Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The City as Operating System



(image from MetroModeler)

An interesting post by Khoi Vinh at Subtraction talks at the usability of cities, and got me thinking of cities not as applications, as Vinh suggests, but as Operating Systems, each running a number of different applications (eg transport, telecommunications, policing, social customs etc) in different ways.

Guidebooks and travel guides function as the 'misssing manuals' of cities, explaining to beginning users, ie tourists and visitors, how to use the Operating System for a particular city.

What strikes me about this paradigm is that while uniformity and standardisation might be good for computer operating systems, it's not such as good thing for cities. We want our cities to be unique, to have their own identity, however confusing non-residents might find it. And yet architecturally cities are becoming more and more blandly similar, and increasingly the typologies suggested by urban masterplanning exercises are about overlaying the same identikit forms over the underlying terrain.

Given that Helsinki is the birthplace of Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system (originally conceived as a portable OS), might we be able to apply a different approach to urban masterplanning to the operating system of Helsinki? The philosophic cornerstones of Linux: interoperability, portability and community might serve as a good set of guiding principles for any mid-21st century city.

I clicked with excitement to a news story that in Korea a city is about to be selected to become Linux City, but the mundane, prosaic reality is that rather than a city built upon the principles of Linux as an open-source operating system, it will merely be "required to install open-source software as a main operating system of their infrastructures, a job which the ministry will support with funds and technologies."

This is a missed opportunity. Imagine a truly open-source city, open to anyone to 'program' the design, development and infra-structure of the city? Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language and SimCity can be our new guidebooks to a user-generated urban morphology.

31 comments:

lewism said...

I think the open-source operating system metaphor is very powerful especially for Helsinki, I'm not sure what forms could accomodate user-generated morphology like you mention, but it's really got me thinking. I think this thinking though, could be applied quite well to the Urban vs nature. The relationship of each with the other, a kind of interoperability that I think is a liitle lacking in that the centre of Helsinki right now doesn't connect very well with either the sea or the end of central park. This could be one of the key things we can bring to the replanning especially in the centre of town.

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