Thinking Things, Sensing Cities

Architecture in Formation, 2013
By Jason Kelly Johnson

ISBN 978-0-415-53490-1

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Thinking Things, Sensing Cities
by Jason Kelly Johnson

When the basic building blocks of our cities begin to individually sense and respond to the world around them, how can we organize these elements into cooperative networks or ecologies that exhibit intelligence at a larger scale?  When a building is constantly evolving based on feedback from its users, its environment or the internet, what are the implications, potentials or risks for architecture? When a city truly becomes ‘cognizant’ and is woven with artificial intelligence, how can architecture become an active participant? Perhaps most importantly, what are the social, cultural, political, or ecological implications of these new soft, wild and responsive cities?

Our research has led us to develop a hypothesis about cities that tends to have more in common with biology and cybernetics, than with anything resembling traditional top-down urban planning. Most of the contemporary examples that we find most fascinating (such as the Rocinha favela or the Occupy encampments) do not generally follow master plans or ancient foundations. Rather they seem to be guided by many of the fundamental evolutionary principles found in migratory animals, insects, viruses, nomadic tribes, digital social networks, robotic ecologies and more. These organizations are often swarm-like, borderless, wirelessly interwoven, ephemeral, intelligent and responsive. Their collective organization is never designed from the top down. These new formations (and their citizens, technologies, information networks and physical infrastructures) emerge, prosper and evolve by continuously mutating, breeding, incubating, cloning, fusing and hybridizing. These virus-like changes occur at a fibrous, cellular or “unit by unit” level and follow simple rules, feedback mechanisms and long-term processes akin to natural selection. These processes tend to generate increasingly diverse and viral formations with profound ecological, political and social dimensions. There is no sentient superstructure, rather the sensing city will emerge informally in patterns that are at once elegant, grotesque and confounding.   

As recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have revealed, our urban entanglements are highly volatile and globally intermeshed in both physical and virtual dimensions. Social networking services such as Twitter are increasingly playing a critical role in informing how, when and where citizens assemble, socialize and protest. We explored these ideas in a recent installation project entitled “Datagrove” situated in downtown San Jose, California.
It aggregates local trending Twitter feeds from Silicon Valley and then whispers these back through speakers and LCDs displays woven into the Datagrove. It functions as a social media "whispering wall" that harnesses data that is normally nested and hidden in smart phones, and amplifies this discourse into the public realm. The grove thrives on information from its urban environment. It renders invisible data and atmospheric phenomena into variable intensities of light and sound. It provides shelter and a place of calm to contemplate data streams from sources near and far. As one drifts deeper, the grove gradually reveals flowing patterns in cadence with data transmissions both random and meaningful.

Datagrove forecasts a world in which networked information is interwoven into the basic elements of the city - its bricks, mortar, building technologies and appliances. It’s architectural manifestations will exhibit increasingly life-like characteristics. It is an emerging city that will demand a critical shift in the how architecture is currently conceived, how it is constructed, and how citizens engage and participate in its evolution.