The Urban Experience, Culture & Technology

I believe that technology and society have a role to play with each other. Nowhere is this more true than in a city.

I started a book recently by Lewis Mumford called ‘The Culture of Cities’. Now I confess I haven’t got that far into the book. However, there was enough insight in the Introduction to give a powerful perspective on what a city is, what it does and how we can think about urban experience in general. Insights, when compared to how technology is exploring our relationships with each other and with physical space I felt were timely.

Mumford opens the book:

“The City, as one finds it in history, is the point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community… The city is the form and symbol of an integrated social relationship… here, too, ritual passes on occasion into the active drama of a fully differentiated and self conscious society”

Later on he writes:

 “…the city is primarily a social emergent. The mark of the city is its purposive complexity. It represents the maximum possibility of humanizing the natural environment…”

He ends his introduction by writing:

 “Nothing endures except life: the capacity for birth, growth, and daily renewal. As life becomes insurgent once more in our civilization… the culture of cities will be both instrument and goal”

The Urbanite

I would describe myself as an urbanite. The Urban Dictionary includes the following list of characteristics of urbanites taken from the Metro newspaper in London:

  • Expecting to live a meaningful and experience-rich urban life.
  • Expecting to succeed in multiple areas of life (not just career).
  • Expecting to get substantial fulfillment from work (not just cash).
  • Expecting to be at the hub of a large friendship network.
  • Expecting the traditional ideal of “true love” in the modern world.
  • Expecting to have to “make time” in order to have and enjoy time.
  • Expecting to have a progressive government that delivers results.
  • Expecting to live in a pleasant “urban village” area of their city.
  • Expecting to live a responsible life as an urban consumer.

What’s interesting about Mumford’s introduction and the list above is both the disparity and similarity of focus. Mumford sees the city as the hub, not just of economic activity but, as a place in which cultural transmission and emergence take place. A living space where ideas, thought and innovation are communicated and shared in a community. A place that cannot survive as in a progressive capacity without the mechanics of interaction between people.

The list on the other hand defines the expectations of a modern post-industrial experience of modern life as one that is centered around how much more the individual can get from their own experience. How much more ‘life’ they can have.

The Self and The Community

An image of people picnicking in a park
People getting together at the weekend.

The two are not however, so different. They highlight the role of the urban environment as we relate to it as human beings. Cities, good cities that is, are places that we relate to, culturally, socially and personally. But, more than that they are places in which we expect to be connected; to interact and through that interaction be the maximum our society and culture allows us to be.

Facilitating these expectations is not easy. At a baseline the infrastructure and topography that allow the exchanges and interactions between peoples and places need to be present. The modern city doesn’t always allow this. Many towns and cities have been built with commerce in mind. Shopping centers are not community spaces; they are not designed for people to mingle, they’re task focused.

In addition modern city life requires more time for work. I don’t know what time the average white collar worker comes home but, I do know that there is often little play time left at the end of the day. I also know that a concerted and sustained effort is required from most people who want to keep on top of their homes and ‘live’ at the weekend. I have no intention of writing a critique of modern life but, limitations on life are limitations however we want to spin them.

Secondly cultural centers, places where people can participate, either as actor or spectator are almost a requirement for an urban space that is more than a barracks for working families. These may be markets (like shopping centers) but, without the opportunity to interact as human beings with human beings about the experiences we’re having the average town center doesn’t fit the bill.

Mumford makes the point that in the Middle Ages one of the major mechanisms for advancement were not just the fairs that took place on an annual cycle but, more so the transmission of ideas and luxury goods from town to town. It was the ability to transmit ideas, technology and culture that formed an early part of the resurgence of Europe at that time.

The transmission of ideas, of culture and of thought are not economic activities. There is a history in human society of collecting together as a social group and exchanging ideas. In the Greek City State this often took a political role, and let’s not forget the role of the church had as a focus for social life for many centuries.

Today cultural centers such as museums and universities serve similar purpose, as do parks and recreational facilities. Even a parent teacher event is a gathering that implies that people will get together as a community. However, all of these facilities have their limitations. Museums have a one to many relationship in as much as the person is spectator, universities are similar but, less so. Parent Teach events are limited in how much of a truly cultural exchange will take place and parks and recreational facilities on the whole imply that you already know who you’ll be with. These of course aren’t damning or absolute but true all the same.

Modern Attempts At Interaction

Of course I only have a few examples but, each of these I believe are modern equivalents to the urban need for social participation in culture. In a globalized and technically proficient world the mechanisms may have changed but, the desire for continued cultural and social innovation is alive and we as humans are inspired to be part of not just life but, our surrounding culture.

The 1000 Journals Project

1000 Journals Project Image
A Selection of pages from the Journal Project

The 1000 Journals Project was a project that I stumbled when I was given a copy of one of the journals as a gift. The organizer of the project left 1000 blank journals scattered for people to find with the simple instruction to fill a page and leave it somewhere for someone to find. The journals are full of intimacy, humor, moments in peoples lives and an abundance of creativity. They open a world into the lives of the people around us in a way that illustrates without hesitation the soul behind the mask of each of us. The website is worth exploring. Here is a link to a video made about the project.

They describe the project in the following way:

“The 1000 Journals Project is an ongoing collaborative experiment attempting to follow 1000 journals throughout their travels. The goal is to provide a method for interaction and shared creativity among friends and strangers.”


Love it or hate it TEDx as an event extends the reach of the original TED conferences to people who can’t afford a seat with Bill Clinton. Having been to a few of the events there is always a desire to talk to the people around you when you’re there.

Sure the caliber of speaker is not the same as the official TED conferences. I remember one speaker’s talk was only about how he survived Los Angeles without a car and I can’t say that that the details of work being done at UCLA on cancer was that accessible to me.

However, it is a place with the goal of communicating and sharing thought with a community of people. The willingness of people, either inspired or disapointed by a talk and their desire to express their feelings, insights and inspirations allows the conference to act as a platform for interaction that extends beyond the expected and everyday.

Community Apps and Interest Groups

One major change that we are all familiar with now is the diversity of community apps. Meetup is just one example but there is a plethora of applications that have tried to adapt or assume the same model. Examples include Highlight which allows the user to find and connect to people near them, Local Mind which allows users to make recommendations about what’s in their area and Finderous which does much the same thing.

What these applications have in common is that they use a crowdsource model in which community members collectively share and engage with each other. However, the crowd has gone beyond just social interaction and local recommendations or gathering.

The Crowd As Innovator

Recently I got to work on projects or be involved with organizations that leverage the crowd to innovate, support each others development as well as learn; and all on a massive scale. Recently I worked with a group who designed an application that created a crowd-based model in which mentors and learners could network to each others benefit. The model allowed users to group together and share insights and tips as a collective, using the data gathered to better help people find each-other.

In another project funded by the X-Prize foundation we designed a platform that allows people to collectively go through a process of making real world changes to issues they care about.  The point being that technology, powered by people has become a basis not just for the transmission of culture but, its change.

The Role of The Business As Facilitator

None of this however, solves the urban problem. Technology is a mechanism, a device. But, as cultural facilitators the real question is how to encourage contact between people in the real world. Physical spaces and facilities must exist in conjuction with technology.

Technology has made it easier to connect with, share and interact with the human race. It’s made it easier to innovate and exchange culture and ideas on a scale never seen before. I am taking courses with Acumen who use Google Communities to run their courses and am sharing ideas with people in Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan and Italy in real time. However, I am still in front of a screen and I still live in an urban space. It is in my city, the physical locale that there is opportunity to further develop and use technology to encourage the transmission of ideas.

One way that can take place is for local businesses to take an active role in their communities. Homelessness for example is a problem that faces anyone in a city. I don’t have an answer but, we have discovered as we’ve become better connected that many minds working through a problem are better than one, local business have the means and the incentive to start to provide a forum for that conversation.

This is just an example and the point really is this. Communities cannot only be tied to devices. They must exist in real space. We live in a social space whichever city we live in and for a city to have the qualities described by Lewis Mumford earlier in this post those cities must take responsibility as communities for their development, improvement and quality of being.

UX and the Future

As UX designers we have a responsibility to think about our role on defining how we can make a better world and a better intersection between the world and the technologies we design. For me that is why the city is so compelling. It is a system, a myriad system of interconnections, pathways and discoveries. How we connect the city to it’s people will be a challange for us in the UX field. But, when that challenge becomes explicit we’ll also know that our culture is heading in the right direction.

Finally I’d like to share a couple of links that I found compelling.

  • First is a website called LondonSE which is a site that gives a whole area feel like it is a village that you want to explore.
  • The second is work by Jonathan Harris who creates applications that collect and aggregate news, sentiment and real world feeling.

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