As the physical and digital aspects of a city started to interfuse and the stakeholders that create value for the city became multi-faceted, the city itself has become a patchable plug-in platform: a platform for city hacking. Platform thinking addresses the interplay of data, technology, and community. In keeping with the ‘Hackable City’ metaphor (de Waal et al. 2017), this interplay resembles the commercial platform of Github: a platform to connect individuals, organizations, and open-source projects to better software projects together. The city as a platform connects its citizens with its decision-makers and local projects, enabling all the stakeholders to combine top-down planning and bottom-up participation in patches to better their city.
On the city as a platform lays interaction design’s stretch towards the urban scale, which also redefines how the fuzzy front-end of the design process is conducted: citizens navigating in a rich urban context, in order to improve life quality in their proximity, working with democratized technology within their reach. Aiming to get a more nuanced understanding of the city as a design platform, we elaborate upon the concepts hacking, making, and prototyping while entering the cityscape. In the next sections, we discuss these concepts, which hold several different connotations, and make them operational for hackable city-making, using an urban interaction design perspective and take stock of its roots in arts, technology, and activism (Fig. 1).
Hacking is an ambiguous term with multiple, competing meanings in contemporary culture. Firstly, in its original meaning, hacking refers to the ‘hacker culture’ of software and hardware tinkerers coming from MIT and then Silicon Valley (Levy 2001). The notion that Levy calls ‘true hacking’ is based on the hacker ethic, with core principles, such as sharing, openness, and world improvement. These principles are referring to a general constructive behaviour. Secondly, another contemporary meaning of a hacker is associated with criminality, a person that exploits computer security systems. This notion carries negative sentiment and describes destructive behaviour that is almost the opposite of the ‘true hacking’ idea. Thirdly, a modern pop culture connotation of hacking is lifehacking. Lifehacking was coined by technology writer Danny O’Brien (Thompson 2005), referring to productivity and efficiency shortcuts, skills, and tricks for daily life. Such shortcuts and tricks as a hack follows the description of a kludge—a historical computer jargon term from the 1960s—as described by Koopman and Hoffman (2003: 73):
A fix that is awkward or clumsy but is at least temporarily effective or An overall design that is of questionable elegance or downright ugly.
Expanding this definition from decades ago, today the previous contemporary connotations of hacking carry a refined understanding of what a hack is: an exploratory, creative way of overcoming limitations of a system. How this takes shape is often by modifying or repurposing a certain knowledge, technique, or technology for a new use. Moreover, this repurposing also leads to a hacker attitude ‘because we can’, trying out if a technique works in another context. An iconic example of this thinking is the story of the ‘Trojan Room Coffee Machine’: in 1991, people at the Computer Laboratory of University of Cambridge installed a camera showing the coffee pot. The creators needed to develop many things from scratch, like server and client software, and generally went a great length for solving a non-substantial problem (Stafford-Fraser 2001). This coffee machine broadcast became the first webcam.
When looking at city-making from an urban interaction design perspective, hacking is considered as a constructive activity, such as Townsend’s Civic hackers (2013) or The Hackable City project (Ampatzidou et al. 2015). In our view, hacking can indeed be seen as a social constructivist activity in city-making, and embrace a typical hacker attitude. Such an attitude can manifest as optimizing an inefficient, bureaucratic policy-making process that is often lagging behind technology advancements. An early exploration of the hacker attitude applied to city-making can be found in squatting, the movement of occupying abandoned or unoccupied buildings that the squatters do not own. There are many policies for squatting today, though a commonality is its history of operating in a legal grey zone and the corresponding legislation that was lagging behind. In the case of squatting, the hacker attitude refers to a new way of thinking around redistributing unoccupied, available buildings for residential purposes. Beyond squatting, a timely example for hacker attitude in city-making addresses the rise of various sharing economy start-ups that are operating at the borderline of governmental policies and use–abuse the lagging of policy-making to flourish. For example, Airbnb hacked the general accepted way of short-term room rental while Uber hacked the established norms in transportation services. Sharing economy start-ups often question the status quo, and in our view, this is the hacker attitude applied in city-making. Although often experienced as controversial, it is obvious that these new kinds of businesses introduced by Airbnb and Uber do not necessarily refer to a constructive hacker attitude. However, these exemplary sharing economy business cases do challenge the current, established way of city-making, and open the floor to new city-makers to trigger a systemic change for new types of social innovation. Urban interaction design operates in a world full of complexities, from stakeholders to citizen needs and policy-making; there are various layers, various actors, and various types of problems. To cut through these complexities, we argue that the hacker attitude is core: people need to be proactive to trigger change, sometimes to provoke change. Many art and design schools teach by Grace Hopper’s famous quote [retrieved from CHIPS Magazine (2002)]:
It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission—Grace Hopper
Innovation oftentimes happens fast and is not bounded by the lagging of governmental regulations. Considering urban complexities, the core mechanisms of the hacker attitude are exploring the borders and stretching the status quo, let them be legislation or the public’s thinking on a certain matter (such as ownership in the age of the sharing economy). To conclude, the hacker attitude might appear disobedient or unabashed, but also pioneering and daring to be the first, and these we find key characteristics. The hacker value for city-making lies in the potential to serve the public interest, but still too often hackers undermine the common good due to a short time, activist focus on political protest.
With the third industrial revolution (Rifkin 2008), manufacturing has been expected to shift towards a democratized and decentralized, distributed ecosystem, enabling the masses to realize bespoke products with modern technology, such as 3D printers, accessible electronic prototyping kits, or a blossoming open-source culture on the Internet. Pioneer activists leading this movement, the makers, initiated physical spaces all around the globe. Fablabs, Hackerspaces, and Makerspaces are appearing, providing a physical shop as well as a meeting point for like-minded people, who come together to work on their own Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects, but also to collaborate with other makers, exchanging expertise or share knowledge. The knowledge and expertise sharing aspect of making makes it also intertwined with education all over the world, as illustrated by Mostert-van der Sar and her colleagues (2013). Educational institutions are increasingly hosting Fablabs and other fabrication workshops become available for the masses. Such connections to education provide a safe environment to test and experiment. When people visit a Fablab or a Makerspace, they are not expected to know how equipment, tools, and devices work; they go there to learn. Furthermore, specialized working tools are not available in every household, and it is hard to justify having, e.g. a soldering station or a 3D printer at home if you have never tried it beforehand. These physical spaces where making can take place are democratizing who has access to realizing various hobbies or professional projects.
Besides providing spaces for making, a vast number of tools are getting available for people that are not very tech-savvy or trained. The focus is not anymore on creating tools for experts, but to serve a broader user base including complete beginners and interested amateurs. Makers have been successful in attracting children to code, 3D print, or build in Minecraft, and this success generates demand for better end-user tools that are not overcomplicated and has the right constraints and trade-offs to still remain usable and productive after a little-learning curve. For urban interaction design this is important, because in the urban context design often happens by citizens that are not necessarily trained in design.
To leverage making in cities, the fabrication communities are essential to provide places where lead users of a city (i.e. citizens) can gather to realize technological projects that better the living in the city. In this way, making enables citizens to create bespoke solutions (patchable plug-ins) for their city; when the citizen needs are addressed by citizen-designed solutions, that is a major shift from the dominant concept of urban services being provided by the government, more often than not resulting in services that are far from how reality works. In all complexities in urban space, making democratizes the creation of bespoke solutions by providing infrastructure and knowledge and skills for the urban interaction designer. In the future, this could be further amplified by the maker community and its sharing practices on the Internet; when people upload their local bespoke products, services for peer-production sites, such as Instructables.com. The local bespoke solutions could live a global life, getting adapted to different circumstances.
In the past decades, the techniques and methods previously characterized with the design-related professions (e.g. industrial design, architecture) have started to find their use for a broader audience. Design thinking (Brown 2008) has gained popularity in the business world illustrating this trend of innovation and new ways of management. Living labs have grown in popularity in the past years to stimulate open, collaborative and bottom-up models of innovation where citizens are at the centre of the innovation process. A living lab can be defined as:
an experiential environment where users are immersed in a creative social space for designing and experiencing their own future. Policy makers and citizens can use living labs to design, explore, experience, and refine new policies and regulations in real-life scenarios before they are implemented. (McPhee et al. 2012: 3–4)
Where the origin of living labs started from the industry’s or city management’s drive for regional innovation, today’s city laboratories are often initiated by emerging city-makers. Even though co-creative partnerships that join forces in developing new product and services are keys in both ‘prototyping’ initiatives (Mulder 2014, 2015). In the meanwhile, designers have been redefining design towards complex systems and tackling complex societal problems (Sanders and Stappers 2014). In our view, these trends illustrate that the designers’ toolbox of techniques, methods, and ways of operating has the potential for cutting through the urban complexities as well.
A key aspect of problem solving (in design) is the use of prototypes. Prototypes can be all kind of artefacts, as long as they enable the different stakeholders to collaboratively explore alternatives and to articulate their different viewpoints. In this view, prototyping is a way of communication between different parties. We consider communicating via prototypes as a process where iterations happen throughout the discussion, evolving the prototypes in a trial-and-error manner towards finding the optimal design solution (Buxton 2010). Out of their context, early prototypes can easily be seen as quick hacks, and making often enables quick prototypes. In urban interaction design, prototypes are often design interventions, with the leading principle to engage the public in the conversation about the possible future. The powerful aspect of iterative development is to keep the tangible solutions close to its users, and continuously adapt the feedback in the following prototypes. These are the important aspects to abandon the principle to aim for over-polished solutions that are never-ready. Like this, people can dare to envision futures with bolder ideas, iterating their way towards one prototype a time.
A manifestation of prototyping and design for solving urban or societal matters is the emergence of different design jams and hackathons—pressure cooker events that are targeted at establishing active local communities, while teaching design techniques to interested people. These types of events enrich the spectrum of the physical places connected to making and encouraging the hacker attitude to innovate solving complex problems by applying cheeky or clever thinking in repurposing of previous knowledge or techniques on new problem areas. The time frame a pressure cooker event enables is short, so people should not think too much about an approach, just do it and see what happens. This set-up is interventional and based on weekend-long get-togethers, consequently the outcomes might not be sustainable. However, on personal and community levels, such an approach is a boost to probe ideas, get stakeholders together, and learn new things. This transition is doing the groundwork for sustainable change for projects that has bigger potentials.