DIY urbanism

At the confluence of cloud computing, the Internet of Things, personal fabrication technologies and urbanism there is a fascinating new trend that we’ve been observing coming from urban centres around the world: cities are being transformed one neighbourhood at a time by resourceful citizens that are taking advantage of techniques that range from 3D printing to DIY electronics to smart materials to rewrite the book on urbanism.

Keith Loutit is considered by many the father of the tilt-shift photographic technique, a way to depict common urban scenes as if they were taken of a miniature model. Over the last couple of years I have collected hundreds of such videos, but it wasn’t until last week, when Keith released his latest “The Lion City“, that the genre took an important step forward. I’ll leave you to enjoy the video at your own leisure, but when you do, consider this: the algorithmic precision with which his scenes of Singapore emphasize different layers of a city, remind me of what cloud-computing plus the Internet of Things could do to help us better understand the processes that take place in a city. Not unlike a camera that captures thousands of photos of the exact same corner in a city to help us understand the patterns that emerge, and the incredible processing power to not only stitch all those photos together, but do so in such a way that specific elements of the scene are highlighted or blurred. This is my allegory for how urbanism is about to be disrupted by a convergence dedicated hardware devices and our growing ability to process big data.

IBM calls it Intelligent Operations Centers. Projects deployed all over the world to help cities monitor, measure and manage city services. The premise is simple: deploy sensors that help us measure things we couldn’t and use the same kind of analytics that have been used only in the virtual scale to help us understand the reality of our cities. I’m certain that IBM is not the only big company pursuing this new area of business.

But I’m more interested in what happens when these projects start at the ground level, with a very precise need, a solution hacked together by concerned citizens using their newly found fabrication capabilities and the will to open access to all the information generated. Take, for example, the recent NYC City agency DataDive, an event that was designed to bring new thinking to solve the problem of understanding the evolution of the urban forest and the impact that timely maintenance could have. The concrete tools that came out of this one event were certainly designed to answer the specific questions of one community, but they are a fantastic foundation for other teams to adapt the proposed solutions to their own cities. THIS is what the future of urbanism looks like.

The most interesting ideas are not those that are based purely on software working on virtual abstractions of the real world. The real potential comes from new methods to gather real data from a growing number of dedicated sensors that are measuring every aspect of our cities. This sensorial awakening allows software to better understand what is happening out there. Or perhaps even react on a timely fashion to drastic changes to the environment. Imagine an array of cheap helium balloons deployed across the city, high enough that they get a good grasp of the traffic in an entire neighbourhood so they can inform traffic lights; or a collection of decorative marbles installed along dark alleys, coming to live only when pedestrian traffic merits it; or bus shelter that functions as a solar-based recharging station. The range of ideas to make better cities seems endless.

At Tribal.MX we think our expertise in cloud-computing, big-data dashboards, mapping technologies, personal fabrication techniques and in general the Internet of Things positions us well to help cities navigate this wave of DIY urbanism.



  1. Bikes in Motion | Tribal.MX - October 16, 2012

    [...] continue the conversation about DIY Urbanism, here is a concrete project that we believe fits nicely into this trend and is within our reach.   [...]

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