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Do cities talk back?

I stumbled upon an interesting TED talk this morning by Columbia University professor and city theorist Saskia Sassen. And while she herself admits in the talk that she doesn’t have all the answers to the questions and ideas she’s proposing, she does raise a few intriguing concepts that I would like to share with you all.

The first is the idea that cities talk back.

I like this idea because I’ve long thought of cities as a kind of living breathing organism. The example she uses is that of a car – specifically an Audi. She talks about all the great engineering that goes into a car like this, but then how it all gets muted once it enters a busy city centre. The city is “talking back” and telling the car how it’s now going to behave.

In her view, this idea of listening to what a city has to say is the first step towards what she’s calling “open source urbanism.” This is the idea that city dwellers can not only respond to and engage with cities, but also help make/shape them – just like how open source software works. This is a profoundly interesting concept that flips top-down city planning on its head. 

Again, how exactly this might work is still to be determined, but I can already think of a few early examples; one of which is a DC-based startup called Popularise. Essentially it works by allowing local residents to weigh in on what they’d like to see built/developed in their community. It’s a way of decentralizing development input.

And that’s really how I see the internet in general – as this massive decentralizing force. So the idea of an open source urbanism may not actually be that far off.

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