May 12, 2013
March 22, 2013

In Praise of Messy Cities / Grub Street & the super wicked

Notes from my talk at Future Everything March 21 2013



  • cosm/pachube: making data public »> public making data: important to measure
  • i’ve done data and spectacles »> this is a critique of data spectatorship

Cities & open data

  •; socrata
  • why data? claims of efficiency, convenience & security
  • why open? claims of transparency, shifting the balance of power, reducing uncertainty, conflict, etc

The problems…

  • assumes if we had enough data we could make perfect decisions
  • Enlightenment claims to rationality leads to paradigm of data > info> knowledge > wisdom
  • attempt to understand, explain, control »> “It’s not me, it’s the data, which is impartial”
  • Borges metaphors: map, library, encyclopedia »> implies infinite data, merely need an index and our problems will be solved
  • hackathons »> someone else is going to solve it, assumption that ‘the solution resides in the data’
  • often only the least controversial data is ‘opened’ »> transportation data, not wikileaks (japan has efficient transport and has done for decades, not an open data/technology issue)
  • if risky/controversial/useful data is liberated…. aaron schwartz, bradley manning, andrew “weev” auernheimer
  • is ‘open data’ just letting off steam? 
  • society of the data spectacle, discourages participation, no accounting for the curator of the data, their goals, or the feedback mechanisms for propagating the principles
  • morozov cites insurance survey: open crime stats leading to real estate price drop leads to people refraining from reporting crime; prisoners dilemma: who opens first gets penalised
  • ‘inactivists’ - Russell Ackoff »> ‘mess’ "Systems, Messes & Interactive Planning" PDF


"Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess." Russell L. Ackoff


  • city is a mess. not infrastructure. data infrastructure. praying to the algorithm god isn’t going to solve this.
  • cities are super wicked (not a negative assessment)


Rittel and Webber’s 1973 formulation of wicked problems in social policy planning specified ten characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Conklin later generalized the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy. The defining characteristics are:[4]

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

From Wikipedia:






  • hacks:  poets, pamphleteers and libellists, poking their noses at authority





From Grub-Street Journal, October 30, 1732: the “art and mystery” of printing in the “literatory” of publisher Edmund Curll

  • think of Grub St as 18c ‘Private Eye’ »> french revolution 1789-1799 & the Great Reform Act of 1832 »> representative government instead of authoritarianism »> discussion, creation & extension of civil rights


And while [the philosophes] grew fat in Voltaire’s church, the revolutionary spirit passed to the lean and hungry men of Grub Street, to the cultural pariahs who, through poverty and humiliation, produced the Jacobinical version of Rousseauism. The crude pamphleteering of Grub Street was revolutionary in feeling as well as in message. It expressed the passion of men who hated the Old Regime in their guts, who ached with hatred of it. It was from such visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented cultural elite, that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice

The Literary Underground of the Old RegimeBy Robert Darnton

  • the great unwashed »> the great uncalibrated; all part of the data collection process, no matter how messy; not simply acting as subjects of the measurements or passive receivers of the wisdom contained therein
  • processes of measurement »> construct understandings of our environment »> build up intuitions about how we may affect it »> question the standards of evidence of others.
  • ‘rubbish is the root of virtuosity’: Grub City would be inhabited by people crafting & performing data ‘badly’

SO… Call to action

  • mock the rationalising, homogenising attempts of our managers
  • reject infrastructures, homogeneity, the data-deity
  • embrace super wicked urban problems, don’t reverse-engineer problems based on existing solutions
  • rewrite the explanations, understandings & attempts to control
  • thrive on contradictions, even collaboration does not need consensus
  • build a messy city, for it’s only in a messy city that we will find the richness that makes cities that are worth living in
  • Long live Grub City!

June 20, 2012

Notes from my talk at the Open IoT Assembly, June 16-17 2012

- why are we here at the Open Internet of Things Assembly, what are we all trying to do?

- one view, the Cosm firehose: data data data

- problem comes when people think that this equates to ‘knowledge’ (Wisdom/Knowledge/Info/Data paradigm)

- enlightenment project, rationality — if we know the universe we can control it

  • assumes that the universe is knowable; so let’s attempt to know every last quadrant of our world
  • there’s the belief that if you can just tame the deluge certainty will ensue…

- This fetish of the firehose has shaky foundations:

  • belief that there are a finite set of knowable parameters
  • control, dominion & certainty (aaron straup cope refers to ‘a thinly veiled god fantasy’)
  • impartiality, freedom from ethical decisions (‘it’s not me it’s in the data’)

- the spectacularisation of data, revelling in complexity only so that ‘experts’ can rescue us from the cacophony: scientists, urban planners, yes, even artists

- the concerning thing about this neo-postivism is when it’s applied to the design and manipulation of our cities because these processes have their own ‘god fantasies’:

  • efficiency (those big biz initiatives that use “Smart” throughout their PR material)
  • predictability
  • homogeneity
  • all the things that go counter to the sustainability of what makes a city a city
  • social goals that rarely have anything to do with technology and sound suspiciously like the sorts of things urban planners were saying in the 50s and 60s when they gave us highways and highrises/tower blocks

- The alternative is to look not at the data, but at the people that are deciding to create the data and the processes they’re using — not “making data public” but the public making data. 

- think of a learning/teaching paradigm (rather than knowledge); activity rather that state

- crafting data (or crofting as Andrew Back understood it), impingeing, prodding the universe/acting upon your world

  • infinite parameters, the questions you ask, creative act
  • things that can’t be ‘measured’
  • things you don’t know about
  • different ways to measure, techniques, technologies, contexts 

- people conducting experiments & making hypotheses about the world and, because they themselves have been measuring, being able to evaluate the changes that ensue from their actions (energy, air quality egg)

- crafting data means going through those same processes that so-called ‘scientists’ go through 

  • identifying patterns & outliers
  • understanding dynamic range
  • accuracy, reliability
  • importance of context
  • standards of evidence, particularly important in climate change

- discovering and sharing:

  • dealing with heterogeneity
  • oversight
  • formats
  • meta-data
  • licenses 

- take a step beyond, people as sensors (engines for computing complexity), not quantified self but quantified and qualified selves, instrumenting the world to give it a voice.

- embrace the complexity

- i don’t believe we can deal with the world’s challenges through reductivist solutions extracted from an oracle-like data-pool (it was probably reductivism that created the problems in the first place).

- the issues and challenges of our world, which have indefinite parameters, demand creative propositions that are probably so complex that they require:

  • cooperation between people who don’t agree with one another, who have no consensus — but collaboration doesn’t need consensus
  • people who have understandings they cannot explain to each other, 
  • insights that are necessarily so intricate that they will take more than one person to tell the stories
September 27, 2011

Flightpath Toronto - wings wings wings

Flightpath Toronto - birds… what it’s all about


Flightpath Toronto - wings wings wings


Flightpath Toronto - wings wings wings

September 25, 2011

Flightpath Toronto - wingset production

August 14, 2011
Mycorrhizal Networks

Dr. Simard writes:
Mycorrhizal fungi form obligate symbioses with trees, where the tree supplies the fungus with carbohydrate energy in return for water and nutrients the fungal mycelia gather from the soil; mycorrhizal networks form when mycelia connect the roots of two or more plants of the same or different species. 
Mycorrhizal networks may be critical in helping forest ecosystems deal with climate change. Maintaining the biological webs that stabilize forests may help conserve genetic resources for future tree migrations, ensure that forest carbon stocks remain intact on the landscape, and conserve species diversity.

Mycorrhizal Networks

Dr. Simard writes:

Mycorrhizal fungi form obligate symbioses with trees, where the tree supplies the fungus with carbohydrate energy in return for water and nutrients the fungal mycelia gather from the soil; mycorrhizal networks form when mycelia connect the roots of two or more plants of the same or different species. 


Mycorrhizal networks may be critical in helping forest ecosystems deal with climate change. Maintaining the biological webs that stabilize forests may help conserve genetic resources for future tree migrations, ensure that forest carbon stocks remain intact on the landscape, and conserve species diversity.

June 13, 2011

on reality, augmented reality, and that talk by kevin

i started writing this as an email to kevin slavin following his renowned and overwhelmingly well-received discussion about augmented reality, Reality is plenty, thanks at MOMO a few weeks ago; but email etiquette told me it was probably too long for the medium so i’m filing it away here instead. this one’s for you, kevin: 


howdy kevin

finally got a chance to see your momo talk which, needless to say, was GREAT. 

the discomforts of occularcentricity have preoccupied me since my first days in architecture school where it was all about the ‘drawing’ (there was even a conference on the theme…) so your discussion resonates well. there was much food for thought, and i realise you’ve probably had thousands of comments back to you, so let this simply settle down somewhere in the cacophony. 

there was something missing that i think would add even more weight to your argument and i wanted to throw it out there for future conversation. i think it’s problematic, for the construction of your thesis, to counter the “it’s all in the eyes” perspective with its polar opposite “it’s all in the brain” because most visual research of the past few decades shows that it’s actually a little of both.

the classic paper that went into this early on is beautiful: "what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain", by jerry lettvin & humberto maturana. another great paper is "on constructing a reality" by heinz von foerster. another (and i could go on and on and on here…) is "the nature of explanation" by kenneth craik.

what these papers outline is a perceptual framework that is constructive. you could say it’s founded on a conversation between eyes (or other sensors) and brain, not simply a one-way transmission; so it’s not that the we paint the world before us, or that we are merely passive receptors of neutral information coming towards us, but that we are active participants in the construction of our perceptions. it is, if you will, the cacophony of multiple sensors (and histories thereof) that is required for such perception. 

AR, as we’re collectively starting to call it, appears to confuse what it means to perceive reality. to me, it makes the mistake of assuming there’s a difference between “real” reality, and the so-called “virtual” portion that’s overlaid on top of it. the only “augmented” reality, is the one that’s constantly being built up through our interactions through the world — whether that’s through a mobile phone, through our sunglasses, or even just through closed eyelids. 

the process of understanding, it seems to me, is a process of constructing an understanding. the problem with AR, then, is that it assumes that the reality “out there” is fixed, and that we’re merely passive observers that need some kind of markup on it to help understand it “better”. it’s like the terminator analogy you cited: AR is set up so that “we” are sitting inside, simply waiting for info to come in (like arnie “seeing” inside his own head with its own reductio ad absurdam) and all the concomitant repercussions on what this means for our own agency (or lack thereof) in the world. it also assumes that we all see the same thing, which we manifestly do not — and this isn’t because of some distortion in our perceptors (which AR appears to seek to correct for) but because we each have our own constructive processes, founded on our own heterogeneous perceptual frameworks. 

this is really important for our individual and collective relationships to our cities: because AR as it’s usually framed diminishes the fact that our cities are constructed, every day, with every conversation we have, every space we inhabit, every structure we erect, and every step we take through them, by us all together. cities aren’t simply entities that we occupy and need guidance through. von foerster’s paper goes into possible consequences from this this on the way we relate to each other. 

the other part of your conclusion - the fact that seeking to understand through visual perception alone does reality a disservice - is also supported by this line of thinking. since perception is a constructive process it necessarily is affected by everything we experience, from the things that we hear to the way we are moving, so building solely for vision is an incredibly restrictive funnel on understanding.

same conclusion, slight different founding blocks.

whoops, this ended up a lot longer than i’d planned it to. maybe we can pick it up in london…