Urban Data as Public Space

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Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 20194:00PM - 6:00PM108N, North House, 1 Devonshire Place
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Global Taiwan Lecture Series


At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Internet companies applied their online knowledge to the analogue world for the first time. Facebook, Palantir, Microsoft and Google tried to impress the business elite with three-storey-high temporary buildings at the most central spots in Davos, and Google revealed its ambition to build an entire suburb of Toronto.

In this talk Von Borries argues that Google’s “Sidewalk City Lab” applies reinforced learning, a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI), to the real world. (Similar approaches can be observed at Microsoft’s CityNext, Baidou AI City Xiongang, Moscow, Taipei and Singapore Smart Nation, and it is only a question of time until Facebook and Tencent will join in.) This has implications not only for architecture as a creative handcraft, but more importantly for the relationship between people (especially minorities, notoriously overlooked by code based on statistics), as well as social relations, and the private sector.

In this new setting, city planning and architectural design are sourced through machine learning algorithms fed by the big data collected from anyone involved— be they future tenants or critics—potentially any user of Google’s services, in the case of Toronto. Ultimately, we all become unconscious architects as our digital lives are exploited as data. Still, for some time, the results will be unpredictable, even for Google’s coders. It remains to be seen if this can be interpreted as an opportunity or as a failure.

The Taiwanese architect Hsieh Ying-Chun has another approach to collaboration. He considers architecture and town-planning a collective endeavour and a participatory effort.

Smart city algorithms lead to the disappearance of the architect. This lecture aims to highlight how “Urban Data as Public Space” is actually working and how it is different from supposedly similar developments on China’s New Silk Road. Lanzhou New Area is a rather top-down, centrally planned development, reminiscent of Corbusier’s 90 year-old Plan Voisin for Paris, but pimped up with cinema-city style theme parks. Last but not least, Von Borries will connect this discussion to central Moscow, where urban facades mimic a clichéd Russian-ness for the football World Cup and beyond, combined with facial recognition software for all.

The lecture will be accompanied by excerpts of Christian von Borries’ upcoming social science fiction film AI is the Answer – What was the Question?

Christian von Borries is a musician and film director who was guest professor for architecture at Nuremberg’s Art Academy. He is a visiting professor at the School of Inter-Media Art at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. He lives in a self developed green house on top of an old warehouse building in Berlin. His artistic practice can be read in the tradition of the Situationist’s psychogeography. He just cocurated a tech fair in Seoul and Beijing called A BETTER VERSION OF YOU. Together with Andreas Dzialocha, he is AI Unit.


Tong Lam
Academic Director, Global Taiwan Studies Initiative

Associate Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Graduate Department of History

Christian von Borries
Musician and film director; Visiting Professor at the School of Inter-Media Art, China Academy of Art in Hangzhou


Global Taiwan Studies Initiative


Development Seminar at University of Toronto

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