Utrecht University: Media Architecture Biennale offers perspective: In the city of the future, people and their relationship to the surroundings are at the centre

You throw a piece of paper in the waste bin and the local waste management authority receives a signal that the bin is full; you walk down the street in the dark and the sensor-sensitive lamppost switches on; Google Maps recommends an alternative route to reach your final destination more quickly. These are all examples of how our lives in the ‘smart city’ are becoming increasingly efficient and convenient. But there is a dark side to this story. Because who has the most to gain from these technological developments? Is it the citizen? Is it companies? Is it the municipality? And what kind of cities do we actually want?

These are questions that occupy Prof. Nanna Verhoeff and Dr Michiel de Lange on a daily basis. De Lange: “We question the ‘smart city’ and think about alternatives in which the city of the future is not only technologically driven. We strive for a city that is just and inclusive, and where public values are central. An interview with the media scientists (and co-organisers of the Media Architecture Biennale – mab20.org) who want to help shape the city of the future.

Public value at the core
“Our urban infrastructure no longer consists only of streets, roads and bridges, but also of 4g, 5g, WiFi, Bluetooth, cameras and sensors. Algorithms are used to process urban data in order to estimate risks and make predictions,” says De Lange. The aforementioned downside came to light when the Dutch city Enschede was recently fined for following citizens via WiFi tracking. De Lange: “The public value that is harmed here is the right to anonymity in public space. Is it socially desirable to use these technologies in this way? I know from my own project external linkon social-technological controversies with the municipality of Amersfoort that they have also experimented with this technology in the past. They wanted to use crowd control on Kings Day, for example. But they have now explicitly distanced themselves from this kind of monitoring practice. The municipality felt that citizens have the right to be anonymous in public spaces”.

Involving citizens in the smart city
Datafication and platformisation are elusive terms for many citizens. Through their Urban Interfaces external linkresearch group, the researchers are trying to initiate academic and public discussion on how various media technologies shape our experience of the city and how we can imagine future alternatives. “People have to realise that it also affects their lives,” says De Lange. “Through art and design, you can make very direct interventions. They can be pinpricks that start a discussion in a certain way.” Verhoeff adds: “We have seen this in the past corona year external link. But also recently: the longest rainbow bike path external linkin the world, which was built in Utrecht. This can become a discussion about diversity, representation and inclusiveness”.

Not only scientific publications
Verhoeff adds: “We not only publish scientific articles, but also write in professional journals external linkto reach the designers of the city of the future, and organise workshops external linksuch as data walks with citizens through the city and look at the presence of technology in public space. We also pay a lot of attention to this in our education. Our students work with cultural organisations that develop a critical perspective towards technology, such as Raum external linkor SetUP external link. These students are the future generation of critical policy-makers, designers and shapers.”

Cell phone with the Utrecht in 2040 app.
Media Architecture Biennale
The researchers are busy organising the Media Architecture Biennale external linkat the end of June, which they are organising this year at Utrecht University together with the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. The Biennale is also about creating awareness and making things visible. Verhoeff: “As humanities scholars, we find it important and inspiring to think about how artists, activists and citizens are engaging with the city of the future.” There are many inspiring examples, from all over the world, that will be shared during the Biennale. For example, the game Utrecht2040 external link, co-developed by the Faculty of Geosciences, allows citizens to participate in discussing the future of Utrecht. And in another project external link, instead of Pokémons, you can go and catch stories in your own city, using an app that resembles the game Pokémon Go in a way, but with a radically different objective. It allows local residents to connect with a local community and share experiences and tips in their immediate living environment.

As an individual, it is difficult to initiate change. You have to get a social discussion going. You need good stories, images and proposals that are both critical and speculative.
Michiel de Lange

Futurotheque
Artists and designers initiate discussion
The Biennale is a great way to share stories and inspire people to look differently at their living environment and the role of technology in the city. Concrete design proposals are also presented. Humanities scholars play a role in this. De Lange: “As an individual, it is difficult to initiate change. You have to get a social discussion going. You need good stories, images and proposals that are both critical and speculative. Humanities scholars can bring those stories to the surface. During the MAB and beyond, designers and artists also show their work with which they can get a discussion going. “For example Sander Veenhof external link,” says Verhoeff, “he is working on the theme of augmented reality in a sometimes playful way. By experimenting with this technology, he also asks fundamental questions about where we are heading with new technologies. Will our privacy still be guaranteed? Will we still have a reasonable degree of self-determination over our lives? What are the consequences for our social behaviour? What are the consequences for individual expression and diversity?

We share our living environment with other living organisms and objects, and we must take this into account when designing the city.
More-than-human city
Not only citizens are important to keep in mind when considering the future city, say the researchers. We share our living environment with other living organisms and objects, and we must take this into account when designing the city. This is also called the ‘more-than-human city’. In the Biennale, there is a prize in the category ‘more-than-human city’.

Screenshot van de speculatieve interface voor het Griftpark
There is a separate category for students, and one of the nominated projects is a design by De Lange and Verhoeff students. De Lange: “They compete with a speculative interface external link, in which you can interact with the Griftpark in Utrecht through a more-than-human perspective of animal inhabitants and even physical objects. Through the speculative design of an app that might be developed, they let a number of non-human inhabitants of that park speak. For example, you are guided through the park by a seagull, a wall or a plant.”

For me, activism is not just about the street or the banner. Activism is about wanting to contribute to positive change and I definitely see a role for the humanities in that.

Humanities scholars engage with societal frictions
Through their work as humanities scholars, Verhoeff and De Lange want to show that it is not enough to just watch. Verhoeff: “For me, activism is not just about the street or the banner. Activism is about wanting to contribute to positive change and I definitely see a role for the humanities in that. We want to show how things can be done differently. In doing so, we need to engage directly with social frictions, issues and challenges, and not put ourselves outside the issues of the city of the future.”

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