The perception of the city

The image and mental map of the city changes in the times of platforms, data and computation

Salvatore Iaconesi
14 min readSep 21, 2018

Digital has become part of our lives. Whether we want it or not, whether we realize it or not, we generate data all the time, we exist on digital platforms all the time, our digital data and profiles are processed all the time by algorithms and artificial intelligences, and this has impact on our world and on how we are able to experience it.

This has impact on the ways in which we can perceive our cities.

When, in 1960, Kevin Lynch wrote “the Image of the City” he dealt with the concept of imageability and readability of the city: of how people see and interpret the city, build their own image of it, their mental maps of the city, through the things they see, remember, the messages and signage they perceive and, in general, through the elements and signs of the urban landscape.

Lynch’s analysis mosty dealt with the idea of walking through the city, and the elements of the city which were taken in consideration were mostly physical (signs, posts, parks, stores etc).

In 1972 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour wrote “Learning from Las Vegas”, using Las Vegas’ Strip to move forward in this kind of research, trying to understand what happens to the city when it is experienced not by walking, but at higher speeds, by traversing it by car.

In this novel scenarios, buildings become symbols through assemblage and composition of media.

buildings disappear, you don’t see them anymore, and only the sign remains (image from HERE)

Nobody really sees the building, anymore, in this scenario: everybody sees the sign. Buildings become decorated sheds: a 10 thousand dollars building with a 100 thousand dollar sign. Symbols become more important of the physical form of the building: the building almost disappears, almost completely becoming communication.

Even in this scenario, we are dealing with physical elements: signage, lights.

How can we extend this type of analysis to today’s scenario? And what implications does it have on our rights to the city, and on the ways in which we can perceive, understand and use the city?


Today is the age of Ubiquity.

Which, in this sense, does not mean the possibility of being everywhere at the same time.

But, rather, it means the continuous and unstoppable presence of the global into the local and of the local into the global.

Ubiquity exists because of globalization and because of pervasive technologies, data and computation.

Times, places, people, organizations and objects are hyperconnected with each other.

  • We can gain understandings of places through interactive digital maps; explore them through Streetview; read multiple reviews about places and interpret them; access how other people and organizations interpreted places through images they took; how they performed the place through image of themselves and their activities there.
  • We can see the geographical positions of our contacts and understand what they’re doing, and when.
  • We can use services such as Instagram to see parts of the city and landmarks as they are reinterpreted and performed by people through their bodies, actions and creativity.
  • We can perform the city ourselves through digital services, for example through delivery services, and also from their limits (from what parts of the city can they deliver to your home?)
  • We can see the city through wi-fi hotspots, and we perceive it differently where wi-fi is not available.
  • We may decide to go to certain parts of the city based on data coming from sensors (for example judging through weather or through traffic indications).
  • We gain understandings about the city through the data produced by sensors, their visualisations, the notifications generated through them, the ways in which they influence the city and its spaces (domotics, automation, data-driven and AI-driven decisions, actions, operations).
  • We perceive the city through satellites, digital cartography, assisted navigation and also through their glitches, errors, bugs, misdirections.
  • We can understand the city through our bubbles, echo chambers, from the digital information and knowledge about the city which we will never know because some algorithm keeps us from it.

In all these cases, local dynamics are continuously interweaved with global ones: the guy next door and the server anywhere on earth; the person from the other part of the world who expressed about the city, and the sensor in the specific place; the satellite and the car; the business logic originated who knows how, who knows where, and the advice from my neighbour or family.

Where and when does the city start and end?


Software, algorithms, artificial intelligences and other computational agents are constantly in a dialogue with us, and the result of this relationship is the transformation and personalization of spaces through data, information and their computation.

New types of subjectivities emerge as data and computation rise, and new relationships: when we attach sensors and computation to buildings, organizations, trees, cars and other elements of the urban environment they become subjects which are capable of expression and, thus, of establishing relationships with us.

In this process, the concept of private and public spaces is completely revolutionized.

The same space can simultaneously be the most private and/or the most public of locations and scene. The same building, space, object, office, home, room can become different subjects at the same time, for example depending on the different technologies that are in that space, and of the data which they produce, and of what orgaization gets to collect and process it, and to what kind of feedback it is able to produce on te environment. Here, different types of relationships will be formed. Some will be public and open, some commercial, some at maximum privacy, some at maximum control.

the city Matera discovers new ways in which a piazza can be used (from HERE)

What can the present and future of the public piazza be?
And of the teenagers’ privacy in they rooms? And of the office? School? Hospital?

What is private and public space in this scenario of recombinant, algorithmically enabled, computationally generative societies?

These are challenging questions, and we are only scratching the surface, as individuals and society.

But, to be able to know more and to understand better this scenario, we must be able to know it, gather data, information and knowledge about it.

And, instead, this is a very difficult thing to do, because, most of the time, we have no open possibility to know and perceive and understand what data is captured from us and our surroundings, and how it gets processed and used to change the spaces around us.

This happens because of the closedness of the data policies of most operators, and of the fact that data is not intended, most of the times, to be “for us”, but “about us”.

The data industry is an extractive industry.

While on any platform, such as Facebook or other, I constantly produce data.

I can ask Facebook, for example, to download my content — the posts and images I produced, what I liked and commented –, but not the data Facebook extracted from me: what commecial/target categories did it put me in? How many times did it “sell” me/my profile? To what companies? What has my data been used for? To discover a new recurring behaavior? For a social experiment? To influence some of my contacts? To win the elections?

The list could go on and on.

This example is valid for all other current platforms as well, including the ones which we don’t necessarily perceive as digital platforms: energy providers, administration and bureaucracy, commerce, credit and banking etc.

In synthesis: currently, we cannot know

a) what data is extracted from us and our behaviors,

b) how and why it is processed/used and

c) what is the effect on the physical/digital environment aroud us.

This is valid especially in cities (where these kinds of scenarios are dense and recurrent) and, thus, we can reasonably say that we are progressively loosing the ability and possibility to understand what happens in the urban spaces around us.

Given this, we might, then, ask ourselves what is the present and future of our possibility to perceive and understand cities, and to build mental maps of them?

What form does our right to the city (and the ones of the new types of subjectivities) take?

How would have Michel De Certeau written “the Practice of Everyday Life” in this scenario? Or Lefebvre “The Right to the City”?

There, but not quite

Different authors have moved from analogue to digital in their study of the city.

For example in 1995 William J. Mitchell wrote “the City of Bits” from the point of view of the “information superhighway”: how does the city change and bring closer the “global village”?

Always in 1995 Lev Manovich writes “The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds”, in which he describes how the city of the hyperlink, in which landmarks and remarkable places can feel “like a set of particular points suspended in a vacuum, similar to a bookmark file of web pages”, and the opportunity to link them together and connect them in new ways.

In 2004 Malcom McCullough, with “Digital Ground”, started to investigate pervasive computing: activities in the city become progressively mediated and networks extend architcture. Interactivity becomes ambient: a theory of place for interaction design.

Also in 2004 Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin write “Flying through Code/Space” (then followed in 2011 by “Code/Space: Software and Everyday life”), in which they argue that digital media are not just an augmentation, an optional layer over the physical city that we may or may not use. Instead, they become increasingly a constituting factor of physical space, leaving their imprint on the environment.

In 2007 Matthew Zook and Mark Graham introduce the concept of Digiplace, which is the use of information ranked and mapped in cyberspace to navigate and understand physical places. Here the interactions between culture, code, information, and place construct DigiPlace and shade perceptions of the places that are mapped.

In 2012 the New Cities Summit launches the concept of the “Annotated City”.

Always in 2012 Dietmar Offenhuber and Carlo Ratti write “Reading the City — Reconsidering Kevin Lynch’s Notion of Legibility in the Digital Age”, in which they explore this evolution, and they say that “a contemporary Image of the City could be a manual about how to reprogram, hack, and deconstruct the meaning of the environment”.

In 2016 Benjamin Bratton writes “The Stack”, in which he describes possible forms that new algorithmic governace can assume in our cities, bringing to the co-existence of different types of subjectivities, both human and computational

And we could go on, as the analyisis and the opportunities for discussions augment and proceed forward (for example, one of my favourite is the Hybrid Cities conference)

What’s missing?

All of these — and many others — authors and initiatives have started to lay out the research of this new scenario.

A scenario which, as a matter of fact, is not so new anymore: it is maybe more precise to say that it is our new normality, our new ordinary life. These things are not the future, they are our ordinary present.

But, to be able to deal with this new normality, as individuals and society, something is still missimg.

Currently, the scenario of data and computation lives in a separated, compartmentalized area of society. It is not recognized as part of our environment, part of our lives, part of us. Digitality (composed by the Internet; digital platforms; the network connected devices in our homes, schools and offices; the dat that we produce through commerce, energy, finance, health and, in general, through each manifestation of our daily life) is still problematic in terms of perception, and still seems as something separated, optional, and that each of these manifestations of digital are not interconnected with each other.

Data and computation are parts of our lives, parts of our bodies, the air we breathe and the ground we walk on.

This is a cultural issue, but it is also more.

In our practice, we have started to speak about the Third Infoscape, and of the concept of Digital Urban Acupuncture.

The First Infoscape is the data/information/knowledge landscape produced by bureaucracy and administration. The Second Infoscape is the formal ones produced in the infrastructures and services (energy, traffic, water, etc), it is the data and computation environment of the industrial city and of the economy of services and utilities.

The Third Infoscape is the one produced through the combination of the myriads of micro histories that express through data and computation, produced by people, objects, places, buildings, offices, homes etc.

It is the chitchat, the digital gossip, the digital weeds that grow between the bricks in the walls of the city, amidst the iron of its infrastructures, by human beings, devices, sensors, computational software and their relations.

The concept is derived from Gilles Clèment’s Third Landscape, the natural landscape which forms in unattended grounds, unmaintained places. The Third Landscape hosts the Planetary Garden, the moving, everchanging gardens which is the result of the continuous life of places, of the extreme biodiversity which grows between bricks, in abandoned places, along train tracks, in the places that are not maintained: cycle after cycle of plants which replace other plants, in a global dance.

While describing the Third Landscape, Clément sees it as an opportunity: for biodiversity, adaptability, health, beauty. The Third Landscape is a space for inclusion and opportunity. It is generative and diverse.

It resists reduction, as it cannot be synthesized or averaged, as its characteristic is the fact that it moves, and that it is composed by myriads of elements and their dynamic relationships.

When speaking about the Planetary Garden, Clément never sees it as “the end of the gardner”. Rather, he asks himself what kind of gardner is the one which is able to deal with the Third Landscape: he answers that if the traditional gardner has tools such as scissors, rake and shovel, the gardner of the Third Landscape has knowledge and the wind as tools.

This is similar to considerations we could make in today’s Big Data scenarios, especially in cities.

Big Data’s great opportunity is not to be able to synthesize or reduce it, but, rather, to see the life in it, to use it to understand this life, as a complex, irreducible, network of relations and interactions.

To use the concepts of Bruno Latour, we really should not look for explanations, but bring the idea of description to its extreme consequences.

Taking these considerations further, both Clément and Latour, in their different way, stress the fact that a different sensibility is needed in order to adopt these approaches. It is not, again, only a technical/technological issue, but an aesthetic one, one that deals with how we perceive the world, what we like, desire, expect.

Data and computation, again, fit perfectly in this type of reasoning, and at dfferent levels: both because the issue of data and computational aesthetics are of fundamental importance in understanding the politics and the psychological issues of our times (for example Lev Manovich HERE and HERE), and for the fact that data and computation are used to influence our desires, perceptions, expectations and, in general, what we like.

These new sensibilities are, in a way, already included in the technologies and in the ways in which we interact with these technologies (platforms, devices, gadgets, services, user experiences etc).

On the other hand, there is a feedback loop: technologies (and what comes with them) invent us just as much as we invent them.

For example, this is an artistic project which creates a new sensoriality to be able to sense on one’s body the way in which platforms personalize the space of the city.

Ecosystemic Design

In this sense, we can embrace actions in a form of ecosystemic design: design which is not “human centered”, but which sees human beings in networked relationships with systems, devices, sensors, organizations, new computational subjectivities, and to discover what these new sensibilities, these aesthetics mean in this context.

What is “ecosystemic beauty”?

Gregory Bateson, while addressing the “ecology of mind”, used to describe it in terms of the “beauty which interconnects”.

This would allow us to more meaningfully confront with the current scenario, unveiling the transformations of our rights to the city, of our possibilities to experience cities, understand them, create relationships in them, consume, exist, live.

But a transition such as this one (from human centered to ecosystemic), is not straightforward, as it requires, to begin with, a shift in how we perceive ourelves, as individuals, immersed in society.

In a way, this has many similarities with the concept of microbiome: the idea that we can interpret a subjectivity not only as an individual, but as a complex, dynamic interaction of myriads of subjects, as a super-complex polyphony mines our concept of self, and is a stimulating approach and a fascinating concept which we can imagine to adopt to gain better understandings of the life of our complex cities.

Here, we need not reduce or sythesize, but, rather, we need to bring the possibility to describe to its most radical consequences, in an act which is aestethic, sensorial, which deals with our sensibility.

Human Architecture in Venice

Human Architecture

At our research center, we see this as a very practical, pragmatic approach.

We apply the Digital Urban Acupuncture methodology in multiple cities and contexts, doing this form of Ecosystemic Design with cities, organizations, communities, buldings and more (for example, see some of our projects).

Currently, we have a project at the Biennal of Architecture in Venice, named Human Architecture. (HERE on our website)

In the project, we use data and computation, as they are generated by people, organizations, to create a Data Commons which can be used to understand the relations between the city of Venice and the Venice Biennale. Through the work, we create an artistic, poetic action, to stimulate the emergence of the new sensibilities, the new aesthetics, and we position them right in the center of society, where they can be performed: through experience, new forms of education and public discussion.

It is, first of all, an action for freedoms and opportunities: as we have seen, data and computation live in a state of separation from us; in this way we can reconnect them to our experience and in the framework of our relationships, in our private and public spheres, finally acquiring the possibility to act, individually and as a society.

And, then, it is an action for public imagination and construction: an act which is pre-political, because it deals with the creation of a sensibility, of an environment in which it is possible to imagine, in order to enact public and social imagination, which is a wonderful definition of what politics shoud be.

There will be an open publication, a conference and a workshop, and we hope that we will succeed in making this a recurrent, cyclic process, in which the inhabitants and visitors can study and understand the life of the city and how large events like the Biennale relate with the city, to reclaim and perform it, creating new economies, relationships, forms of innovative tourism.

Human Architecture in Venice

If you can, come to the event and/or the workshop in Venice on October 18th/19th.

On October 18th a roundtable at the Pescheria di Rialto (in Rialto, Venice), in which we will discuss how to bring data to people using art and design, in order to reflect on the relationships between large, global events (such as La Biennale) and cities like Venice. You can find more information here.

On October 19th we will hold a workshop, for students, researchers, artists, designers and policy makers, in which we will experiment all of this, and we will try to come up with a few concepts. You can find more information here.

For more information, please refer to this page.