Studying The (Ruling) Urban Operating Systems

There is an old Bengali tale (there might exist similar tales elsewhere too) of how the shoe got invented. Long long time ago, before shoe was invented, there was a king who got sick of his feet getting dirty everytime he goes somewhere. So he ordered his ministers to wrap the whole earth with cloth, leather, anything, so that he has to never touch the ground again. While the rest of the ministers were busy calculating the required funds for the huge project, one young minster had a clever idea. He requested the king whether it is alright if the king’s royal feet is covered by a piece of leather, instead of the earth. And thus the shoe got invented. What is particularly interesting in this story is the architectural imagination of the shoe — as an exo-skeleton, as a flexible house for feet.

An ongoing exhibition at Bauhaus Dessau, titled ‘City Inc.: Bata Cities/Coroporate Towns’, explores the reverse process of this old tale. Shoes can be produced following standardised measurements and still fit people of different body sizes. Further, there can be shoes for various weather and occassion and style — all measured and specific but universal too. Shoes are wet-dream of standard-makers. Now what would it mean to design urban form inspired by the measured diversity of shoes?

“The Exhibition ‘City Inc.’ shows the legacy of an utopian city of the early 20th century. Inspired by Fordist theories, garden city principles and socialist ideals, the Czech shoe company Bata went on a mission to “shoe the world“. In Zlin, in the Czech Republic, Bata built a first company town according to modernist architectural precepts, testing the idea of a model town that could be efficiently replicated… Soon enough the Bata empire formed an international corporate network of 80 Bata cities as places of production as well as a modern way of life.”

But where are the Bata Cities of today? Where are the cities of today that are being built/planned following contemporary ideals of efficient production systems? These are the Living PlanIT cities and the New Songdo cities — planning of which are premised upon Urban Operating Systems. Following the curators/researchers of the Bata City exhibition, one feels like asking what are the ‘footprints’, what are the consequences, of such urban models based upon the strategies and competencies of a cozy crew of global corporations?

In the recently concluded Visualizar’11, there was one fascinating project (among other equally fascinating projects) by Marcell Mars called the ‘Ruling Class Studies’. The project aims to study the political, ethical and professional conducts of different global software firms and begins by producing a…

“…map of Google’s technical infrastructure, analysis of its design… how Google governs users’ and developers’ access to their data, services and development platforms… from trade secrets (e.g. distributed fs), commercial services (e.g. gdocs), nontransparent FLOSS development (Android) to open process of FLOSS (e.g. Chromium)”.

The research (read the proposal here) looks very exciting and promises a deep understanding of information-based production systems. Perhaps this is the first step towards beginning to analyse how the Urban Operating Systems are planning to govern city-level physical and informational infrastructures, how the city administrations will be (and already are) producing, consuming and acting upon urban data.