The Hackable City Edited Volume. Digital Media & Collaborative Citymaking in the Network Society

In this edited volume to be published by Springer in 2018, various studies from around the (Western) world, describe and analyze new practices of collaborative citymaking.

The Hackable City: Collaborative Citymaking in a Networked Society is an edited volume consisting of a selection of the best contribution to the Digital Cities 9 Workshop held in Limerick in 2015. It combines a number of the latest academic insights on new collaborative modes of citymaking that are firmly rooted in empirical findings about actual practices of citizens, designers and policy makers. The book explores the affordances of new media technologies for empowering citizens in the process of citymaking, and relates examples of bottom-up or participatory practices of citymaking to reflections about the changing roles of professional practitioners in processes of citymaking, as well as issues of governance and institutional policy- making.

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The Digital Cities workshop series started in 1999, and is the longest running academic workshop series that has followed the intertwined development of cities and digital technologies. Earlier years have seen papers presented at Digital Cities to appear as the basis of key anthologies within the field of urban computing and smart cities.


How can citizens, design professionals, local government institutions and others creatively use digital technologies in collaborative processes of urban planning and management? The term hackable city productively connects parallel yet oftentimes separate developments. On the one hand, city municipalities worldwide embark on smart city policies with tech businesses and knowledge institutions. They deploy digital technologies and big data to optimize services like traffic, energy, environment, governance and health. On the other hand, bottom-up smart citizen initiatives blossom in many cities. They consist of networked groups who engage in issues like neighborhood livability, building communities, taking care of their own energy provisioning, sharing tools, cars and other resources, and measuring and generating environmental data. Often these people employ sensor technologies, use open data or utilize digital media to organize themselves around a shared issue. As an attempt to connect these worlds, an increasing number of cities have assigned specific areas as urban laboratories for studying and experimenting with new ways of citymaking. However, a comprehensive vision that is both critical and affirmative towards these developments is lacking.

With this book we forward the notion of the hackable city in an attempt to do just that. The term functions as a heuristic lens to investigate how new media technologies enable citizens to become active shapers of their urban environment, and how urban institutions and infrastructures can be opened up to systemic change by other stakeholders.

The term hacking as we use it refers to playful cleverness in problem-solving with the aid of computing technology. “Hacking” has long been part and parcel of the world of media technologies. From HAM radio amateurs to US west-coast computer culture, users have been figured as active creators, shapers, and benders of media technologies and the relationships mediated through them (Levy 2010; Roszak 1986; Von Hippel 2005). In general what the term refers to is the process of clever or playful appropriation of existing technologies or infrastructures, or bending the logic of a particular system beyond its intended purposes or restrictions to serve one’s personal or communal goals.

Whereas the term was mainly used to refer to practices in the sphere of computer hardware and software, more recently “hacking” has been used to refer to creative practices and ideals of city making: spanning across spatial, social, cultural, and institutional domains, various practices of “city hacking” can be seen in urban planning, city management, and tactical urban interventions. Worldwide, we have seen various artistic and political movements making use of digital media to appropriate urban places as the locus for theatrical interventions, often politically charged. A prominent book on the future of “smart cities” makes an appeal for “civic hackers” (Townsend 2013). Urban governments around the world have embraced “hackathons” as a new way for the development of urban services. Numerous events with titles like “Hack Your City” (e.g. Sheffield) or similar, have been organized. Municipalities have opened up datasets and created urban APIs or SDKs that allow clever hackers to build apps and services.

We observe striking parallels between the original hackers – computer hobbyists who write their own software for existing machines and shared that among each other and with the world – and current citymakers, who similarly contribute innovations for their city with limited means. The term “hacking” is invoked to point out a participatory alternative to top-down ICT implementations in cities. The term “hacking” suggests a novel logic to organize urban society through social media platforms. It suggests a move away from centralized urban planning towards more inclusive process of “city making”, creating new types of public spaces. This logic of “hacking” is touted as slightly subversive, innovative, and is associated with collaboration, openness and participation. As such it is applied to various domains of urban life. 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 and their citizens.

Yet, at the same time discourses about “hacking the city” are not unproblematic. While the term suggests cities have embraced a new “hacker ethic” of decentralized organization, reputation-based meritocracy and playfulness, at the very same time many “smart city” policies reinstate modernist ideals of centralized overview and pervasive control. As the notion is ported from the field of software development to civic life and organization, it is used ambiguously, loaded with various ideological presumptions. For some, “urban hacking” is about empowering citizens to organize themselves around communal issues and empowering them to perform aesthetic urban interventions. For others it raises questions about governance: what kind of “city hacks” should be encouraged and which ones are unwelcome, and who decides about that? Can city hacking be curated? For yet another group it is a masquerade for neoliberal politics in which libertarian values appear in the discursive sheep’s clothing of participatory buzzwords like “Web 2.0”, “collective intelligence”, “crowdsourcing”, “open source ethics”, or “sharing economy”. Furthermore, a key question that remains largely unanswered is how “city hacking” may mature from the tactical level of smart and often playful interventions to the strategic level of enduring impact

As such the term ‘hackable city’ brings out three different perspectives on citymaking at three different levels.

1) an individual hacker attitude fueled by a do-it-yourself ethics and professional-amateurism (doing something very well “for the love of it”, being intrinsically motivated);

2) a collective set of hacking practices, including open innovation, collaboration and sharing of knowledge and resources;

3) hackability of institutions, that is, the structural affordances at the level of organizations and public governance to be open to systemic change from within or outside.

This edited volume about “hackable city making” is urgent and relevant from an academic point of view and from a societal perspective. First, a hotly debated topic in academia is how digital media technologies become increasingly important shapers of urban life and culture. Most notably, smart cities have attracted huge attention from the academic community. Second, researchers have observed a crisis in the ‘natural’ legitimacy of expert knowledge, such as urban design, and investigated how this shapes the work of professionals and the role of institutions. Third, governments across the world are adopting “participatory society” policy agendas in an attempt to harness the ethics of do-it-yourself for reducing costs and legitimizing policy. Fourth, a variety of factors – rapid urbanization, an increase in natural disasters, the 2008 monetary crisis – have exposed the need to build resilient cities.

This book presents a number of papers that explore this new mode of citymaking. They do so both from a theoretical, a practical and institutional perspective. Taken together they address current developments in citymaking that are of interest to both academics, as well as practicioners and policy makers.

With contributions from (amongst others)

Cristina Ampatzidou, Irina Anastasiu, Ingrid Mulder, Douglas Schuler, Richard Beckwith, John Sherry, and David Prendergast, Luke Hespanhol, Martin Tomitsch, Rosie Webb, Gabriela Avram, Javier Burón García, Aisling Joyce, Gabriela Avram, Viktor Bedö, Annika Wolff, Daniel Gooch, Jose Cavero, Umar Mir, Gerd Kortuem, Fiona McDermott, Joel Fredericks, Glenda Amayo Caldwell, Marcus Foth

Editors: Martijn de Waal & Michiel de Lange