Embedding Philosophical Perspectives in Urban Informatics

Much of my research is focused on urban computing and the ways in which we define, perceive, and understand urban space, with a particular focus on the role of nature as part of city life. Part of my ongoing research aims to build frameworks based on philosophical concepts in order to critically analyze urban space in light of emerging technology use. 

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How can WE use philosophy to understand urban space?
Here's an example:

Consider Michel Foucault's concept of heterotopia:
Geographer Michiel Dehaene refers to heterotopias, as a concept that “describes a world off-center with respect to normal or everyday spaces, one that possesses multiple, fragmented, or even incompatible meanings.” In other words, heterotopias—literally meaning other place—are places that interrupt ordinary, everyday spaces. They are places of extremes that isolate themselves from adjacent surroundings. An urban cemetery is a quintessential example of a heterotopic space. Imagine, for example, how different it feels to walk from one part of a city to another part, through a cemetery. The cemetery, though deeply intertwined with the city, feels fundamentally different from the shops and homes that might surround it. Foucault writes, “The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed.” Cemeteries have often been placed at the heart of the city, and many function as parks and natural spaces amid the bustling city center, and they explicitly highlight the relational nature of urban space.

There are several key concepts based on the notion of heterotopia that provide a useful analytic tool for urban informatics researchers to frame investigations within urban computing.

1) Incompatible Juxtaposition: Heterotopias, Foucault writes, are capable of “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” In other words, these spaces bring together seemingly disparate components, and while they disrupt space, they do not break down, or stop, the flow of urban movement. Interaction design can profoundly influence our experience of the city, and the notion of incompatible juxtaposition highlights a desire to promote heterogeneity, or difference, through urban computing as a way to diversify the city experience.

2) Spatial Disruption: In addition to this juxtaposition of spaces, architectural theorist Heidi Sohn suggests that Foucault’s heterotopias have an “essentially disturbing function.” She writes, “They are meant to overturn established orders, to subvert language and significance, to contrast sameness, and to reflect the inverse or reverse side of society. They are spaces reserved for the abnormal, the other, the deviant. Without this angle, the true meaning of spatial or architectural heterotopia would be lost, since it is precisely in the subversion and the challenging of the established order of things that heterotopia acquires its full potential.” The notion of “disruption” is often misused in regards to technology development, but, in this instance, disruption retains a revolutionary quality. Heterotopic spaces have the ability to surprise, shift emotion, affect mood, shift physical or mental activity, and influence our urban movement. These are all essential qualities of interaction design and as cities continue to grow in complexity, urban computing systems will need to account for such experiences.

3) Relational Space: A final key concept that is useful in the context of urban informatics is that heterotopias have a function in relation to all the space that surrounds it and this is culturally-specific and varied from city to city. Heterotopias are not fixed spaces; they, like other urban institutions, evolve and change within culturally specific conditions. As Williams, Robles, and Dourish write, “Design practices need not be generalized for universality, nor need they incorporate all “other” populations. Rather, by attending to positionality, we can begin to account explicitly for the ways in which the imagined user relates to the complex urban environment. These relationships, encountered, constitute the essence of the urban experience. This perspective distinguishes technologies that take the urban seriously from those that merely consider the city as a place where technologies are used.” When we design for cities, we are tasked with creating or supporting spaces that do not exist apart from other parts of the city. 

There are many other ways that the notion of heterotopia may be useful for HCI researchers and designers. Similarly there are other philosophical concepts, such as Lefebvre's 'production of space' and De Certeau's 'strategies and tactics' for encountering everyday life.  As part of my ongoing research, I am developing frameworks around these concepts, and others, as tools for investigating urban space and the use of technology in cities.