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Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Cities as Software by Marcus Westbury

[ For those of you who haven't heard the story or checked it out, I highly encourage you to check out Renew Newcastle, which is a great urban success story out of Newcastle, Australia. There are a lot of lessons here to be learned, particularly for places that struggle with a lack of financial resources. Hopefully this article can give you some ideas and some hope - Aaron. ]

This article was written for the latest edition of the Dutch architecture/ design journal Volume

Let me put a scenario to you. Say you live in an aging, fading industrial town. One that has been on receiving end of repeated shocks from earthquakes and natural disasters to the closure of its largest industries and mass unemployment. A city where an old urban core – a legacy of an era of trams and public transport long gone – has hollowed out and emptied. Retail has moved to the suburbs and a growing suburban sprawl. A city with dozens, if not hundreds of empty buildings in the old downtown. A place where the feedback loop has become so desperately negative that many of the shops and offices that remain are forced to leave by the growing vacancies around them.

How do you turn such a place around? How to bring life and people back to it? How to bring interest, curiosity and commerce? How to make it – or at least some of it – liveable and desirable again and to bring its decaying urban character back into flower?

Almost always, the answers to those questions are about physical things. They involve long planning process, research, workshops and facilitation followed by attempts to attract large amounts of capital to invest in new buildings, public amenities or to kickstart new industries.

But what if you can’t do that?

Suppose you have access to none of the above. Suppose that to varying degrees of quality and effectiveness all of the above has been tried and failed or at least stalled – lost in posturing and process.

Imagine that you have no money. That you cannot buy or build anything – that you are stuck with the building stock and the hard infrastructure. Imagine you are not the government and have little or no capacity to persuade them to make major investments or decisive changes.

If all that doesn’t make things difficult enough, let’s say the budget you have to work with is tiny – amounts you can put on a credit card. All you have is the city – beautiful, fading but endowed with many interesting small scales spaces, a talented enthusiastic creative community and a generous broader community willing to donate their skills and time and resources in kind.

What could you do?

Actually, this is not a thought experiment. It’s a real place. It’s my home town of Newcastle, Australia. As recently as 2008 the situation in Newcastle was pretty much as described above. Yet as of a few months ago more than sixty new creative projects, initiatives, galleries, studios, and creative businesses – all experiments of various kinds – had started up in the old downtown. The city – far from being a failed post industrial basket case – was being hailed by the world’s biggest travel publishers Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 on account, in large part, of a vibrant creative resurgence that had taken place in the long dead downtown.

So how did we get here from there? Two years is too short and the budget was too limited to address any of the city’s real hardware problems. Instead, Newcastle took a different tack. To do so we engaged the immediacy of enthusiasm and activity and stepped back from the contentious and divisive debates about what should and shouldn’t happen in the long term. To do that you need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves.

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Perhaps this is an Australian thing but virtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment. They like to draw things, design things, build things. They like tangible things. The futures that they desire, imagine and will into being are full of hard physical things from bike lanes to green buildings, transport links and physical amenities imagined and preserved.

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. It defines much of what a city can and cannot be. The hardware of the city – its topography, the scale of its spaces, its architecture, its patterned dense grid or its narrow laneways or its chaotic sprawl – places a hard limit on what is and isn’t possible. While the hardware of cities can and does change and evolve slowly over time, in the short term it remains relatively fixed – major changes are invariably expensive, can be paralysingly slow and often contentious.

The ability to design, imagine and build the hardware of a city are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in – are places where artists, DIY media makers, installationists treat cities as places of opportunity and experimentation.

Unencumbered by the possibilities of permanence, they treat cities not as fixed places in which to build fixed things but as laboratories in which to try and experiment. The extent to which they can and can’t is defined only in part by what the city is – creative people are usually capable of hammering their own ideas around whatever starting position or location you give them. To a much larger extent their possibilities are defined by how a city behaves in response to their initiative. It is the software of the city – which is often intangible, bewildering and complex – that defines their possibilities.

Cities are also software – they actually have many layers of software. They have an operating system – a hard set of rules and constraints that are imposed and enforced by governments. Operating systems are hard boundaries too – they are laws that forbid and allow. They define what you can and can’t do as much as the hardware does. Far from open to opportunities, the operating systems of cities are often defensive, risk averse and closed to possibility.

In many respects the operating system needs to be defensive – it is vulnerable to exploitation and malicious intent. In Australia at least, many who seek to use the city are attempting to do little more than run a virus – a parasite of a program – called something along the line of Maximising_my_commercial_return.exe. They are attempting to do little more than build the cheapest building, with the greatest amount of saleable space, in the shortest time possible. Cities have quite rightly developed a series of strategies to mitigate the virus and its impact.

Yet processes that assume that this is all that people wish to do with a city misses the point. Artists, creative types and community minded collectives are often caught up in the same defensive systems. The fact that they have limited capital, their limited access to political processes and specialist expertise, their limited opportunity to recoup an expensive investment, and their precarious ability to survive complex and time consuming processes means that they are often more vulnerable to being stopped by process than malicious developers.

In my previous life as a festival director I was often asked by artists “can I do this?” Too often I had to tell them no, they could not – despite the obvious benefits it would bring. More often than not it was not for any particular reason but for the absence of a process – a software error. A failure to distinguish the nature of the activity. A category error around scale that could inadvertently treat a one night only event for 30 or 300 people in process terms in the same way that it treats the building of a new development or planning a subdivision. It’s a software error that fails to distinguish between creative and commercial intent. A process error that did not allow – or did not easily allow – the intended use despite the absence of objections or even wide community consent. A bug that introduces compliance, complexity and costs to people incapable of navigating it. Cities often fail to recognise the transformative powers of momentum and enthusiasm by blunting it with confusion, cost and complexity.

In many respects the software of the city is subtle – it is at least partially the cultural context, its history and its economic circumstances. Yet, in most respects the software of the city is codified and hard-coded – height and noise restrictions, planning processes, rules that enable certain possibilities and disable others. They can be embedded in common law rights and privileges. As an ephemeral user of cities I had inadvertently spent many years experimenting with the limits of what types of a behaviour a city will and will not tolerate. The more you do so the more it becomes apparent that cities can be arbitrary, irrational and incentivise entirely the wrong the things.

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Renew Newcastle, the not-for-profit company that we established in late 2008 is a piece of software. It is a broker. It is an enabler. It is an interface between the aging, decaying, and at times boarded-up built environment and those who seek to use and activate it. It connects the many empty spaces in the city with the passion of people who want to experiment and try things in them. It has facilitated more than 60 projects in more than 30 once empty spaces in just over two years. It has done so without building, buying or owning anything other than some computers and some second-hand furnishings. It does not fund things – nor was it funded itself in its early stages – it just allows them to happen.

It has done so by changing the software of the city. Not in the slow and traditional way – the hard way – of seeking the political power to amend the rules, change the laws and rewrite the operating system. It has done so in an easier but less obvious way – it has followed the path of least resistance. Rather than rewrite the operating system it has hacked it and made it work in new ways.

Renew Newcastle started by hacking how much spaces cost and the terms they were available on. While there were over 150 empty buildings in Newcastle few if any of them were cheap or simple to access. They were bound up in complex rules – from bad tax incentives to complex, costly and long-term commercial leases that made it difficult to access them flexibly. Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them. We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

Yet cheap space is not in itself enough. It is not enough to simply change how much space costs, it is also vitally important to change how it behaves in the face of initiative. Renew Newcastle created a whole system to lower barriers to initiative and experimentation. We created another layer – between the operating system and the users to make it simpler and easier to enable experimentation and risk.

Again we followed the path of least resistance. We decided to make things simple that could be made simple and not butt up against what would remain impenetrably hard. We managed to do what is easy rather than get caught up in waiting for the ideal – to find spaces that were usable and use them. Renew Newcastle designed systems – an API in programming terms – that made activation simple. We took spaces, brokered cheap access to them and gauged what could be done in them easily – what they were already approved for – and set out to find it and plant and water it.

In doing so we effectively made a whole system to make space behave as quickly and responsively. To allow people with enthusiasm and passion to direct it into the city. We made it quick for people to try and cheap for them to fail. We removed capital and complexity from the equation and in doing so we seeded more than 60 experiments – unleashing the energy of hundreds of people.

We made the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. People without capital for whom low barriers to entry and not certainty of outcome were the defining issues. Those who were operating digital cottage industries and Etsy stores, artists and fashion designers, bedroom record labels and Flickr photographers. In effect we made the physical space behave as their virtual spaces did – easy to get into and out of, allowing of experimentation and failure and most importantly full of tools and structures and plugins designed to make it simple and cheap for them to do what they are passionate about.

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As cities age, the challenge is not always to rebuild them physically but to re-imagine how they might function and adapt. In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city are active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become. The software – the legal templates, the contracts and the thinking – that has enabled has changed Newcastle is becomng a kind of shareware – downloaded, hacked and implemented in cities and towns across Australia from Townsville to Adelaide.

Cities are software. Yet as hard as the software of the city is to conceptualise the consequences of changing it are very real. It is only the results that give it away. They are as evident and visible as the process that led to them is invisible. There are new stories and narratives, new people and new possibilities, and a glimmer of renaissance where there was previously only ruin.

This article is reposted from MarcusWestbury.net with permission of the author.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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