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Episode 03

Kristian Kloeckl's work weaves together data science, industrial design, and architecture. On this episode of the PFF Podcast, he discusses the implications of a shift from traditional planning-centered approaches to the design of cities to ones that embrace unplanned, dynamic, and emergent phenomena.

Transcript

Welcome to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast. Join the conversation by subscribing to the PFF podcast at https://www.piaggiofastforward.com/podcast.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Welcome to the PFF podcast. I'm Jeffrey Schnapp, Chief Visionary Officer at Piaggio Fast Forward. And today I have the privilege of speaking to Kristian Kloeckl who is Associate Professor at Northeastern University's Department of Art plus Design and at the School of Architecture. Prior to coming to Northeastern, Kristian was a research scientist and the real time city group lead at the MIT Senseable City Lab as part of which he established the labs research unit in Singapore. There he and his team pioneered a data platform and data visualization research initiative that brought together real time data for many of Singapore's key urban systems operators and developed technologies for the analysis, dynamic visual representation and interaction with this data. His book, The Urban Improvise – Improvisation-based Design for Hybrid Cities came out with Yale University Press at the beginning of 2020 and I'd like to start our conversation today with reference to the argument of that book.

Jeffrey Schnapp

What I find really a strong provocation in that title, Kristian, is the centrality of the word “improvise” of improvisation. I'm wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about how improvisation changes the framework within which we think about the design of cities.

Kristian Kloeckl

Absolutely. Hi Jeffrey. Thanks for having me here today. I've worked in the space of design, industrial design, interaction design, and then design for hybrid cities for quite some time. Starting to work on networked cities around 2006 and have assisted in the opening of a new field of working with data generated by digital systems in urban environments. And the work on networked urban technologies and how to create new value from these technologies that increasingly became pervasively implemented in our environment for maintaining all sorts of different systems. And it seemed while initially there was this interesting opening to how to work with technologies that could pick up context on the ground, pick up on what people actually did in cities, how people behaved, changed in cities, and how cities evolved and changed very dynamically. How these often sensory-based real-time technologies could respond dynamically.

Kristian Kloeckl

There was increasingly then a drift under the cover name of the “smart city” towards working with these technologies in a fashion that was informed by control mechanisms: a very control-centric, tech-centric way of monitoring adherence to certain efficiency parameters. And it was striking for me, having seen the evolution of that field, since as soon as you get into the realm of efficiency, comes up to contemplate what kind of efficiency, and whose efficiency does any one system cater towards. And while this might be workable in a controlled environment such as a production environment, once you mapped it onto a social system such as a city, it becomes problematic to some understanding.

Kristian Kloeckl

I looked at how we worked with these technologies and what design models and frameworks we'd use. And it seemed to me that we were really lacking a way in describing the model of human-machine or human-technology interaction that squarely focused on that level of ad hoc responsiveness: the back and forth between people in cities and adaptive, responsive technology systems. That's how I came to look at improvisation. Having been familiar with forms of improvisation myself, it seemed to me that increasingly that what we are trying to do is to look at how technologies, how embedded mobile technologies in cities and people could engage in a constant dynamic, an open back and forth. That made me look at improvisation as a model for interaction.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Could you give us some examples of improvisation at work that might help some of our listeners to understand the implications of a kind of improvisation centered approach to urban design?

Kristian Kloeckl

Sure. I've looked at improvisation to understand in what way this potential of responsive dynamic technologies could be disclosed more than a task centric approach to interaction design. And I think there are examples out there already. What I've done in my book is not so much propose something that comes out of nowhere but more something that tries to give a vocabulary to tendencies that I've observed emerging that I'd like to further through the work in my book. And there are examples out there which contain some of the elements that in my book I espouse. Before getting into that though, I'd like to talk a bit more about improvisation just to understand the level of improvisation that I mean. Improvisation is often misunderstood as doing something in a makeshift way, having to do something to make up for a lack. Doing something until a plan that was lost is recovered in some way, but that's not my focus of improvisation.

Kristian Kloeckl

My focus of improvisation is really embracing improvisation as a way of dealing with our world, of encountering the world. If you look at improvisation, the root of the word comes from the Latin provision, pro viso, which means agreement, a contract that you've made beforehand, something where you know what to expect. Improvise means to not have that kind of agreement. Improvisation means acting without an agreement that was made before and without knowing what to expect. It's dealing constructively, gracefully and productively with uncertainty and unexpectedness in that sense.

Kristian Kloeckl

Looking now to your question in terms of where we see that happening already. I think a very applied example that I've seen is that in the most recent generation of dockless bike share systems. I think that's a good example to look at. Bike share systems are not new. They've been around since the 60s. The first ones were put forth in Amsterdam, the white bikes in the 1960s by an art collective Provo and they just put bikes out there for people to use in a very ad hoc fashion. Then it went through various iterations trying to re-propose that and we've somehow come full circle because today we're looking at dockless bike share systems that make I think very creative and sophisticated use of mobile networked technologies to locate these bikes, to identify users, to communicate the availability of bikes without the need of putting these bikes in certain previously agreed upon places and to bring them back to these places. But just pick them up when you see one and drop them off when you don't need it anymore.

Kristian Kloeckl

In this way, this whole system redefines itself all the time. The location of these bikes is where people actually use them, drop them off. The system redefines itself all the time. You can look at a system as an improvisational system in terms of that you don't, you never know where these bikes are. It's always an act of engaging with the system to find them. I think that's a good example.

Kristian Kloeckl

In many ways, in the book I've laid out four positions for a design model, we can talk about them in a moment. The fourth position includes otherness. Improvisation deals with what is ultimately unknown with the other. And in this dockless bike sharing system, you do find these situations of otherness even unexpected and wild and perhaps upsetting otherness with bikes being left in trees and rivers. And that is part of that as well, beyond the constructive productive element of it.

Jeffrey Schnapp

The example of bicycles seems very apposite given that much as you described, it's the emergent behaviors, the kind of dynamic behaviors that it captures versus this emphasis which ran through much of the history of modern urban planning, on the plan itself. The plan is the script that anticipates all possible behaviors, performances, emergent phenomena. Do you see your work as a continuation of the critique of the plan that emerged in the second half of the 20th century and has really grown into the present?

Kristian Kloeckl

Yeah, that's a good point. Today, working on networked technologies in cities, it very much seems that everything that could potentially be put out there needs at least to be smart. And it somehow does recall an early 20th century period of time where everything that potentially could be made needed to be new. The modernist paradigm to do away with what's been there and look at our environment, our constructed mind is a blank slate to implement new scientific paradigms as a basis for how we construct social dynamics, environments, constructed environments and so on. The plan is an issue here and the question of whether you can plan for things or whether you can allow things to happen, whether you need to have a plan before you start acting or whether the plan is continuously redrawn, redesigned. My work looking at improvisation as a framework for action, does tie in a number of critiques and works from the 20th century, quite frankly.

Kristian Kloeckl

I look at Michel de Certeau for example, his turn towards everyday practice has informed my work greatly. Tellingly, de Certeau looks at people walking in the city and describes how it is the walkers on the ground that every day anew, through every act of walking, construct what the city is, connect different areas that through the quality of the walking that cannot be observed with a top down view in a plan view through this quality of walking and construct a city in an ongoing process of construction and reconstruction, design and redesign.

Kristian Kloeckl

When we embrace improvisation, which is a practice which does not aim to developing a certain output, a certain construct, an object, a final end, a boundary as such. But the aim of improvisation is to keep the improvisation going. If you look at this way, it's about how can you encourage, how can you invite, incentivize, participation in a process that keeps on redrawing itself? It's a shift from designed to its redesign. It's moving away from what is very dear to designers and planners, which is the plan, the program or the script and it's looking at scriptless or non-script based forms of action and interaction to inform our process of designing for this world.

Jeffrey Schnapp

What you're describing seems particularly laden with political implications as well. With notions of a cityscape that's a space of participation rather than a space of constrained or disciplined behaviors. Is that an essential feature of your critique of a certain kind of technocentric smart city model?

Kristian Kloeckl

To a large degree of having seen, and that doesn't even not only concern me, but a whole community of call us practitioners that have engaged in the work and critique of the work with network digital technologies in cities. Having observed a certain corporatization of urban processes that move from democratic processes at a social encounter and a civic encounter towards the implementation of often ready-made solutions provided by large companies, large tech companies, supplanting often processes that were founded in a democratic engagement. Moving away from that plan, moving away from an idea of a work can have a certain outcome that you can control for, thus opened this up. Does open us up the process and brings us on the terrain that encourages participation on a larger basis.

Kristian Kloeckl

See the one interesting experience for me and a sort of an epiphany for me was when going to see the urban control center in Rio de Janeiro that IBM had set up and I took a class there when I was still at MIT and we look at that center and one thing that that struck me just by physically being there in that context, in that large room with that gigantic screen, that recall sort of old notions of science fiction movies at this control room. It's quite interesting in that room, people wear what seems space suits for no apparent reason also. But the striking thing was that once you make all these systems and networks observable in real time, it becomes nearly inevitable to not identify outliers and to correct for that because that is very much the purpose of these control centers is to oversee urban activities, things that happen in the city and to spot things that are unusual.

Kristian Kloeckl

Then usually in this case, and that's I think where does a segue to our discourse here is compared to what has happened in the past. Compared to what could be expected. Compared to statistical models of probability of that. What should be happening is just similar to what happened before and that goes in stark juxtaposition to the very human nature. In terms of humans being always capable of an entirely unprecedented act. One thing that humans can do that machines cannot do, I'd say and still cannot do is to come up with something entirely and do something for the very first time without any apparent reason founded in statistical probability. And I think once we embrace this, once we say, "That's actually interesting." We don't want to do away with that.

Kristian Kloeckl

As probability driven technology systems in urban environments lean towards to doing, we do see uncertainty reducing the unexpected. Once we said, we embraced that, I think that we opened up an entirely new space of civic participation.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That's a rich provocation and sets the bar high for designers who are, like yourself, working between data on the one side, industrial design, the making of physical things on the other, and then who are operating in particular with respect to the built environment, to architecture. What are the models that you look to in terms of that kind of hybrid practice that moves across those different divides and that seeks to attend to the complexity that you are I think quite appropriately pushing us to look at? Which is a complexity built around unprogrammable, unexpected, surprising, emergent, dynamic phenomena rather than phenomena that can easily be described, obstructed and disciplined.

Kristian Kloeckl

In the book I outline four positions, I think the first one speaks to that directly, which is a shift towards a design for initiative and openness. In design and various forms of design, we've been very much used to wanting to control things and to program things. Designers are familiar with the use of plans, of programs, of use case scenarios, drawing out what people will do and then designing products or services, environments for that. There's always been the awareness that people do whatever they want and they'll be doing different things, but that hasn't really driven the design process. It's rather been seen as something inevitable to sort of try to reduce to the minimum or to think about all possible things and improvisation itself has been used as a practice in the design space to tease out a wider variety of what people do. It's been used to develop a larger variety of use case scenarios. That's not the kind of work I'm doing with improvisation. I think that's very interesting, but I'm looking more at the foundational principles of improvisation and so looking at how we can use it for the design process.

Kristian Kloeckl

I focus on openness. How do we design systems that are inherently open to constantly be redefined, to be constantly redesigned and redefined through a process of interaction. And for this, how do we design systems that not only are open but that actually invite and encourage participation? How can you get people in all these different works that we find ourselves working on, in urban environments, to actually feel authorized and intrigued and interested to wanting to participate, to change something in how things work? To speak up, to bring themselves in. I think it's a shift towards that space and it's striking that we need to remind ourselves of that. Since these technologies, again you're coming back to my original motivation, are responsive, real-time information technologies. They're really good at facilitating real-time, in the moment, communication, going back and forth.

Kristian Kloeckl

They're really good at adjusting, adapting their kind of behavior and they're actually really good at that. It feels that there is a real opportunity that as is often the case, coming from the sphere of industrial design, I've often seen it that new technologies are used following old paradigms and their potential is not fully disclosed in that way. Often it's not so much that it needs another new technology, but a new mindset of working with these technologies to actually leverage them.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That's a terrific point. And for our listeners, could you specify the other three key points? You mentioned openness as a design factor. What are the other three key objectives?

Kristian Kloeckl

The second position is about time. Time and timing are key in improvisation. In improvisation, the moment of conception and action collapse into one single moment. You don't plan first and then implement. Planning and action collapse into the same moment. You act based on not nothing and that's a misunderstanding of improvisation. There is an action that's based on past experience. That's based on preparation, which I think is key actually, in this is I model, to move away from planning to its preparation. And you act based on a heightened awareness of the present moment. Timing is key. You do something, you don't, you start, you stop. In that space between actions, that the time between actions there is a moment of choice where you can choose what to do. And that's an interesting design space.

Kristian Kloeckl

As a very concrete example, Amazon released a few years ago, the dash button, this little Wi-Fi connected button that you stick on your washing machine and then you just push it and it connects to your Amazon account and orders the detergent right away. That product, what it does is it eliminates time. It eliminates time and eliminates an opportunity of choice. That's exactly what it's designed to do for. It's designed to eliminate that moment of choice that gets you to think of how to act. Inversely, we can design for increasing that moment, for example. Time and timing is key.

Kristian Kloeckl

The third point is a move from understanding before action towards,which was the more cognitivist paradigm, towards an understanding inaction. That forms of action that are understood in the making, in the moment of performing the action. And that is not news to anyone that plays an instrument. That's not news to anyone that does handiwork, crafts work, works with materials. That you understand what you're doing while you're actually doing it. That's not news to anyone that plays with Lego on their own or with their kids, you actually figure out what on earth it is that you're doing, while you're building it.

Kristian Kloeckl

Similarly, in improvisation-based design, since you don't have a plan, you've got to focus on how someone understands what's going on in the action. Performers use cues for example. There's obviously observation, there's cues given. Jazz musicians not taking a breath. There are cues, inherent cues that they're aware of, not aware of. And in designing products and services in this case and systems in urban environments, I think this is an interesting focus to focus on. What cues does a system that does not follow a plan provide people to open up a space to engage with that, to give a heads up, to offer a choice of engaging or not engaging or canceling or overriding.

Kristian Kloeckl

And the fourth point, fourth and last point and perhaps the most critical and important one is the focus on otherness. Improvisation as a form of action in a moment that deals with uncertainty and unexpectedness, deals with something that is utterly other from what was expected. Something that's fundamentally different from what could be expected. To follow William Cronon's texts about wildness and wilderness could be an interesting path to go down. The question is whether in designing for cities, we design for embracing and working constructively with something that is other, that is unexpected or whether we try to control it and keep it out. And obviously there's none of these discourses and these elements in the model are black and white. They're shades of gray, if you so will, in between to work on.

Jeffrey Schnapp

That's a really useful synopsis and I can't help but think of this in relation to the kind of work we're doing here at Piaggio Fast Forward that is largely focused on the future of walking and walking in urban environments. You mentioned in the context of de Certeau's work, the way in which walking in a sense is almost the emergent behavior by definition. Where there's a certain openness involved. There's a time dimension that's profoundly connected to a dimension that's cognitive as well. The way in which we understand and interact with the world, we process the world. And of course last but not least, point number four on your list. There's a kind of openness to otherness as well. There's a process of discovery, of mapping, but mapping in modalities that involve often subjectivity, not some kind of abstract universal cartography, but a kind of emotive cartography of the cityscape.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Given your rich background as a designer with a focus on these kinds of urban issues, I'm wondering what advice or what thoughts you might have about the kinds of devices that could accompany or support walking in the cities of today and tomorrow. You just met gita earlier today, but gita is just the first step towards a whole typology of vehicles that might interact with this profound human activity that is walking.

Kristian Kloeckl

That's a great question. I fully agree that walking is an act, a practice that is very close to improvisational behavior inherently. And if you look at sidewalks, it's clearly an interesting urban space to focus on since it is narrow bands of unscripted territory. That's sort of given like a reservoir to people, to pedestrians, without a clear set of rules. While most other areas of the city are heavily scripted. The roads, the crosswalks, but squares, urban squares and pedestrian areas as a whole are unscripted where in a very emergent way, people, pedestrians make up the rules continuously in an ever changing way. Anything that would work with that dynamic, I think similarly needs to espouse this kind of openness towards being continuously designed, redesigned, redefined.

Kristian Kloeckl

If you look at sidewalks, the things that create obstacles are the fixed elements. The fixed elements create obstacles in that open space for emerging practice. I think that would be something to focus on: how do you design something for a sidewalk that has this kind of openness to being constantly redesigned as people go about their lives.

Kristian Kloeckl

The otherness part of the spectrum of the design model that I'm working with is a key here as well. Sidewalks provide encounters with the unexpected. They bring out that ability of humans to deal with what comes along unexpectedly. Again, that would be something to focus on. I think something that is important to say about improvisation is that there are two ways to improvise. One is you improvise within a structure and the other is you improvise the structure itself. Anyone familiar with free jazz knows what that is all about. Improvisation within a structure, which is no doubt more common, identifies structural elements that have some duration and persistence in time. I think it would be important to see what kind of structures in working with sidewalks are those that have a longer duration, a longer life.

Kristian Kloeckl

In terms of bringing responsive technologies, responsive machines, mobile devices such as the gita that you mentioned to the sidewalk, I think in a very applied way to work on cues is key and I’ve seen you do that already with the behavior of the object. The movement of the object, the sound and the light to some sense. I think this is an interesting direction to pursue. What kind of cues convey to a human what an object that improvises, that responds to the environment in a complex sense, what is it up to? What is it about to do? Because that allows me actually to engage with it, to respond differently, to change my behavior or to override it also, which I think is interesting. I think one thing that's that's under, that's considered too little in responsive technologies is the age old function such as the reset. The override. Things that we've moved away from somehow, but I think which can find a very creative use in the engagement with responsive machines, given the consideration of what balance of agency we want to develop between humans and machines.

Jeffrey Schnapp

In your answer, I particularly appreciated a hint that it's the social dimension of these immersion spaces that sidewalks and other kinds of pedestrian civic spaces embody. The fact that we don't just operate in those spaces as individuals but we rather operate interactively with other human beings and with the physical environment. And I think in emphasizing sound and light and behaviors of nonhuman agents, what we're really ultimately calling attention to is the dynamics of the social in those spaces. And of course many of the technologies that have characterized those spaces have tended to isolate us rather than to reconnect us to those social dynamics. It would seem like one might derive a lesson from what you suggested that pulls us back towards attending to reconnecting us to our environment.

Kristian Kloeckl

Yes. They're spaces of encounter ultimately: of encountering the other sidewalks, of encountering of in a very unexpected way of familiar elements, of unfamiliar elements, of social relations that exist and that evolve (forging new ones). They're very democratic spaces that are very open for participation. Streets as a whole but considering sidewalks in a sense, there's a lot of focus on the first place, second place, third place in the focus on the work on cities. Home, the work, and then the third place. Now another place where you often spend time, perhaps your cafe in which you do some work or a lot of areas. But these are all connected by throwing yourself out there, by jumping out there into the wild of the sidewalk, if you so will, where anything might happen that's out of your control, beyond your control. And where social encounter happens.

Kristian Kloeckl

Anything that we design for sidewalks, for better or worse, will be part of that. Will be part of that way in which we meet the other (or not) or in a different way and can facilitate it. It can encourage that. It can invite that. It can become part of that encounter.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Thank you so much Kristian Kloeckl for participating in this conversation and, listeners, please check back to listen to future episodes of the PFF podcast.

Thank you for listening to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast and come back soon for further lively conversations about walking, light mobility, robots and the design of neighborhoods, cities, and towns. The PFF podcast is hosted by Jeffrey Schnapp, sound engineering by Robert Allen, narration by Ryan Harms, produced by Elizabeth Murphy, web designed by Jerry Ding. Intro music is Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod. End music is Your Call by Kevin MacLeod. Special thanks to Tory Leeming. To learn more about PFF and gita, please visit piaggiofastforward.com.