21-09-2016  Week Note II – Research

'Urbanism' considered a first broad direction for this project delving into the complex relationships between our built environment, infrastructures, technologies, governments and citizens – just to name a few human and non-human actors within an urban system. There are architects, engineers, policy makers, public servants, and private developers that belong to the obvious ones effecting our everyday living, especially on what we see. Institutional boundaries seem to regulate and determine what we usually expect when we leave our doors and enter the street. Infrastructural systems are mostly hiding as intangible digital layers controlling and regulating the flow of traffic or naturally enabling telecommunication between us. Big complex networks built over time into our brick and mortar, impossible to think away. Change is happening everyday in cities, however, the most influential part is usually organised top-down, influenced by private interest and executed by city officials for the sake of optimisation and efficiency with regard to profit. As student of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design I took these thoughts as an entry point to my research, looking at diverse questions such as:

  • Who has the right to the city?

  • How to infiltrate places of power in order to position popular opinion where it is supposed to be?

  • What can civic technology mean apart from providing tools specifically designed to simply enhance government and governance?

  • How can small-scale urban experiments take steps towards formality?

As previously described in 'Week Note 1', my initial interest revolved around real events and cultural interventions within the urban space. Surely influenced by activities that I've done in the past such as the organisation of music events, exhibitions, workshops and lectures. In order to gather people around my network that could add to the conversation and provide relevant references to look into I created the Facebook group 'KICKSTART URBAN INTERVENTIONS' explaining my intend and posing some provocative questions to start off with.

Later that week, a tour through Christiania should provide some insight upon people's perception in Copenhagen as city and its government in relation. My aim was to get some clarification about the overall quality of communication between citizens and the municipality. A leftist political attitude brought up a rather critical view, particularly pin pointing on ways how officials might treat alternative ways of living. As open as Christiania seems, I tried to find out how I could participate with any activity inside the boundaries of the village. It turned out to be a very old fascinate way of including people from the outside. Since there are no officials in Christiania, the only way to propose an activity is by throwing a paper note with your plan and contact details into a small mailbox found inside the grocery market. Of course this procedure is highly determined by luck, so far I haven't heard back.

Next in-depth interview was conducted with Eli, a young french architect working in Copenhagen. I started the conversation by talking about the general relationship towards research and more specifically human-centred design approaches in architecture. In one of the most complex design fields, the lack of time often compromises in-depth people-centred research.

Architecture is still a field, in which work of the many is accredited to single glorified individuals. Much like the ancient picture of the genius in the attic, our built environment seems to be shaped and determined by people who know better. We remember entire eras in which Architecture, and its principals completely failed to develop environments worth living. In the end, the nature of the human being organically determines the destiny of these structures, it is the same everywhere in the world. Copenhagen, however, is a place where a new generation of architects not necessarily focus from the mistakes of its predecessors, but more over draw from and play with nordic socio-cultural traditions in order to create a new language and new forms of building for the collective in a sustainable manner. 'Playfulness' seems to be the most suitable term that can define current architectural streams coming from Denmark. A state build on consensus, that by its roots tries to include the human beings that constitute life in its cities. At the same time, Denmark is a country with multiple interest groups and associations created to empower individuals by collectively organise their voices. This tradition is reflected in the Danish mentality, and increasingly marketed as the nordic model. Today, we see once small offices like BIG or COBE leaving marks all around the world, with more and more cities interested in the early conceptions of Jan Gehl, and his ideas of the human scale. COBE just released its new book, named 'Our Urban Living Room'. It tells something about the cities relationship to its folk, valuing citizens as engaged actors of its space.

I geared the conversation with Eli towards the overall topic of civic engagement and bottom-up initiatives – exchanging our thoughts upon transformative events sparked by the electronic music culture. Eli dedicated his thesis to the relationship between architecture and electronic music, focusing specifically on the project '6b – Lieu de création et de diffusion à Saint-Denis' – a culture house for electronic music. He talked about Saint Denis as a previously dark spot on his map of Paris, a place he never really considered to go before it became culturally developed and transformed through the occupation of a small group of passionate musicians and event promoters. Strategic communication, carefully curated illegal happenings, and slow involvement of the city led to an overall positive assessment of the authorities until the initiatives became a legal cultural institution for alternative art forms. This endeavour was about balancing risks through smart communication, creating a multicultural encounter in a previously segregated part of Paris.

On that note, it was important to me to get insight into the perspective of the Copenhagen Commune itself. Through my network I could talk to Ina, who used to work as Lead Strategist in the Culture and Leisure Department. For a long period of time, she tried to rethink the digital service of the municipality – its offers, the way of support and the increasing need of regulations that have become necessary in recent years. Copenhagen is a flourishing European capital, with an increasing amount of people moving every month into the most southern big Scandinavian metropolitan area. Copenhagen appeals worldwide as a role model for social welfare, education, public service and its flat structures nourishing individuality and self-growth. With its popularity comes business, and urban development continuously takes place across all neighbourhoods. The entertainment sector, in particular the gastronomic offer by now is highly in demand, with lots of new openings, and the Nordic Cuisine movement that raised interest around the world for a city previously unconsidered. Yet with fast growth in people and offer, Ina says, lots of problems occur, especially in terms of neighbour complaints, a dynamic unprecedented in numbers before. She clearly agrees towards endeavours to constantly foster civic engagement, but points out that public servants produce work, which always needs to regard all members of society. Inspiration in her work comes from traditional design practices, Ina mentions, refering to the in-house governemntal design unit Mindlab and the Innovations Huset, which brings Service Design methods and human-centred research into official institutions helping them tackle those complex challenges.

Next day, I pretended to be a commune official, infiltrating the newly build Sankt Anna Plads in Copenhagen. The first step was to ask people to envision potential activities and events that could happen at this not yet fully utilised public space. People had a lot of spontaneous ideas, ranging from concerts, to public viewing, and even sports activities that could be organised at the spot. However, I was more interested in people's own dedication towards actively co-creating the cityscape. At this point, most people I talked to during this guerrilla research never really took the effort to establish public happenings themselves. Main reasons where stated as the lack of time, and not knowing where and who to ask for permission. At first glance it appears to be quite a challenge to get in contact with officials from the municipality. Same as in Christiania, it is not a direct communication with the respective responsible person. Looking at the most obvious way to set up an official event, it is not as transparent as the commune would wish for. Capable of speaking Danish, you might navigate your way through the website, finding the right links to finally end up at the general inquiry form. Translating the website in English not just changes the look of the landing page completely, it also takes away the very first link that leads you to the next subpages, which eventually lead you to the form. An interesting discovery.

After heading back into the headquarter CIID, I approached a group of sound artists from the Royal Academy of Music Aarhus, who won a competition led by the institution, to set up a sound installation at Sankt Anna Plads. From conversations with the artists, sound art is not yet considered by city officials as something else than music that might disturb people. Those possibilities can only emerge through the support from established institutions top-down, they say. Moreover, the space of Sankt Anna Plads is perceived as too prominent and fancy to create a guerrilla intervention themselves, if budgets allow it, these artists prefer neighbourhoods with higher sensibility towards experimental art, illegal installations likely to stay for a while.

I got fortunate to schedule a meeting with Mikkel, advisor to the City of Copenhagen, and agent at the Copenhagen Solutions lab – the governmental agency responsible for conducting research into 'Smart City Solutions', testing solutions from private vendors, negotiating and advicing between governmental institutions and industry, and finally building an archive of open data sets freely accessible online. Mikkel believes in technology as an important tool for creative growth and innovation in cities. He likes to think bold about civic engagement, and appreciates unconventional projects that allow for social gatherings and creative production (i.e. Illutron, Dome of Visions). He himself, is the initiator of Underbroen, a urban laboratory and workshop where traditional craftsmanship is combined with modern digital production technologies. It is a meeting place for people with different backgrounds interested in open source logic that pushed the boundaries of urban local production. Clearly, he says, it is about time to let people educate themselves and eachother about technology. For him, governmental institutions need to recognize their stake in providing citizens with creative tools for experimentation in a democratic manner.