Cities: ideas and insights on the cities we live in

Boston, 1772

Another phrase pulled from Saskia Sassen’s lecture that I think is worth deeper thinking despite its outwardly hipster tone is ‘the city as hacker’.

The city is like a distributed system with many different types of internal systems and multiple nodes. No center can stand on its own. The city as the hacker is a type of Urbanism that begins from this distributed space. Through open communication and sharing of knowledge, people and their practices can become an important influencing factor in new technology for the city, instead of dictating how technology should be used. It has to be many systems, many neighborhoods…” — saskia sassen

When I think of ‘the city as hacker’ the first image that comes to mind is something comparable to the map of central Boston with its tangle of streets that seem to run whichever way they please. This of course is not the kind of hacking that is going on here, but it feels just about as accurate as the twisting of the term ‘hacker’ in the media to become a derogatory term for computer criminals who use computers to gain unauthorized access to data. This misnomer has pretty much superseded what I think is a really wonderful understanding of ‘hacker’ as a person who enjoys exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. From a computer programmer, to a nobel prize winner, to an inventor, to a philosopher, to a musician, to a child, to yourself. I think we have all enjoyed being ‘hackers’ at some moment or another. In some cases the hacker mindset has defined a person’s life aim and perhaps has even changed the world in some way. In other cases it may be a weekend hobby or pastime that brings enjoyment to an individual or a group of friends or collaborators.

In the context of Saskia’s lecture, ‘the city as hacker’ implies a scenario where the many elements that comprise any city (people, materials, systems and information) work together to enable small grassroots level activities to have a collective impact on the city at large. In such a case, distributed and open access to the resources necessary for people to get informed, share ideas, and self‐organize could inspire a bottom‐up approach to exploring the limits of what is possible with new technology for cities. The city as hacker. This could be a way to better serve the diverse interests of local communities and empower people to play a role in shaping their city in positive ways.