Ubiquitous Place(s)

by Yule Heibel on June 21, 2007

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read many interesting things about “the local,” a topos (literally!) that’s being mined in the wake of our lengthy infatuation / fascination with “the global.” I suppose it’s about time — maybe you can’t be general without being specific, and vice versa.

Trendwatching kicked things off in early June with its Still Made Here post. All urbanists who want vibrant communities, take note of what Trendwatching says here:

A third, ongoing driver behind (STILL) MADE HERE is the importance of community, especially because to many consumers, ‘global’ has come to represent faceless, rootless mega-corporations and supranational bodies, headed up by money grabbing executives whose golden parachutes seem to grow with the degree of incompetence they’ve let loose on employees and other stakeholders. Far from being chauvinistic nationalist movements, (STILL) MADE HERE and (STILL) SOLD HERE will increasingly be about supporting one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one’s region, to regain a sense of place and belonging and to safeguard future access to the special and original, vs. the bland, the global and the commoditized.

Trendwatching‘s entry was immediately picked up and commented on over at CEOs for Cities as well as by Brendan, who writes the Where blog. In fact, he spun that theme into several blog posts: (Still) Made Here: Eco and Ethics on June 5; (Still) Made Here: Story and Status on June 6; and (Still) Made Here: Support on June 11. As Brendan points out in his June 5 entry:

one of the great challenges that central cities face is how to market themselves. Die-hard urbanites and suburbanites aside, what can make the difference between city and suburb for many consumers looking to rent or buy a home in hyper-mobile metropolitan regions is the perceived “authenticity” of a neighborhood. This term means different things to different people, but in this case it usually refers to a high level of historic building stock, independent business, quality public space — factors that create that ephemeral phenomenon we call “a sense of place.”

It’s clear that one very important emerging theme in the quest to defne the local is the problem of authenticity, which is of course an ideologically loaded term. For someone like me, spoon-fed on Frankfurt School theory (ok, ok, so I was holding the spoon and feeding myself…), there’s a tendency to have a kneejerk reaction against authenticity. We know, you see, that there is no “real” thing, that authenticity is a construction. And this is literally true. Reality is highly debatable, whereas ideology is rock solid to the core.

But wait a moment, step back. Is it not “real,” after all, to have some sense of attachment to place? And are you a total moron if you don’t subscribe entirely to living the digital life, online, globally, 24/7, and instead persist in the “delusion” of place?

Well, no. You’re not. If you’re twenty years old, you can perhaps live globally, deny the local (and real). But at some point your cells catch up with the rest of you, …and let’s face it, even if you’re twenty right now, ten years from now you’ll be at least twenty-three. Maybe even older, if you haven’t made enough money.

(Facing up to place — and even authenticity — is something that people have to do when they grow up. It’s a quality that’s often lacking where I live, professional cynicism too often determining not just the order of the day, but hearts and minds, too. But that’s a local aside, not necessarily understood by readers not immersed in this local situation. Or perhaps they do…?)

The theme of authenticity feeds into what we tell ourselves about a place, or in other words, its stories. Again quoting from Brendan (June 6):

City neighborhoods are already status symbols in most places. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, you can identify yourself as being from The Valley, Hollywood, or Watts and get completely different reactions. By associating ourselves with a certain place, we are associating ourselves with the cultural story that has been created about that place, and that cultural story is the quality that will allow a place to overcome its challenges. To increase investment in a community, neighborhoods can focus on the most exceptional aspects of their local culture (which can be just about anything) in order to craft a favorable cultural story. And in a society where “individuality is the new religion” (credit TW) it seems that marketing a neighborhood’s most unconventional aspects would be the best way to go about promoting it.

The cynic raises her head: marketing? Telling stories in order to “brand” a place, because brand viability translates into place vibrancy?

Well, yes again, boys and girls. But before we go off in a sulk, let’s think about the alternatives. Who gets to tell the story? Do you want to remain silent, just because the marketers are coming in with their lubricants, penetrating all your holy of holies? Remember, we are grown-ups now and don’t need to pretend. If you don’t take control of the story, “they” will. “They” might not be local, but “you” are. So speak up.

Here’s an article from FastCompany, the May 2007 issue: Who Do You Love? The appeal — and risks — of authenticity. Its author, Bill Breen, writes:

In an increasingly shiny, fabricated world of spun messages and concocted experiences–where nearly everything we encounter is created for consumption–elevating a brand above the fray requires an uncommon mix of creativity and discipline. And nowhere do you see the challenge more starkly illustrated than in the quest for authenticity. “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged,” notes John Grant in The New Marketing Manifesto. Or as Seth Godin quips in Permission Marketing: “If you can fake authenticity, the rest will take care of itself.”

Overloaded by sales pitches, consumers are gravitating toward brands that they sense are true and genuine. Hunger for the authentic is all around us. You can see it in the way millions are drawn to mission-driven products like organic foods. It’s there in the sex-without-guilt way people respond to the footloose joy of BMW’s Mini. You see it in the tribes of “i-centered” buyers who value individuality and independence–and whom Apple has so cleverly cultivated through its iMacs and iPods.

What does it take to be authentic in marketing? According to Breen, 1.A sense of place; 2.A strong point of view; 3.Serving a larger purpose; and 4.Integrity. Re. number 1, he quotes Steve McCallion of Ziba, a Portland, OR design consultancy: “Authenticity comes from a place we can connect with… A place with a story.”

The theme is echoed in many other articles: Arlene Gould, Request for Proposal: Can designers save our cities? Building and landscape architects, along with industrial, interior, and graphic designers and artists can all play a pivotal role (Feb. 27, 2007), writes:

Most of our cities are led by utilitarian bureaucrats rather than design thinkers. We can also lay some of the blame at the feet of a design community whose members have failed to deliver a consolidated protest against the lack of representation of their profession at city hall, or the mean-spirited RFPs that don’t allow the scope, time or money designers need to deliver breakthrough results.

Design works on a grand scale, but its most profound benefits are experienced on a human level: beauty, accessibility, functionality and cohesiveness, to name a few. Our cities are missing design-led innovation in the public realm. A growing number of Canadian buildings are energy-efficient and environmentally designed. But when it comes to public space, we are still design-deprived. Most of our major cities lack the infrastructure and master plans that would inspire and enable design-led change at every level.

She has 5 suggestions for using design to enrich the fabric of our cities: 1. Use designers to work on sidewalks, which are the arteries of the urban space; 2. Use designers for graphic and visual communications, to tell our stories, “to create cognitive maps that would connect with various target audiences, and illustrate our cities’ unique personalities.” 3. Use designers to “mend a city’s severed connection with nature” (urban ecology). 4.Use design to improve accessibility; and 5. Use design for the arts: “Our arts communities could mine the talents of designers to energize their spaces and promote their work. Currently, artistic outfits often treat designers like second-class suppliers due to budget constraints, and designers end up offering their services pro bono or for a cut price due to budget constraints.”

The arts, local artists and designers, are asked to step up to the plate to infuse a place with local brand identity: a vibrant arts community gives a place a sense of …well, of place. (See this Ontario example as well as this Vancouver example.)

As fate — er, I mean markets — would have it, the local-tied-inextricably-to-the-authentic at some point becomes …ubiquitous (which is a problem not of real places, since they cannot yet be in two spots at the same time). Ubiquity is of course both Scylla and Charybdis for authenticity and branding. We’re describing the problem of the local outlet — a coffee shop, say — that grows popular and opens more stores. At first, the growth is in the community, then it’s regional, next national, and before you know it, bada-bing: global (eg. Starbucks), at which point it’s difficult to associate “authenticity” with the brand. Since the “lurch” toward ubiquity is usually quite slow, it takes a long long while for the authenticity glow to wear off, of course.

But consider that our technologies will make ubiquity occur much faster. Which might be where the play (if it can be called that) of markets and playing with shit and making money and all that gets overtaken by the seriousness of saving the planet, that decidedly singular local bugger we all live on. Before you know it, we’re talking about having a Workshop on Ubiquitous Sustainability: Technologies for Green Values, which will be held on September 16/07 in Innsbruck, Austria, in conjunction with the 9th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp 2007).

Say what??! Yes, it’s a strange world.

From the UbiComp website: “Ubiquitous Computing refers to the trend that we as humans interact no longer with one computer at a time, but rather with a dynamic set of small networked computers, often invisible and embodied in everyday objects in the environment.” This refers to RFIDs and GIS and mobile technologies which will enable references to the local even as they identify us utterly and totally globally.

The Ubiquitous Sustainability webpage describes that workshop’s overview as follows:

This workshop will explore how Ubicomp research can intersect with values and practices linked to environmental sustainability. Growing concerns about resource depletion, global warming, and environmental degradation have led increasing numbers of people to reconsider their actions and the impact they have on the planet. This upswing in public interest in making positive change for the environment has substantial implications for how the Ubicomp community frames and executes the design of technologies in realms as diverse as energy conservation, healthcare, home systems monitoring and automation, environmental monitoring, community planning, and social networking. The goals of the workshop are to gain an understanding of emerging practices in which technologies align with emerging environmental values, and to distill a set of challenges for the Ubicomp community that are synchronous with those developments.

I think what this means is that we will continue to engage in a balancing act between the local and “authentic” on the one hand, and global hypermarkets and technologies on the other. Being alive and creative in the spaces informed by those tensions is what will shape us and our societies.

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