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Sentient City: Interview with Fabien Girardin

CATEGORY: ⚐ EN + architecture + espacios sensibles | sentient city


This interview is in the framework of a Phd research about new technologies and hybrid cities. It aims to demonstrate how this new tools can revitalize public spaces at the city.

how would you define public space?

I understand a public space as an area or place that is open and accessible to all citizens without discriminations; Nowadays public spaces have their digital counterparts where people gather, share, and engage with each other and their environment.

how would you describe public space at our cities nowadays? (problems and qualities)

The integration of computing, sensing, and actuation technologies in everyday urban settings and lifestyles is transforming contemporary public spaces. In consequence, it may not only matter how good the physical infrastructure is, it is the software infrastructure that also affects how individuals experience it. The ubiquitous technologies (e.g. mobile phone, RFID, sensors) that afford us new flexibility in experiencing public spaces are simultaneously providing the means to reveal our dynamics through the collection, classification, storage, and dissemination of recorded knowledge constituting a city.  However contemporary public spaces are not only about technology, they are also about interaction designs, about taking into account the wider context of organization, systems and people, and even legal and political contexts, belief systems and social and cultural fabric. If we do not understand these aspects, we are prone to make the same mistakes as those originated by past visions that relied on the fascination around the hard infrastructures and reducing cities and their spaces to systems.

what would you change at public spaces ? (proposals, solutions)

The presence of the soft infrastructure and its logging capabilities implies that we are at the end of the ephemeral; in some ways we have new means to replay the public spaces. This potential echoes very well with the recent interest of urban planners and designers in unconventional data sources. Currently land use and space activity data are mainly collected through very traditional means with people paid to perform manual count. These non-longitudinal data limit the emergence of evidences from the statistical relations with variables (e.g. What is the effect of physical layout on movement? How do people use the space?). With the increasing availability of soft infrastructure the process of data collection is improved. For instance, it allows to better model time, space, and behavior as investigated in the domain of simulations. In contrast, we are also ahead of conflicts to reveal or hide unwanted evidences, when new data can be used to the detriment of some stakeholders. Indeed the retrieved information might not be of primary benefit of each individual who contributes to a census. Moreover, some of this information can challenge political decisions that were previously taken based on assumptions or limited survey data. For instance it might lead to a decrease in the offering of public transport in an unjustifiably well-connected public space.

This end of the ephemeral calls for new approaches to privacy issues. In many domains, there is an ever growing number of personalized records which are being collected in public spaces, and at times disseminated in the databases and customer management systems of businesses, organizations, and government agencies that service modern living. In fact, these digital footprints have become inevitable in contemporary society and also necessary if we wish to enjoy many modern conveniences; we can no more be separated from it than we could be separated from the physical shadow cast by our body on a sunny day (Zook et al., 2004). The growth of our data shadows is an ambiguous process, with varying levels of individual concern and the voluntarily trading of privacy for convenience in many cases.

In summary, at the same time as ubiquitous geoinformation gives us new means to map and model human dynamics, it will also challenge current notions of privacy and make the object of study much more fragmented, dynamic, and chaotic. The challenge will be to appreciate and use the complexity and richness of ubiquitous geofinformation without crystallizing into authoritarian structures.

how do you think new technologies influence on public space’s changes? (hybrid spaces)

The ubiquitous technologies that afford us new flexibility in conducting our daily activities are simultaneously providing the means to study our activities in time and space. Indeed, the logs, fruits of these interactions, could reveal elements of human and social use of the ubiquitous technology itself and people’s mobility and travel behaviors. These latter evidences could be employed as indicators of the evolution of the attractiveness of the public spaces amongst other things (Girardin et al, 2009).

In other words, the aim is exploit the information membrane hovering over the physical fabric of public spaces to shift the urban design and planning practices from the speculative predictions and accommodation to more factual observations and improvements. Besides my work on urban attractiveness indicators, other research groups have been using a reality mining approach to derive specific characteristics of urban dynamics (Kostakos et al., 2008). A major challenge in this type of approaches is to draw a clear understanding of the boundaries and biases of the data. Nevertheless, these works support novel ways to describe public spaces leading to an approach we would coin as “human/database urbanism: It could consist in the use of:

The qualitative analysis to inform the quantitative queries: This approach first focuses on people and their practices, without the assumption that something computational or data process is meant to fall out from that. This qualitative angle can then inform a quantitative analysis to generate more empirical evidences of a specific human behavior or pattern. A few approaches in that domain address this perspective. Williams et al (2008) for instance argue that our understanding of the city could benefit from a situated analysis of individual experiences within cities, rather than taking particular urban forms as a starting point for the study of urban experience.

The quantitative data mining to inform the qualitative enquiries: In that approach, the quantitative data help to reveal the emerging and abnormal behaviors, mainly raising questions. The qualitative angle then can help explaining phenomenon in situation. The qualitative approaches actually requests to ask the right questions to learn anything meaningful about a situation.

In conclusion, beyond a utilitarian perspective, we have to consider the promises and hopes around these future cities and their informational membranes. If researchers and practitioners offer citizen better awareness of the dynamics of public space and power to influence their design and evolution, this does not mean they will accept the gift. Indeed, taking the example of citizen-science (Paulos et al., 2008) and volunteer-generated information (Goodchild, 2007), citizens might just not be interested in the collection of data, and the opportunity might increase the divide between the people who are able to participate and those who are not or do not.

Interview: video.


Girardin, F., Vaccari, A., Gerber, A., Biderman, A., and Ratti, C. (2009). Quantifying urban attractiveness from the distribution and density of digital footprints. International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructure Research, 4

Goodchild, M. F. (2007). Citizens as voluntary sensors: Spatial data infrastructure in the world of web 2.0. International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research, 2:24–32.

Kostakos, V., Nicolai, T., Yoneki, E., O’neill, E., Kenn, H., and Crowcroft, J. (2008). Understanding and measuring the urban pervasive infrastructure. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

Paulos, E., Honicky, R., and Hooker, B. (2008). Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City, chapter Citizen Science: Enabling Participatory Urbanism. Hershey.

Williams, A., Robles, E., and Dourish, P. (2008). Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics: The Practice and Promise of the Real-Time City, chapter Urbane-ing the City: Examining and Refining the Assumptions
Behind Urban Informatics. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, IGI Global.

Zook, M., Dodge, M., Aoyama, Y., and Townsend, A. (2004). New digital geographies: Information, communication, and place. Geography and Technology, pages 155–176.

Fabien Girardin is a researcher and engineer at Lift lab, a research agency he co-founded. He studies and provokes the interplay between urban infrastructures, ubiquitous technologies and people practices. His research employs qualitative observations to gain insights from the integration and user appropriation of technologies in urban environments. Subsequently, Fabien mixes the gained knowledge with engineering techniques to foresee and prototype ideas and solutions for designers, urban service providers, city planners and decision makers.

He holds a Ph.D. degree in Computer Science and Digital Communications from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain and an engineering degree from the Biel School of Engineering and Information Technology, Switzerland. Along his academic journey, Fabien was also affiliated with the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA to lead the development of analysis methods of spatio-temporal records generated by human interactions with urban pervasive infrastructures.

I would be grateful for any suggestion and contact of other people who might be interested in being interviewed about public spaces and new technologies.

Domenico Di Siena

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