Open Source Urbanism

In recent years, creative city policy has increasingly come under attack. The field of creativity policy has brought into existence it’s own academic subdiscipline of creativity studies. At the same time, an entire substratum of creativity research seems to have emerged that is exclusively dedicated to critiquing creative industries. Creativity has been fairly discredited as yet one more funky ingredient to the usual unsavory menu of neoliberal urban development strategies. The balance between creativity and industry tills uncompromisingly in the direction of industry. But as much as the creative city policies themselves seem to have reached their unnatural limits and are – in their AngloSaxon heartland – already on the decline, so has the thrust of it’s critique. Reminding the so-called creative class once again about it’s false class consciousness, or deconstructing yet another policy blurb could indeed be turned into an academic career, but the question inevitably pops up: what do we have to offer in exchange for the creativity mystique that has been so often effectively debunked?

One could argue that as an alternative to the creative industries approach, that is based on the economy of copyrights, one can bring forward a renewed focus on the public domain and the sharing of ideas: copyleft. In this way, an alternative agenda could be formulated taking the characteristics of the FLOSS movement as our guideline. But unlike the creativity policy, which proffers an effective, maybe hypocritical, but relatively trouble-free marriage between the economy of copyrights and urban space, the relationship between FLOSS and urban space is much more strenuous. In this text – maybe in the present financial crisis somewhat untimely – I want to explore the possibility of formulating a positive urban agenda, by revisiting the utopian urbanism of the seventies and combining those with the current agenda of the FLOSS movement.

There is a growing body of contributions and attempts to pull the FLOSS politics out of the digital domain and translate them to the analogue reality of everyday life. The German Oekinux project springs to mind here, or a more mainstream contribution like Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic. We have seen the arrival of the term ‘open source politics’ after the internet-propelled Howard Dean campaign based on the Civi-CRM software, or the advent of open source curricula and textbooks in the education sector. Also the domain of urban development has seen some recent attempts of translation of open source ideas, like the Dutch architect Dennis Kaspori, or Brian Carrol’s call for open source architecture, stating:

“the computer industry has borrowed terminology from the discipline of architecture to describe structural and conceptual workings of electronic computational machines and its designers: computer architecture and software architects. Now, what if architecture borrowed popular terminology from the discipline of computer science?”

Carrol goes on to explore this metaphor, looking at how different operating systems would play themselves out on the ‘urban computer’. But strangely enough, he forgets to mention that there was a time that architecture was completely obsessed with cybernetics and computer terminology.

Mark Wigley has written on a 1963 symposium, an eight day boat trip along the Greek islands, which gathered influential figures such as architect Buckminster Fuller and network theorist Marshall McLuhan for the first time. Network theory and architecture would meet, and as Wigley writes, the meeting would prove to be very influential: “their mark is everywhere. They voiced so much of what is said today. They wrote a lot of our script.” In his article he goes on to state:

“What if contemporary discourse about the net simply realizes nineteenth-century fantasies that were acted out throughout most of the last century? What if the much-advertised dissolving of architecture occurred long ago? What if much of our net talk is just an echo? An echo of an echo?”

And indeed, the world of ubiquitous networks that is today the premise of much pop-sociology was occupying a lot of architect brain space in those years.

Probably the group that went furthest in their exploration of a cybernetic future, was the English pop art architecture group Archigram. Among their many colourful and mind boggling projects, one was labelled Computer City, by Dennis Crompton. Just a mere network, an array of computers, meant as a digital addition to one of their earlier projects, Plug in City. The idea was that the network would manage the plug in city, with traffic control being one of it’s primary functions. As Peter Hall projected in his book London 2000, advances in electronics would have made it possible to ‘meter’ the movements of all vehicles. It would basically provide a complete system of traffic control. But it went much further, A printout alongside the Computer City graphic showed the enormous range of functions being simultaneously monitored in the effort to maintain an urban homeostasis: temperature, transport, goods supply, crane ways, levels of self sufficiency, population, plug in infrastructure (add corner shop TP8C Floor level L over X point 37 CAP 112), birth rate/death rate, food supply, consumption, recreation, and power supply, among others. The ultimate and logical goal of Archigram was to provide some kind of interface between this extensive system and the urban consumer, connecting it, in their words to the “nerve endings” of each citizen, the systems themselves sampling the environment for “cheers and boos”. But who would make the decisions, one is inclined to ask? Some kind of centralized planning agency. In one of their schemes, they meted this out to the secret service, in another to a private company. You don’t need a lot of imagination to see the down side to such a system of centralized control. In general Archigram was all about a new economy of individual lifestyle consumption that remained couched in the language and concerns of functionalism.

Computer City, Dennis Crompton, 1964
Artist impression Computer City, Dennis Crompton, 1964
Artist impression Computer City, Dennis Crompton, 1964

An altogether different project is New Babylon by the Dutch architect Constant Nieuwenhuis, a co-founder of the Situationist International. His life project, New Babylon, can easily be read as a metaphor for open source urbanism. The project being a giant mega structure, inhabited by a creative, nomadic mass, able to spontaneously reconfigure every aspect of their environment. It was this creative mass culture that would, according to Constant, finally revolt against society and break the entire superstructure down. It’s the ‘cult of the amateur’ brought to bear on the urban surrounding. In his writings Constant also took aim against the grim functionalism of his modernist predecessors of the CIAM, arguing that a new man, Homo Ludens, the playful man, was to replace Homo Faber, the man of work, of industrial labour. And play was opposed to any consideration of utility and functionality. Constant would have a major influence on the Dutch Yippies, the Provo’s, who’d rock the boat of the authoritarian and petit bourgeois Dutch fifties. But Constant was also in contact with another major figure of utopian urbanism, the French urbanist Henri Lefebvre, who would provide an important source of inspiration for the urban social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Lefebvre formulated ‘the right to the city’ as follows: ‘. . . The right to the city means the right of citizens and city residents, […] To take part in all the networks and circuits of communication, information and exchange.’4  Nieuwenhuis and Lefebvre were part of a powerful anti-modernist rebellion, that in much of the western world, would break the dominance of the bulldozer politics that were made famous by New York überplanner Robert Moses. A new era of citizen participation started in the seventies, with architects stepping down from their pedestal and working closely with local neighbourhood groups.

New Babylon megastructure maquette
New Babylon megastructure maquette
New Babylon, composed from different maps
New Babylon, composed from different maps
New Babylon depicted as a networked urbanism
New Babylon depicted as a networked urbanism

Thus we an distinguish two different logics already bearing down on us from the sixties, one is the logic of Microsoft, closed source, centralized politics, the other is the urban politics which revolves around participation and the opening up of information infrastructures. By closed source urbanism I refer to the typical kind of urban planning practices we are probably all familiar with. Planners and architects hiding behind their expert-role and the impenetrable jargon that accompanies it, big projects being pushed though in backrooms, public opinion swayed on skewed data, or information being kept secret because of it’s “commercial sensitivity”.

Another example of this closed source urbanism would be the attempt of real estate entrepreneurs to translate the cybernetic to the urban domain, through implementing creative city policy. In an article in the Dutch Real Estate Magazine we can read: ‘The concept of the Creative City is on the rise. Sometimes planned, sometimes organic, but up till now always thanks to real estate developers’. Interestingly enough they describe their projects using terms like urban hardware (urban infrastructure) and urban software (urban programming). It is no longer just about the bricks. Project developers have discovered that genuine added value lies in linking the physical hardware (the built environment) to socio-cultural software (practices, identities, and so forth). According to the real estate article, cultural institutions and temporary art projects create ‘traffic’, and allow developers to slowly bring property ‘up to flavour’: ‘It’s about creating space! The thing not to do is to publicly announce you’re going to haul in artists; instead, give them the feeling they’ve thought of it themselves. If it arises organically, levels will rise organically’. This is why project developers now almost routinely invite artists and other creative actors, on a permanent or temporary basis. Almost every large-scale project in Amsterdam is now associated with a new cultural institution; the Zuidas has a design museum, the South Banks of the IJ have the Muziekgebouw, and the Overhoeks project the new Filmmuseum. Even in the restructuring of social housing, cultural branding has been turned into a new trend. It is not for nothing that geographer Jamie Peck describes Florida’s creative city recipes as a closed script.

In urban development, architects such as Dennis Kaspori have already pleaded to set aside the old enlightened expert model for a more interactive one: “open source provides an organization model for the collective development of solutions for spatial issues involving housing, mobility, green space, urban renewal and so on. […] Open source presupposes that these ideas are disclosed and made available to others, who in turn can improve on them.” Matthew Fuller and Usman Haque recently even went as far as mapping out the conditions for an open source licence for urban development. But it’s here where the trouble comes in. If we translate the online work methods to material reality, then political representation rears its head. One of the fundamental qualities of open source production is that it’s ‘non-rival’, so to speak. If you have a difference of opinion with someone in your software project, then you can easily branch off or switch to another project. The same applies to users: if you don’t like a program, you can switch to another. The digital world is capable of endless diversity and reproduction. Material reality, however, is always conditioned by scarcity; there is usually just one location, one building that has to be built, or a limited amount of land available. It immediately raises the question of political representation. If you disagree, then who makes the decisions and who determines the outcome of the vote?

It is exactly on the issue of urban development where an impressive array of procedures has been set up to promote citizen participation in the workings of representative democracy. ‘Interactive policy making’, ‘open plan processes’ with ‘focus groups’, ‘consultation procedures’, ‘co-production’: the quantity of terms used to describe the participation of residents in contemporary urban development gives the impression that we are living in a veritable Mecca of democracy. Ultimately, however, the marvellous participation models result in a disappointing reality of notification and information, with a few therapeutic public meetings to channel the outrage. All the real decisions have usually already been made. Local politicians openly admit that the logic at work here is not that of collaboration, but that of preventing dissent in later stages. Politics is hiding behind the complexity and vacuity of planning language, behind euphemism and simple untruth. The emperor is definitively still wearing it’s clothes. And it’s more akin to the logic of Microsoft than that of Open Source. The question here is how open source can develop beyond the emptiness of staged democracy. It means that for any fruitful engagement with these issues, political conflict needs to be staged around dominant agenda’s that define the consensus. In Rotterdam an interesting example has occurred, where a group of philosophers, designers and architects has set up a branding project that is organised in opposition to the dominant branding of Rotterdam (a city with a largely working class demographic) as a Creative City, branding it as a Craftsman City. Thus implying the council should take the current Rotterdam population as it’s starting point in stead of trying to elect a new people and lure the Creative Class.

The next step, sharing information, is perhaps even more fundamental. As Dennis Kaspori argues in his article on open source architecture, the idea of a collaborative practice implies a complete reversal of the current organisational model in which knowledge is suddenly shared rather than anxiously concealed. If you really want to facilitate open source participation, and not the symbolic Web 2.0 techniques, then the requirements are drastic. It means, for example, that housing associations and the government have to be completely open about their funding, costs and possibilities so that both architects and residents can make realistic proposals. In light of the current situation in which planners often hide behind a smokescreen of incomprehensible jargon and in which projects are often pushed through in backrooms, that really would constitute a revolution. What we want, after all, is not to provide the emperor with a new set of clothes, but to have an emperor that is openly exhibitionist.


Fuller, M. & Hacque, M. (2008) Urban Versioning System 1.0. The Architectural League of New York, New York.
Ribeiro, F.M &  Spitz, R. (2006) Archigram’s Analogical Approach to Digitality. In: International Journal of Architectural Computing. Vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 20-32. Sept. 2006.
Wigley, M. (2001) Network Fever. In: Grey Room 04, Summer 2001, pp. 82–122