Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dome of Cheese

This dome reminded me of the "Dome of Slience" on the 1970s sit-com Get Smart. Just thinking about it makes me laugh!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Night Train to Italy

Night Train Vienna to Brescia Italy 2012 - 18

Night Train Vienna to Brescia Italy 2012 - 03
Italian sleeping car (couchette)

I recently travelled to Brescia Italy on a business trip. I decided to take the night train since Brescia is right on the route between Vienna and Milan. My wife and I used to take the night train often between Zurich and Graz or Vienna, but it's been a while since my last trip.

There's lots of variation between night train services. The Italian night trains seem to be pretty spartan. On the trains between Zurich and Graz/Vienna you get breakfast and often a welcome drink, on the Italian train I just took, nothing. So be sure to bring your own snacks, water or other drinks - always good advice when traveling by train!

My trip was during the long cold spell we had at the end of January, and, unfortunately, after about an hour the sleeping car attendant realized that the heating in our car was not going to be working. So he moved us all into one of the other wagons. I had booked a single in the sleeping car and unfortunately there was only one sleeping car on the train. So I was moved into a couchette car.

Night Train Vienna to Brescia Italy 2012 - 06
Sleeping car single
There are two types of sleeping cars: a real sleeping car that has 1-3 fairly nice bunk beds and a sink in the compartment (Schlafwagen in German) or a couchette car that has 4-6 narrower bunks (with less nice bed linens: one of those sheet sacks with a blanket as opposed to a covered duvet) and no sink. There's quite a difference in cost, but not as much as you might think. Also, note that you can usually get a couchette in a 4-person compartment or a 6-person compartment, always choose the 4-person, it's only a little more expensive.

It was no fun to be in the couchette since the bed was only barely wide enough the lie flat and I hate the blankets/ sleeping sack arrangement, but at least it was warm. It was lucky that the train was fairly empty (a Monday night in January), so I still had a single.

We arrived on time in Brescia and I walked to my hotel where I had a wonderful breakfast and they let me check-in early, a real treat. An aside about breakfast, on the Zurich-Graz/Vienna night trains they used to give you a choice between having breakfast on the train or taking it with you (Austrian arrivals) or getting a voucher for breakfast in a restaurant in the Zurich train station. My recommendation: always get the breakfast to take with you or the voucher ... you will get about a half-hour more sleep.

One more thing: in Austria when you have a sleeping car ticket you can go into the "Business Lounge" which they have in many stations. You can have a glass of wine or beer before your trip begins or breakfast (real coffee and a roll) in the morning. It's another nice feature of traveling by sleeping car.

Night Train Vienna to Brescia Italy 2012 - 21
Vicenza station from my sleeping car bed.

I stayed one night in Brescia, and two days. The night train arrived at 7:30 am on Tuesday and I returned on the night train that left Brescia about 10:00 pm on Wednesday. The return train was nicer since the heating was working so I was able to have my single. Unfortunately, the train was delayed quite a bit (there was a snow storm), so we reached Vienna about 45-minutes late (9:20 am on Thursday).

I was inspired to write this by a nice article about Europe's 8 best night trains on the Lonely Planet website.

More photos of my trip on the Italian night train on Flickr.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jordaan Amsterdam Cafes and Cheese

Amsterdam Bikes - 1
Bikes on bridge: Runstraat Amsterdam

Jordaan is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Amsterdam and I spent a recent Thursday afternoon walking around there enjoying the city. I started by walking down Runstraat.

I was looking for a simple lunch so I stopped in at De Kaaskamer, which was offering a daily baguette for 5 Euros, why not? It was a local ham and soft goat cheese served on half a dark baguette. De Kaaskamer is one of those really great cheese shops where they sell hundreds of cheeses and the staff know everything about the different cheeses so they can point you in the right direction. The sandwich was great.

De Kaaskamer Amsterdam - 2
At De Kaaskamer cheese shop Amsterdam

I returned to the shop later in the afternoon to buy cheese to bring home. Then I realized you really need their expertise to help choose. After tasting several I decided on two. Here's how they are described on their labels: 

"'Brokkel de Brokkel' so do break off a piece of this very, very old cheese - impossible to cut with a cheese slicer. Invite some friends, open a bottle full bodied wine and enjoy this strong but sweet speciality. Break-a-breaker!"
"Deurninger Speciaal van het landgoed Kaamps - Special Dutch cheese made by farmer Herbert Nijland on his farm in the village of Deurningen near Hengelo. the cheese is treated with an Austrian mountain fungus. Special flavour!"
I'm looking forward to a Dutch cheese-tasting evening at home!

Then on to the Cafe de Pels just down the street, a cafe we visited before. Very nice coffee, newspapers, darkish interior, and totally comfortable.

Bistro t'Stuivertje Amsterdam - 2
Restaurant 't Stuivertje in Jordaan District Amsterdam

More walking, I was happy to find the great restaurant called t' Stuivertje on Hazenstraat 56 that we enjoyed so much last time we visited Amsterdam. I was glad to see it was still in business. Here's my review of Bistro 't Stuivertje from last time. I also found a very nice looking pizza place called pazzi (see my review) and a cool looking cafe, but to be honest, there seem like a million cool looking cafes in Amsterdam and especially in the Jordaan (maybe that's why I like it?).

Amsterdam Canals - 2
Amsterdam canal in winter

After walking around a little more it was happy hour, as my mother likes to say, and so I stopped in at a nice cafe at the corner of Elandsgracht and Prinsengracht overlooking the canal. I had a nice Heinekein beer and enjoyed the sun setting in the windows across the canal.

Cafe in Jordaan Amsterdam
Looking out from Jordaan cafe

All my Jordaan photos on Flickr.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Social Cities of Tomorrow 2012 - Project Showcase

Amsterdam Canals - 2
Canals in winter, Jordaan District in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.

The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform organized a workshop and conference titled Social Cities of Tomorrow. The program took place during the week of February 13-17. It was a great event in every way from organization to the keynote speakers to presentations of different social media projects from throughout the world. Not only that, but it was fun and there were lots of great people doing great work to meet.

This post describes the projects described at the conference. I describe the Social Cities of Tomorrow Keynotes and Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops on other posts.

Showcase Projects
cafe 't Smalle Amsterdam Mar08 - 7
Cafe 't Smalle from my flickr photos.
One of the very nice things about the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference was that there were three blocks of about 20-minutes each for a series of presentations on ideas for using new technology to create communities to solve complex issues (the conference theme). These blocks gave us time to see a wide variety of innovative ideas. It was hard to keep the schedule, but the organizers and presenters did a very nice job with this too. 

The projects were chosen from a large number of submissions (I wish I had known about this earlier because I would have submitted my project!). This post presents my summary of the projects presented. 

Sorry for not mentioning all the names of developers, many of these projects were developed by several groups, my goal is to simply give a quick overview (and my opinions!), all developer information is available on the Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops page). Also feel free to send me corrections or add details in the comments. So, here goes:

    Amsterdam Aerial Mar08-3
    Amsterdam aerial from my flickr photos.
  • Apps for Amsterdam, a program similar to those organized in many cities that encourage independent application developers to create applications to help improve the city. Like Vienna (German) one of the most popular applications was designed to help people find the nearest public toilet. The program faces many of the same issues as other cities, such as how to keep these applications updated. More at appsforamsterdam.

  • Instant Master Planning, Vollsmose Denmark - A very large social housing area built during the 1950s needs to involve their community in planning for the future. The area's population is very  young and diverse (over 80 countries represented), and it seemed to be less affluent than the neighboring city. The project consisted of using GPS tracking of activities to identify activity patterns (voluntary) and using SMS to send ideas for improving the area planning. Both ideas were designed to increase participation by people not normally involved in the planning process. It's a work in progress but lots of interesting results and it seems to have succeeded in increasing social participation.
  • NDSM Wharf Crane Amsterdam - 14
    NDSM area during PICNIC 2011 in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.
  • Network Lab, a combination of several partners including TU Delft (which must have an exceptional program in social media given the number of excellent projects and staff attending the conference), ARCHIS and Smart in Public. The project they described was to help increase participation in developing ideas for the NDSM area of Amsterdam (where the 2011 PICNIC conference was held!). They have developed a system for tagging all types of objects (physical, human, environmental, etc.) to help organize information in the planning process. Another work in progress, but seems to have real potential.

  • URBANIso, a really interesting idea developed by Joshua Noble and Mac Oosthuizen that is designed to help explain what data urban sensors are collecting and where the sensors are. These are little signs that are placed on the sensors or nearby (with indication of where the sensor is in relation to the sign) that tell people what data is being collected and a barcode that takes you to a website with the sensor data feed and/or more information. This is a great idea for increasing the amount of sensor data available to developers and making the city more legible for everyone. More on URBANIso

  • Amsterdam Wastelands, there is a surprisingly large amount of vacant land in and around Amsterdam (partly delayed redevelopment due to the economic crisis) and Amsterdam Wastelands wants to encourage temporary use of this land in a very crowded city. They sponsored one of the workshop efforts (Team 1 project). One idea is to use social media applications to identify and implement temporary uses for currently vacant space. They have developed a common database of this information and geocoded it on a google map. Others can add information and ideas. Here's the website, it's in Dutch but you can get the idea.
  • Amsterdam March 2008-06
    Cafe de Pels in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.
  • Give me back my broken night, the title is from text in the Leonard Cohen song Future, this "thing" was an interactive theater performance (in London), where the audience assembled in a theater, were given a small video projector to hang around their neck and a blank piece of paper, they left the theater and then each received a phone call on their handy (cell phone) from one of the "actors" who told them where to walk giving them information as they went, and then images of the future were projected on the blank piece of paper they held in front of them. At one point audience members described their ideas for the future and an artist in the theater drew this on a tablet and this image was also displayed via the projector to the audience member. Everyone returned back to the theater and compared ideas and drawings. Really, really cool use of technology and art. My description does not do justice to it, check the video: Give me back my broken night 2010 video. Here's more information from product of circumstance.

  • HomelessSMS, another project with multiple developers including Ohyoon Kwon (TU Delft) and Will Brayne. Quite a neat idea: use SMS to try to help homeless people. It surprised me to learn that 70% of homeless people in London have cell phones (at least that's what this team found in a quick survey). The team worked with social services agencies in London and a small group of homeless people to test several ideas for using SMS to help homeless get help and information. They used twitter to broadcast information four times a day to everyone in the program and then responded to SMS posts from the homeless persons. I talked with Ohyoon after the conference and as we talked I just began to see more and more potential for the idea: perhaps a way to connect homeless people with those who would like to help, but have trouble connecting physically due to being turned-off by hygiene etc., use the system to send vouchers for services (e.g. like money transfer via SMS in Kenya), etc. There are several similar projects underway in one of them a homeless person was able to re-connect with a child they had lost contact with. I think that this idea really has potential and plan on sending it to colleagues in San Francisco where it might be really useful. (By the way Ohyoon told me he will need a visa to stay in the EU after graduating from TU Delft, he's exactly the type of innovative guy we should be encouraging to stay!) More on the HomelessSMS website.
  • Amsterdam Tulip Museum Mar08-6
    Looking out of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum from my flickr photos.
  • Urban Revitalization with Social Capital, Karli Scott, a student at Cornell University, presented results of several projects she worked on in upstate New York, a region hard hit by economic problems over the last 50-years (especially interesting for me since I grew up in another Rustbelt city Buffalo NY). Karli talked about the techniques she used to identify problem and opportunities in Utica and Rochester NY. The quite awful economic conditions in these Rustbelt cities were starkly illustrated when Karli described a natural waterfall (!!!) on a relatively large river in an underutilized area near the center of Rochester which was being considered for redevelopment: how many cities and developers in other places would jump on such an opportunity?

  • Koppelklek, Kars Alfrink from Hubbub presented this urban game. The project consisted of asking people in this economically depressed neighborhood of Utrecht to participate in a game where they needed to take photos (with their mobile phones) with another person. Points were give for the number of different people they had photos with, and extra points were given for photos in different situations (e.g. photo with a number in it). The game ran for three weeks and was designed to get people in the neighborhood to socialize with each other. Photos were shown on line and displayed in vacant shop windows. The project had an office in a vacant space in the neighborhood and held a series of real events too. It sounds like a neat way to generate some activity in a neighborhood. Kars presented some lessons learned including: (1) finish the game design before you start marketing it, and (2) they marketed the game generally, it might be better to have targeted a special group and then used them to market it more generally. More details on Koppelklek
  • Amsterdam March 2008-17
    Playing with water in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.
  • Screens in the wild, Ava Fatah from The Bartlett School (UCL) described this project which consists of working with a London neighborhood about programming for a series of large display screens which are being installed for the Olympics and will be a legacy of the games. It's a work in progress and she described the problems of working with people like shopkeepers who think the screens should just be for advertising, others who think they should be just like large iPads, and she described the various ways people passing by interact with the screens (most pay no attention!). More details on the Screens in the wild project.

  • Urbanflow and City Tickets, Mayo Nissen from Urbanscale presented these two projects via a video that made him look like big brother from 1984 ... but it really looked cool. Urbanflow is a project for using large screens in cities to provide information, again the idea is that the applications and display information is designed specifically for the large screens in the urban environment, rather than a generic large iPad experience. It's been implemented in Helsinki and Urbanscale continues to work on the idea. City Tickets is a project designed to use the infrastructure provided by on street parking ticket printers to print other types of information, e.g. information about the area, or suggestion forms for people to identify problems in the area (which they fill out in writing and mail to the city). Urbanscale is a really innovative design studio doing great work, it was really nice to learn more about these two useful projects.
Again, apologies for what I got wrong, it was a long (but fascinating) day. Add corrections in the comments and/or e-mail me.

My take on the Social CIties of Tomorrow Keynotes and Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops are also available on this blog.

Social Cities of Tomorrow 2012 - Workshops

Amsterdam Aerial Mar08-2
Amsterdam aerial from my flickr photos.
The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform organized a workshop and conference titled Social Cities of Tomorrow. The program took place during the week of February 13-17. It was a great event in every way from organization to the keynote speakers to presentations of different social media projects from throughout the world. Not only that, but it was fun and there were lots of great people doing great work to meet.

This post describes the workshop results. I describe the Social Cities of Tomorrow Keynotes and Social Cities of Tomorrow Project Showcase on other posts. Sorry for any errors or misrepresentations, feel free to add corrections or more information to the comments!


The workshops consisted of four groups of people from throughout Europe trying to apply social media techniques to real world planning problems. The format of placing 5-7 people from different backgrounds, who don't know one another beforehand, together to solve real problems can lead to some interesting ideas and this was also true here. The teams presented their projects at a special presentation on February 16 (and also an abbreviated version at the conference).
Amsterdam Bikes - 1
Amsterdam Runstraat canal bridge from my flickr photos.
Three of the four projects were essentially redevelopment projects that needed help in one way or another. The workshops are described in detail at Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops.

Team 1: TEMPLot took up the challenge of what to do with land that was scheduled for redevelopment but the redevelopment was delayed due to the economic crisis. The city of Amsterdam owns the land and the "client" wanted to find a way to do something with the empty land temporarily (5 - 10 years) while they wait for the economy to bounce back. Team 1 developed ideas for a series of applications that the client could use to auction off land parcels and create a community out of the temporary settlement (bulletin board, messaging, land auction, etc.).

Team 1 also developed several interesting on the ground planning ideas such as the idea that 25% of the rented land must be devoted to some sort of "community" purpose. For example four parcel renters could pool their community land shares and create a common swimming pool area. This idea was designed to foster a sense of community, a key goal of the entire social cities of tomorrow project.

Team 2 had the challenge of involving the public in redevelopment planning of an old industrial area in The Hague. Many redevelopment plans have been prepared for this area, but the economic crisis has prevented them from being built. But also, most of these plans simply bulldoze the area although it current houses lots of small businesses. Of course the people living and working in the area don't trust the planners anymore and there is little dialogue. Team 2 developed a series of ideas for building trust and improving communications. Importantly they came up with ideas for real as well as virtual platforms for discussion (quite important here since many of the people are not into high tech social networking, some don't even have internet service).

One quite cool idea developed by Team 2 was the "Lunch Bus". This would be a bus that served lunch and allowed people to discuss plans for the area in a real and non-formal way. For example the latest plans could be drawn on table cloths, people could mark them up etc. The information would later be placed on line for everyone to see. Local government planners would also attend these lunches to answer questions and provide assistance. Since I am a big lunch fan, this idea really appealed to me!

More details for teams 1 & 2 from the Social Cities of Tomorrow workshop reports part 1.
Amsterdam Harbor September 2011 - 01
Amsterdam harbour ferry from my flickr photos.
Team 3 had the challenge of a redevelopment area in Endhoven which was a former Phillips Electronics plant. The area is being redeveloped into a mixed-use area for creative types, but they want to increase the amount of social activity in the area to make it more attractive and interesting.

Team 3's idea was to make the area a "play space" (my word) using games to encourage social engagement. They developed ideas for an application that would allow people to:

  • propose ideas for projects in the area
  • negotiate with others about the projects
  • get support from others about the projects
  • assist in implementing the projects

The basic idea was to apply gamification techniques to the process of holding events and projects in the space. The idea needs development, but the client is interested in working with the team to explore the option further - a real success I would say!

Team 4 had the least concrete challenge: how to help the Amsterdam Civic Innovative Network increase participation by residents in suggestion innovative ideas for improving the city. The team explored many ideas and identified many problems with the current structure. For example the difficult in sustaining programs that provide feedback to project participants and updating of applications developed through things like hack-a-thons.
Amsterdam Harbor September 2011 - 13
Amsterdam harbour ferry after PICNIC 2011 from my flickr photos.
Team 4's products were less developed than the other teams, but they succeeded in raising the important issues and I think that their work will be helpful to the city of Amsterdam as they work to improve their social media and involvement process. By the way, it seems to me that Amsterdam has an excellent program already, and just the fact that this type of conference and work is being done in Amsterdam says a great deal about the city's openness to new ideas.

More details for teams 3 & 4 from the Social Cities of Tomorrow workshop reports part 2.

See also my take on the Social Cities of Tomorrow Keynotes and Social Cities of Tomorrow Project Showcase by clicking the links.

Social Cities of Tomorrow Conference 2012

Cafe Rooie Nelis Jordaan Amsterdam
Cafe Rooie Nelis in Jordaan District in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.

The Mobile City and Virtueel Platform organized a workshop and conference titled Social Cities of Tomorrow. The program took place during the week of February 13-17. It was a great event in every way from organization to the keynote speakers to presentations of different social media projects from throughout the world. Not only that, but it was fun and there were lots of great people doing great work to meet.

This post describes the conference keynote presentations. I describe the Social Cities of Tomorrow Showcase Project Showcase and Social Cities of Tomorrow Workshops on other posts.

Keynote Presentations

Keynote presentations at the conference were given by Martijn de Waal from The Mobile City, one of the conference sponsors, Usman Haque developer among other things of Pachube, Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, and Daniel Hill, an interactions designer from SITRA (Finish Innovation Fund). More details on the keynote speakers is available at the Social Cities of Tomorrow Keynote Speakers page.

As with my other blog posts about this conference I apologize for any errors I make below, I was writing as fast as I could but the speakers' ideas were flowing faster ... opinions are, of course, my own. Feel free to add corrections or thoughts in the comments.

Introduction - Martijn de Waal

Martin's presentation was an introduction to the idea of the conference and overall project. I am pretty sure he worked on it closely with Michiel de Lange, his colleague at The Mobile City, who did an excellent job as moderator of the conference.

Starting with the title, it's a take on Ebenezer Howard's book "Garden Cities of Tomorrow" which was designed to address the problems of turn of the century (1900) industrial cities through improved physical design. The idea now is to use new technologies to create communities that can solve today's complex issues.

The goal is to have highly technical cities, but focused not on technology, but on people. People living in cities should feel an ownership, meaning not that they exclude other people, but rather that they feel responsible for improving their cities.

How do we create these cities:

  • engage and empower
  • publics (groups of people)
  • to act on
  • community shared issues

These are, of course, key aspects of all community-based planning efforts, but what's important is that new media and technologies are changing how we can perform these activities. Some examples:

  • Open data and data analysis tools can be used to bring out new communal issues and to inform the public (e.g. SensibleCity visualizations like TrashTrack);
  • Applications designed to help users provide planning input or even develop their own plans (e.g. Biketastic at UCLA, OpenPlans NYC Bike Sharing map, etc.)
  • New media allows us to organize people in new ways, e.g. collaborative consumption (e.g. carsharing, airBnB).

Lots more ideas from Martijn's presentation available at Social Cities of Tomorrow Background and his presentation is on line at: placeholder.

Cafe de Pels Amsterdam
Cafe de Pels in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.

Usman Haque

Usman started by reminding us that cities are a place for encountering things you don't understand, and this is a very good thing.

Pachube, the website started by Haque, is an organized list of data feeds from throughout the world. Anyone can add a data feed. The goal is to be a broker for the data from the internet of things. The site serves to promote discovery of data feeds and to begin conversations about what the data means.

The growing number of sensors and feeds means that we are flooded with data, but how does this lead to action?

The first step is to enable people to make sense of the data. Two ideas: (1) we need to have/encourage people to have conversations about the data; and (2) we need to develop applications to make sense of the data.

Haque also described a project where architecture students in Barcelona collected air quality data by wiping kleenex on the sides of buildings and recording the amount of grime they found. Pretty inexact, but quite effective in making the students aware of what they were breathing. Once they saw what was going into their lungs they were ready to take action (they developed a new air circulation plan for their workspace).

The main point is that taking action requires more than technical data, it is a function of culture and politics.

Haque ended by suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't always be trying to simplify things, maybe it's better to demonstrate complexity and develop tools to deal with that complexity by connecting with people and taking action together, shouldn't we embrace complexity?

(My comments: Don't tools to deal with complexity necessarily mean simplifying it? On the other hand, the business of politicians is simplifying issues, and look where they have taken us!)

Haque's website describes many of his extremely interesting projects.

Natalie Jeremijenko

Natalie Jeremijenko had the difficult task of talking with us after lunch, but succeeded in keeping us wide awake as she described many of her projects. I'll just mention a few.

Amsterdam Signs - 2
Sign in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.
The goal is using new media to create a better future. Generating, analyzing and acting-on data needs to be opened up. An example from transport, a traffic signal gives power away to the machine, a traffic circle makes everyone use data to make decisions.

(In this example Natalie mentioned that traffic engineers don't like traffic circles, but in fact most of my colleagues do like traffic circles, they are more efficient in many situations!)

No Parks are small parts of the street where plants replace pavement (cars can no longer park there). The goal is to reduce the surface runoff that is a very significant problem for water quality (it's easier to deal with point sources and regulations have reduced point source pollution). She described an effort in NYC that included individuals taking ownership for these little "No Parks" by selling pieces of the plot and using the proceeds to pay for the project. Many cities are doing projects to open up the pavement in this way, but I have not seen any that use this level of social engagement before.

Bike Messager - LEDs on bike wheels connected to a wireless communications. When bikes reach a certain speed the LEDs light-up and display information communicated by roadside senders, for example the number of pedestrian fatalities at the intersection. Good information for everyone and helps make the bikes more visible at night.

Fightpath Toronto, a really wild project where Jeremijenko and Haque set up aerial platforms in front of the Toronto City Hall and let people fly through the open space (connected to cables, although they wore wings). As the people "flew" laser lights were projected that changed based on the sound of the audience. When's the next installation? I'm going!

Elevator Project, Long Island City for Otis Elevators (?). Jeremijenko looked at how by extending the elevator shaft 30-feet above the building roof, the shaft could help provide better air circulation and help power the building. It also gave the opportunity for installing flightpath take-off areas (platforms for installing the cables) which might even be used for goods delivery (why does an organic artisanal bakery need to use diesel belching trucks to deliver its products?).

Other projects she mentioned: floating lights in NY's East River that light when fish swim by (video) (along with healthy food for observers to give the fish), AgBags small gardens made from tevek bags (FedEX envelopes) that hang on the side of buildings (together called farmacy), clear skys mask, one trees project planting 6000 genetically identical trees in pairs throughout the Bay Area to observe different growing patterns, and more ...

Here's a couple sites with information on Natalie environmental health clinic and NYU faculty bio.

Old Signs used for Tables Amsterdam - 1
Old traffic sign used as a table from my flickr photos.
Daniel Hill

Daniel also had a tough job, it was getting quite late on a Friday afternoon, but his talk was also mile-a-minute speed through a series of ideas and lessons learned.

The main point of Hill's talk was that designers normally only deal with a small portion of what's going on with project implementation. There's a great deal of "dark matter" that isn't normally dealt with by designers which impact what gets done and what doesn't much more than actual designs.

He started with a description of five failed projects he's been involved with and related these examples to the various aspects of dark matter, which incudes all things that make things hard to do including cost, legacy, inertia, scale ... there's no one department to go to for permission to implement these projects. Hill believes we need to redesign the context for decision-making as well as project "content". The context:

  • Complexity of problems is out of kilter with decision-making process;
  • Interdependent problems;
  • No client for many problems (e.g. global climate change);
  • Huge gap between people making policy and people operating the services (doing the work);
  • More data and further analysis isn't automatically helping;
  • Diminishing public faith in capacity (of, e.g. government) to deliver;

But someone created this context (in the 18th Century for 18th Century problems), and so it can be recreated. But how?

Hill believes we need to create a new vocabulary to explain what needs to be done and how to do it, he mentioned eight words, some of his words:

  • Design studio approach to problem solving (book:
  • Stewardship - staying in touch with projects over time;
  • Trojan horse - using a project to change the process, don't just seek exceptions to allow projects to be done, seek to change the laws that prevent others from doing the same;
  • Macguffin - plot device named by Hitchcock to signify something that drives the movie but the audience does not care about (think "government secrets" in North by Northwest), here's where the focus on changing the context comes in, we the designers don't care enough about the context (regulations, government processes) that impact our ability to do things;
  • Dark Matter - the 83% of the universe that no one has ever seen, but must be there, in our case the institutions in a city, many things produce a culture but you don't see them;
  • Decision-making Platforms - I started to lose the 8 words about here, but the point here is closely related to dark matter, decisions matter ... social media is great for organizing, but hasn't been so helpful yet helping identify and lead-to what comes next (e.g. Occupy movements);
Amsterdam Signs - 1
Speed bump sign in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.

Government 2.0 is not Government 1.0 with a web 2.0 front end, there needs to be more.

Hill mentioned Ravintolapäivä (the link takes you to  site called It's a day held in Helsinki where anyone can open a restaurant and serve food to the public. It's totally illegal, but the government was powerless to stop it. Now it happens twice a year, organized on Facebook. The next one is May 19, 2012. This was an example of how the "Nordic Model" (of providing the same for everyone) could be meshed with the "Anglo Model" (wide variation and diversity) to provide the high overall quality of the Nordic model with the creativity and innovation in the Anglo model.

A possible project is for the city to create an place where people who want to start restaurants can learn the skills needed to do so successfully, hopefully without squashing out the creativity these people bring to the project. Turning this from an intervention to a systematic approach for supporting creativity and innovation.

Five thoughts to end the presentation (because he used to work at Monocle and they always have lists like this):

  1. The world is mutable - although policy makers often don't think things can change: they can.
  2. Prototype in the political world, the cost of assessing the risk of doing something new is often higher than the cost of just trying it and failing.
  3. Hinge policy to delivery;
  4. Design for scaling up;
  5. Dark matter matters.

For more on Dan Hill see his blog city of sound, well worth a read.

The keynote speakers at the panel discussion: left to right: Jeremijenko, Haque and Hill, source: Virtueel Platform.

't Arendsnest Amsterdam - 4
't Arendsnest in Amsterdam from my flickr photos.
Panel Discussion

The three keynote speakers took the stage to take a few questions from the audience. Some of the discussion:

Everyone agreed that dealing with the dark matter was a fundamental part of getting projects done. Jeremijenko reported that there was no precedent for her AgBags project, so she had to print things on the bags so they would be considered "signs" and could therefore fall under the city's regulatory structure. Seven agencies needed to give approval for her fish lights project, and unfortunately, none of them really helped implement the project, they just gave approvals.

Someone made the point that designers are lucky in the sense that they usually have a client who gives them instructions (design a building for me) so lots of the dark matter is dealt with by someone else (the lawyers), but it's really these things outside the traditional "client-designer relationship" that really need changing ... in that sense design-think is dead.

Technology enables, it does not drive change. There's a tactical benefit to new technology: often institutions don't have a standard way of dealing with it, so there's an opportunity to really change things.

Artists have a great capacity to fail in public, no one trusts them to do anything ...

... and with that we adjourned to drinks and conversations.

Again, sorry for errors and misunderstandings, the speakers were fantastic and it was hard to keep up with the good ideas. Add corrections to the comments.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beer and Pizza in Amsterdam

't Arendsnest Amsterdam - 2
Partial list of the Dutch draft beer available at 't Arendsnest

Beer and pizza are two of my favorite things. After a full day attending the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference in Amsterdam, I took a leisurely walk back to my hotel through the Jordaan district of the city.
't Arendsnest Amsterdam - 4
IPA type beer at 't Arendsnest

I was lucky to find the 't Arendsnest beer bar which serves "Dutch beer only!" from seemingly most of the beer brewers in The Netherlands (although I did not notice any Heineken there?). They have 30 or so beers on tap and over 100 in bottles including a selection of Dutch abbey beers. I didn't realize that The Netherlands also had abby breweries (they are not all in Belgium).

I tasted two pilsner type beers and an India Pale Ale, all three were draft. All three were really good, very hoppy and clean tasting. They have a beer sampler for 7.50 Euros for three 12cl tastes, but I ordered normal size 25cl glasses and wound up paying 10 Euros with tip. Both bar tenders were fluent in English and happy to guide me to the right beers. They have some 'bar food' and many of the locals shared cheese plates, but the food did not seem to be the main point here! They also have tastings and things so it would be worth checking he website to learn if something interesting is going on when you visit.

After my beer I remembered walking by what looked like a great pizza place the day before: it had a wood burning oven, only served pizza and advertised "Italian slow food". So I decided to try and find it again. I retraced my steps, found the right canal (Prinsengracht), turned down the Elandsgracht (Jordaan Park), left on 1ste Looiersdwarsstraat walked to number 4 and Pazzi was open with room at the bench they have for people who want to eat their pizza in the shop.

Pazzi Amsterdam - 2
Blackboard menu at Pazzi Italian slow food Amsterdam
I ordered a Margarita, the pizza I use to compare pizzerias, and sat down to wait. About 3 minutes later I was served a great pizza: crisp thin crust, tart sauce, good amount of buffalo milk mozzarella cheese. By this time I was sharing the bench with a couple women who were splitting a quatro formaggio (served here with rucola) and two guys on my right who had both ordered Piccante pizzas. Apparently the Piccante pizzas were not spicy enough for the guys and they asked me to pass the hot pepper olive oil (that's when I asked them what kind of pizza they had since it was not entirely clear by looking).

Pazzi Amsterdam - 3
Piccante pizza at Pazzi Italian slow food Amsterdam
I finished my Margarita and decided to order one of the Piccante pizzas too. After all, when's the next time I will be in Amsterdam. As the guys were leaving they gave me back the hot pepper oil, but told me to be sure to taste the pizza first because it might be spicy enough for me without the oil. The Piccante pizza was also great. It had smoked mozzarella cheese, lots of hot pepper (no need for the hot pepper oil) and herbs. Really fine. (I brought half the pizza home.)

So, a fabulous gourmet evening for me in Amsterdam! All my photos from 't Arendsnest and Pazzi on Flickr. My Amsterdam photos on Flickr.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cities aren't smart

NY High Line -  Sept 2011 - 09

Cities aren't smart, people are.

I think this is a simple point, but important to remember amidst all the Smart City hype.
Smart cities are cities where people produce and use information to make cities more livable, economically successful, socially equitable, sustainable and fun.

And, who are these people producing and using information?

This is key: they are both the traditional city leaders and everyone else.

Today, city administrations have unprecedented access to data that enables them to both improve city services and make them more efficient. An often overlooked source of this data are city residents and visitors. Many cities do not use modern IT tools to collect, analyze and use input from the public. This is a shame because people could provide very high quality information for improving the way cities operate.

In some cases city administrations are not interested in public opinion, but in many cases good IT tools to help the public communicate information to cities and for cities to automatically analyze this information have not been developed. Often cities cannot even imagine that public involvement could be done more efficiently using new media and information technology tools.

What are these tools? One important set of tools are educational media since city planning and administration are complicated. Cities can get better information and ideas if the public knows something about how the city works before providing input. (This is the main idea behind my GreenCityStreets project: teach people about public transport with the BusMeister game and provide a social network for them to submit ideas to the city government.)

Another set of tools are programs to analyze and organize the data that comes in to cities through new media channels. This means designing the public input channels so that the information can be easily summarized and described. These tools could also help improve the existing public input process (e.g. public transport complaint telephone operators). The growing use of on-line 311 systems in the USA is a good example.

No doubt there are great challenges ahead as city governments involve the public more fully in the city planning and administrative process, but change is coming. New mobile communications and information technologies are making it just a question of time. Truly smart cities will embrace this change and develop the tools needed to fully engage the public in making their cities better.

What do you think?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rose Kennedy Greenway Boston

Boston Rose Kennedy Greenway - 02

I lived in Boston's North End while attending Northeastern University in 1983. Everyday I walked under the Central Artery, a huge freeway built through the center of the city that separated the North End from the downtown. While I was there the decision was made to place the freeway underground. Much has been written about all the problems with the "Big Dig" project, but it seems to me this is a lot nicer then my daily walk about 30-years ago. Time flies!

Boston Rose Kennedy Greenway - 09

In San Francisco I worked with several groups arguing to remove the Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 Earthquake. It was a huge battle, but when the freeway finally came down I think everyone was convinced that it was the right decision. Today it's hard to imagine the freeway ever existed.

San Francisco Ferry Building 30oct10-2

Later, as Executive Director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, I suggested studying placing some of San Francisco's very heavily travelled arterials underground (e.g. Oak/Fell in the Western Addition and 19th Street in the Sunset). The idea was to remove the traffic from the street and give the space back for pedestrians, transit and limited auto access. The underground roads would be funded by congestion-based tolls. The idea - even studying it - was heavily opposed by many in the environmental community, and nothing came of it.

I still like the idea of placing cars underground and making the drivers pay for the privilege. It always makes me mad that public transport is forced underground in most cities. It may be faster there, but access by passengers is complicated, it's way more expensive than surface based transit (leading free marketers to say public transport is too expensive!) and public transport passengers (people doing something good for the environment!) are forced to sit in dark tunnels, while car drivers enjoy the sunshine.

More photos of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston on my Flickr account.