The Hackable City: A Research Manifesto and Design Toolkit
Cristina Ampatzidou, Matthijs Bouw, Froukje van de Klundert, Michiel de Lange, Martijn de Waal
In a hackable city, new media technologies are employed to open up urban institutions and infrastructures to systemic change in the public interest. It combines top-down smart-city technologies with bottom-up ‘smart citizen’ initiatives. The Hackable City is a research project on the role of digital media in the process of citymaking that resulted from cooperation between One Architecture and The Mobile City Foundation. The project investigates the opportunities of digital media technologies for the empowerment of citizens and other stakeholders in a democratic process of citymaking. This book aims to offer a closer look at the implications of ‘hackable city making’ in the form of a Hackable City Research Manifesto and a ‘hackable city toolkit’. This toolkit could give designers, policy makers and citizens a number of ideas to approach projects that they might be working on, providing also a number of strategies to include in their projects.
Below you will find the text from the Research Manifesto:
Introduction: the rise of the platform society
For citymakers all around the world, we live in interesting times, full of paradoxes. Whereas local governments are teaming up with technology companies to make their cities ‘smarter’ and turn them into living labs, citizen initiatives all over the world have started to emerge bottom-up around numerous issues, from collective neighborhood gardens to energy cooperatives. On the one hand, technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs sing the praise of innovative approaches to transit, ranging from Uber to the advent of the driverless car. On the other, newspaper columns are filled with critical op-ed contributions addressing the negative consequences of the so-called sharing economy, varying from increasing pressure on already tight housing markets to subpar working conditions for those employed in the on-demand economy. Finally, while personalized services such as Google Maps, local restaurant review sites and sporting apps possibly provoke a shift towards a more individualistic experience of the city, a young generation of architects and designers is employing a series of digital platforms to crowdfund and crowdsource projects that are to revitalize public space, to contribute to a circular economy, or to build local communities or jumpstart a civic economy.
What binds these examples together is that they are part of an underlying shift in the organization of our societies, a shift that we could call ‘the rise of the platform society’ – a society in which more and more of our social and economic interactions are mediated through digital media platforms. Whether it’s finding a taxi through Uber, arranging a date through Tinder, connecting with neighborhood-dwellers to collectively start a solar energy initiative or searching for fellow-enthusiasts to turn parking places into ‘parklets’ (small parks the size of a parking place), it seems that – as a current tech-commercial claimed: there’s an app for that. Or at least a neighborhood blog, an Instructable-video, an online forum, a crowdsourcing tool, a social network, or any other kind of digital media platform that connects supply and demand in a broad variety of societal domains through its software.
This growing use of digital media platforms in our everyday urban culture has great consequences for what we call citymaking: the ways in which a broad variety of actors decide upon, design, program, manage and appropriate the physical city and its social life. To put it in the terminology of this research project: in the platform society it may become easier to ‘hack’ the existing fabric of our cities and appropriate it for our own uses, whether it’s temporarily converting our apartment into a hotel, or mobilizing ‘friends’ at a public park – notwithstanding whether it’s for a communal bbq, a political rally or a riot against the powers that be. As a consequence, we may make use of our urban infrastructures in more efficient ways and find more flexible ways to program our cities, mobilize crowds, organize communities, activate places and negotiate transactions.
Following the sometimes positivist swing to the rhetoric of the platform society, the connections these new platforms forge may empower citizens in new ways to organize themselves around all kind of issues, bringing about a sharing economy, a participation society or a civic economy. Yet, such a future is far from assured. As critics have pointed out, these very same developments – sometimes sold under the guise of the smart city – may also threaten to subsume all social relations under the functionalist and commercial ‘city as a service’ logic of technology companies, leading to an increase in inequality and the further advent of technocratic urban governance.
Hackable City Opportunities & Challenges
This publication, consisting of a ‘Hackable City Research Manifesto‘ and a ‘Hackable City Toolkit’, aims to offer an inroad to grasp these developments as well as a practical guide to act upon them: What opportunities, as well as challenges, does the rise of the platform society pose for an open, democratic process of collaborative citymaking? And how can citizens, design professionals, local government institutions and others creatively use digital media platforms in collaborative processes of urban planning, management and social organization, to contribute to a livable and resilient city, with a strong social fabric?
These are of course big questions that do not allow for easy answers. Yet in the end it’s these very questions that need to be addressed. What we propose is an iterative step-by-step approach, to explore the challenges and opportunities digital media afford for citymaking, and this report is our first iteration of this process.
To address our research questions, we have taken on the metaphor of hacking – which could be defined as the playful and clever appropriation of a system through a learning-by-doing approach, in a spirit of sharing and collaboration. We think this notion of hacking is a productive way to approach the process of citymaking in the era of the platform society. As it is a term derived from the world of computers and software, ‘hacking’ foregrounds the use of digital media platforms in the process. The notion of ‘hacking’, in the sense of ‘opening up a system’, connects with broader societal trends such as the rise of a civic or sharing economy, approaches of open innovation and collaborative planning, discussions about civic participation and the changing roles between experts and amateurs. How can we use these technologies to ‘hack’ (appropriate, adjust, extend, improve) the social, cultural and economic processes in our cities, from the perspective of the public interest?
As hacking addresses both the practices of the hacker as well as the logic of the system to be hacked, it also provides ways to overcome the current antagonism between top-down smart city developments (usually focussing on the system rather than its users) and bottom-up smart citizen initiatives (often focussing on the organization of citizens, sometimes overlooking its consequences for society as a whole). As such, the term also opens up a normative discussion that is of importance for designers, policy makers and citizens alike. To what extent can and should a city be ‘hackable’? To whose advantage is a hackable city to be appropriated? How can we safeguard a public interest perspective when opening up the city for appropriation by a broad variety of actors? And how can we prevent criminal or socially destructive attempts to hack the city?
These last questions are important. As hacking also has a negative connotation, the use of this term also foregrounds the risks of the platform society. Whereas we use a positive definition of hacking, based on collaboration towards communal goals, hacking can also refer to criminals breaking into systems, stealing people’s credit card numbers, endangering their privacy, or even bringing down vital computer systems by malicious attacks. Each technology can be used for contrarian purposes, and digital media platforms by their very nature are vulnerable to such attacks. Whereas in this study we are interested in the opportunities the platform society offers for more resilient, sustainable and sociable urban futures, the use of the very term hacking implies that design of such systems must always take these counter-attacks in mind. Privacy and safety of systems should not be an afterthought, but at the very heart of thinking about hackable cities.
As a last note, the verb hacking can also be understood as shorthand for a practical approach to solving complex issues. Hackers don’t sit down to endlessly theorize, they just start patching up any problem with the means they happen to have at hand. Hacking is an iterative, learning-by-doing kind of process.
This research project follows a similar approach. Our manifesto and toolkit should be understood as a first probe, a beta-version, of our work in progress; work that may never be completely finished as technologies and conditions are continuously being updated as well. In the spirit of the hacker community: we nevertheless find it productive to share what we have put together so far, in the hope to spark a discussion and help others forward their research and design endeavors.
We will go about this as follows: In part I we will have a closer look at the implications of ‘hackable city making’ in the form of a Hackable City Research Manifesto. The goal of this Manifesto is to point out the main challenges and opportunities for a democratic process of citymaking in the emerging platform society. What new questions and approaches arise when we look at the process of citymaking through the lens of hackable city making? The manifesto is structured around eight Hackable City Research Questions, each of them addressing a particular aspect of the application of digital media technologies in the process of citymaking.
In part II we turn to the praxis of citymaking and exhibit a first ‘beta-version’ of a ‘hackable city toolkit’. This toolkit could give designers, policy makers and citizens a number of ideas to approach projects that they might be working on, providing also a number of strategies to include in their projects. Learning from existing examples, we have identified a model that consists of seven phases that are addressed in the process of hackable citymaking. Furthermore, we have assembled the approaches we found in these phases into a toolkit of strategies. These tools will be further specified in the extensive descriptions of seven hackable city projects.
We hope that the Hackable City Research Manifesto in combination with the Hackable City Toolkit will give designers and community organizers (be they professionals or citizens themselves) a starting point to think about organizing their interventions, both from a philosophical and strategic as well as from a hands-on perspective. In a true hacker-approach, this toolkit should not be understood as an exhaustive or even prescriptive list, but as an inventory that may be hacked itself, and we welcome additions or alterations.
In the final chapter, we will conclude with a number of general reflections on the process of hackable citymaking. What points of further developing ‘hackable city making’ need our attention, both in research, design and policy?
A Hackable City Research Manifesto
We have found the notion of hackability a useful lens to approach the increasing role of digital media in our urban societies, as well as to reflect on the changing relations between various parties in the process of citymaking. When looking at our cities through the lens of ‘hacking’, specific issues in the process of citymaking that need to be addressed suddenly become visible. At the same time, the ethos found in hacker communities that operate in the world of computers and software may give us interesting leads for the design and application of digital media platforms that contribute to open-ended, democratic and inclusive practices of citymaking.
To start our inquiry: as it is a term normally associated with the world of computers and software, the notion of hacking foregrounds the increasing role of software in our urban societies. As hacking can also mean ‘breaking into systems’ or ‘bending the logic of systems’, it also questions the openness of digital media platforms, and ultimately the cities they serve. To what extents can the logic of digital media platforms be bent or opened up for unforeseen purposes?
This is an important issue. After all, cities themselves have long been theorized as platforms, or ‘market places’ that in their various public, institutional and even private spaces connect supply and demand in numerous spheres. As Manuel Castells has argued, cities can be understood as material interfaces that connect individual city dwellers with collective practices, experiences and rhythms (Castells, 2002). In addition, it could be argued that the success of cities as economic and cultural systems has always depended on their ‘hackability’, or the ways in which their systematic workings can be (playfully) appropriated by its residents. That is: the force of cities is that they have been open systems whose infrastructure and overlapping social, cultural and economic networks can be put to use in new, unforeseen ways by a variety of actors. They are open platforms whose infrastructure and programme allow their residents to forge all kinds of linkages between them, contributing to both economic and cultural innovation as well as mutual trust between citizens. And although these activities are usually confined by what current laws allow for, cities have always remained open platforms where these laws can be challenged as well; be it through small scale tactical interventions or large revolutionary protest demonstrations.
What happens to these functions of the city now that in our everyday urban lives, we have started to make use of all kinds of digital interfaces to join supply and demand and to match individuals with collectives? Now that links are no longer forged by the overlapping spatial and social circuits of our everyday lives but through the algorithms of digital media platforms? Could this indeed empower citizens to organize themselves around all kinds of issues, forging new links and connections? Or, is it that, as other critics point out, these very same developments may also threaten to subsume all social relations under the commercial ‘city as a service’- logic of technology companies that build the platforms through which our cities are organized? As some have pointed out, many current ‘smart city’ visions focus on the development of (usually) proprietary platforms that are to make the city more efficient. Among the issues that smart city policies seek to address are mobility, clean energy, water and food production and distribution, health, living and public participation (Hollands, 2008). Whereas that in itself could be a positive force, many of these visions have received wide criticism (see for example: (Greenfield, 2013; Hemment & Townsend, 2013). By and large these criticisms have focussed on the ill-defined notion of “smartness” in smart city visions, targeted the simplified view of what cities actually are, and attacked their apolitical technocratic nature (see also (Allwinkle & Cruickshank, 2011; Gabrys, 2014; Kitchin, 2013; Ratti & Townsend, 2011; Söderström, Paasche, & Klauser, 2014)
What does “smart” mean and who are actually supposed to be smart? Is city life and the urban experience about control, efficiency and predictability, or about encountering the unexpected and dealing with differences? Moreover, smart city views propose “technological fixes” to complex problems. Many so-called “smart technologies” or smart interventions are implicitly driven by a logic of consumption, control, and capsularization but do not empower citizens to become active players in their cities (de Lange & de Waal, 2013; Levy, 2001). The push for safety with CCTV and smart risk assessing algorithms could turn cities into places of pervasive control and surveillance. Smart retail solutions, location-based services and predictive algorithms push a consumerist view of urban life. And personal mobile technologies may foster a culture of capsularization and retreat. When technology-driven solutions ignore active contributions of citizens they may have adverse effects for urban public life at large.
The least that can be said in conclusion to these criticisms is that the software and interfaces of digital media platforms are not neutral tools for ‘hacking the city’. They are an active actor, whose workings and design may reflect particular power structures or offer opportunities to revert these. Therefore, their logic should be understood by all parties involved in the process of citymaking, be they local governments, citizens or designers. Can citizens and other actors still hack into these systems, becomes an important question. To what extent do our cities remain the open systems that provided their success?
Hackable City Research Question 1: How can we safeguard the open character of our cities in the platform society?
A brief history of hacker culture
The notion of ‘hacking’, or more precisely the hacker ethos found amongst a variety of tech- and computer-based subcultures labelled as such in the last half a century or so, may provide an answer to this first Hackable City Research Question. We argue that some of the values from these – by no means singular – subcultures could help us think about designing digital media platforms for ‘open cities’. Or at least raise a set of relevant questions and issues to be tackled in the process. A somewhat closer look at this hacker’s ethos will help to address these issues in relation to the process of citymaking in the platform society.
The set of principles, practices and associated ethics labelled as “hacking” has long been part and parcel of the world of media technologies. We find it amongst the radio-amateurs who in the 1910s and 20s hacked together their own crystal set receivers and discussed both the workings of the technological systems themselves as well as societal issues through the airwaves in a practice they called ‘Citizen Radio’ (Barlow, 1988). We come across it at the dawn of the 1960s at the labs of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in Cambridge, where teenagers and undergraduates started tinkering with the newly built giant supercomputer TX-0. Officially designed for defence and research purposes and operated by a closed priest-like class of experts, this expensive machine was now appropriated by the playful explorations of these young outsiders, driven by their curiosity about what such a machine could do. They even designed their own games – upsetting the air of seriousness that had surrounded computers until then.
We stumble again upon a hacking ethos in the 1970s, when in the San Francisco Bay Area under the umbrella of the Homebrew Computer Club, a groups of geeks – that later would found tech companies such as Apple – started to build their own computers as an act of political rebellion. Until then, they claimed, computers had mainly been associated with the oppressive workings of a centralized government. Now, they aspired, these same technologies could be used for personal liberation and self-organization, along the line of the hippie era zeitgeist of collaborative self-sufficiency reflected in publications like The Whole Earth Catalogue (Levy, 2001; Turner, 2006).
In the 1980s, ‘hacking’ receives a negative connotation in society at large, when it’s associated with criminals who break into computer systems. Films like WarGames (1983), Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and books like Neuromancer (1984) bring this image of the underground semi-criminal hacker into the domain of popular culture, demonstrating the vulnerable aspects of large technological systems. In the 1990s, the hacking community finds itself rehabilitated, as ‘hacking’ gains broader cultural leverage as a label under which open source programmers have started to collaboratively work on free software such as the operating system Linux, the web browser Mosaic or the online publishing tool WordPress. Here hacking is interpreted as contributing one’s knowledge and mastery over computer systems to the development of software for a common good, while at the same time showing off one’s cleverness to do so to a group of peers.
More recently in our current decade, the term hacking has popped up in a similar way to describe a group of people who use computers, digital media and the internet in an effort to shape urban life from the bottom-up. In the introduction of his much-cited book on Smart Cities, Anthony Townsend describes the emergence of the ‘civic hacker’ as follows:
“They eschew efficiency, instead seeking to amplify and accelerate the natural sociability of city life. Instead of stockpiling big data, they build mechanisms to share it with others. Instead of optimizing government operations behind the scenes, they create digital interfaces for people to see, touch, and feel the city in completely new ways. Instead of proprietary monopolies, they build collaborative networks. These bottom-up efforts thrive on their small scale but hold the potential to spread virally on the Web. Everywhere that the industry attempts to impose its vision of clean computer centrally managed order, they propose messy decentralized and democratic alternatives.” (Townsend, 2013)
Townsend’s description is not only the latest instalment of a description of historic hacker cultures, it also brings together many of the characteristics found in the various examples in a neat list of characteristics: hackers are not mere users of technology, but active creators, shapers, and benders of media technologies as well as the relationships mediated through them (see also: (Levy, 2001; Roszak, 1986). They like to tinker with technology, while deferring centralized authority. They cooperate on projects for a common good and prefer messy iterative operations above master plans. Hacking, in other words, refers to the process of clever or playful appropriation of existing technologies or infrastructures, and bending the operation of a particular system beyond its intended purposes or restrictions to serve personal or communal goals.
For hackers, that approach is not just one out of many ways to solve a problem. For many of them it’s a way of life. Many of the proponents in the examples given above wilfully make use of the term hacker as a communal badge of identity. To be a hacker not only means to playfully make use of systems beyond their intended logic, it encompasses a complete ethos: a particular way of understanding and operating in society.
It’s the combination of these two aspects of hacking that we find interesting vis-à-vis the development of a 21st century collaborative design approach for citymaking. ‘Hacking the city’ is about finding ways to actively shape one’s surroundings through the clever and playful appropriation of technology. And it could also be considered as a communal identity, a collective approach to citymaking that borrows a number of central tenets of the hacker culture. Although it would be naïve to consider the hacker community as a coherent whole, from which we could distil a single, consistent ethic, there are two central themes in the hacker ethic that for us are of particular interest: a culture of sharing and collaboration, and a tinkering, hands-on way to problem-solving.
Hackers’ stance on information: it wants to be free
The first point is the attitude of hackers towards openness and sharing knowledge. If there’s one central principle that runs through various accounts of hacker culture, it is unobstructed access to information (in the form of code) in combination to the freedom to build upon other people’s work. ‘Information wants to be free’ is one of the leading adagios of hacker culture, although there is a controversy about how exactly that should be interpreted. In the 1980s, open software-evangelist Richard Stallman added an important nuance to this claim: ‘Think free as in free speech, not free beer.’ Free to him did not mean that all information would be accessible without any costs, but that users had the freedom to build upon, alter, change or hack into existing information structures. Such a freedom to information could lead to innovation, and thus contribute to a better world. As such the hacker ethic opposes the closed knowledge systems of patents and proprietary platforms. The more information is available, the better. As Stallman stated:
“I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.” Stallman, quoted in: (Denning, 1996)
The openness of systems has another advantage. In his seminal essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ (Raymond, 1999) Eric Raymond, one of the gurus of the open source software movement, explains the decentralized hacker-approach of being small and agile. It’s that very ethic of small-scale initiatives in combination with cooperation with one’s neighbours that allows the bazaar to respond to needs as they emerge. That is in contrast to the cathedral, which according to Raymond articulates the vision of a master builder, slowly becoming a masterpiece to dominate the urban landscape, yet tied to its original function and unable to adjust to changing circumstances. For Raymond, as for Stallman, not collaborating with peers in developing software was not an option. Now how can new media technologies assist to port this approach of openness, collaborative learning and cooperation from online projects – varying from Wikipedia to open source software – to the process of citymaking? That’s one of the leading questions we will try to address in the Hackable City Toolkit further on in this publication.
Hackable City Research Question 2: How can new media technologies assist to port the approaches of openness, collaborative learning and cooperation found in various instances of hacker culture – varying from Wikipedia to open source soft- and hardware – to the process of citymaking?
Hackers, Experts and Amateurs
The hacker ethic of sharing knowledge opens up another interesting discussion: that of the shifting relation between experts, professionals and citizens. The hacker is an interesting figure: he doesn’t belong to a class of officially sanctioned or accredited experts, his knowledge is usually self-taught, and his mode of operation not one of systematic research moving from the formation of strategic plans to application, but rather a more impromptu one of trial and error. As such he may be a figurehead for a broader trend, that according to numerous sociologists consists of a crisis in the ‘natural’ legitimacy of expert knowledge, systems and professionals, that has started to develop in concurrence with the period of late or high modernity that begins somewhere in the early 1980s (see for example Beck, 1992). This so-called crisis touches many domains – from politics to science to health care to journalism. It also affects urban design, policy making and governance. There is now a continual uncertainty and ongoing need to redefine the role of professional disciplines across the board. There is, then, a need to come up with reflections on and new narratives about the role of the (former) expert in relation to the (professional) amateur (Leadbeater & Miller, 2004).
In professional circles we have seen numerous answers to this trend. In planning we have seen the rise of collaborative planning in which planners have started to use digital tools to gather input from stakeholders or the use of games to engage various stakeholders in the process (Gordon & Manosevitch, 2010; Gordon, Schirra, & Hollander, 2011). In processes of ‘open innovation’ and ‘living labs’, procedures have arisen in which citizens can act as co-creators in the design of products or even their neighborhoods. Baccarne et. al. have described these initiatives as evocative of a hacker ethic, as these living labs ‘promote[s] the idea that anyone is capable of performing a variety of tasks rather than relying on paid experts or specialists.’ (Baccarne, Mechant, Schuurma, De Marez, & Colpaert, 2014)
The point is not that expert-knowledge has no value anymore, or that every amateur can take up any task. Rather, what these examples show is that citymaking can be more inclusive if various forms of expertise– from the highly technical to the everyday-life-experiences – can be brought together in a system of open innovation. Or argued the other way around: if the process of city-making is to be made hackable, citizens have to become hackers, meaning that they should have ways to master the knowledge and capacities needed. In a hackable city, urban design is then not just about the design of grand schemes, but also about the design of procedures and tools that can help citizens to contribute to that. This could take various forms, from designing knowledge platforms through which knowledge can be crowdsourced and exchanged, to providing digital tools that can help non-professionals understand or intervene in situations or the organization of capacity building campaigns that help citizens master the skills needed to become active agents of change in the platform society.
A new generation of Dutch architects has already started to embrace this vision. In the book Reactivate! Indira van ‘t Klooster writes how a series of offices have redefined their role. They have designed new procedures of campaigning, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to approach citizens as co-creators, whereas they have started to see their role as developers or producers of projects that address urgent societal issues, organizing the knowledge and contributions of various stakeholders around it (Klooster, 2013).
Hackable City Research Question 3: What new procedures of knowledge exchange and capacity building are needed to make the hackable citymaking process an inclusive one?
Hackable City Research Question 4: How can digital media platforms be designed to organize various stakeholders around societal issues and give each stakeholder the opportunity to contribute to the best of their abilities?
Learning by doing
Another common trait in various hacker cultures of use to our investigation of city making in the era of the platform society, is hackers’ particular approach to innovation: one that consists of a messy learning by doing attitude, based on an attitude of finding intrinsic pleasure in tinkering, balancing pragmatic problem solving and curiosity-driven problem seeking, and considering messiness as a potential strength instead of a threat. A hacker is both a homo faber and a homo ludens, as they tend to have a playful and curious world outlook. They want to know how stuff works by tinkering with it; not as engineers who design according to a carefully preconceived plan or blueprint but in an improvising go-along way. Being a hacker entails a slightly subversive attitude. Hackers do not accept defaults (“as is”) but imaginatively enquire the space of potential (“what if”). In an anecdote that illustrates this point, Levy describes the entrance of a fourteen year old boy in the M.I.T lab who started to drive all the theoretical researchers crazy. Where they were used to start building complicated theorems to work from, he just started to play with the computer to see what it could do.
“They’re theorizing all these things and I’m rolling up my sleeves and doing it . . . you find a lot of that in hacking in general. I wasn’t approaching it from either a theoretical point of view or an engineering point of view, but from sort of a fun-ness point of view.” (Levy, 2001)
In recent years, this learning by doing has increasingly found its way into the process of citymaking. In their book, Tactical Urbanism, Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia describe numerous examples of citizens, designers, architects and even city governments who have just started to try out small and temporary interventions in the urban fabric to see whether they would be successful, rather than commissioning feasibility studies or grand master plans. Whereas playfulness was often used as a tactic to mobilize local stakeholders and potential users, recording metrics about the consequences were often important in convincing stakeholders of a more durable interpretation of the interventions (Lydon & Garcia, 2015).
Hackable City Research Question 5: How can we bring the iterative, learning-by-doing approach to the process of citymaking?
The commons: hacking for the public good?
Whereas the notion of a hackable city can bring an interesting perspective to the process of citymaking, it can also be used to problematize this process with digital media. The concept of the hackable city is not a simple remedy that we can apply to our cities. Rather, it’s a lens through which we can discuss issues related to the use of digital media in citymaking. Again, the discussions in hacker culture shed some interesting light on this. We want to highlight two such discussions: one centered on the organization of a commons; the second on governance models.
The first discussion revolves around the possible conflict between, or alignment of, individual and communal rewards and the production of commons-structured resources. Hacking, as we have seen, revolves around the organization of creativity. As such, it both serves to scratch a very personal itch (I don’t like the way something works so I’ll modify it according to my wishes) and has a more social side to it (I’ve come up with something clever and this could benefit others too). This social side is competitive, for many hackers it’s about impressing and gaining respect among peers through cleverness (for instance (Levy, 2001): 12), and at the same time it involves a communal attitude of openness, sharing-alike and community building (Himanen, 2001; Hippel, 2005; Levy, 2001).
Some have argued that as a mode of production and organizing communities, hacking can be positioned between the capitalist free market economy and communitarian modes of production. In the former, competition and individual profit reign supreme, as well as the associated idea that corporations are the most suited to drive innovation and well-being. The latter departs from ideals of collectivizing and redistributing resources in an equal way. Himanen, for instance, suggests that hacking, as part of a new ethics and spirit of the network society, establishes a third way. Hackers reject the typical capitalist mode of corporate innovation through competition based on controlling information, and at the same time they reject the centralized authority model associated with communism (Himanen, 2001). Himanen’s empowered capitalist hacker is not motivated by money but does not reject it, profit is understood in a much more complex system of values comprised of creativity, passion, freedom, social worth, activity, openness and caring.
Although the term is not much used in hacker culture per se, we find it interesting to make a link to the model of the commons – the collective development and management of communal resources, irrespectively of property rights. The commons in medieval feudal England was the land that belonged to a manor but on which the inhabitants of the estate had certain rights, like collecting firewood, hunting or pasture. Later the term was extended to include all resources to which a community has rights upon. These resources could be natural as in the case of pastureland and access to water or technological resources, as for example TV and radio frequencies.
Interestingly, the word ‘common’ derives from the Norman word ‘commun’, which itself has its roots in the Latin word ‘munus’, which combines the meanings of “gift” and “duty”, stemming from the social obligation of having to return a gift to the person that gave you one. The production of open source software could be seen as an endeavour to develop a communal resource in which various participants contribute their knowledge and time to construct a tool that’s available for the community at large. In his Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark explicitly calls for the safeguarding of an information commons, a shared pool of resources free for all to use – and contribute to (Wark, 2004).
Can we think of the process of citymaking in similar terms? Where citymakers work together to create and manage communal resources, not for the sake of individual profit, but from a public interest perspective? This perspective doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a business model or that everyone involved should work for free as in ‘free beer’. It means that a business model should serve the public interest rather than being a goal in itself.
What’s of interest for our purposes here, is that there runs a thread through hacker culture that combines the process of open learning with one of collaboration and producing something for the community at large, rather than just for personal profit. At the same time, the hacker ethic is more libertarian (or even anarchistic) than communitarian. There usually is also an individual motivation present to the participation in collaborative projects, usually personal recognition rather than monetary rewards. Although hackers like to share and engage in open innovation, they do also care about individual reputation (Himanen, 2001). Using the analogy of hacking to describe processes of citymaking highlights these tensions between the individual and the collective. How individuals can be rewarded for their contributions to a common good, is a central question in hackable citymaking practices.
Again, we have seen developments in this direction in current practices of citymaking. In his Compendium for the Civic Economy, Joost Beunderman provides an overview of numerous initiatives that have started exploring new organization and business models to organize local communities around issues of public interest (Beunderman, 2012). Similarly, the British ‘innovation foundation’, Nesta, has published a great overview of similar initiatives called Digital Social Innovation. They see a European-wide rise of “collaborative methods for financing, development and production, leading to services that are provided neither by the state nor by the market” (Bria, 2015). Interesting as these examples are, Nesta also sees a challenge here. While local and small scale examples abound, it is still hard to scale these or find room for further experimentation (Bria 2015).
Hackable City Research Question 6: How can we align, engage and reward various stakeholders around the organization of urban infrastructures or issues as a commons?
Hacking & Governance
A second discussion central to the hacker ethos revolves around the organization model and governance of hackable city processes. As many have pointed out: hackers distrust central authorities and prefer to work in a decentralized way. As Voltaire would say: they mend their own gardens. This leads to two potential challenges: a) the organization and commitment within projects, and b) the relation between a collective project and society at large.
To start with the first issue. Some have argued that for the realization of communal goals, the bottom-up approach may be too non-committal. Some advocates of open source software such as Eric Raymond have therefore argued for strong leadership. Successful examples of open source software, he claimed, happened because of the benevolent dictators that oversaw them, the production of the open source browser Netscape being his central exhibit (Raymond, 1999). His argument reflects a wider discussion on the role of centralized positions in horizontal communities. This discussion also directly relates to the necessity of institutions or other central agents that should have an overview and guide processes, even when the processes themselves are open, participatory and hackable. Some projects resolve this internally, but in many projects, new roles may emerge for campaigners, community organizers or civil institutions.
On a second level, conflicts may arise between the goals of a collective practice of hackable citymaking, and the public interest at large. The hackable city assumes a form of (civic) empowerment, giving agency to the public to take initiative upon issues of their concern. At the same time, it poses the question of democracy. How do new opportunities for self-organization compare to institutional practices of democratic decision making? In the framework of a hackable city, who secures that the purposes of a self-organised group will not overshadow the interests of the general public? Despite the charm of people joining forces to inflict positive change in their environments, we must not forget that these are also unsolicited actions that may be undemocratic.
The discussion on these possible conflicts of interests has recently taken off. On the one hand national and city governments in The Netherlands (and other countries as well) are enthusiastic about the possible rise of a ‘participation society’ in which it’s no longer the welfare state that takes care of all kinds of social provision, but citizens who will organize themselves, start helping out each other. In the ‘energetic society’ that the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency sees emerging, the government is no longer the central director determining both societal goals and the exact path to reach them, but rather a producer that should capitalize on the energy of citizens, organisations, companies and institutions. It should set a framework that various actors then can take up (or ‘hack’) and fill in according to their preferences and interests (Hajer, 2011). However, Tonkens, Trappenburg, Hurenkamp and Schmidt have recently questioned this approach. This approach may work out fine for the well-educated, but leaves many others who lack the energy, the skills or the willingness to participate in such a way behind (Tonkens, Trappenburg, Hurenkamp, & Schmidt 2015). Similarly, debates have emerged about the legitimacy of citizen-initiatives. To what extent are they representative of the citizenry as a whole? And to what extent are they expressions of private collective interests rather than a public interest? How should local governments relate to these initiatives?
As for now, we have no easy answers to these questions on a general level. But again, here the approach of hacking may help finding solutions: rather than designing grand schemes of governance, now is a time for experimenting with various frameworks and models of representation, so we can learn from them.
Hackable City Research Question 7: What governance frameworks can provide room for citizens and designers to legitimately hack their cities from the perspective of the public interest?
Hackable City Research Question 8: What new modes of inclusion and exclusion arise in the Hackable City? How can the Hackable City be both inclusive and at the same time provide room for differentiation?
Citizens and designers as social change agents
To conclude, for us a hackable city is a city that allows citizens or designers to envision themselves as social change agents. That is: they make use of digital tools to appropriate (‘hack’) one’s environment, infrastructure or resources, not so much for personal gain, but rather from the perspective of a common goal or collective interest.
This does not mean that all citizens should become city hackers. Not every citizen has the time, means or interest to become a city hacker. Rather it means that the city as a whole could profit if the system could be opened up to those who see opportunities to hack it from a public interest perspective.
Nor do we claim that planning as a professional discipline will become obsolete. On the contrary, we think there always will be a role for professional designers with their professional knowledge as well as for civil institutions that use democratic procedures to the frameworks for urban development. Rather we seek new ways to organize this process, ways in which citizens, professionals and institutions work together in a process we call citymaking.
We find the notion of the hackable city an interesting lens to discuss the process of citymaking in the era of the platform society. As such the term can be used to highlight critical or contrarian tactics, to point to new collaborative practices amongst citizens mediated through social media, or to describe a changing vision on the relation between governments, designers and citizens. It argues for an iterative approach to citymaking, looking for new ways to share knowledge between and collaborate with a variety of stakeholders. It provides room for both citizens, as well as designers and institutions, to become active agents of change as hackers of their environments.
Whereas the notion of the hacker refers to the means, ethos and practices of individuals to intervene in city making, its companion term hackability refers to the system that is to be hacked, in our case the city. Hacking is often described in terms of a power struggle between hackers and system owners, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. As we argued above, the success of cities as economic and cultural systems depends partially on their hackability. Yet system owners (mainly the government) may or may not set all kinds of legal rules that either facilitate or prohibit the appropriation of urban infrastructures. Can we now imagine an infrastructure of the city (in its broadest sense) that welcomes ‘civic hacks’? How could the city as a system be opened up, so hacking into it will be easier for citizens, in such a way that it will still serve the public interest? What could the role of city governments, architects and planners, technologists and citizens be in such an approach? The notion of the hackable city addresses these questions, and at the same time takes a critical stance. It forces us to ask questions about the governance of hackable city projects as well as to identify its risks.
Whereas we have no easy answers to any of the eight questions raised in this framework, we think that finding one or more possible directions to address them is essential to safeguard our cities as democratic and open systems in the era of the platform society. That’s what drives our research, and also our first experiments down this road that will be explored further in the Hackable City Toolkit in the next chapter.