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!

  1. kingpersnake reblogged this from haque
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    Thoughts on opendata..
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    … da leggere tutto
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