XX.4 July + August 2013
Page: 12
Digital Citation

City spaces and spaces for design

Rogério De Paula

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The city has become an intrinsic and indispensable construct (theoretical and otherwise) in the design of today's technologies. But how do our everyday, mundane experiences in a city affect how we experience technologies? And how do today's increasingly more pervasive information and computing technologies influence how we experience cities? As these technologies are moved off our office desks, the city becomes the important site of inquiry. But what city are we talking about? For which cityscapes are we designing our new technologies? In this column, I would like to explore some of the lenses through which people observe, use, and experience "their city," and in doing so, underline how a city's cultural and social organization influences how technology there is considered and valued.

As I wander and experience different cityscapes across different geographies, socioeconomic boundaries, and cultures, I become increasingly uncomfortable with the ways in which we design technologies for these imaginary cities, as well as the ways in which we imagine such cities. My concern does not stem necessarily from the technological possibilities imagined for the city, but from the fact that we are creating images of the city that fit our technologies in the first place. That is, time and again, we design our technologies for a recognizable, manageable, understandable, and unproblematic scenario. Not only do we risk designing the right technology for the wrong problem, as they say, but more important, we risk missing the inspiring opportunities that unfold when we carefully examine how people actually organize their everyday lives (unwittingly or otherwise) around the city.

A city is not just a static backdrop against which our everyday lives as city dwellers unfold. Rather, it plays a critical role in shaping how its inhabitants experience their everyday lives. This leads us to consider the city, at least for the time being, not just in terms of its infrastructures (technological or otherwise), but also in terms of its socioeconomic and aesthetic arrangements. A vast set of issues emerges when one examines the city in this light, though I am particularly intrigued with a small subset that became manifest as part of my experiences when doing fieldwork in poor neighborhoods in the "global south." In this column, I would like to explore three particular issues:

  • spaces of opportunity: the ways in which the built environment affords complex interactions among its elements and inhabitants, creating new opportunities;
  • spaces of hope: the ways in which people find hope and opportunities with what they are given; and
  • spaces of vulnerability: the atmospheres we create as we navigate across often invisible socioeconomic-political boundaries of the city.

back to top  Spaces of Opportunity

A few years ago, I was doing fieldwork in a poor neighborhood (and probably one of the most violent) on the outskirts of São Paulo, when something intrigued me: Why did all homes have a garage, given that most of the people there did not own a car? Why would they waste real estate and money building a garage? I started paying more attention to them in follow-on field visits. In a number of neighborhoods, garages were turned into small shops—street-side retailers, bars and restaurants, car shops, LAN houses (Internet cafes/cybercafes), and the like (see Figure 1). When talking to people, they confirmed my impression. People were building "spaces of opportunity" wherever and whenever possible.

It is critical to understand and appreciate the ways—often taken for granted and overlooked by the research and design communities—in which people, in particular those from low-income groups, exploit opportunities that the environment (social, physical, technological, etc.) offers for any sort of economic growth or business, often informal. For me the question is not only how usable, useful, and desirable a technology might be, but also what spaces of opportunity it engenders. That is, we should consider the ways that our solutions create opportunities for income, business, and socioeconomic growth. How do these solutions interact with other elements and aspects of the surrounding environment to allow populations to build new economic opportunities? For example, how could a social networking app be appropriated by a local service provider so that she could better manage her customers? Or, more interestingly, how could this application enable this person to expand her client network of cosmetics and beauty products, or even help her reach out to products from her hometown she has been away from for many years. An example is online auctions and consumer-to-consumer or small business-to-consumer sites (e.g., eBay and Amazon in the U.S.), platforms on which thousands or even millions of small businesses and individuals can sell and buy a wide variety of products and services.

Recently, at CSCW 2013, Susan Wyche presented an interesting paper on the infrastructural challenges that rural Kenyans face when trying to use Facebook, challenges that are often overlooked by developers and designers coding from the Bay Area [1]. While the authors focus on broad and important questions of access, participation, and ethics critical for understanding the use of such systems in developing countries, I was particularly intrigued by the question of what possible economic opportunities such a technology was engendering (for a particular group, of course). I specifically tuned into the idea that such technological constraints (e.g., users' difficulties in creating an account given lack of easy access to digital cameras and that their cellphones took only poor-quality photos, but that they still wanted to have a "good picture" on their profiles) created opportunities for local microeconomies (or microbusinesses) to develop, for example, small photo shops that scanned and uploaded people's pictures to Facebook. For our Westernized eyes, this sounds like exploitation. But this is part of the local ecology—the ways in which life unfolds.

In Brazil, I encountered a somewhat similar situation in the uptake of Orkut by the low-income communities [2]. Orkut was mostly used in Brazilian LAN houses (as they call Internet cafes or cybercafes in Brazil; see Figure 2) as a way of including otherwise bored girlfriends in boys' computer activities. In the first half of the 2000s, LAN houses mushroomed across the country, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, as the only way for these populations to have access to computer technologies—namely, games and the Internet. In contrast to major gaming cafes in Asia that host hundreds and even thousands of networked computers, LAN houses were mostly low-budget garage shops equipped with a handful of locally assembled computers. Offering limited bandwidth and older computers, these shops would not charge more than a dollar per hour. Initially, for the most part, only boys would hang out there playing games, but they would not stay long because their girlfriends would quickly tire of waiting. LAN house owners realized that in providing access to the site to the gamers' girlfriends (gamers were a prominently male population in Brazil at that time), they facilitated longer stays. Given the per-hour fees, this meant more business. Soon, girls were spending more time browsing, chatting, and checking each other's pictures, allowing their boyfriends to play longer "in peace." In the end, girls were coming to LAN houses to access Orkut without their boyfriends.

back to top  Spaces of Hope

Salvador in Bahia is a large city in the northeast of Brazil, well known for its Carnival as well as its inequalities—centuries of socioeconomic segregation that dates back to the Brazil Colony. It was the end of summer in Bahia and I was with Ken Anderson, an anthropologist from Intel, studying maids and other lower-income working women. We had been out to the outskirts of Salvador to talk to some maids and visit a palafita (see Figure 3). Palafitas are communities in blockhouses built on stilts, located in swampy areas or other wetlands. While traditionally the stilts function as a mechanism to prevent the houses from being swept away by the water currents, in Salvador they allow the community to grow—to continuously expand over the water. Well, what we found underneath the blockhouses was not really water but instead trash, sewage, and construction debris and leftovers.

To reach our research participants, we had to walk over that muddy terrain on unsteady, primitive scaffolds or bridges. When we asked them about their living conditions (in particular, about the trash, the smell, etc.), one of the participants told me something that still moves me now: "Trash is hope." But how is trash hope for something and someone? As it turns out, as the trash, leftovers, construction debris, and other solid matter settles down below the blockhouses, slowly a solid ground is built; the scaffolds are replaced by dirt roads, and eventually that becomes a street. They then see themselves as fuller members of the community—true local citizens. Understanding the reasons why someone would live in such a precarious reality helped me understand the geography of hope. In trusting that trash was hope, they were living in a space of hope.

Interestingly, we also observed that most of the houses were unfinished. For one, there seemed to be little or no attention to external aesthetics and forms—unpainted external walls exposing the houses' structures, their bricks and mortar. The aesthetics of those populations is in and of itself a topic that deserves further examination (hopefully in a future column). On the other hand, we can observe an "endless way of building" (an allusion to Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building). They are not concerned with the final, finished product. Instead, provided they have access to land on which to build their homes, their priorities are set by their moment-to-moment needs and opportunities: availability of funds, family growth, business opportunity, and so on. Time and time again, we heard stories of families and even entire communities that were dislocated to new "popular developments" (i.e., low-income "projects") and eventually gave up the new homes and returned to their original places. Why? These new places did not offer opportunities for appropriation, growth, and adaptation. The unfinished roof, walls, and backyard represent not an aesthetic problem but rather a space of hope for future opportunities.

back to top  Spaces of Vulnerability

To get to the palafita, we could not go by ourselves; we were with a local guide. It was about a 30-minute ride from our hotel, going through a busy, sinuous, single-lane maze of streets in a particularly dangerous neighborhood. We had to have our car windows open so as to display ourselves to the locals to show we were not cops, and more important, to show that we were coming with someone they knew. I have to admit that at the time it was a little discomfiting, but when people came to happily and playfully greet our guide, we felt relieved. But who has not had this experience or felt this discomfort when going through an unknown neighborhood in a strange city in a foreign country? My first site trip when I returned to Brazil was to a "vertical shantytown"—an abandoned office building occupied by homeless people. I was completely uncomfortable until I started talking to people and they started telling me their stories. In our everyday lives, we constantly experience such spaces of vulnerability, where we simply do not have control over the situation.

GPS technology is a great example of the ways in which designers and developers have not paid enough attention to this space. I use to say that it does not know social issues—it knows objective metrics such as traffic, distance, and time, but it fails miserably when it comes to understanding (and adapting to) the nuances of socioeconomic (often invisible) boundaries. More than once or twice I had to stop following my GPS navigation system because it was taking me through a neighborhood where I felt uncomfortable.

back to top  The City and Designerly Disciplines for HCI

The move of computing technologies off the desktop (i.e., work settings) to the city (i.e., sites of day-to-day life) has been part of the longstanding trope of ubiquitous computing. At its core lies the question of how to handle the increasing complexity of the sociotechnical arrangements this move creates. I would argue that from this follows (or should follow) a shift in the disciplines that influence HCI design practices.

Architecture, urban design, and geography have long influenced how HCI researchers conceptualize, design, and build interactive technologies. From notions of place and space [3,4] to pattern languages [5] to legibility [6], these disciplines have lent us a hand in better understanding the relationship between built environments and human interactivity and sociability. Authors such as Christopher Alexander, Kevin Lynch, Jan Gehl, and Jane Jacobs have described the various elements (or features) of the cities that affect and are affected by not only our everyday living but also how we perceive and experience those built environments.

Here, I argue that more recently our interests in these disciplines and authors have been not only renewed, but also transformed. Cities are no longer simply sources of inspiration, but more important, the sites in which our experiences with technologies unfold. Therefore, I am interested in understanding the city not solely as a proxy to understanding human sociability, interaction, and conviviality through technologies, but also as a backdrop against which technology experiences are engendered (and on occasion as an actor affecting such experiences).

In conclusion, a city comprises both the physical built environment in which we dwell and move across daily, as well as the moving elements that influence how we perceive and experience such a built environment, as Lynch suggests [6]. These moving elements are in fact manifold, from people going about their everyday affairs to services being performed in the city's infrastructure to local policies influencing new development projects to the long-term transformations of the city's landscape, infrastructure, and layout. We ought then to pay more attention to the experience of the city as the result of rather complex interactions among all these elements and the ways in which they create spaces of opportunity, hope, and vulnerability.

In 1965, Christopher Alexander wrote a classic paper in which he discusses the structure of organic cities versus "planned" cities. He argues that the city's structures do not follow a tree structure, as was the case in a number of planned cities, as such a structure tends to follow simpler, more linear mental structures [7]. Interestingly, he describes what I call here spaces of opportunity when explaining how a news rack next to a traffic light creates a business opportunity: Passersby might buy a newspaper while they wait to cross the street, standing idly by the light. He in fact goes on to suggest that "[f]or the human mind, the tree is the easiest vehicle for complex thoughts. But the city is not, cannot, and must not be a tree. The city is a receptacle for life. If the receptacle severs the overlap of the strands of life within it, because it is a tree, it will be like a bowl full of razor blades on edge, ready to cut up whatever is entrusted to it. In such a receptacle life will be cut to pieces. If we make cities, which are trees, they will cut our life within to pieces."

back to top  References

1. Wyche, S.P., Schoenebeck, S.Y., and Forte, A. Facebook is a luxury: An exploratory study of social media use in rural Kenya. Proc. of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (San Antonio, Texas). ACM, New York, 2013, 33–44.

2. Nafus, D., de Paula, R., and Anderson, K. Abstract 2.0: If we are all shouting, is there anyone left to listen? Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings. 2007, 66–77.

3. Harvey, D. From space to place and back again: Reflections on the condition of postmodernity. In Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change. J. Bird, B. Curtis, T. Putnam, and L. Tickner, eds. Taylor & Francis, 1993.

4. Harrison, S. and Dourish, P. Re-place-ing space: The roles of place and space in collaborative systems. Proc. of the 1996 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (Boston, MA). ACM, New York, 1996, 67–76.

5. Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., and Silverstein, M. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, 1977.

6. Lynch, K. The Image of the City. MIT Press, 1960.

7. Alexander, C. A city is not a tree. Design (Council of Industrial Design, London) 206 (1966).

back to top  Author

Rogério de Paula is a research manager at IBM Research, Brazil, where he leads the Social Enterprise Technologies Group, an interdisciplinary group that explores the new frontiers of social, smart technologies in the context of large-scale organizations.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Garages as spaces of opportunity.

F2Figure 2. A LAN-house in a low-income community.

F3Figure 3. A palafita on the outskirts of Salvador, Brazil.

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