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The discourse within the public realm and, to some extent, the physical shape of the urban spaces are defined by contemporary electronic culture. Electronic devices augment our daily lives and the ways we function within them. Distributed sensory networks connect individual data nodes into an interdependent system-organism that monitors its own behaviours as well as its participants. At the same time, individual users and their mobile devices extend these data networks through location-based and personal content to form user-centred data landscapes. Peer-to-peer user-powered networks allow for direct, yet often anonymous communication that leads to new forms of social participation. They provide unique opportunities for creativity and respond to our new expectations of globally connected, locally situated lives. This new urban dimension is enabled by ubiquitous mobile devices. Always connected, context-aware mobile devices serve as gateways into these multimodal data-infused landscapes. Social networks link individual users and form asynchronous spatially discontinuous community that challenges the conventional definition of the public realm. However, in contrast to past media environments, participants in these emerging e-landscapes are both recipients and agents operating within the single media culture-location continuum. Due to their bidirectional operability, mobile devices serve both as receivers and as originators of data.
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Architectural Science Review, 2015
Towards new Mediapolis: networks, identities, and agents
Andrzej Zarzycki
New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102-1982, USA
(Received 1 October 2014; accepted 3 February 2015)
The discourse within the public realm and, to some extent, the physical shape of the urban spaces are defined by contem-
porary electronic culture. Electronic devices augment our daily lives and the ways we function within them. Distributed
sensory networks connect individual data nodes into an interdependent system-organism that monitors its own behaviours
as well as its participants. At the same time, individual users and their mobile devices extend these data networks through
location-based and personal content to form user-centred data landscapes. Peer-to-peer user-powered networks allow for
direct, yet often anonymous communication that leads to new forms of social participation. They provide unique oppor-
tunities for creativity and respond to our new expectations of globally connected, locally situated lives. This new urban
dimension is enabled by ubiquitous mobile devices. Always connected, context-aware mobile devices serve as gateways
into these multimodal data-infused landscapes. Social networks link individual users and form asynchronous spatially dis-
continuous community that challenges the conventional definition of the public realm. However, in contrast to past media
environments, participants in these emerging e-landscapes are both recipients and agents operating within the single media
culture-location continuum. Due to their bidirectional operability, mobile devices serve both as receivers and as originators
of data.
Keywords: digital design; physical computing; interactivity; augmented reality
The cultural and social interactions within the public realm,
and to some extent the physical shape of urban spaces,
are defined by contemporary electronic culture. Electronic
devices augment our daily lives and the ways societies
function. Distributed sensory networks connect individ-
ual data nodes into an interdependent system-organism
that monitors its own behaviours as well as its partic-
ipants. At the same time, individual users with mobile
devices extend the functionalities of these data networks
through location-based and personal content to form user-
centred and crowdsourced data landscapes. Peer-to-peer
user-powered networks allow for direct, yet often anony-
mous communication that leads to new forms of social
participation. This communication can be active and driven
by users’ intentionally contributed content, or it can be
passive and casual (opportunistic), as with navigational
systems that automatically track users’ activities and pass
them on to other participants.
These electronic networks provide unique opportuni-
ties for creativity and respond to our new expectations of
globally connected, locally situated lives. They also start
addressing Bertolt Brecht’s criticism about the limitations
of the traditional media communications to an open elec-
tronic and bidirectional communication. As Brecht pointed
out, “radio is one-sided when it should be two-. It is purely
an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So
here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over
from distribution to communication” (Brecht 1926). While
radio and television have evolved little to satisfy Brecht’s
aspirations, video games and other electronic technologies
provide an effective apparatus to move media from distri-
bution and sharing to communication, collaboration, and
collective authorship.
This new urban dimension is enabled by ubiquitous
mobile devices and willing participants who see the bene-
fits of digitally enabled living. Always connected, context-
aware mobile devices serve as gateways into these multi-
modal data-infused landscapes. Social networks link indi-
vidual users and form asynchronous spatially discontinu-
ous community that challenges the conventional definition
of the public realm. However, in contrast to past media
environments, participants in these emerging e-landscapes
are both recipients and agents operating within the single
media culture-location continuum. Due to their bidirec-
tional operability, mobile devices serve both as receivers
and as originators of data, thus satisfying Brecht’s propo-
sition. However, a number of significant issues remain
relatively unanswered and under-researched, particularly
in the context of urban form. How do new electronic
© 2015 Taylor & Francis
2A. Zarzycki
interactions cause societies to redefine physical and social
structures of everyday lives? To what extent does digital-
ity inform physicality, and is physicality rooted in digital
Towards City 2.0
The recent progression from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 (Web
squared) is indicative of broader changes in the way peo-
ple act and set expectations towards the surrounding world.
Concepts behind Web 2.0 have been adapted to other dis-
ciplines, such as finance, management, and education. In
a 2.0 paradigm, businesses benefit from users’ feedback,
increased knowledge sharing (Knights 2007), and more
effective marketing reaching a broader customer base. Sim-
ilarly, in education, the Web 2.0 paradigm shifted the
focus from presentation to participation, from access to
information to access to people – teachers and class-
mates – effectively reframing the role of the faculty in
academic teaching from knowledge source/expert to facil-
itator of learning.1Massive Open Online Courseware,
such as Coursera, often utilizes a crowdsource approach,
with course participants serving as evaluators of class-
mates’ work. In all these examples, the focus of businesses
and academia changes from knowledge source centred to
participant centred. However, in this new framework, con-
sumers (students and users) are moving away from pure
consumption and becoming content producers as well.
Similarly, the concepts behind Web 2.0 framework
port into urban environments and the public realm. The
correspondence between Web 2.0 and urban spaces is
denominated by a common framework – social networks.
Urban spaces are no longer exclusively defined as a distinct
collection of physical buildings but as a dynamic net-
work of inhabitants who actively contribute to the space’s
image. The traditional concept of a city and its mental
image as defined by Lynch (1960) is no longer sufficient.
The formative elements such as landmarks or nodes may
still apply in a media-enhanced city, but they become
more virtual and ephemeral than in a traditional inter-
pretation. Furthermore, they transform from collectively
shared to individually experienced; from permanent to
These elements can be no-longer-existing buildings
that persist in residents’ memory or media creations such as
the “Sex and the City” tour. In the latter, the tour organiz-
ers define city landmarks by situating them in the context
of the TV show. These landmarks are often not-easily-
recognizable structures that emerge into their visibility as
the result of a random “15 minutes of fame” associated
with a popular TV show. This acquired accidental pres-
tige is used to entice prospective tourists: “Follow in the
footsteps of Carrie & Co. as they conquer New York City!
Drink where they drink, shop where they shop, and gossip
where they gossip” ( 2003). The tour is both glo-
rified, as in the Fodor’s travel guide (“New York City itself
has been called the fifth major SATC character, along-
side the fabulous foursome of Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha,
and Miranda. Take a tour of Manhattan with this guide to
the television series’ most memorable real-life locations”)
(Moker 2008), and ridiculed with the Telegraph report on
the tour’s unexpected attractions: “There are some things
you don’t expect to experience on a city bus tour. One
is buying a pair of shoes. Another is viewing sex toys”
(Kellett 2008). Pointedly, the author of the Fodor’s Travel
article observes that the city is indeed one of the show’s
actors. However, when a city becomes intricately con-
nected to an event, a story, or a movie, in turn the event
or narrative imprints back onto the city.
This continuous feedback loop is visible in the case of
The Da Vinci Code, both the book by Dan Brown and the
subsequent movie, which popularized it even further. The
book’s plot takes an advantage of iconic characters and
places to situate its fictional narrative in a context where
readers can understand and relate to, a context that makes
story more interesting by its association with these cultural
icons. While this is a common strategy for commercial cap-
italization on third-party assets – success by association –
an interesting outcome is that the success of a book in turn
fed back into the original location. Taking advantage of the
popular book and movie, the Louvre museum developed a
tour that guides visitors along The Da Vinci Code thematic
trail.2While this provides interesting narrative feedbacks
and opportunistic commercial associations in addition to
serving museum’s curious visitors, this feedback loop of
(arte)facts and fictions further blurs the identity of the real
and the imaginary, the physical and the virtual.
Even though architecture provides a memorable spa-
tial iconography, today’s media redefine established mental
maps with scattered memories and glimpses of visual
excitement. While the media-defined image of the city may
be temporal, it is also emotionally engaging and fulfilling
to a large portion of the public. Other similar examples
of media-infused landscapes are mental maps associated
with Woody Allen’s and Martin Scorsese’s movies or with
the Seinfeld TV show. In all of these instances, traditional
topological and typological orientation points in the city
are being replaced by cultural artefacts continuously rede-
fined by media. The real and the imaginary are also blurred
into a single form, with the general public merging factual
and spatial with speculative and virtual into a single nar-
rative. Media create a historical-fiction-novel equivalent of
a physical world and extend what is firm (buildings and
history) into the imaginary and the possible.
However, the endgame is not even what is present in
the environment or projected outward by its form but what
a recipient (the general public) perceives and registers.
The collective memories, those discussed by Rossi in The
Architecture of the City (1982) are not expressed and cod-
ified within buildings but by what consumers of culture
walk out with from these experiences; what stays in their
heads not on the building walls.
Architectural Science Review 3
Contextualized culture
From individual augmented reality (AR) apps overlay-
ing the physical world with context-aware information to
broader repositories of geo-located data and websites/apps,
such as the Museum without Walls,3the established physi-
cal edifices such as museums and galleries start losing their
value and relevance. While there is a significant appeal in
seeing an original artwork in the controlled environment of
a museum, there is also a sense of loss when the artwork
is uprooted from its original cultural context and presented
as a context-less object. Is it better to see an original paint-
ing in an isolated form or a high-resolution reproduction
within a three-dimensional real-time rendered environment
in the context of other work created by the same artist
during a given time period? This question will certainly
have various and often competing answers. However, with
virtual high-resolution and high-fidelity recreations utiliz-
ing photogrammetry, virtual tourism becomes an attractive
proposition, particularly as we consider that many master-
pieces we encounter in museums are high-quality repro-
ductions of original paintings vaulted away from the public
for security and preservation purposes.
Situating artworks and other artefacts in their cultural
or historical context may lead to a greater appreciation
of their value as well as to forming new conceptual and
semantical links fuelling new interpretations. It could also
refocus society’s focus from the areas that consume culture
to places that create it.
The virtualization of physical artefacts discussed
above, as a way to situate them more appropriately within
a cultural and historical context, redefines the idea of
identity. While it is usually considered that digital/virtual
objects do not possess a unique identity due to their clone-
like qualities (copies and originals are interchangeable),
situating them within the original context may be a new
form of defining the original.
Commonality of the public realm
This leads to a new understanding of what is the genius
loci, or the shared perception and commonality of expe-
riences of a place. Unlike the physical city, which by its
shared nature is always “on” and WYSIWYG (what you
see is what you get), the AR world can be turned off and
can be either WYSIWYG or non-WYSIWYG, allowing
for privacy within the public realm. This on-and-off trans-
parency associated with WYSIWIG and non-WYSIWIG
worlds is characteristic of electronic networks and online
culture. It also puts in question a number of architectural
and urban form constants, such as Rossi’s collective mem-
ory concept, or even Kevin Lynch’s five elements that form
mental maps. Terms such as “district” and “edge”, or ele-
ments such as landmarks, become expressions created and
shared by individuals operating in smaller groups with-
out the need for broader compatibility or relevance. These
mental maps become highly individualized, with strong
references to non-physical objects that go beyond Lynch’s
five elements.
Urban games
Mobile phones have become powerful handheld computers
that not only assist users in daily routines but also facilitate
new forms of connectivity and affect the ways participants
operate within our social structures.
Contemporary media emerge as a combination of
gameplay (gamification), narratives, and open-ended vir-
tual environments that mimic real-time life. Media not only
mirror reality but increasingly become reality, or its emo-
tionally inhabitable alternative. As stipulated by McLuhan
in his seminal work The Medium Is the Message, the ways
people experience the world ultimately merge with the
content of what they experience. McLuhan observes: “All
media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or
physical.” As with sandbox games, the future of media lies
not only in storytelling but also in story-playing, a mapping
of social behaviours within public spaces. This shift from
consumption to authoring starts redefining the way people
operate within cities and the sense of citizenship and own-
ership. Multiplayer gaming environments, electronic social
networks, or mobile location-based games enable a diverse
range of encounters without the need to personally engage
with others face to face or reveal one’s identity. Digital
media make it easier for many to engage with strangers,
particularly for those who feel apprehension in interacting
with strangers or just want to explore their inner self in a
social context that is not predefined. They allow people to
live multiple lives – if not sequential then at least parallel:
concurrent incarnations that provide a continuous feedback
loop and alternative perspectives on one’s life.
Now, through AR apps, these games are entering our
physical surroundings, becoming context specific and a lot
less virtual. By situating themselves in a defined physical
context, they break away from the digital world’s unifor-
mity and adapt to user needs. As Simon Games puts it:
“Games are the new cinema, they are breaking free from
the console and hitting the streets. These games are a new
way of exploring ideas, meeting people and having fun.
Hugely social, they are a new entertainment form”.4
Virtual environments allow for explorations of inac-
cessible or not-yet-materialized designs. They can be pre-
cursors of future physical urban spaces and potent drives
in their realization. This is the case with AR and gaming
environments (Figure 1) developed by the Tremont Under-
ground Theater Space initiative.5The initiative is using AR
gaming media not only to popularize ideas of the adap-
tive reuse of the abandoned public infrastructure but also to
build social constituency and connect with general public
(Figure 2). The Mystery Spaces6approach relies on public
events such as Common Boston 2012 to bridge the virtual
experience with the physical activity in order to provide
4A. Zarzycki
Figure 1. AR environment as social and design activism and
urban games.
Figure 2. Mystery Spaces, a map with points of interests is
arranged in the form of game play.
a critical mass of participation often necessary for social
network-based activities.
Mapping relationships
The City 2.0 paradigm, while deeply rooted in the tradi-
tional media relationship to the city, evolves towards a
highly individualized and defragmented mental construct
by connecting the present, past, and all possible futures.
These integrated media elements may no longer be uni-
versally recognizable or understood by the community nor
contribute to universally shared collective memories of a
place. The repositioning of urban networks with a focus
towards users unavoidably shifts the metal maps of the
public realm from objective “values” to subjective “feel-
ings”. What constitutes a node or a landmark as one of
five Kevin Lynch’s elements (from The Image of the City)
becomes context and user dependent, with a strong time
City 2.0 returns to the phenomenological dimen-
sion advocated by Christian Norberg-Shulz. Discussed by
Norberg-Shulz, the idea of genius loci (spirit of place), a
combination of place and the phenomena associated with
it, resurfaces in today’s media-enhanced cities as a rel-
evant and potent concept. Location-aware functionalities
present in ubiquitous mobile culture map directly onto the
idea of genius loci as it relates to tangible and intangible
human experiences. Media facades and mobile AR extend
the realm of the non-physical setting of a place and the
ways the “atmosphere” of the place affects the participant’s
The key attributes of Web 2.0, such as interactiv-
ity, crowdsourcing, context-specific behaviour, collective
knowledge, and collective authoring, directly link to simi-
lar categories within architecture and the public realm. In
architecture, city, or the public realm, terms such as “par-
ticipation”, “private and public”, or “collective memories”
are familiar code words for user-centred design. They also
reflect ways architecture and the city have evolved over
time as a result of multiple and synchronous contributions:
contributions that were not a result of the single creative act
but a collaborative and an exquisite-corpse-like process.
Figure 3shows corresponding parities between Web
2.0 and Architecture 2.0: “interactivity” and “participa-
tion”, “context specificity” and “private”, “ubiquity” and
“public”, or “collective wisdom/crowdsourcing” and “col-
lective memory” as defined by Rossi (1982). “Interface”
is another shared concept. Architecture and design can be
seen as a form of user interface (UI) focused on optimizing
user experience (UX). The concept of a city as UI and UX
to some extent is already present in A Pattern Language:
Towns, Buildings, Construction, by Christopher Alexan-
der. In his book, Alexander defines rules of spatial design
based on observations of how people interact within and
experience urban spaces. He argues that these behavioural
patterns should inform the built environment. Interestingly,
his patterns could inform not only the physical but also
Figure 3. Corresponding parities between Web 2.0 and Archi-
tecture 2.0.
Architectural Science Review 5
the virtual world. The creator of SimCity, The Sims, and
Spore games, Will Wright, acknowledges the influence
Alexander’s work had on his games:
[a] more appropriate source of inspiration we have found is
things like architecture, and product design, because those
are inherently more interactive design fields. SimCity was
actually originally inspired by Chris Alexander, and going
back and looking at design in general I’ve found a lot of
inspiration from Charles and Ray Eames, Jay Forrester,
Jane Jacobs, all the people who are sort of spanning the
division between design, theorist, and a specific field – you
know, urban design, architecture or whatever. I find that
triangle really interesting to draw inspiration from. (Wiles
Wright is one of many who see architecture and the city as
a creative framework for media-based environments.
The mappings between Web 2.0 and City 2.0 are pos-
sible because both environments, Web (network) and city
(public realm), are spatial and social constructs. They go
beyond linearity of experiences, providing a multiplicity
of narratives with bifurcating possibilities. Their strength
comes from the ability to interconnect individual nodes and
create a system that supersedes its individual components.
In many ways, the Web and the city are two versions of the
same interdependent social and cultural pattern. However,
they differ in critical categories such as spatial continuity,
identity, and perceived anonymity.
An identity becomes one of the primary qualifiers of digital
worlds. Paradoxically, these virtual worlds and electronic
networks originated from scaleless and same-like digital
matter disassociated from any aspect of physical real-
ity. However, with embedded technologies, identity starts
playing a central role tracking behavioural patterns of indi-
vidual users (purchases, daily commuting paths, and health
statistics) and feeding to “big” data sets. The result is a
highly granular understanding of individual user patterns
without relying on some abstract, statistically weighted
concept of a resident. Furthermore, the identity is no longer
an attribute assigned exclusively to humans. It also pen-
etrates the world of everyday objects. With Internet of
Things (IoT) and IPv6 protocol, everyday objects such as
appliances, furnishings, and health monitoring devices are
individually recognizable and, more importantly, individu-
ally addressable. This permeates to the cities and architec-
ture, with the ability to control individual traffic lights in
a city or individual building components in façade assem-
blies (e.g. the Media-ICT building in Barcelona by Cloud
9). The ability to monitor and control various players in the
urban environments is a direct contemporary implementa-
tion of Brecht’s postulate about two-way communication.
However, in Brecht’s understanding, both parties of com-
munication were humans. In the contemporary cities and
architecture, this communication is between humans and
machines (computer–human interactions and machine-to-
Identity Addressability
Unless data are geo-located, there is no texture to the
space and time. Situated data create this texture, while
distributed sensing provides a canvas to register this spa-
tial modularity. Situated technologies not only contribute
to an understanding of the relationship between an object
and its immediate surroundings but also redefine what the
field is – the place the objects operate within – by provid-
ing a reference plane. The identity of individual elements
emerges out of this condition and paves the way for the
bidirectional operabilities through their addressability. The
objects’/agents’ identity and addressability deconstructs
social and environmental ecologies with non-WYSIWYG
qualities. Individual agent objects become equal players in
the broader data marketplace, and the relationships they
form have the potential to redefine what we consider a city.
This individuality of agents with the unique addressabil-
ity and the ability of always-online monitoring provide a
new framework for understanding society and the way the
collective subjectivity7of these individuals is transforming
into objective measures.
Agents and networks
Imbedded technologies extend to all aspects and scales
of urban living. Items of urban furniture, such as trash
bins, park benches, and vending machines, become agents
of broader interconnectivity and autonomous networks. In
some cases they are agents for more efficient and sus-
tainable futures; in others, they serve as an extension of
ever-present commercial or private interests.
Two examples of trash bin projects – seemingly util-
itarian and uninteresting – show divergent directions in
smart product design. Big Belly,8a solar-powered urban
trash compactor, is a wireless technology-enabled unit
that monitors its status and reports it when service –
trash pickup – is needed. This results in the optimization
of waste management and minimization of track routes,
which further translates to significant financial savings and
more livable city, according to a Philadelphia case study.9
Another project, Renew Orbs, is a recycle bin that detects
the presence of a smartphone with Wi-Fi and records the
time spent in different parts of the city and in front of
various stores in an analogous way to the way that cook-
ies register Web browsing history to offer customized ads.
Based on these patterns, Renew Orbs bins display adver-
tisements targeting individuals when they are in their vicin-
ity.10 This approach is a direct adaptation of the decade-old
Web 2.0 functionalities into urban environments. However,
in this latter case, there is a major dissonance between
the technological possibilities enabled by embedded sys-
tems with electronic networks, and the social receptivity to
6A. Zarzycki
compromised privacy and overreaching commercial inter-
ests, which resulted in the City of London’s order to stop
tracking of mobile devices.
Samsung’s uVending machines (see Note 5) are the
combination of both the above devices with less intrusive
monitoring. uVending goes beyond the established, rather
aged idea of a vending machine and provides an inter-
active touch screen for beverage selection, advertisement
display, and the ability to function as information kiosks
– originally implemented during the Beijing Olympics.
The machines are network- and Wi-Fi-enabled, allowing
remote monitoring of the stock. In case some of the offer-
ings are temporarily unavailable, the interactive display
will automatically remove the item from its menu. It also
has a built-in camera to capture potential vandalism or
other activities.
In all of the above instances, a traditional isolated
object becomes an active participant in a broader elec-
tronic network. While all of them continue to function
in their original functions, they increasingly are wired
into the technological urban fabric and start transcending
their original purpose. In some instances, their new role,
such as marketing user-customized products to unexpected
passers-by, may become a primary function, using a host
object as a justification for their placement.
Not only objects
Self-driving vehicles, or even drones, will redefine the
way we use and perceive cities, but more importantly they
will require a new virtualized form of the city that is
highly interconnected and informationally interdependent
by setting new expectations towards the city.
While self-driving cars may seem like autonomous, iso-
lated technological objects, their full potential can only be
realized within a broader distributed sensor network. While
driving activity can be encapsulated into a singular object
that understands how to interact with its surroundings, the
ability to adapt to or anticipate emerging traffic patterns
can only be realized with a sensor-based network such as
the one implemented in Santander. Even a simple activity
such as finding a parking space would require a broader
interconnected agent-like behaviour.
Urban sensing
The most developed and ambitious implementation of dis-
tributed sensing on the scale of the city was implemented in
Santander, Spain, under the name SmartSantander.11 The
project began in September 2010 by deploying a small
number of sensors buried under the streets to collect data
on parking availability in the city centre. It quickly grew
to a broader network of approximately 12,000 sensors
monitoring almost all aspects of urban life, including air
temperature, precipitation, humidity, illumination levels,
air quality, park irrigation, and traffic.12 The data gath-
ered by the sensing network are open to the public so
that programmers can create apps that help residents find
out about city events, parking availability, or bus arrival
times. While many of these applications by themselves
are not new or unique to Santander, the implementation
on a citywide remote sensing network with open-source
access to data provides a new form of public infrastruc-
ture – data and knowledge – open to everyone. This is
a new dimension of the public utility similar to that of
the eighteenth-century public library movement or, more
recently, an open-source culture in computation technology
development (software and hardware). The expectation is
that the collective authoring could lead to new disruptive
technologies and to their more rapid adoption.
Pace of the City is such a mobile app that builds on
the distributed sensor infrastructure and integrated Smart-
Santander platform with the AR interface with geolocation
capabilities. It is both an informational and a navigational
tool that keeps citizens connected with city events and
facilitates daily tests like tracking bus schedules. It also
uses quick response (QR) codes that can be scanned and
used for extended data retrieval. While QR codes are being
phased out by image tracking technologies, the fundamen-
tal concepts and implementation of the AR platform remain
Potential future developments that could utilize a sim-
ilar infrastructure can follow the Citizens Connect app,
which provides citizens of Boston with the ability to alert
city departments about broken street lights or potholes.
While this particular app relies on residents to provide the
location or the item ID number, the same could be done
with less of an effort with sensors and addressability on
individual objects.
While this simplifies communication between citizens
and local government, the app still relies on direct action of
the concerned resident to report a problem or malfunction.
The next step would be a platform where users indirectly
feed information to the broader systems – become sen-
sors of a broader crowdsource network – without a need
to devote time and effort to it. This raises valid privacy
concerns, but in some instances the benefits accompanying
the reduced privacy could encourage users to participate in
the network. The Waz e app provides an effective case study
of such balanced relationships between users as individuals
and users as a group with shared interests. Self-described as
the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation
app, Waz e harvests traffic data from its users by track-
ing individual smartphone movements and shares them
with others around. While it does potentially compromise
privacy, it provides measurable benefits to its users.
While collecting data through a distributed sensing net-
work could lead to significant improvement in the ways
that city resources and infrastructure are utilized, the same
data can help designers, city planners, and residents in
Architectural Science Review 7
better understanding social and cultural issues as well –
perhaps leading to new models of urban habitation. This is
a significant departure from ways the theories about cities
were formed in the past, with limited data, usually fil-
tered through personal experiences, and with an attempt to
develop a unified descriptive matrix. Whether we consider
the theoretical frameworks of Kevin Lynch, Aldo Rossi, or
Christian Norberg-Schulz, these theories are based on intu-
itive thinking, on experience, and, in the case of Lynch,
on small sample studies, not on actual gathered data. This
means that new sensing technologies could provide fertile
ground for new urban form theories. However, there is also
the danger of acting too quickly without an in-depth under-
standing of the patterns and mechanisms evident in the data
sets. An often cited example is a city parking optimiza-
tion app that would send all users into the same available
parking spot, increasing instead of reducing traffic. Fur-
thermore, highly optimized systems tend to be less resilient
and, in extreme situations, possibly cause greater damage
than uncontrolled systems.
We the users
The democratization of knowledge through open-source
sensor networks can be seen in the crowdsourced initia-
tive associated with the Fukoshima Daiichi nuclear plant
disaster in March 2011. The efforts to contain radioac-
tive spills and to understand the actual impact on the
environment were inconsistent and caused serious social
concerns about the reliability of the official reports. A
number of activists developed an independent platform
for environmental monitoring, specifically focusing on the
deployment of Geiger counters throughout Japan. While
this initiative originated from local concerns regarding the
nuclear power plant radiation, it quickly acquired global
relevance in the current climate-change context by devel-
oping a platform to share findings and “empower people
with data about their environments”.13 This platform fol-
lowed a framework already established for similar data
infrastructure and community initiatives for the IoT, such
as Pachube/Cosm/Xively.
Learning from sensor data
Oftentimes, decisions need to be based not on the cur-
rent conditions reported by sensors but rather on a future
anticipated state, which may or may not have a direct
grounding in the current conditions. This would require
a higher level of statistical thinking that would augment
current data by predictions based on machine learning
algorithms. An integration of machine learning into the
built environment is the necessary next step that would
ensure that smart buildings and cities are not merely auto-
mated objects following pre-programmed and predictive
routines. However, this next step can only be achieved with
solid data sets and better understanding of behavioural and
environmental patterns. Remote sensing networks similar
to the one implemented in the SmartSantander project are
necessary steps towards more integrated and comprehen-
sive future cities.
Culture-nature continuum
Félix Guattari’s concept of ecologies,14 (1) mental, (2)
social, and (3) environmental, aligned well with the urban
theorists of the mid-twentieth century such as Lynch and
Alexander. It provided clear enough boundaries to frame a
dialogue between people and cities as well as culture and
society. While Guattari’s ecologies are not distinct terri-
tories but rather are formed relationally and transversally
with the interchangeable lenses, their classical classifica-
tion from an individual to a group of individuals to the
environment does automatically juxtapose humans against
the world that surrounds it. This undermines the core con-
cept that nature cannot be separated from culture and
prevents them from full integration.
These three ecologies are parsed differently in the
interconnected and autonomous Mediapolis. The division
between individual (mental), group (social), and context
(environmental) ecologies are no longer satisfactory in
explaining the intricacies of the overall sociocultural mech-
anism. The new dimensions of wired cities cut across these
pre-digital classifications and provide new ways to under-
stand emerging constructs of Mediapolis. Concepts like
identity and autonomy become integral not only to what
were defined as mental or social ecologies but also to
environmental ecology. The environment (context) is no
longer a passive recipient of human activities but emerges
as a partner-agent that informs the game play and dis-
plays a level of autonomy. It is filled with individually
addressable objects that acquire their own identity. Sim-
ilarly, mass media – social ecology in Guattari’s model
– permeates through all scales of Mediapolis and corre-
sponds more closely to the scenario suggested by Marshall
McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory
of Effects. McLuhan’s book, while a significantly earlier
work ([1967]2003) when compared to Guattari’s (1989),
frames the symbiosis between nature and culture in more
acute and contemporary-relevant ways. Media become a
virtual urban fabric that connects people and places as well
as defines the patterns that form spatial identities. Fur-
thermore, media component fundamentally redefines the
very fabric of habitation. The space–time continuity is
being relaxed in lieu of cinematographic (narrative) spa-
tial and chronological discontinuities. Space and time are
no longer the primary context creators. Human social and
personal lives are increasingly subject to the metaphori-
cal example of the butterfly effect rather than traditional
causality within a localized well-resolved system. Sim-
ilarly, the asynchronicity of events that take place in
Mediapolis is supported and directly caused by the spatial
and chronological discontinuities. The globalized culture
8A. Zarzycki
and the way we navigate within it further exaggerate this
Cities are no longer defined by specific forms and con-
tents, as many would have seen them in the past, but rather
as vehicles or exchange terminals that facilitate human
interaction. Urban software (life within) is not directly and
tightly connected to urban hardware (built form). The focus
on urban typology, as seen in the work of many postmodern
town planners, does not reflect the dynamic and changing
lives that occur within. While some of these ideas project
idealized images of the city that do resonate with parts
of the general public, the same is routinely achieved, or
lived-through, with media-rich contents.
Final thoughts
Cities are no longer purely physical artefacts – they are
media, rooted in a graphical user interface, fine-tuned for
the optimal UX, and accessed through ubiquitous networks
and mobile apps. From cinematography designers have
adopted discontinuity of time and space, with its asyn-
chronicity of interactions and unexpected causality. At the
same time, people expect to be constantly plugged into a
larger, ubiquitous technological continuum of social net-
works and data flows. Co-location and direct interactions
register differently today in the context of electronic net-
works. Urban environments become prime testing grounds
for the physical-to-digital-and-back-to-physical metamor-
phosis cycle with an idea of digital physicality and physical
digitality that forms a core theme of augmented urban lives
Media landscapes become interactive and reactive
environments reflective of the human relationship with sur-
roundings. They are not merely spaces that people inhabit,
but also co-participants impacting and reformulating the
roles people play within them. These new spatial and land-
scape attributes openly redefine the role architecture could
play in the future, particularly its primary reading as a con-
stant and permanent inscription into the landscape. Web
2.0, as one of the indicators of current media culture, not
only redefines the way people interact online, but also
sets new expectations towards daily activities and physi-
cal environments. Accustomed to dynamic and interactive
media interfaces, users expect similar flexibility, adaptabil-
ity, and intelligence from everyday physical spaces and
objects as from digital constructs. Digital counterparts to
the traditional, physical public realm may replace its par-
ticular elements or bring back elements that are already
non-existent, but most likely they will become an added
layer of information inscribed onto the pre-existent space.
This paper unpacks the concept of a traditional city
and reassembles it into a framework that considers the cur-
rent and the near-future technological levels. It dissects the
concept of Mediapolis in two dimensions: understanding
(1) how existing conceptual frameworks that define our
understanding of the city (e.g. Rossi, Lynch) map onto cur-
rent media and electronic culture phenomena, and (2) what
new opportunities are afforded by recent developments in
electronic media culture.
The two critical dimensions/ecologies of the current sit-
uated and technologically driven environments involve the
synergy between narrative and locative media. Narrative
media merge architecture with other immersive and emo-
tionally engaging arts such as motion graphics, movies,
and video games, while locative/imbedded media pro-
vide situated experience with autonomous, agent-like live
Not only are contemporary cities increasingly inhab-
ited by cyborg citizens,15 but also an environment con-
text becomes a form of cybernetic organism that should
be considered as an animated and responsive entity that
anticipates and adapts to changing circumstances.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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