In my eyes the most significant phenomena that are reorganizing society and our planet are the explosion of urban populations and the rise of digital information technology. These trends, for better and worse, are disrupting our physical and societal landscapes. And regardless of how you feel about these changes they are occurring.
If you had asked me two years ago where I would be and what I would be doing, open source technology would not have come up. I’m an architect by training and had initially planned to follow that path. But as I became more involved in the profession I also became increasingly disenchanted with the options: designing high-rises for a city I’d never visited or second homes for the wealthy or perhaps if I was lucky a trophy museum. The profession, as it has been defined, seemed completely at the mercy of global capital focused on short term profits. At the same time the profession wrapped itself in cultural and design theories, attempting to turn things on their heads and give their work a deeper meaning. The veneer seemed thin.
So upon graduating, with all of this swirling in my mind and no good idea of how to respond, I did what any sensible person would do. I punted. I applied for and received a Fulbright grant to study architecture and urbanism in Istanbul. During my time there, the city was (and still is) undergoing enormous transformations. Whole neighborhoods were being razed and replaced; apartment towers and gated communities were rising where the city’s watersheds once stood; and serious thought was given to dredging a Second Bosphorus (I’m not joking…water front property makes people do strange things). The city was alive with energy, but there were also clearly big problems, not least of which was that it was nearly impossible to keep track of, much less guide, how the city was changing.
Istanbul’s growth parallels development in many cities in the U.S. and around the world. Our ability to create change has surpassed our ability to understand the consequences and develop substantive dialogue before we act. Being a naïve optimist, I and a number of friends from Istanbul decided to try and solve this problem by launching a website called OpenUrban. The site is a mash up of ideas behind Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, applied to future urban development. We wanted to create an accessible tool that allowed anyone to share information about changes in their cities and thus create a foundation for meaningful dialogue and effective collaboration. (OpenUrban’s beta site was launched in October 2012 at the Istanbul Design Biennial).
Technology has the potential to transform worlds – this we know. It also has the potential to make these transformations more transparent, humane, and thoughtful by bring to light the consequences and people involved with our actions. I would like to, in some small way, help realize this potential. This is why I code for America.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.