Weaving the Tech-Urban Web

"Tron Gate" (Chicago), by John Tolva.

“Tron Gate” (Chicago), by John Tolva.

a response to “When tech culture and urbanism collide” by John Tolva (Chief Technology Officer for the City of Chicago, 2011-2013), December 30, 2013.

Thanks for citing my post “What Urban Planning Hasn’t Learned from Tech
of December 14th. In satirically inverting Allison Arieff’s “What Tech Hasn’t Learned From Urban Planning” (New York Times, December 13th), I was actually hoping to suggest much what you say in your post: that there are many productive and innovative things are to be done in the intersection and exchange between tech and urbanism today. Not only might tech learn from urbanism but, as you say, “there’s plenty of room for the most positive aspects of tech culture to remake the profession of urban planning itself.”

In order to help make such an interchange as productive and possible as possible, I think we might question not only whether “tech culture” and “urbanism” are necessarily opposed, but even whether there is a singular tech culture or urbanism to speak of. It seems to me the open and pragmatic path is not to set tech and urbanism in opposition, but to focus on the large, complex problems we have, to which we might apply various types of open, urban, historical, tech, and beginner’s minds.

In the spirit of that opening and reweaving, here’s some unpacking of the tech vs urbanism idea:

> tech companies have enthusiastically co-opted the language of urbanism

Tech companies have, naturally enough, employed familiar metaphors from the ancient field of urbanism, such as “commons”, along with many others from all kinds of other fields such as physics, biology, mathematics, and publishing. I think the trend is actually much stronger the other way, of urbanists/planners adopting tech language such as “innovation”, “startup,” “popup,” “incubator,” “agile,” “hacking,” etc. Score one for tech! .. except wait, we’re not doing that..

> The web itself, fount of so much innovation in the tech world, is the
> network embodiment of density, diversity and proximity — precisely
> the characteristics of cities.

Hmm, I’m finding this one a stretch, or a draw. I’d say the Web, or Internet generally, in many ways is more the opposite of traditional cities and physical space. The URI, Uniform Resource Indicator Identifier, precisely makes all entities equally addressable and effectively equidistant, the opposite of proximity. The core principle of its “End-to-End” architecture is to put all intelligence, agency, and memory into autonomous elements at the network edge, joined with only the simplest possible common fabric, which is by design restricted to only carry messages, all totally independent of and meaningless to each other.

By design, there is nothing about the Internet that requires or particularly supports common experience between any two endpoints, which are always unique assemblages of message packets, infinitely customizable. This is really not much like serendipitous street life, and rather more like individuals sealed in cars (packets) criss-crossing on freeways on route to entirely private separate homes. The Web is, like Heraclitus’ river, something never experienced the same way twice — just as every web “page” on (the appropriately named) Amazon is uniquely composed for every individual upon every viewing.

But then again, what’s a city? They’ve been conceived and built and evolved in endlessly varied ways over millennia, varying or shifting between models military, royal, sacred, imperial, commercial, philosophical, anarchic, theological.. Even the pre-industrial and pre-digital city was sometimes viewed as a constellation of information refraction, so we might consider the Internet as just extending that great house of mirrors.

> “Why,” she asks, “are tech companies such bad urbanists?”

I’d say, because they’re tech companies, which are something different than city planners or policy makers, or urbanists. What they do is seek market opportunities and technological innovation, make and market products and services. I’m not sure we should want or expect them to resemble or emulate traditional urbanists, rather than bringing totally new points of view and ideas. In any case, integrating all the interests of society, overseeing the housing system and education systems, etc., are things I think we ultimately want done by cities and citizens and governments, not entrusted to tech companies.

> suburbia is in the very DNA of Silicon Valley, which makes
> it part of the genome of tech culture writ large…
> Silicon Valley itself came to be during the boom of
> late-20th C car culture.

I would suggest a different historical interpretation, drawing particularly on Timothy Sturgeon’s research on the origins of Silicon Valley. In this view, the innovation ecosystem of SV largely grew out of Stanford University (established in 1880s), Leland Stanford’s experience and position spanning academic/industrial/government sectors, and spinoff technology ventures in adjoining Palo Alto — particularly, Federal Telegraph, founded 1909, the godfather of Valley tech companies. Federal Telegraph, Hewlett-Packard, and many key later companies such as Google, Paypal, and Facebook all were incubated in their early days in a small area in or near downtown Palo Alto, in walking distance of each other and Stanford.

The larger Silicon Valley, furthermore, is deeply patterned by its development around a chain railroad towns of the 19th C., and San Jose, established in 1760s, and by streetcar lines of the early 20th C.; all predating automobile suburbanization. Following Sturgeon, Saxenian, et al, I’d suggest that the DNA of Silicon Valley is really in distinct patterns of cross-sector (academic/industrial/governmental) fluid social capital and organization, predating automobile use.

Of those Palo Alto-incubated companies above, many later moved to self-contained campuses when they got much larger, just like many large companies of all kinds all over the country. Even these were often nearby in the adjacent Stanford Industrial Park (now Research Park), e.g. HP and Facebook. If you focus on these few large companies’ facilities, as urbanists such as Arieff or architecture critics like Paul Goldberger and Alexandra Lange tend to, you see mostly large self-contained facilities. But central Palo Alto, where I live, continues more than ever to be filled with hundreds of fledgling startups, attracted by the dense concentration and fluid intermingling of academia, industry, and investors, which you can readily observe occurring in the many cafes and restaurants clustered there. In many ways, it’s a lot like San Francisco’s key tech zone, SoMA, to which incidentally it is closely linked, door to door, by frequent and quick train service (40mins+, faster than the transit time between many points within SF).

While urbanists now may associate serendipity and innovation with the pedestrian life of today’s large cities, historically and empirically I’m not sure the correlation is so clear. First, the great creative centers and “cities” of past times were often much smaller in area and population than present big cities. To compare, Palo Alto today has about 65,000 residents, plus perhaps 30,000 commuter workers; Periclean Athens had about 40,000 citizens, and 150,000 total non-slave population, and most Greek city-states were much smaller. Urbanist/political theory for 2,500 years has taken as a model Aristotle’s city-state definition, as a polis no larger than can be convened and addressed in person. Elizabethan London in Shakespeare’s time, the largest city in Europe, numbered only 200,000. The Northern Italian city-states, where the Renaissance and many of the earliest institutions of modern democracy and capitalism flowered, were similar in scale to ancient Greek city states, with Renaissance Florence, ca 1435, a population of 60,000.

Around the world today, many of the key centers of scientific and technological innovation are smaller cities or suburban areas, such as Cambridge, UK and Cambridge, MA; Lausanne, Switzerland; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Bethesda, Maryland; or the biomedical/pharma cluster around Princeton, New Jersey. In the Bay Area itself, tech companies are expanding much more in the South Bay than in the city of San Francisco, led by huge facilities expansions at Facebook, Google, Apple, Samsung, and others.

Big-city dwellers and urbanists of today may think of smaller or less dense places as alienating and estranging, and experience them as such. However, many who’ve studied Silicon Valley’s development, such as Annalee Saxenian (in her classic  1994 study “Regional Advantage”) have observed just the opposite here — that it’s been an area with distinctively high levels of social/professional mobility and intermingling, with deep social capital bridging between sectors and companies due to this mobility. More broadly, we could note that observers as far back as ancient Rome have perhaps as often viewed the Metropolis as a site of dehumanization, corruption, stratification, and waste, as of serendipity and progress. (see also: Juvenal, Augustine, Wordsworth, Dickens, Frank Lloyd Wright).

The automobile era, it could be argued, extended and strengthened Silicon Valley’s mobility patterns, allowing point-to-point, adaptive, network patterns of development (i.e. like the Internet) rather than the more controlled, hub-and-spoke, fixed-transit patterns of larger cities. Companies in Silicon Valley have also been comparatively free to scale rapidly, at their existing campuses or nearby large available blocks of space, with land-use patterns such as that established by Stanford Industrial Park (later, Research Park) to explicitly facilitate fluid development.

> [tech employees'] salaries — out of synch with the communities in which
> they live — generate an economic force that skews rents, forces evictions
> and creates class stratification

I’d say, tech workers generally bring to the city what most cities desperately want: a wealth of financial and human capital, rising property values and tax base, and the seeds of future innovation and job growth. Skewing rents, evictions, and housing unaffordability are signs of a non-adaptive and inequitable housing system, generally driven by the self-interest of incumbent residents & property-owners who restrict new development and prioritize growing and protecting their own property wealth.

Admittedly, this is true globally, driven by national and state policies, archetypal and possibly some deep part of human nature, but still, it’s vividly and painfully and paradoxically apparent in San Francisco. Befitting its self-image as progressive beacon and trail-blazer, I’d suggest San Francisco might reasonably approaches like paying for the needed housing supply/support via a local tax on the broad property-owning class’ skyrocketing wealth, rather than focusing blame on the relatively small, unentrenched, and usually non-property-owning group of newcomer tech workers.

> Where is the technology that causes us to rethink our domiciles and
> places of work, recreation and worship in the ways we’ve remade
> communications, mobility, and manufacturing in the last decade?

Quite! I fully agree we should and can fundamentally rethink how cities do and might work — in all, core respects, not just certain more amenable elements like public space or transit.

Here I would suggest that we have a tremendously rich and various vein of ideas to draw on not only from current tech, but from the near Cambrian Explosion of radical and alternative urbanist/technology ideas in the late 1950s and 1960s. The core principles and architectures of the present Internet culture were being established, for example, by J.C.R. Licklider‘s 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis” and his subsequent leadership at DARPA, and Douglas Engelbart‘s landmark research into “Augmenting human intellect.” At exactly the same time, there was an global efflorescence of ideas to radically decentralize, mobilize, decontrol, and mediatize the city, in reaction to the crumbling International Modernist movement (represented by CIAM): for example, the Situationist International movement across Europe, Archigram in London, the Metabolist movement in Japan, and Yona Friedman / Groupe d’études de architecture mobile (GEAM)’s proposals for mobile and self-organizing architecture.

Arguably, this period of visionary exploration mapped realms of urbanist possibility which we are only now beginning to grasp and inhabit. Since the remarkable concordance of technology and urbanist ideas at that time, we’ve seen the electronic Internet implemented on an utterly world-changing scale, but comparatively little essential change yet (I would argue) yet in city-building practices. However, the present urbanistic moment seeming, in Marx’s term, to be one of all that is solid melting into air, I think the time is ripe to re-explore that earlier time of tech and urbanism radically diversifying and entwining.

So in summary, I don’t see that we can usefully say there is any one urbanist or tech culture, or that they’re inherently opposed, and anyway there are big and exciting challenges to work on, like reinventing urban life. Can’t we all just get along in new ways?
Tim McCormick, Palo Alto, @tmccormick / tjm.org

What do you think? Comments are welcome below, or by Twitter or email: tmccormick at gmail.com. Hashtags: #techurbanism, #smartcity




@tmccormick @mims great piece. a few things: Prop 13. also, socioec mobility not that fluid in SV, with areas opposing builds/transit spend


@Sr_Lazarus @mims yes, I'd say Prop13, > land-use control/antidev, high housing costs all impacted SV's socioec mobility in recent decades


@Sr_Lazarus @mims phaps "Silicon Valley's DNA" is in earlier comparative social-economic mobility, increasingly declined both in SF & SV


@tmccormick We distinguished betw perc and actual since we measured subjective repts of overload, rather than objective levels of info flows


@tmccormick In the stress literature, measures of "allostatic" or cumulative load often include objective indices of envtl demands


@tmccormick In our study, we only used subj report measures, which as you point out can be influenced by factors other than info vol/complex


@tmccormick @mims you're definitely onto good stuff, broad reboot needed. and yet: tech-market forces only scratch at huge social issues


@Sr_Lazarus @mims seems to me planning, policy, & politics failing, more than tech; & tech might offer big new ideas to break the gridlock.