Last week I was invited by Simon Roberts to talk at WCIT2010, on a panel with Tom Steinberg (Mysociety), and Adam Greenfield (Urbanscale/Nokia). Simon had suggested that I try and link street/geography of India with local innovation and soft services. With the spiked interest in "emerging markets", I thought it might be a good idea to present a view from 'Ground Zero'. My talk was titled 'My Elastic City: Designing for India's Immaterial Urbanism', and here's the presentation: (minus all the sound and music and videos as Slideshare is not very kind with multimedia and keynote. But, hopefully the more 'entertaining' video of the talk will be online soon.) And here's a longer overview, for those interested. I started by showing a glimpse of 'Yellow Chair Stories'; my point was to emphasize on the those 'physical blog spaces' where the digital and the physical communities converge for a bit, and then disappear again. While augmented reality apps, and urban games have taken the digital urban experience to a whole new level, I am interested in how the convergence of the two occurs at the street level, in India.
"590 million Indians, or 40% of the population will live in cities by 2030"
This data is now common knowledge, our cities are overflowing and will only continue to do so. As Jon and I discussed this further, some key questions came up: While population growth will have a huge impact on the urban physical infrastructure, what about the soft infrastructure? What about the immaterial stuff, the data that enters our skins, rushing past us into flows of networks that we cant ever put our fingers on? Who is designing for it, and how are we going to go about it? Reinterpreting David Rusk's definition of an 'Elastic City' from 1993, we thought that in 2010, our Elastic City would be one that "utilisies this immateriality to continually stretch collective urban imagination, and create experiential services to reconnect residents to their cities in new ways."
But this nature of 'elasticity' will vary depending on the context, so for the 15 mins or so that I had, my focus was India. Diving into urban India, I showed how cities appear on Google maps. Mostly bare and dry and boring. I showed a map of the city of Ahmedabad (image above), which has no street names, and also an example of how addresses of places are usually around local landmarks. If those landmarks moved or disappeared, everyone in that area would need to reappropriate their addresses. But whats actually happening on the streets? I took the audience to India's urban centres, presenting images and *sounds* of street life. (which worked for a 9am session, woke them up!) Through examples of the 'paan-wallah, rickshaw-wallah, robot-wallah, temporary TV stall-wallh and many more, the presentation showed how the street entrepreneur who sells you a service, also passes on valuable information about rental property, stock markets, bollywood, horoscopes and cricket. (Wallah/Wallih is the suffix given to anyone selling a service or wares, usually a street vendor/entrepreneur) Information that may not be 'efficient' or 'personal' but highly valuable, as they form the stories, the human lifeline of urban society. (yes, mobile phones in India have done the efficient, useful and personal/sharing bit well)
Essentially each of these informal hubs operating at street level become 'network nodes' in the city, sharing and exchanging information with the residents. And more importantly, these network nodes are 'mobile', so they move about the city, selling their wares, and in the process, collecting and distributing bits of data in a transient manner. A map that would normally look 'boring' suddenly becomes a lot more compelling, as we begin to populate it with all these 'network nodes' that operate within the city. Ultimately any technology planner or visionary needs to consider this sort of a map as an alternate blueprint while designing soft services or 'apps' in India. Perhaps a tweeting flourmill may not be the answer, as it misses out on the essence of the 'street'. We suggest that in India, one could consider the 'Street as Facebook', facing the same challenges of privacy, but open source by its very nature. And its about time we start designing meaningful, desirable services around these networks and infrastructures, rather then bombarding people with 'sms jokes' services.