Cities as software, a useful metaphor

Today, Marcus Westbury said “Cities are Software“. He was describing his experience with Renew Newcastle, a “start up” that gets cultural businesses — galleries, studios etc — into disused sections of the city of Newcastle, NSW.

I’m going to quote Westbury out of order here:

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. It defines much of what a city can and cannot be. The hardware of the city – its topography, the scale of its spaces, its architecture, it’s patterned dense grid or it’s narrow laneways or its chaotic sprawl – places a hard limit on what is and isn’t possible.

Cities are also software – they actually have many layers of software. They have an operating system – a hard set of rules and constraints that are imposed and enforced by governments. Operating systems are hard boundaries too – they are laws that forbid and allow. They define what you can and can’t do as much as the hardware does. Far from open to opportunities, the operating systems of cities are often defensive, risk averse and closed to possibility.

Westbury says Renew Newcastle was successful because it changed the software of the city:

Not in the slow and traditional way – the hard way – of seeking the political power to amend the rules, change the laws and rewrite the operating system. It has done so in an easier but less obvious way – it has followed the path of least resistance. Rather than rewrite the operating system it has hacked it and made it work in new ways.

The difference between things that are slow to change and that are faster to change reminded me of the diagram in Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn“, which describes the “shearing layers of change”.

Shearing Layers of Change - Big

(via Thoughtwax)

The diagram starts with the idea that parts of a building (or city) are fixed and some parts are are able to be changed. But the diagram also shows that there are layers of things that make up buildings and the layers change at different speeds.

Brand argues that old buildings are more amenable to change than new buildings because the layers are decoupled. The structure layer, for example, does not get in the way of the services layer.

In new buildings, according to Brand, the layers are interrelated so that they can’t move at different speeds. Layers that “want” to be more fixed are compelled to move at the faster speed of the more flexible layers. Or that the layers that need to change faster are not able to change because a fixed layer holds them back.

But it’s not enough to say that there are layers that are more fixed and layers that are less fixed. If we’re interested in making change we need to know whether the change we want is compatible with the software layers or if it requires the more hardware layers. Westbury notes that “Rather than rewrite the operating system [Renew Newcastle] has hacked it and made it work in new ways”. And that’s really interesting. Are you ready? Let’s get our actor-network on.

The absolutely brilliant trick that Renew Newcastle has done is to create a new “program of action” that runs, more or less, on the existing rules, layers or infrastructure. But the trick is trickier because it first figured out what the rules were and whether they were able to be changed. And where they weren’t able to be changed, they were worked around.

A city is a network of more-and-less stable relations between things. Those things can be land, buildings, companies and government offices, people and their positions in those organisations, traffic, building codes and so on and so on. Some of those things are fixed. Some of them plastic, in the sense that they are able to be molded.

John Law, my favourite actor-network theorist has said that:

organising is about complex relations between the different modes of ordering. Nothing simple. Sometimes these may undermine one another. Sometimes by contrast, they prop each other up.

Despite saying that nothing is simple, Law is actually optimistic about the complexity of organising and organisations, saying:

organisations precisely work because they are non-coherent. An organisation which is gripped by a single version of reality – like a polity which suffers the same indignity – is not very long for this world. The real world is messy. Regrettably in the fevered imaginations of the social engineers the possibility of pure form, pure plan, pure order, is still to be found. (Let us hope that the 21st century is less beset by the hideous purity of the utopians than was the 20th.) [bold in original]

Westbury tweeted today a link to Nick Judd at techPresident who says that cities aren’t software and that “falling too much in love with a good metaphor can induce the myopia that comes with wanting to reject ideas that don’t fit neatly within it” but I’m totally on-board with the cities-as-software idea. I’d go further, actually. Cities are systems, and software is a special sort of system.

These days, of course, quite a lot of a city actually is software, real software that runs on silicon. But a lot of a city happens in the everyday practice of being in the city, in the rules that are in people’s heads or in the markings on the road or in the practices that have evolved over time. There’s the (in)famous example of standing to the right on the escalators in the Underground in London, which is totally contrary to the drive-on-the-left behaviours of the UK. In some sense you’re not actually a Londoner, you’re not actually in London until you stand to the right. In fiction, China Mieville’s”The City and The City“, is about the ways that a city really is the rules that are in people’s heads and the rules that are built into the fabric of the city itself.

The research project I’m currently working on is taking me in the direction of trying to figure out the rules that (parts of) airports run on. Airports are highly regulated spaces, housed in purpose-built strucutres which are, inevitably, of their time. And airports are full of people, all of who have different ways of understanding airports, and full of things, which have different ways of understanding airports built into them.

“Airports as software” might be a leaky metaphor, but I think it could be useful for understanding what can and can’t be changed about the airport experience.

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One thought on “Cities as software, a useful metaphor

  1. “The grid.. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships, motorcycles? Where the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I’d never see. And then… One day… I got in”
    – the grid
    Daft punk

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