Original document is on GitHub.
Can cities be built like Wikipedia?
This is the simple question that led to the birth of the Wikitopia Project, which was officially launched in the final months of 2017.
I would like to start by briefly discussing my past endeavors. More than 10 years ago, I began to wonder about the possibility of "digitizing" space — that is to say, whether and how we can infuse physical space with the distinct characteristics of digital media, for example the extremely high degrees of plasticity and interactivity. I wanted to make the real world behave more like a video game environment; in video games, everything around us is ultimately made up of a bunch of programmable pixels, and a simple magic spell (or the use of an item, or crawling through a pipe) is all that is needed to instantly transform our surroundings and find ourselves in entirely new territory. In contrast, in the real world walking through the same door will always lead you to the same old room, and even a minor renovation of our homes takes much time and effort. How boring, I used to think.
I began to conduct a series of experiments. I built a prototype system that allows people to instantly erect invisible, sound-blocking walls anywhere inside a building; workers in a noisy, open-plan office for instance can create temporary, acoustically-isolated rooms to have quiet conversations. I also wrote an augmented reality app for mobile devices that (instead of just overlaying text, graphic, or Pokémon on top of the environment) makes buildings twist and dance, or adjust their heights according to Yelp ratings. Inspired by a colleague working on vibrotactile feedback for touchscreens, I also created haptic insoles that repurpose the technology to alter sensations of ground texture on the fly when walking.
Although this might sound baffling to some people, at the time I wasn't all that concerned with the question of why we need to "digitize" space — I was simply following my technical curiosity, and was content with that. The notion of a fully-programmable physical environment endowed with properties of digital "bits" is something that has long fascinated computer scientists from the early days of the field (it is the central topic of Ivan Sutherland's 1965 essay "The Ultimate Display", for example); I was fascinated by that same vision, without much thought about what practical applications may arise from it.
However, over time my interests began to change. Suppose we succeed in "digitizing" space, how will that affect our daily lives, our communities, our cities? I found myself increasingly becoming interested in the consequences and repercussions of technical advances, both short- and long-term.
Clearly, this was a direct result of my time at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), a school of architecture and urban design within Harvard. My motivation for enrolling at the GSD was quite simple — as my research was increasingly becoming entwined with spatial design, I figured that it would be worth taking some time off to study the topic in a formal academic setting. I spent two years at the school (which, culturally, was nothing like the computer science department where I got my PhD earlier in my career), and by the time I moved back to Tokyo in 2012, I found myself routinely ruminating over things like the role of IT in the growth of economic disparity, how urban life is being transformed by smartphones, etc. I also started to take a critical view towards my own past research projects; for example, I began to have doubts whether a future where people "live in their own, idealized versions of the city" via augmented reality is necessary or even desirable.
Another reason for my shift in interest was the perception that the role of independent technical research (in applied fields, at least) is quickly diminishing within the IT industry. As the former Harvard professor Matt Welsh (now at Google) writes in his blog, the IT industry as a whole has now become so big and lucrative, that it has largely supplanted universities as the birthplace of technological innovations. While basic research (theoretical computer science for instance) is still the realm of academics, developing wearable gadgets, interaction techniques, IoT devices, etc. can be carried out much more effectively by large corporations or VC-backed startups than university labs — and they actually churn out products, not just papers, demos, and YouTube videos. Although I work in industry not academia, the lab I belong to is uniquely positioned as something like an "academic institution within a company", and so I was feeling the same pressure of approaching obsolescence. It was becoming increasingly harder for me to believe that my work, which consisted mostly of building novel prototypes in the lab and writing patents/papers, was making positive contributions either to the company or to the wider society. I decided that I need to expand my role, to get involved in the full pipeline of technological innovation, from research to development to real-world deployment.
In 2013, just when I was tackling with thoughts like the above, I was invited by several friends (including Carl Koepcke and Jack Cochran of Urbain DRC) to help develop an interactive installation called MIMMI, to be set up in a plaza in central Minneapolis during the latter half of the year. As this was not a research project there were limits to how much risk we could take engineering-wise; the installation needed to be completed and function reliably before the fixed deadline. After much trial and error we ended up with a structure of about 25 meters in length, that expressed the real-time "mood" of Minneapolis citizens (inferred by analyzing tweets) using light, mist, and sound.
Technically, nothing in MIMMI could really be called cutting-edge. Being involved in technical research for many years where novelty is often considered the be-all and end-all, I honestly wasn't sure what to make of MIMMI at first. My researcher friends were similarly lukewarm in their responses; they didn't see anything special, at least from a technical perspective. However, in photos and videos taken at the site (unfortunately I wasn't able to actually visit Minneapolis to see the completed installation in person), what I saw were entirely different reactions. People seemed to be genuinely having fun interacting with, looking at, or just hanging out around MIMMI.
I tried to make sense of the dissonance, and after some thought, came upon the idea that maybe there is something special about the fact that MIMMI responds to input from "everyone" — at least those technically-savvy enough to send tweets over digital devices. In my past research I had mostly dealt with personal devices like mobiles and wearables, that enhance personal experiences, and increasingly isolate individuals from their surroundings and nearby people. When developing technologies meant to "digitize" space, the scenario I had in mind was that of individuals freely transforming the environment to suit their own, personal needs. Through MIMMI my interests began to shift from the personal to the communal, which was the first small step that eventually led to the idea of Wikitopia, i.e., future cities that are continuously edited and improved by "everyone".
Ok so that was much more long-winded than necessary — in the end my personal motivations aren't really of any importance, what matters is whether or not Wikitopia can be considered a viable vision of future cities that can provide broad, tangible benefits to us citizens.
As a prior step before officially launching the Wikitopia Project, with help from a group of friends I edited a small booklet titled "Atlas of Future Cities". It was a compilation of essays written by eminent professionals working in various urbanism-related fields, including Carlo Ratti of MIT, the artist Olafur Eliasson, and former NYC chief urban designer Alex Washburn. In the booklet, the urban planner Anthony Townsend writes how discussions regarding technologically-enhanced future cities tend to be dominated by so-called "smart cities" — a loosely defined vision of hyper-efficient cities realized through citywide deployments of sensors and IoT devices, real-time data extraction and analysis, and fine-grained control of myriad aspects of city management such as public transportation schedules, energy production, police personnel allocation, etc. The vision has been pushed enthusiastically by corporations such as IBM and Cisco, and now enjoys widespread influence in global city development.
Townsend points out that although the term "smart city" appears to have been coined relatively recently, the core ideas behind the term have earlier precedents. In 1969 MIT's Jay Forrester, a renowned pioneer in the field of Operations Research, published a book titled "Urban Dynamics" that described a range of techniques for computer-based optimization of city management, similar to those employed (albeit using much more advanced technologies) in modern-day smart cities. The ideas presented in the book were actually put to use in many Western cities throughout the 1970s, and then went out of favor after a string of disappointing results and several high-profile failures.
With that historical knowledge in mind, suddenly smart cities look less like an ingenious vision of future urbanism derived through a synthesis of 21st century technological trends, and more like a recycled vision from decades ago masquerading as something new using a slew of buzzwords. Suppose we gather a random group of young people in their 20s, and ask them "What is the first thing that pops up in your mind, when you hear the word IT?", what kinds of answers should we expect? Will they talk about large-scale simulations on supercomputers, or high-speed data processing using distributed architectures? Maybe, but far more people will likely mention consumer devices like the iPhone, or the various online services that can be accessed from those devices such as YouTube or Facebook. IT is no longer just a tool for fast computation but has created a new, consumer-driven media landscape — and this is the perspective I believe is generally missing among smart city proponents, who seem to operate on an older, more limited idea of what IT entails. Smart cities appear to hail directly from the age of "Astro Boy" and "2001: A Space Odyssey", when visions of the future routinely featured advanced AI and robotics, but were devoid of any mentions of smartphones or social media.
According to media reports, large-scale, ambitious smart city projects such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar City and South Korea's Songdo have so far failed to produce the (lofty) expected results. What had been initially hoped to become vibrant new cities showcasing cutting-edge technological wonders, are now reduced to being called by some as "high-tech ghost towns". Will more sophisticated AI, or more advanced digital infrastructure be enough to revitalize these projects? My guess would be no; the core issue with smart cities seems not to be any lack of technological polish, but the fact that their underlying theoretical framework has been transported from half a century ago with minimal updates.
Furthermore, the notion of a top-down, thoroughly optimized city that operates with machine-like efficiency inevitably reminds one of modernist planned cities, an idea that had seen wide support throughout the 20th century (and famously implemented in locations such as Brasilia and Chandigarh) but has since fallen out of fashion. Smart cities, in their current incarnations, appear to be an amalgamation of somewhat dated views on digital technology and an urban design paradigm now largely considered to be obsolete.
Wikitopia is a vision for city-building inspired by the user-driven, hyper-democratic nature of online media; its characteristic openness that allows broad participation by varied groups of people. Just like smart cities, it aims to utilize technological solutions to reimagine cities for the next century. However, we look at IT not only as a tool of computation and optimization, but also as a means to directly involve large numbers of citizens in the processes through which cities are created and improved.
Who are in charge of building our cities? Municipal governments, private industries, professionals such as architects and urban planners — while this question may elicit an array of plausible answers, in any case the privilege of creating cities does not seem to be equally distributed among citizens (i.e., the actual "users" of cities), but instead appears consolidated within the hands of select institutions and individuals. This is in contrast to the digital world, where we can find many examples — Linux and Wikipedia, to name two — of large, complex, and reliable systems being created by "everyone". People reading Wikipedia articles can, if they simply wish to do so, begin their careers as editors anytime. Of course, if we look at the respective numbers of people who merely use these online services and those that actively participate in their creation, the former outnumbers the latter by a huge margin. However, the important fact here is that making the leap from the former to latter is mostly only a matter of will; hurdles preventing that leap are either nonexistent, or relatively minor.
Thus in the digital world, mechanisms are in place that allow creations of many types of systems — although to be fair, none of them as large-scale and intricate as cities — to be carried out by "everyone", i.e., democratized. Needless to say, IT-fueled democratization is a major trend of our time that is fast transforming all aspects of society. Social media such as Twitter, and video sharing services like YouTube have democratized the power to disseminate information at national and global scales; what was once a privilege reserved to select members of mass media have now become available to anyone with Internet connection. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter have democratized fundraising, opening up to individuals the process by which business ventures attract capital for their projects. Airbnb and Uber have democratized, respectively, the hotel and taxi businesses. Although such forces of democratization have produced a string of negative as well as positive consequences, expectations are now ubiquitous that privileges formerly enjoyed by a few continue to become distributed to "everyone". Our efforts toward Wikitopia represents the latest chapter in this ongoing drive towards ever-further democratization.
The phrase "create cities like Wikipedia" may strike some as an entirely unrealistic pipe dream, especially those living in Japan where strict laws have long stifled free use of public space. In fact, however, efforts based on similar ideals have lately been emerging around the world. Take a casual stroll around San Francisco, and you might occasionally bump into small parks built on roadside parking spaces. These "parklets", of which there are currently around 60 within the city boundary, are not built by the municipal government; instead they are created and maintained by local citizens and businesses, and the only role of the city in the process is to review their plans and give permission to their spontaneous actions. Parklets first became part of the city's official policy in 2009, and in the decade since then, similar policies have spread not only to other cities in the US but also worldwide, to Europe, Australia, etc. Furthermore, new forms of officially-sanctioned DIY urbanism continue to emerge, such as collaboratively creating public plazas, maintaining gardens and farms, spontaneous installations of public furniture, various genres of street art, etc. (The phrase "tactical urbanism" has been coined as an umbrella term for such activities.) Now policies are being introduced worldwide, that allow citizens to take up the task of improving their neighborhoods into their own hands, in increasingly diverse ways.
Also, through a quick look into the range of topics discussed at the 2016 UN HABITAT III (a major international conference dealing with global urban development) in Quito, or by parsing through the recent recipients of the Pritzker Prize, Turner Prize, etc., one can easily see how DIY-style urbanism that harnesses citizen spontaneity is fast growing into a major trend in international urban design circles. At the Wikitopia Project we are keeping a close eye on new trends and practices emerging around the world, and are exploring ways in which we can use IT and other cutting-edge technologies to radically accelerate and scale up such efforts.
Jane Jacobs famously wrote that "cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody". Centralized forms of intelligence, whether human or artificial, will struggle to comprehensively grasp the varied, changing needs of a diverse populace. We enlist the help of 21st century engineering to realize a more participatory form of urbanism, with the hope of creating more inclusive cities that better reflect the desires of "everyone".
This manifesto was originally written to accompany the WIKITOPIA INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION — a design competition held in 2018 as part of our research agenda. (The manuscript is planned to be recurrently revised as we make progress in our research.) The competition solicited novel ideas to "create cities by everyone", that go beyond existing examples such as parklets and graffiti. Ideas could be either low-tech or high-tech, small-scale or large-scale; anything was fair game, as long as the idea presented some new avenue for citizens to impact their neighborhood environments through spontaneous actions. In the end, the competition attracted a total of 170 submissions from around the world. Aside from entries deemed unfit for publication due to major formatting errors etc., all submissions are exhibited on our official website. Looking through these submissions, we can see how cities created by "everyone" is something that will be realized through a vast, diverse collection of technologies, designs, policies, and systems. Furthermore, as cities each have their own distinct climates, geographies, economies, cultures, etc., implementations of Wikitopia will have regional variations as well.
The extensive range of innovations necessary to bring forth Wikitopia to cities worldwide, needless to say, is beyond the scope of a single research project. By focusing our efforts on a small but strategically-chosen portfolio of high-impact research initiatives, we wish to kickstart a broad interdisciplinary movement that will ultimately lead us to Wikitopia.
Our research is characterized by its eclecticism, informed by a range of academic and professional displines. At the core of our initiatives is a group of technical development projects, which can each be categorized into either of two research directions.
The first direction is the development of technologies to "edit" cities. Websites such as Wikipedia, and open-source software such as Linux are ultimately all collections of digital data, which can be easily edited on electronic devices such as PCs and smartphones. In contrast, Wikitopia deals with real-world urban environments made of concrete, glass, steel, asphalt, etc. — physical materials that are hardly malleable, if at all. Ideas for citizen-led urbanism submitted to our aforementioned competition routinely involve near-future technologies that make cities more easily "editable", such as augmented reality glasses, architectural-scale 3D printing, various forms of next-generation digital displays, etc. While low-tech means to "edit" cities (e.g., guerrilla gardening using shovels and forks) will undoubtedly play important roles in Wikitopia, such labor-intensive approaches, by themselves, are limited in their scalability. For citizen-led urbanism to reach critical mass, we need to bring the "editability" of built environments closer to that of digital data.
Here we would like to give one example of our efforts in this vein. We are developing a new 3D printing technology that enables fabrication of "holistic" urban environments, that allows citizens to quickly make edits to their neighborhoods without the need for professional expertise, large-scale funding, or extensive physical labor. Our work extends existing work on "printable architecture", i.e., 3D printing of full-scale buildings, by introducing additional techniques to reliably print semi-natural environmental elements such as lawns, gardens, farms, etc. (we employ a specialized polymer material that acts as a soil substitute) — effectively making it possible to fabricate the majority of elements that make up the urban environment. In the future, parklets may be designed collaboratively by local citizens and entirely 3D printed.
The second direction deals with designing a mechanism that ensures communal benefits — in other words, a system that guarantees that spontaneous "edits" made by citizens collectively leads not to chaos but to positives outcomes that improve the lives of "everyone". We believe that massively scaling up citizen-led urbanism can help create more democratic, adaptable, and resilient future cities; however, we are not quite as naive as to believe that this idea is not without potential pitfalls, that some idealized notion of the invisible hand will always lead cities to an equilibrium state harmonious with the collective values of the community. Wikitopia is a vision that needs to be coupled with a carefully-designed overall system, to make sure its net effects will be positive.
Designing this overall system constitutes a challenging technical, and scientific, problem. As of yet, our knowledge is still rather limited regarding how best to design technologies that support collective, collaborative activities. While the success of Wikipedia is easy to see, we do not know clearly why it is working so well, or how we can replicate its design to spawn more successful Wiki-based projects. Facebook, despite being subjected to constant social and political pressures, is still struggling to introduce effective measures to curb the spread of fake news on its platform. In computer science, disproportionate amounts of effort had been spent on studying and developing personal digital technologies, as opposed to communal digital technologies. Designing a mechanism that facilitates spontaneous citizen actions while maintaining a balance between individual freedom and collective welfare, is a task with potentially wide societal implications beyond the field of urbanism.
Many exciting plans are in place for the Wikitopia Project. We will be taking on an eclectic range of activities encompassing technical research, design practice, activism, entrepreneurship, etc. In the long term, we hope to establish a "Wikitopia Zone" — a special region where rules regarding the use of public space are deliberately relaxed — and conduct large-scale experiments of new technologies, designs, and principles. If you are interested in working with us, there will be many ways to take part so please do not hesitate to contact us. We are still at the beginning of a long road, and the vision of future cities created like Wikipedia can only become reality through the hands of a global community of fellow Wikitopians.