-driven dialogue between humans, fish, and their shared environment (New York’s Hudson River), to a registry of farmable acreage in the inner-city from Futurefarmers.

Garden Registry Screenshot

Futurefarmers’ Garden Registry, one of many San Francisco projects featured in the US Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Common features of the works in Spontaneous Interventions included tech know-how put to common use for the common good, simple and easy-to-use formats at relatively low cost, and straight-forward adaptability to other urban environments. Overall, they stood in stark contrast to many other proposals at the Biennale in response to the theme: Common Ground. That topic was intended to showcase the social and cultural negotiations and tensions that factor into architectural process. Most contributors, however, did so by showcasing very tangible, very solid buildings. In other words, most revolved around architectural and urbanism hardware.

So why were the projects in the US Pavilion so radically different, so software centric (either literally or figuratively)? That question got this Swiss observer thinking: Is the scrappy, can-do attitude that pervades US culture—in particular the culture on the West Coast—the perfect fit for coming up with the necessary software upgrades for smarter cities? And which is better anyway, the software approach to urban planning and civic improvement, or the hardware approach?

Software vs. Hardware

There’s no denying that the projects in Spontaneous Interventions were reflective of a different bent on urbanism and architecture, with the US, and San Francisco as a key echo chamber, focusing on software questions, whereas countries like Switzerland tend to put prevalence on the hardware. Just look at the very building-focused debate on Swiss urbanism conducted in Zurich’s weekly Das Magazin, or the critical approach to urban development via building typologies by architects Christ & Gantenbein.

But where other governments prioritize urban master planning and generation-defining buildings, the City of San Francisco has created an Office of Civic Innovation that encourages grass-roots initiatives hacking out inexpensive micro-solutions to micro-problems in the urban realm.

Perhaps this divide is because the US faces relatively busted city infrastructure and depleted public funding that tends to cripple major hardware rehaul. At a recent talk at swissnex San Francisco focusing on Smart Cities, the City of San Francisco’s Deputy Innovation Officer, Shannon Spanhake, put it like this:

“U.S. cities are broke and under great pressure to deliver services. Population is increasing while infrastructure is shrinking. We therefore need to rely increasingly on our citizens.”

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those citizens seem to have an overdeveloped “quick fix” spirit, a knack for grass-roots organizing, a dose of traditional impatience with public power and processes, not to mention a high density of techies who pioneered the public release of city-owned data (read guest blogger Hunter Franks’ post on nextrends about how San Francisco pioneered Open Data legislation). Put all that together and you’ve got yourself a pretty good environment for the development of an urbanism mentality geared towards architectural software upgrades in the form of scalable, technology-driven micro-solutions to urban micro-problems.

Urban Rapid Prototyping

That quick-fix, can-do spirit, for better or for worse, for good or for bad, was at the core of the first Urban Prototyping Festival, held in San Francisco in October 2012. UP:SF promoted civic innovation by testing ideas and solutions for city life through rapid, inexpensive and temporary prototyping projects that created replicable digital and physical urban interventions. Many of the projects were conceived and churned out over a super-intensive, 48-hour “urban makeathon.”

Talking to the Huffington Post, co-organizer Jake Levitas of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts explained, “We’ve been seeing a parallel between DIY urbanism and the DIY civic hacking worlds, and we wanted to bring these two communities together to see what possibilities could come out of that. We wanted to see what would happen if we took the software development cycle and applied it to urban space.”

Projects at UP:SF included a projection mapping software that animated dark-alley painted murals at night, guerilla gardening projects of various types, transportable performance stages, and much more. Participant Shane Myrbeck, a sound artist and acoustics consultant at global architecture firm ARUP, conceived “Good Fences Make Good Neighborhoods,” a sonic map of San Francisco based on several available San Francisco urban data sets.

“The festival was meant to be quick and off the cuff—an environment that can be an incubator for great ideas, but which can preclude the long-view element of successful urban planning,” Myrbeck notes.

“Software” Can’t Do it Alone

A crucial question regarding architectural software projects will repeatedly pop up as data-driven urban interventions make their way into countries like, say, Switzerland, where Zurich and Geneva are following in the footsteps of San Francisco and other cities in making large swaths of city-collected and city-held data public: How do you scale up software initiatives from the micro level and bring them to bear city-wide?

“It will be difficult to implement many of the UP-style ideas without the necessary urban infrastructure to properly sustain it,” admits Myrbeck. “Even mobile apps are by definition exclusive based on class and age. We will need to work on making the software better, and create projects compelling enough to necessitate upgrading or modifying existing infrastructure to make them possible on a larger scale.”

Geoff Manaugh, Studio-X NYC co-director and author of BLDGBLOG says of the hardware/software question, “Software has very real limits. I would look to the famous car-repair culture of Cuba for an example that crosses two categories: very real hardware (the car engines and car bodies) combined with very grass-roots/local hacks and fixes (your “software”). These keep cars that would long ago have been abandoned for scrap in Europe or the US running relatively smoothly. The question is: can this type of hands-on hacking and tweaking of real physical infrastructure survive being scaled up to urban infrastructure, to bridges and buildings?”

Torre David in Caracas

Architectural hardware reappropriated: the Torre David in Caracas, analyzed by ETH Zurich’s Urban Think Tank. Courtesy of Iwan Baan.

This discussion is sure to intensify in the coming years. Switzerland seems set to throw a bit more of the geeky software talk into its urbanistic mix as city data continues to be released and sees more consistent use by developers. But as for the smart cities of the future, those will probably take equal parts hardware—long-term thinking, process, infrastructure—and disruptive ideas dreamt up over a coffee or hashed out over a weekend hackathon.

Cab spotting map image

Map of San Francisco layered with city data. In this case, the movement of taxi cabs. Stamen Design.

Want to create a software solution of your own? The online Urban Data Challenge runs through early April and encourages participants to tackle transportation issues by visualizing mobility data from three cities: Zurich, Geneva, and San Francisco. The competition kicked off in early February and included an in-person hackathon at the 2013 Lift Conference.