UrbanIxD Summer School

Gordan Savičić
Re: UrbanIxD


[…] we can observe that certain trends are targeting towards a heavily controlled and restricted network topology.

Gordan Savičić is a researcher and critical engineer. He is also atelier leader at our summer school.

How would you place your work in the context of the contemporary design/art practice?

My interests and work formats have changed over the past years, most of them were developed with a critical aim towards rediscovering the way we use everyday technologies. In the world of contemporary art, certain practices often remain self-referential within their own world, while others – more engaging and so-called activist – projects try to engage the public sphere; nowadays merely mediated through network topologies. That’s exactly the reason why we need to develop a critical language towards emerging technologies. Tiny little interconnected objects invaded pretty much every aspect of our everyday life. In 2011 together with Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, both well-known Critical Engineers, we authored the Critical Engineering manifesto which tackles most of the issues in what we call “most transformative language of our time” – expanding our views beyond the context of contemporary design, art and engineering practice.

How do you see the current relation between the design and art?

Perhaps it’s easier to borrow a term of computer science to help distinguish their ongoing relation. Design is somewhat a compiled language as opposed to interpreted computer languages, meaning that the designer is setting up a framework, compiling its elements into an object/form and communicating his or her design to the respective audience. The outcome is more or less understood by the audience whereas with art the interpretation is still happening on the user-side (meaning the viewer). This is similar to an interpreted language where its code stays within the same format while being executed. The interpretor reads the source code and builds its meaning during execution, i.e while viewing. Designers heavily rely on their skill, the art of crafting for communicating their ideas, but they also ask themselves rather often “for whom?” while artists sometimes exclusively work on questioning “how much?”.

What is the role of the critical design approach today and how important is it in your work?

Frankly, it was only two years ago since I’ve discovered this term in the fascinating book Hertzian Tales by Anthony Dunne. Nonetheless, even before becoming aware of his work, I was applying a critical design approach to most of my work. Critical thinking allows us to push the limits of our lived experience; by doing so we can freely act within a cultural, political, social, psychological and technical medium. With the book on “Unpleasant Design” which I co-authored together with Selena Savic, we tried to emphasize on the emergence of critical-designed objects and behaviours. With Unpleasantness, we applied a design approach that tries to look at objects as silent-agents, very much like algorithmic artefacts deployed within our urban perception.

Why do you think it is important to be critical/to question the current scientific and technical development?

Would you trust someone who keeps on telling you “Don’t be evil” while capitalizing on every aspect of your digital life? Taken Google as an example, it is obvious that their development is merely sales-driven and critical approaches are often seen as a danger for no (financial) return on investment. While most people are critical and aware of their immediate environment they tend to forget about scrutinizing their immediate technological surroundings. Being critical about the giant Internet behemoths helps us develop new alternative models of communication. There are plenty of alternatives, such as Openstreetmap and DuckDuckGo for example, which care about privacy and are not selling user-contributed information to third-parties (using them might sometimes not be as convenient – but surveillance always facilitated some sort of convenience). In any case, we can observe that certain trends are targeting towards a heavily controlled and restricted network topology. Unlocking your phone or putting your wifi-card into monitor-mode (for wifi-scanning) and even loaning your Google glasses are subject to legal prosecution by now.

All statistic indications put attention to the trends of the constant growth of the urban population. How do you see future cities in 5, 10 and 50 years?

Great name for a tumblr blog series: “5years from now”, “10years from now” and “50years from now”. Cities will more and more look like scrambled eggs from an information perspective while mediated information will surround us on every step we make. Big data will not play such an important role since there will be such a vast amount of hybrid information that one will rely solely on patterns and applied mathematics. We might need to borrow the term “Big Narrative” from Evgeny Morozov to understand what will be the challenge ahead of us. Big Narrative is an anthropological approach that seeks to explain why things are the way they are – a story driven way through Big Data sets. Hence, we must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect data and our behaviour. Data not seen through the lens of digital humanities is just noise. Other voices in my head are telling me; Ouch! 50 years from now, countries will fight over water resources and Europe will harder than ever try to close up its borders. Dark technology will be sexy!

The way we eat, travel, buy and spend our leisure time will be based on recommendations which are computerised based on previous patterns.

How do you perceive the influence of the new technologies to life in the future cities – especially if we focus on human activities experiences and behaviour in these cities?

What we have right now are huge resources just at our fingertips. 3D printing, crowd-funding and the occupy movement are emerging battlefields influencing our abilities to share and distribute behaviours. But besides that, the challenge ahead will be how individuals or groups can take part in shaping their mediated urban environment. After all, we are the stakeholders of our everyday experience. The importance of maps* will play a central role within this mediation. The way we eat, travel, buy and spend our leisure time will be based on recommendations which are computerised based on previous patterns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the question who will be in charge of orchestrating all that.

* While writing this article Google released a new beta-version of their Online mapping service: A map that gets better with use. As you search the map, star places you like and leave reviews, the map starts to adapt and can suggest things like restaurants you might enjoy or the quickest way home. In other words, the more you use the new Google Maps, the more helpful it becomes.

What are the biggest issues and challenges for interaction design in an urban context?

Moving to more pedestrian issues, we observe that most algorithms are still quite unambitious and unimaginative. There is vast space to conquer for any ambitious designer/programmer out there. We are just at the beginning of understanding how interaction design can or will be applied to relevant urban context.

How can design help society to address these issues?

I wouldn’t separate one from the other. Design and society are not separate things; they do not interact through a mediator where design helps society or society helps design. On the contrary, their causality is a constant feedback loop where designers, artists and engineers become actuators acting upon and within their subsequent modifications.

What skills would a young designer or researcher need to work in this field in the future?

The toolset of a computer-scientist combined with the critical mind of a philosopher and the work-enthusiasm of an architect mixed with a good sense for product design; all this blended together with a rock-solid understanding of robotics and well-educated in geo-historical and socio-political issues should be the hightlights of his/her CV. Fluent in Mandarin and/or Arabic is an asset.




In 2012, I developed Packetbrücke together with Bengt Sjoelen. We played with the idea of swapping entire network infrastructures. We created a device comprised of 14 routers* which captured WIFI “beacon frames”; those are simple short messages communicated between your access point and your smartphone or computer which indicate the WIFI network name and certain other parameters to its surrounding. Those captured packets are tunneled through an encrypted Internet channel and are instantly being played back through the receiver side of Packetbrücke which can be located in another part of the city, another country or even continent. What happens by doing so is that mobile phones which usually use surrounding WIFI-networks to determine their location will be ‘geo-hijacked’ and ‘think’ that they are located to another location.

This project was developed together during the Weise7 group exhibition at Transmediale 2012, and like other works within this show it addresses the complex levels of network topologies and topographies. Packetbruecke was in great company next to Julian Oliver’s “Transparency Grenade”, Danja Vasiliev’s “netless”, Bengt Sjoelen’s “Tempest”, Brendan Howell’s “The Infinite Contemporaneity Device” and Servando Barreiro’s “Binär platten”; all projects were excellent examples of provoking new relationships between the nature of datanetworks and its use.

* The IEEE 802.11g-2003 WIFI spectrum consists of 14 separate channels/frequencies