Lab | Log

TBC: Hacking the City

Saskia Sassen speaking at the Mumbai Lab. Photo: Uncommon Sense

Saskia Sassen speaking at the Mumbai Lab. Photo: Uncommon Sense

When the great urban thinker Saskia Sassen took the stage at TED2013 in February, she stood beneath the glittering lights and cast a provocative question into the audience: “Can technology hack the city, or can cities hack technology?”

It’s an idea she’s put out into the world before: that citizens, not machines, create intelligent urbanism. Indeed, she spoke of the very same concept at the New York Lab back in 2011, suggesting that while technologies rapidly become obsolete, cities naturally respond to citizen patterns in ways that endure, flexing to accommodate changes in citizen behavior. Thus, she suggested, the key to “hacking the city” lies not in highly technological buildings and systems that will soon become outdated, but rather in open-source urban systems that allow more room for citizen logic than engineering,

But trumpeting this manifesto before the sea of technophiles that literally put the T in TED (Technology, Education, and Design) was, in a way, a coming-out party for this provocative concept. At a time where the world is looking to technology to help us better understand how to use our cities, one of the world’s leading urban theorists stood before us all to propose we turn the notion of hacking on its head, accept that, for instance, dog walkers may be better than surveillance technology at fixing city crime problems, and see ourselves, rather than the technologies we use, as city-hackers that will never lose relevance.

This hacked notion of city hacking echoed throughout the Lab’s run in all three cities, but was especially prevalent in Berlin, where we learned a lot from the city’s already active maker community. With them and others from around the world we explored the notion of hacking spaces and DIY city-making—whether for housing, fitness, or even political subversion.

What was left unfinished, however, was a conversation around how a city government, whose job is typically seen to be controlling city systems, goes about making room for this hacking. In a way, it harks back to the conversation we’ve been having around the formalization of informal systems: the natural crux is that the very essence of an informal system’s functionality can be attributed to the informality itself.

Help us move forward to the next step in the conversation: how can cities create better systems for enabling citizens to fix the problems themselves? How can we leave room for citizen logic without abandoning government responsibility? Should cities create departments of hacking? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below, and let us know who and what you’re reading on the topic of city hacking.

  • Jahnavi Ramakrishnan

    Cities can leverage their resources to collect and make data available for citizen-use!