Technology companies, city governments, and design firms – the entities teaming up to construct our highly-networked cities of the future – have prototyped interfaces through which citizens can engage with the smart city. But those prototypes, almost always envisioned as screens of some sort, embody institutional values that aren’t always aligned with those of citizens who rightfully claim a “right to the city.” Based on promotional materials from Cisco, Siemens, IBM, Microsoft, and their smart-city-making counterparts, it seems that one of the chief preoccupations of our future-cities is to reflect their data consumption and hyper-efficient (often "widgetized") activity back to themselves. We thus see city “control centers” lined with screens that serve in part to visualize, and celebrate, the city’s own supposedly hyper-rational operation. Public-facing interfaces, meanwhile, are typically rendered via schematic mock-ups, with little consideration given to interface design. They’re portrayed as conduits for transit information, commercial and service locations and reviews, and information about cultural resources and tourist attractions; and as portals for gathering user-generated data. Across the board, these interfacing platforms tend to frame their users as sources of data that feed the urban algorithmic machines, and as consumers of data concerned primarily with their own efficient navigation and consumption of the city.
In this talk, I'll consider how we might we design urban interfaces for urban citizens, who have a right to know what’s going on inside “’black boxed’ [urban] control systems” – and even engage with the operating system as more than mere data-generators or reporters-of-potholes-and-power-outages. In considering what constitutes an ideal urban interface, we need to examine those platforms that are already in existence, and those that are proposed for future cities. Even the purely hypothetical, the speculative – the “design fiction" – can illuminate what’s possible, technologically, aesthetically, and ideologically; and can allow us to ask ourselves what kind of a “public face” we want to front our cities, and, even more important, what kinds of intelligence and agency – technological and human – we want our cities to embody.