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					Real-Time Cities: an Introduction to Urban Cybernetics
Harvard Design School: SCI 0646900
Fall 2011
Instructor: Nashid Nabian
Location: Gund Hall 510
Meeting Time: Friday 2:00pm - 5:00pm

Course Description
          In real-time cities, urbanity merges with digital information so that the built environment is dynamically
sensed and synchronously actuated to perform more efficiently, intelligently, and sustainably.
          To examine the real-time city in terms of sensing the urban dynamics and data collection, we will borrow
from the sensationalist approach of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who, in his Traité des Sensations, offers an
interesting meditation on sensibility as the source of subjectivity. 1 He imagines a living statue, devoid of any
sensations but the sense of smell. He walks the reader through a sequence where sensation leads to comparison,
which leads to judgment, which leads to reflection and reasoning, which leads to abstraction: the sum of all of the
above results in what can be characterized as understanding and [human] agency.
          This sensationalist approach can be applied to cities: once populated with a large number of sensors and
endowed with the capacity to register changes in its context, a city can acquire a limited level of agency through
comparison, judgment, reflection, reasoning, and abstraction. Three core methodologies of urban sensing are salient
to this agenda: viral sensing, sensor networks, and crowdsensing.
          The first approach is to leverage systems already in place that have been developed for other reasons, but
can function as a source of information on how our cities operate. A great example is the cellphone network and
how analyzing their usage can hint on distribution of cellphone using crowd within the city, a practice that is coined
as crowdspotting and can yield useful information about land use and temporal pattern in which the city is used by
its inhabitants.2 In the context of this course, we define this as viral sensing, since the computational algorithms of
such sensing practices install themselves on the digital networks that already augment cities, much like a virus
settles in an already-operational environment within another organism in order to support its internal bio-processes.
The premise of such sensing practices is that the contemporary subject involuntarily leaves digital traces on various
networks that are juxtaposed over urban areas. Every time a credit card is used, a text message or an email is sent, a
Google query is submitted, a phone call is made, a Facebook profile is updated, a photo is uploaded or tagged on
Flickr, or a purchase is made on a major, on-line store like Amazon.com, an entry with the time and location of this
action is added to a dataset on a central server, administered and maintained by the organizational entity providing
the platform for these, and hundreds of other day-to-day operations. These datasets, if spatially and temporally
cross-associated, become invaluable sources of information about the dynamics of the city.
          The second approach is to implement customized sensor networks, consisting of centrally managed sensing
agents embedded within the fabric of the city to decode various flows within the cities. To this effect, the sensors
operate as smart dust saturating the space of urbanity, extracting large amounts of information about the processes
contained within the built environment and constructed spaces, and channeling it to a central control and command
mechanism. From there, this data is aggregated, managed, and used as the basis for how the monitored space of the
city should be regulated and actuated. In urban sensing mechanisms that operate based on networks with central
control and command structure, with algorithms that allow for the context-sensitive interpretation of the information
transmitted to the database, we arrive at spatial scenarios where whole geographic regions are digitally augmented
by the ubiquity of these sensor/transmitter devices. In the extreme version of this scenario, one can envision a world
where any object is capable of sensing its context and reporting it back to a central data-management facility where
its identity, its real-time location, and its contextual state are cross-referenced, stored, and managed computationally.




1
 In History of Philosophy, Alfred Weber offers a very complete account and interpretation of the Condillac’s sentient statue argument. I have
borrowed from his interpretation in making my point. Alfred Weber, History of Philosophy, trans. Frank Thilly (New York: Charles Scribners
Sons, 1912), 399-403.

2
 Francesco Calabrese, Francisco C. Pereira, Giusy Di Lorenzo, L. Liu, and Carlo Ratti, “The geography of taste: analyzing cell-phone mobility
and social events,” in Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (2010).



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          Finally, in the third approach, instead of a top-down approach like implementing sensor networks, we
consider more grassroots, bottom-up systems for sensing the dynamics of cities. Bottom-up systems for sensing the
dynamics of cities are based on decoding the voluntarily traces that Internet Users leave behind. User-generated
content sharing platforms allow everybody to report his or her experience to others in real-time, and in a multi-
modal, high-resolution format, hence one possibility is thinking of each urbanite as a human sensor, an agent for
sensing and reporting on his or her individual experience through tapping into data generated by user-contributed
content on content sharing platforms. Hence, we arrive at the third possibility of urban sensing: crowdsensing.3
Combinations of crowdsensing and mapping exercises provide invaluable information about centrality at an urban
scale. And, to spatial practitioners, the centrality of particular points in space is a point to be contemplated, since
urban centers are magnets for capital, human, and material resources. Centers are hot spots for scenarios, events and
occurrences, where crowds gather expecting services, and a quality spatial experience.4
          Why is it important to be able to sense the dynamics of the city? This allows us to consider the application
of operating mechanisms at an urban scale and actuate the city in real time based on what is sensed about its
dynamics. In terms of actuation, we can leverage various techniques to transform urban spaces to responsive,
context-aware environments whose inhabitants are incorporated as entities with transient preferences and needs.
Instead of generic “occupants,” they become hyper-individualized “users" whose desires are taken into account by
the cybernetic mechanisms that regulate the performance of the city in real time.
          Yet, manipulating space through embedded actuators is not the only possible means of spatially regulating
urban systems: the inhabitants themselves can be considered possible agents of regulation. In this regard, once
access to real-time information about how the city operates is democratized, citizens can be actuated and their
actions can be self-regulated based on real-time knowledge conveyed on information-delivery platforms. This offers
them more control over their environment by allowing them to make well-informed decisions about their
surroundings, reducing the inefficiencies of contemporary urban systems.
          Democratization of access to data generated in urban sensing scenarios would have two different but
closely related impacts on our consumption and production of space. First, the data extracted from the city and its
dynamics would allow spatial practitioners to make sense of the dynamics of our constructed landscapes by
analyzing these large, real-time data sets. This real-time knowledge of spatial dynamics could be fed back into the
process of spatial design and the management of spatial resources. On the other hand, if access to such layers of
information is given to general public as well, then the inhabitants of our constructed landscapes would also benefit.
A city whose inhabitants are actuated by the results of the real-time information provided to them about its internal
dynamics, will be more responsive to concerns about adaptability, efficiency, and optimal operation. Therefore,
although such a city responds to concerns about function, structural durability, and aesthetic desirability, the focus of
designing then will inevitably shift to the issue of performance. After all, cities like any other space capable of self-
adapting to new conditions, are not there to merely endure, but to “perform” with efficiency. In the end, cities that
their functionality is augmented with urban informatics are performative cities, and given the right technology, the
limit to how well they can perform is the limit of the imagination and the desire of those who design and inhabit
them.
          Implementing prototypical urban cybernetic mechanisms that sense and/or actuate the city in any of the
above-mentioned categorical variations promises the emergence of a "smart city" that is a desirable, safe, and
sustainable place in which to live and work. The importance of such a prospect is that it is made “smart” by the
collaborative activity of its citizens, who can function as sentient, self-reporting agents that contribute to monitoring
the city as a dynamic organism. Hence, the real-time city will function as an intelligent medium through which
citizens communicate amongst themselves, transforming them from passive inhabitants to active participants in, or
actuators of, spatial scenarios.
          The course is a combination of lecture sessions framing the theory germane to urban cybernetic practices
accompanied by hands-on practical workshops that provide the students with technical knowledge in implementing
urban sensing and actuation projects. Two open-source programming and prototyping platforms called Processing
and Arduino, respectively, are covered as technical tools for the design and small-scale implementation of projects
in the above-mentioned categories. There will be a technology bootcamp to provide students with a basic knowledge
of these platforms.

3
 Francisco C. Pereira, Andrea Vaccari, Fabien Giardin, Carnaven Chiu, and Carlo Ratti, “Crowdsensing in (a?) Web: Analyzing the Citizens’
Experience in the Urban Space,” SENSEable City Lab, MIT,USA.

4
    I am indebted to my colleague El Hadi Jazairy for pointing out the importance of centrality when it comes to urban informatics



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         In terms of course requirements, there will be weekly readings and work-in-progress assignments, starting
with an analysis of already implemented projects. We will then ease our way into preparing design briefs and
developing design proposals, a necessary step in securing funding for a project, finally moving towards the
implementation phase where students cover the required steps for completing their individual prototypes of urban-
scale cybernetic mechanisms. The course has a very hands-on approach towards the subject matter. The goal is to
have a set of very well developed proposals and working prototypes by the end of the semester, which will hopefully
allow students to apply for various exhibition venues and funding opportunities for their projects.

Timeline
Week 01, 09-02-2011             Introduction to urban cybernetics
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 02, 09-09-2011             Introduction to analysis of urban cybernetic case studies
                                Cybernetic Urban Applications: Case study of Third Generation CPTED
                                                       (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design)
                                Processing workshop 01
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 03, 09-16-2011             Student presentations of case studies session 01
                                Processing workshop 02
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 04, 09-23-2011             Student presentations of case studies session 02
                                Processing workshop 03
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 05, 09-30-2011             Introduction to preparing proposals for urban cybernetic projects
                                Processing workshop 04
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 06, 10-07-2011             Student presentations of case studies session 03
                                Google maps, flickre, and twitter libraries for processing workshop
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 07, 10-14-2011 Midterm review:
                                Student presentations of design vision, brief and proposal
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 08, 10-21-2011             Framing the theory: real-time cities and spatiality
                                Arduino workshop 01
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 09, 10-28-2011             Framing the theory: real-time cities and temporality
                                Arduino workshop 02
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 10, 11-04-2011 Framing the theory: real-time cities and subjectivity
                                Arduino workshop 03
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
*To be re-scheduled for another
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 11, 11-11-2011             Framing the theory: real-time cities and Technology
                                Arduino workshop 04
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 12, 11-18-2011             Framing the theory: real-time cities and Networks
                                Arduino workshop 04
                                Weekly readings discussion session (Three Readings)
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
No class, 11-25-2011 Thanksgiving recess
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Week 13, 12-02-2011 Final review:
                                Student presentations of revised design vision, brief, and proposal, as well as implemented working prototype
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………




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Prototyping Requirements
         There is an electronic package that consists of various sensors and actuators and an Arduino board that is
recommended that you purchase in order to be able to follow the experiments covered in the workshop more
effectively. You can find a complete list of recommended parts at: http://sprkfn.com/w6408

       Keep in mind that is not an exhaustive list of possibilities in terms of sensing, actuation, networking,
memory storage and computing by any means.

Miscellaneous Notes
You can always contact me via email, text message, phone call, or skype:
Email: nnabian@gsd.harvard.edu. Cell: +1 857 204 3379. Skype: Nashid Nabian




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