GoogleUrbanism: Working With the System
Nicolay Boyadjiev interviewed by Denisse Vega de Santiago & Leonardo Dellanoce
GoogleUrbanism (GU) is a city management strategy making use of Google’s insatiable hunger for capitalization of ‘attention’ and quality data. Proposed by strategic urban designers/architects Nicolay Boyadjiev, Harshavardhan Bhat, Kirill Rostovsky and Andréa Savard-Beaudoin, GU intends to create a mutually beneficial relation between the commercial interests of tech companies and the city as political and social entity. Cities more often than not have serious trouble to provide and maintain the public services they’re supposed to deliver and companies like Google are developing new business models in exploiting the overlap between physical and digital space. But those tech platforms are already profiting from the digital data and attention of users in the physical world. The GU team proposes to set new terms to this currently one-sided relationship by adding ‘public space’ in the equation between Google, users and data, framing it as the formal physical ‘site of extraction’ of this digital value.
Next to the analogue adspace (think of the screens and billboards in Times Square, NYC) and more recent digital ads, popping up on your phone while moving through shopping streets, GU explores and captures digital activity of people in a (public) space, in order to redirect it to the space itself. By introducing a digital license for value extraction from public space, the city benefits from it economically. Google Urbanism argues for taking reality as point of departure for further architectonic interventions rather than starting from an idealized scenario of what public spaces and cities should be.
GoogleUrbanism is far from being a humanistic project, condition that has made the project object of controversy and criticism. GU creators might argue that perhaps this ‘fake controversy’ is the best card of the project, what nourishes the project itself. It is the means to attract attention and in doing so using another form of power. A world that is constantly overcoming crisis demands new models for architecture, and for architects to embrace different roles in societies. Such crises but also changes in the global economic and political scenario have produced a change in the aims and goals within the practice. GoogleUrbanism joins current narratives that advocate for self-initiated projects by architects, the ‘unsolicited architecture’. Boyadjiev, Bhat, Rostovsky and Savard-Beaudoin from Strelka Institute push this idea one step further by proposing to create an alliance with a big player like Google as a more realistic basis for architectural and urban projects
In relation to Volume #50: Beyond Beyond, Denisse Vega de Santiago and Leonardo Dellanoce interviewed one of GU’s partners Nicolay Boyadjiev on the project.
Denisse Vega de Santiago: How is GoogleUrbanism aiming to go ‘beyond beyond’? Beyond digital space? Beyond physical space? Beyond public space? Beyond Urbanism?
Nicolay Boyadjiev: This question was very much implicit in our thinking. GoogleUrbanism is defined by the meta-project of triggering an ongoing, unsolicited partnership with a strategic collaborator; in a way, this was our chosen design brief in itself. The result is the conception of a legal infrastructure (the ‘license’) and value-tracking protocol strategy, implemented not for the physical construction of episodic signature objects/environments but for the systemic, ongoing maintenance of uneventful real spaces of the city… All through Google’s own lens, the main agent who can make it happen. The whole idea behind GoogleUrbanism is that every time Google makes money in public space, the public space gets something back and reinvests it in itself.
The project often gets criticized because it appears we embrace surveillance or Google’s corporate agenda, but frankly the test was to go beyond this kind of profoundly banal, moralistic position in which architects are superficially ‘against’ something as they pump out self-aggrandizing advice and art statements. Our position is that the relationship between tech platforms, users, and surveillance is not being investigated in very productive terms as the design project it is, so as architects we added ‘space’ to the mix to see what happens and how we can think about this. In the project, public space goes beyond its traditional confinement as a ‘backdrop for human activity’ and moves to the foreground as the main subject, the legal holder of human ‘presence’ as its raw material. So GoogleUrbanism is very much a media project and a communication strategy about the ‘user position’ of space as much as it’s about anything else.
DVS: If we say that architects create spaces, Google Urbanism brings to the table a different understanding of contemporary public space. Not only in the physical but also in the digital realm…
NB: Media space is also a type of public space that architects need to get into, this is also going ‘beyond beyond’. We speak to other designers and other artists / activists, but we don’t really have the impact that I think we could be having on the public imaginary, which is a type of public space, very much a valid space for intervention. We have forgotten how to do that because our education models seem to celebrate critical thinking and straightforward communication at the expense of one-another. So we were trying to react to that. I think it also goes ‘beyond beyond’ in the sense that we fully understand that invisible forces shape the world, ‘digital’ in the sense of layered immaterial protocols and infrastructures, trends of behavior, expectations of citizens in the city, etc. We try to earnestly understand the current, drive the current and divert its starting vector to nudge its trajectory in a more desirable direction.
Leonardo Dellanoce: Basically, what you are saying is that it is more effective to steer the change, and frame it in different ways, rather than blocking it…
NB: Absolutely! At its core the project puts forward a digital license through which the ‘presence’ of users (i.e. attention and data) being extracted from public space in the city is tracked, the resulting financial micro-transactions are accounted for, and part of their returns are reinvested in their spaces of origin in the form of dividends for public space’s ongoing maintenance and improvement. If you think about this seriously, the power and ability to implement such a system rest almost entirely on Google rather than on the city, which doesn’t have the technical ability to do any of these things. That is why our project is called a ‘Speculative Expansion Strategy for Google in Physical Space’.
DVS: So far it seems that we have talked about the city almost like an abstract entity, but what is in for real cities? The impact that GoogleUrbanism could have in Moscow is not the same as for a city in a developing country, so how does the real context play a role in the project?
NB: The concept behind GoogleUrbanism is that every time Google makes money in public space, the public space gets something back. Some of the public spaces that are most conducive to people checking their phones are spaces of transit: boring streets, bus stops, train stations… every kind of public space infrastructure which is underfunded, those become the spaces where the impact of GoogleUrbanism will be sharper. In a super exciting space, people might not be checking their phones, therefore they might not be generating value in the digital sphere as much. It is simply the idea that through a digital license, the value is reinvested in the space where it was actually first created because we are always in physical space before being in the digital space of tech platforms. It is trying to design with the behavior of people in mind, not the actual spaces. In the reality of the city, we do not suggest that one site is better than the other. In fact, a site that is not interesting might not get our physical attention, therefore this is where the digital value from our phones might be generated!
DVS: If we think of space as an ideological product of social contexts, what kind of product is GoogleUrbanism offering to the city? And the other way around, what is it that cities can modify in GoogleUrbanism’s speculative spatial strategies?
NB: How the spaces of the city could and should adapt to the ideological imperative of attention seeking platforms to drive and monetize all forms of user engagement is a much larger topic… But I would say that another interesting fallout or ‘product’ that GoogleUrbanism offers the city is a new model of incentives, possibly setting in motion intended and unintended chain reactions, reversing and exacerbating urban trends, for better or worse. For example, if the city starts profiting from attention gathered on the grounds of publicly owned spaces, it could start commissioning more public projects such as community centers, public housing… to boost revenue streams. All of the sudden, the trend of privatization is halted or reversed, new hybrid public-private typologies emerge, new expropriation models too, not necessarily all positive. Master plans start taking this into account. It may happen that the city starts staging inefficiencies on purpose, creating traffic jams in order for people to spend more time in public space watching cat videos and in turn financing the public infrastructure… These potentially problematic scenarios are fascinating because, at the end of the day, the product of the project is a new systemic logic of collaboration between Google and the City, with both parties standing to gain and lose in different ways…
LD: Playing the advocate of the devil: Why would a group of young talented people give their creative force to a corporation like Google, without the reassurance to be in charge of the project? Hypothetically, nothing prevents Google from developing the project without you…
NB: You are right, but as a general rule I think that hanging on to ideas through fear that they might be tainted or achieved through different means can’t be a solution either. As designers and thinkers we co-opt and recombine ideas in our work all the time, this is an integral part of creating good and relevant work. It doesn’t seem realistic or fair not to even acknowledge the possibility of co-option in return. If anything, we must anticipate, and as much as possible implicitly design the terms of this co-option, so that it can unfold in a desirable direction with or without our direct involvement and control.
To be honest, in principle I also don’t like to draw such a strong distinction between investing ‘creative force’ into a corporation or into the State; both are large, dehumanizing entities with pros and cons to be considered depending on the big picture you are trying to achieve. I’m also wondering if the free-ranging independence of being fully ‘in charge of the project’, fully in control of any given proposal, was ever truly available to our generation of designers being interested in the scale of impact that we’re interested in, or is it more the legacy of a lagging mythologization of this grand-master modernist figure, stemming from the historical state of exception which was the post-war rebuilding effort. All and all, if Google wants to develop a strategy to giving back 25% of its revenue to the city, or someone else wants to force them because GoogleUrbanism convinced them they should, nothing prevents them from doing it without us; our job was to create the argument and formulate one creative design strategy to implement it among many.
LD: There is then perhaps an underlying impossibility for the architect to act on the corporations. As a reaction, he or she acts on the users instead, because their presence can be controlled…
NB: As an architect, the product of your labor really has to be communication. Architects don’t create buildings, they create plans and instructions for builders or they create arguments for clients and different stakeholders of the city. We thought of the project in the same way, creating a narrative for Google, for the City and for the public in order to implement so-called ‘idea-technology’ rather than ‘thing-technology’. Ideas and thoughts have much more impact than things, even before they are actually felt or proven to be true (or good), in the same way that a broken idea can persist forever while a broken thing is useless. In this sense, it was much more interesting to focus on perception and expectations rather than building. One of the objectives was to create this ‘manufactroversy’, or at least some sort of story around GoogleUrbanism in order to get people’s interest and imagination going. If the only takeaway from the project is an internalized understanding that the extraction of digital value in the form of data / attention always happens somewhere in the physical world because we are physical beings, and therefore the physical space of extraction is entitled to its fair share (in the same way that mining companies pay back royalties to the state for the use of land they don’t technically own), then the impact of the project is achieved. Buying into that premise is the project itself.
LD: Therefore you would evaluate any project in terms of impact…
NB: Definitely, every project has an impact regardless. Positive, negative, intended, unintended. There is an expression in English that I really like: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…”. This is why through GoogleUrbanism we drew on many scenarios, things that might happen in one way or another. We have no interest in trying to predict the future, but we wanted to project potential outcomes and conflicting possibilities at each phase of our 3-stage speculative expansion strategy. Scenario planning is not a new idea, but as a profession, we haven’t really taken it very seriously because so much of our work demands strong coherence and internal consistency. But now is as good a time as any to embrace working with contingency, working with uncertainty and multiple plot lines, simply because that’s how the world functions. Given how fundamental and structurally entwined surveillance and data capture are in our modern political and economic context, we need to delve into this uncomfortable new territory despite our personal comfort zone and moral indignation. The question is: do we want to be part of this process in order to steer it in a more fair and desirable direction? As architects we are not in charge of society, we have to learn the rules of the world we live in and act upon it, knowing full well that the full consequences of every act can’t be measured in advance.
LD: If we argue that politics is present in public space, then what is its role within this new context? Is politics obsolete or would it change or should it be changed?
NB: If politics are going obsolete, I don’t think design is the primary cause. But in terms of our project, we see the notion of ‘presence’ as something monetizable and therefore as something potentially carrying political power by extension. If you’re cynical, you could argue that protest in the form of public mass mobilization has been increasingly hollowed out of its political agency in the past decade. But if presence literally translates to value now, if generating funds in public space becomes a thing, then blocking a road, occupying a park, even turning on your ad-blocker on your phone in the streets starts having real financial consequences for the city and this hollowed gesture could make a comeback as a viable act of opposition. In the project, we talk about ‘ambient’ crowdfunding narratives and different stakeholders of the system from the example of a public event or concert being financed by the digital revenue generated by its audience on the ground, the event being the temporary license holder of that space from the city, that sort of thing… If you imagine a similar scenario where someone like Greenpeace organizes a massive public protest or demonstration and is entitled to all the financial dividends generated by its crowd which are now reinvested not in the space but in the cause the license holder champions through the structure we propose, then GoogleUrbanism starts hinting at new forms of social and political endorsement, and in a sense could reclaim the ‘value of protest’, albeit in very simplified and partial terms. So while we took the conscious decision not to coat the project with any given political varnish, the political implications of the system can be explored laterally in some of the more speculative design scenarios of the proposal.
LD: The role of the architect has always been a matter of interest for us at Volume since the beginning. Back in 2005, Rem Koolhaas was writing about how to go beyond the office. Later, the 2008 financial crisis happened, changing the panorama of practices in architecture. How do you see the development of the practice according to the model you propose?
NB: It’s an imperfect model, but we were interested in trying to spark this kind of unsolicited, long-term partnership between us and the ‘right’ client, working creatively to leverage their interest in the direction we felt was most beneficial for the City as well. Thinking of self-initiated proposals and the right strategic partnerships rather than waiting is something architects should do more of. This is a way to counter the brutal race-to-the-bottom and distinctive professional squandering of intellectual labor that Rem refers to with regards to the culture of architecture competitions. It’s also a way to identify relevant areas of involvement simply by claiming them without being asked.
This ambition also extended within the universe of the project itself. We were thinking of models of urban practice within GoogleUrbanism where practitioners could provide core design services within a designated space for free, and generate their revenue from the attention / data dividends paid back to their space of operation. Perhaps if architects were assigned or bidding for a mid to long-term ‘custodianship’ of a space, they could develop local expertise and develop interventions and improvements not tied to a ‘client’ or building in the traditional sense. This creates a mode of practice much more in line with the modernist ideal of having a social role in the community and the city. It also sets the standard for new business models where you aren’t constantly chasing new projects to keep your staff employed. Because you are bound to one or many areas of intervention, it’s not about making money through more buildings or larger construction budgets, but in creating the subtle, small changes needed to improve local conditions. Basically, all the spaces in the city benefit from the care and from the focused attention of a local architect, rather than the singular gesture of a parachuted, foreign ‘starchitect’.
DVS: It appears to me that younger generations of architects start to take distance from the idea of architecture as just building more and more and are getting closer to the idea of architecture as knowledge…
NB: Architecture is not only the creation of buildings, it’s also a process of worldbuilding in terms of sensing out and imagining the scope of possibility. I think the idea of architecture as a process of knowledge is good, I would also earnestly add the old-school idea of architecture as a process of imagination, however cheesy that may sound. Among architects and designers there is definitely no shortage in terms of creative outputs, but sometimes I feel that perhaps there is a mental block in terms of creative ambitions or creative willpower to deal with the more complex invisible forces that shape our world. When it comes to those we’re kind of stuck in analysis or critique mode, utopian or dystopian exposition, when really what is needed is an honest and open-ended desire to imagine and act on the full scope of their consequences and opportunities. To me what makes GoogleUrbanism interesting is that we strongly rejected settling for an easily identifiable utopian or dystopian project, while at the same time also avoiding the sheer presentation of ‘research’ which doesn’t dare to take action when confronted with the inherent moral ambiguity of the themes being covered or the solutions proposed. I think that the younger generation of architects is no longer interested in the neutrality of research for research’s sake, and is actively seeking outlets to reinvent the space of possibility for architecture, designing with a specific intent in mind through media, narrative, strategic framing and truth effects… This act of imagination – this is very much an act of architecture.
* Also see: googleurbanism.com
Nicolay Boyadjiev is an architect and design strategist based in Moscow, where he is currently the Design & Education tutor of The New Normal programme at the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design.
Ideation and Design
The project was originally conceived while researchers at the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design in Moscow.
This interview relates to Volume #50, ‘Beyond Beyond’.