May 30,2012

Legible Cities: The Human Face of Smart Cities

Friday, I am hosting a panel at the ECSITE 2012 conference in Toulouse, France on Legible Cities, a trend in which contemporary urban environments are piloting programs that leverage their vast storehouses of data to enhance city's services and improve inhabitants’ quality of life. ECSITE is the European network of science centers and museums, linking science communication professionals in more than 400 institutions in 50 countries.

If information is the currency of the world, then many cities have under-leveraged assets buried deep in their data on urban conditions and city operations. The promise of releasing this big data to the people is a new approach to understanding cities by making them more legible. Now it is difficult, if not impossible, for someone trying to read the “big picture” of a city. Legible Cities ties together data, outdoor displays, sensors, wireless networks, data visualization and ways of accessing information to make cities more navigable, legible, and livable for its inhabitants. Legible Cities mediates physical and virtual space through installations, digital signage, mobile apps and online and off line programs.

In Legible Cities time is used to measure and report the “now”, for events, locations, communications and services that range from real-time bus schedules to virtual land use planning and more. Providing an historical lens into the city's past will inform the present into the future. This is a revolution in measurement. “…There are now countless digital sensors worldwide in industrial equipment, automobiles, electrical meters and shipping crates. They can measure and communicate location, movement, vibration, temperature, humidity, even chemical changes in the air.” The Age of Big Data, Steve Lohr, The New York Times Sunday Review, February 11, 2012

We’ve chosen to call this trend Legible Cities rather than Smart, Intelligent, or Digital Cities, as those terms are the government's perspective and are focused on software services and urban management and design. Legible Cities implies that the end users' point of view; their involvement, participation and understanding that are inherent in the process and their usage. The ways that people participate in Legible Cities and the way it gets developed – organically from the ground up from the street – combined with enterprise level software and IT/telecom infrastructure will determine Legible Cities' ultimate success.

The Mobile City (an international research group on mobile media and urban design in Amsterdam) speaks about bottom-up participation in Legible Cities which it defines as collective mapping tools, citizen scientist’s projects gathering data about their environment, multiplayer simulations games for urban planning, mapping and tracking issues of common concern and media facades that communicate communal rhythms of a city.

Science centers could have an important role in Legible Cities as they develop new models of engagement with contemporary audiences, by incorporating social media, location based services, tagging systems for personalized content, natural user interfaces and advanced technologies such as augmented reality, data visualizations and multiplayer networked games. Science centers are also stepping beyond their traditional journalistic role by adopting community engagement and advocacy. With these new models, they are extending their role as interpreters of our complex, technologically driven world through science center networks and new communication channels such as Legible Cities.

The panel, to take place at ECSITE 2012 on Friday June 1, 2012 at 10:00 AM, will present three case studies of pilot programs in three different cities – from Pennsylvania, Bristol, England and Zaragoza, Spain. The panel would explore the role science centers could play in Legible Cities. Should they be participants, content sources, channels of communication or forums for public discourse? Could Legible Cities offer science centers unique channels of communication, access to larger and new audiences and ways to garner greater relevance in society? Could Legible Cities be a source of programming and funding?

The panelists are José-Carlo's Arnal, Managing Director, Fundación Zaragoza Ciudad del Conocimiento, Trent Lethco, Associate Principal, Arup, and Walter Staveloz, Director International Relations at the Association of Science Technology Centers.


IBM's Think Wall at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan 

The Digital Water Pavilion, designed and built for the Zaragoza expo in 2008 offered a new way to visualize data and the movement of citizens through a public space.

Zaragoza Digital Mile Rendering

An image from the Zaragoza Digital Mile project, exploring how the information might be used to sculpt and inform public spaces

You can read more about what informs our understanding of Legible Cities here.