What do you want your city to be?
Part of the Science Gallery’s ‘Hack the City’ exhibition, the Idealab experiment is a fascinating glimpse at how technological ingenuity is trying to improve city living
FROM THE OUTSIDE it looks like a typical Capel Street shop, but once you pass through the glass doors you’re met with a buzzing workplace filled with teams of young techies glued to their computer screens, gadgets and cables and sheaves of paper competing for desk space, Post-it notes decorating the walls like peeling wallpaper.
With the intensity of their focus, you might assume that these people are budding tech entrepreneurs, striving to invent a new platform in the hope of changing the world. In fact it’s not a new platform they’re working on but one of the oldest: they are examining innovative ways to use technology to solve the challenges of urban life.
This is Idealab, a week-long experiment in crowdsourcing urban innovations, and it is a fascinating glimpse at how technological ingenuity is trying to improve city living. Idealab is part of the extensive Hack the City exhibition that opened this week at the Science Gallery in Dublin, although “exhibition” barely begins to describe it. It’s an eclectic, wide-ranging and hugely ambitious project, equal parts civic activism and act of conceptual creativity.
“The whole focus of the programme is to address current and future city needs but specifically who controls our city, and what role we want to play in it as citizens,” says Hack the City’s lead curator, Teresa Dillon, hinting at the ambition behind the project.
“How are you going to engage citizens in the wider debates in relation to crowdsourcing or looking at how we’re going to manage our resources? Some of the solutions to those are technical solutions.
“The most pressing issues were dereliction, crowdsourcing public services, open transport systems, and safety and wellbeing in the city. The whole focus of the Idealab was to put out a call for designers, architects, developers, creatives, thinkers, people who had potential solutions to those questions.”
Ultimately, she says, “hacking the city is about reclaiming it”. As such, Hack the City is part of a resurgence of interest in urban design and policy issues, both here and internationally. Just in the past few years Dublin City Council has been involved with initiatives such as the Designing Dublin project, in 2009, the annual Innovation Dublin festival and Pivot Dublin, which very nearly succeeded in having Dublin designated as World Design Capital 2014.
Technology, Entertainment, Design – aka Ted – the Californian conference dedicated to showcasing “ideas worth spreading”, this year awarded its annual Ted prize not to a person, as it usually does, but to the idea of the City 2.0, a repurposing of the city model for “a future in which more than 10 billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably. The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom.”
Reflecting this, a number of books have been covering these urban issues. Triumph of the City, by the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, became a surprise bestseller, and Ryan Avent of the Economist scored an ebook hit with The Gated City. This summer the Museum of Modern Art in New York is showing Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream, a flagship exhibition dedicated to examining architectural possibilities in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis. The documentary director Gary Hustwit, whose previous subjects have included typefaces and object design, won considerable acclaim with his film on urban design, Urbanized.
What could account for this focus on urban affairs? Can it be that, as the Ted curator Chris Anderson recently put it, “cities are the great hope for our future”? With most of the world’s population now living in cities, and the rise of megacities across China and vast metropolises growing across the developing world, there is an acute need to focus on the fundamentals of urban design. The long-term economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century will demand a host of solutions, and the perception is growing that our urban spaces can provide many of them.
Integral to finding those solutions will be the application of emerging technologies, and it’s not a coincidence that both Hack the City and Ted’s City 2.0 appropriate computer terminology, as the Hack the City programme notes: “The hacker mindset is one which finds ingenious solutions to systemic problems, whereby materials are maximised and systems disassembled and reassembled in order to create new alternatives. We have applied this mindset to . . . address future and current city challenges and needs.”