Photograph by Christina Alves on flickr.
Photograph by Christina Alves on flickr.

Cities, networks and citizens - Natalie Kane on Adam Greenfield


09 June 2015

This Thursday we welcome LSE Fellow and Urban researcher Adam Greenfield to Lighthouse. We asked Programme Assistant Natalie Kane to write about why we invited him to speak.

Adam Greenfield leading a Walkshop, photo courtesy of Networked Performance
Adam Greenfield leading a Walkshop, photo courtesy of Networked Performance

I first heard about Adam Greenfield when we had our first batch of studio residents at Lighthouse, almost a year ago. I was sat having a cup of tea with Chris Pinchen and Mark Simpkins, getting to know the motivations behind their work, when they mentioned the notion of a walkshop. Through a ‘slow and considered walk’, a walkshop navigates its way through dense, built-up urban terrain, looking for physical signs of our digital network. Conceived by Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim, walkshops ask you to pay particular attention to, and record, places where information is collected and displayed by the network, and where that networked information is ‘acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.’ This can be anything from noticing how the telecommunication networks of a city are built, to noticing the web of CCTV cameras spanning the spaces we inhabit.

Drawing attention to the infrastructures that often blur into the landscape of a city, making ourselves see them so we can look closer, is essential to understanding where the problems lie, or where solutions can be found. I really like the idea of peeling off layers of a city by doing something as simple as looking for the network in the wild, because once you see it, you can’t unsee it. This is a technique I’ve seen, and used, for anything from psychogeography to foresight, and Adam and Nurri’s particular angle makes us consider where and how our information is being collected, and where it is ending up. I’ve done a few of these walks since, often alone, sometimes accidentally, always realising the level of public surveillance that exists around Brighton.

These questions on information and technological intervention were asked in Adam’s most recent publication, Against the Smart City, where he addresses, critically, the networked, urban space, ‘designed from the ground up with information processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life” This is a city where all is recorded, from traffic activity to consumer habits to health data; everything is neatly quantified and fed through into an unknown, unfathomable, central nervous system. The city is stripped of its identity as everything becomes standardised and compartmentalised, not for citizens, but for the companies and corporations that implement the technology. I remember first reading it on a train to Manchester, watching the cranes hovering over London’s financial district, glass monoliths slowly spreading out across the skyline.

I finally saw Adam speak on his work against the smart city at the James Glaisher Memorial lectures, part of James Bridle’s Right to Flight programme at Bold Tendencies. After unleashing his critique, he ended on the importance of placing the power of the data we collect into the hands of the individual, and understanding where people adapt and subvert these systems because, often, the smart city is not designed for their inclusion. In his most recent Guardian article, responding to Helsinki’s plan to implement point-to-point mobility throughout the city, using smartphones to demand minibuses, car services and public transport, Adam brought up a fundamental flaw in the proposal; ‘Providers of public transit have an inherent obligation to serve the entire citizenry, not merely the segment who can afford a smartphone and are comfortable with its use.’ This is a smart city, but for whom? Who are we excluding by supposedly making our urban spaces smarter?

The talk that Adam is giving at Lighthouse this week is one that I haven’t heard before, it was previously given at the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) earlier this year and I’m interested to hear about where he’s going with this next. With a title like ‘At the end of the world, plant a tree: Practises and considerations for the twilight of human time’, I’m expecting the kind of optimism that Adam closed Against the Smart City with; unshiny, considered, and critical, with a pinch of tough love that ultimately points towards an alternative. Come along and ask him some tough questions.


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