Michelle Tabet spoke with Siobhan Toohill for Out The Front in October 2013.
SIOBHAN: From a background in urban planning and mapping, Michelle Tabot now leads the Urban Informatics team which explores the intersections between digital connectivity, information, and the urban realm. Now she’s sitting with us in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea. Michelle, thanks for joining us, and welcome to Out the Front!
MICHELLE: Thanks for having me!
SIOBHAN: Michelle, you specialise in urban informatics. Can you tell me what we actually mean by that term?
MICHELLE: You know I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think it’s something that’s evolved over time. So the premise of the idea of urban informatics, is the way in which you can harness the power of digital within cities, to change an experience or to learn better about how people are using cities, using sensors, using urban information models. But the more I reflect about it, the more I think the technology based approach has less and less credence, and the more I’m really interested in the strategic issues ... about digital as a way of thinking, as a way of doing business, as a way of working, and the impact that has on cities. So it’s actually been an evolving proposition over the past three years.
SIOBHAN: Michelle, you’ve been travelling recently. Can you tell me a bit about your trip ... and what did you see and learn?
MICHELLE: So when I travel, I travel big. Not in the sense that I spend a lot of money, but I have just gone to Paris and then London, via Helsinki twice, and to New York, and then to San Francisco. Mainly a family trip, but really great to get the whole scope of different cities that you can visit when you go on these visits. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve been on such a large trip.
SIOBHAN: We often hear terms like the internet of things. Does that have relevance when we think of our cities of the future?
MICHELLE: It definitely does. What we’re coming out of is this idea that there’s a world that’s all digital, that lives not in a physical world, and increasingly we’re learning, and I’m seeing my clients learn this, that there’s actually opportunities in bringing the two together. Your physical assets ... even transport system is actually an internet of things, in the sense that you’re actually governing and managing a whole heap of physical assets that are out in the world that are all connected back to an information network. Actually we’ve been dealing with these things for quite a while, but now I think it’s more accessible to more people to start thinking in this way. Before those networks were quite closed, now the networks are becoming more open. So the city has always been in some respects an internet of things, but I think now there’s just more people who can participate in that.
SIOBHAN: What do you think might be different in ten or twenty years time with this kind of information, this data we can now gather around cities?
MICHELLE: Well, in a way, I think cities will still be important. A lot of people who talk about workplace for instance, are really committed to this idea of telework, and not actually needing place, not actually needing human interface. I actually couldn’t think of anything further from the truth. I think if anything it is actually going to exacerbate the value of that, and I think that people are going to be much more pointy towards who they actually choose to interact with, for what reason. And those interactions are going to be much more engineered. You could look up someone on LinkIn today and you could actually know already, before having met them, that whole serandipity element could be completed engineered. So I don't think it's a world that's purely in digital, we're not wearing silver jumpsuits. It's actually an extension of a really highly leveraged and networked population. I'm talking about the kind of world that we live in. I think we're going to live in a very rich physical world, as well as a very rich digital one. So I'm not seeing things being dramatically different from now. I think the businesses that will be successful will be really different. I think a lot of the businesses that we see today will have to change a lot in order to be successful. That's what I'm seeing the seedlings of right now in the business world, is a lot of businesses thinking ' oh my god, what am I going to do?'
SIOBHAN: I think it's really interesting this idea of serendipity and how we experience cities and this idea that things will be much more focused and targeted. Do you think we'll lose something though from that experience of cities and the serendipity of getting lost in a city. Because it's actually kind of hard to get lost in a city now, isn't it?
MICHELLE: It is. This is something I've been talking about. I mean it's not because it's possible that it's desirable. So it's not because it's possible to know who's the person walking down the street, who’s actually within a ten minute radius of you – your iphone can sense because you're both on the same app. It's not because it's possible that it's necessarily desirable. I've been thinking this recently about real-time data for cities ... about whatever it is ... whether it's about the energy consumption, or their crime stats, or who is around you. The idea that it's possible to have real-time information what is around you is very appealing, but I think we need to understand the social norms that go around that. We need to understand what does it mean for behaviours. I'm much more interested in that soft side of things. What are the societal impacts of things like this, rather than only the technological ones? I think the technological ones are just the start of that conversation.
SIOBHAN: I think it's interesting that you're someone who's got a background in planning, and yet you're working in a space around urban informatics, and I also know that you've done some work around how we brand cities, or how we brand places, and that's also really tapping into this soft side. Can you tell me a bit more about this idea?
MICHELLE: It totally is, and it's really interesting. I just gave a talk at the urban design conference where this idea that you have to be doggedly pursuing or understanding who the users are of whatever you are designing is inherently digital to my mind ... towards my way of thinking. So the idea that you would actually want to brand something, or understand its unique positioning, as opposed to another experience ... because I'm starting to see cities as a series of different experiences. They could be the experience of a shopping mall, or it could the experience of a cafe, or it could be the experience of a commercial building that you work in. And I think branding, and hitting that real authentic chord with whoever is going to be your client is incredibly important. So the work that we've done is specifically around urban redevelopment and large masterplans and how do you get beyond that vision statement, how do you start telling a story? How do you use the city to tell the story, and actually use brand as a really powerful mechanism to do that? Brands are powerful because they're a consistent set of ideas about a product, and experiences are products, and urban development is a product.
SIOBHAN: A city that we all know about, given a critical event that happened to it, is Christchurch, and you've been doing lots of work in Christchurch, I guess as part of the rebuilding but specifically in relation to the museum there. Can you tell me a bit about the role that an urban informatics lead plays in a city like Christchurch?
MICHELLE: Well Christchurch is incredibly interesting. Just imagine if you have the opportunity today to rethink Sydney from the ground up, and that's effectively what we're talking about for Christchurch. And that's not something that's easy or devoid of emotion. The more people I get to know from Christchurch, the more you understand how charged that proposition is. It's not something that we can do so easily. It's different from developing, for example, a greenfield site somewhere in China or wherever. Christchurch has to think about its brand really strategically now. So it's kind of moved on from 'we're the Oxford of the southern hemisphere or Cambridge', whichever one you choose to go by. It's really got to move on to a 21st century proposition. New Zealand in general is going through some pretty tough times. They've got trouble retaining young professionals, they've got trouble retaining people with talent. We find a lot of them in Australia, but all over the world you know. It's not like they've got a shortage of places to go. So Christchurch is really in this point in time well poised to reinvent its value proposition towards retaining and keeping those people in the art of city making. So it's kind of like a play within a play. It's building a city to learn about how to rebuild a city, and that's what's incredibly interesting about it. If you're thinking about what 21st century infrastructure is, we've been participating in what would that look like in a city like Christchurch – What would be the sensor networks that you would deploy, what are the kind of public art propositions that you could put out there, how you would rebuild a performing art venue for the 21st century, what what would an earthquake memorial look like in this context? So the questions are quite open because I think a lot of people are quite keen to challenge the paradigms of the past, and to think, okay, we want this to be a distinctly 21st century city. We know there's been quite a massive rift between the time when Christchurch was originally built to the way it is now. What are the assumptions that we need throw away?
SIOBHAN: Do you have to do things differently in a city that has experienced such massive trauma?
MICHELLE: Yes, cities in trauma is something I've been interested in for a while. I wrote my thesis about Berlin and Beirut as cities in trauma and the whole reconstruction projects around that and what they say about the future of those cities. Christchurch is definitely in that phase. The issue there, is that there's nobody there to blame for the trauma. In both Berlin and Beirut, you can say 'they did this, and they did that' and blah blah blah ... but it's nature. It's really showing that boundary of urbanisation and human occupation and how it's interfacing with nature, and that ultimately we're not going to win that game. And so it's actually a very contemporary conversation over there. You go around the streets of Christchurch and they've got placards saying 'It's okay to be down'. It's like this sidewalk psychology going on throughout the whole city. And it's quite interesting to see that, and it's not possible not to have conflict in that context and it's very interesting to see that unfold.
SIOBHAN: What does that mean for you as a practitioner, in terms of how you deal with people that live in that city?
MICHELLE: Well look, there's a degree to which being an outsider is an advantage, I have to admit. There's also a degree to which it's not so much of an advantage. Because New Zealand ... they like to think about promoting local talent, and all those things, and I completely respect that. So when I get told 'we'd like to hire somebody local', I'm always up for that, I think that's a great thing. But I think not coming from there, bringing experiences from the rest of the world, not having lived through it, not having lived through displacement, sometimes can be a breath of fresh air. And I've found everybody I've worked with there incredibly open to ideas. I think their view of the world, is that they can be a benchmark. And I rarely see a city of that size have that kind of ambition. And I think it's really really commendable.
SIOBHAN: Michelle, it's interesting that you're talking about this relationship to cities, when in fact, in many respects, you're a global citizen. You've lived all around the world, you were born overseas, you've studied in different countries. Do you have a sense of belonging to one place, or many places?
MICHELLE: Oh, a few places. Increasingly I'm coming to the harsh realisation that one of those places is Sydney. Leaving Sydney would be incredibly hard. But I'm a Parisian through and through, to the point that my knowledge of Paris... of France, sorry I did it again! My knowledge of France is through the lens of a Parisian, so I only know a certain part of the country, not others. I grew up in the centre of Paris, which is unusual.
SIOBHAN: What does it mean to belong to a place, or to a city?
MICHELLE: It's something that I like to think that I can embrace, but at the same time I'm quite resistant to, because I come from an immigrant family, they're not from the same place. Both my parents are from different places. So whilst I think that I come from Paris, and that's probably the easiest answer to the question 'where are you from', I actually belong to a whole bunch of places. I wouldn't be able to say 'I'm a seventh generation Australian', or 'I'm a 35th generation Greek' or whatever, that some people are able to say. I think belonging to a place doesn't relate to longevity, it doesn't relate to accent, it doesn't relate to anything else than feeling really good in that place. And feeling when you move away from that place ... every time I fly away from Sydney I feel 'oh no!'. So, it's an emotional thing in my view.
SIOBHAN: And, of those places that you've lived in, what's the place that you've had that strongest connection to?
MICHELLE: Paris is.. obviously everybody seems to say this, a very beautiful city. It's also a really harsh city. I think that a lot of people who go there don't see that. It's a very aggressive city, it's a very dangerous city. Once you get under its skin, you realise that it has a whole raft of social issues. I've really enjoyed living in London. It's probably due to the time in my life that I was there, but I think London is one of the few old world cities that is also a new world city. And that overlap is really interesting to me. Then obviously New York was a lot of fun, but again I think it's due to the time of my life that I was there, you know being a student, carefree, all the rest of it. New York is a real place where you feel you can make it, as Frank Sinatra said, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
SIOBHAN: What were you studying in New York?
MICHELLE: So I studied urban planning, but very quickly I wasn't that interested in the development control side of things, in the sense that ... Urban planning, I think, is often couched as discourse of 'How do we set the rules to keep places the way they should be?' It's not very innovation friendly, it's not very future-facing. So I was trying to find a way out of that, and I really embraced the field of geographic information systems, or the way of mapping data onto city, as a way of seeing the city through a different light. What are the non-physical elements that we're not seeing? What are the social phenomena that we can start to see spatially? Those were really the questions that I was interested in at that level when I was studying in New York.
SIOBHAN: When you reflect on your life, do you have one sliding door moment, or a chance encounter that has led to where you are now? Can you put your finger on it and say, yep, that was the time where I made a key decision or met a key person, and that really set me on a trajectory to where I am now?
MICHELLE: I actually was selected out of Columbia to go to Global Studio which is a program run out of Sydney Uni, which involved travelling to South Africa and working in a slum for three weeks looking at various small scale interventions that architects and urban planners could share with the community to improve the quality of their life. And whilst I was there I met my partner. My partner being Australian, we then came back to Sydney, and the person who convened the Global Studios, Anna Rubbo, who is now at Columbia University, she introduced me to Dan Hill. She said ' oh, you must talk to this person, he sounds totally like your ... bag', and you know, talking to Dan, and trying to walk through what the opportunities would be to work with Dan, and a year and a half later ... instantly ... I started working with Dan at Arup, and that's really one of the relationships that has changed the course of my professional career.
SIOBHAN: What was it about working with him that set you on a path?
MICHELLE: Dan is a very original thinker. He comes from a background in computer science, which was really unusual, with obviously a highly intelligent person with a real interest in cities and what makes cities tick. He'd worked at the BBC, he'd been a co-founder at Monacle magazine, and he just came with this incredible wealth of experience around media, technology and cities. And it was that combination I think that I was really attracted to, because I was looking for something different and the planning market was not delivering that, and when I saw someboday like Dan I was like 'yes! that's exactly what I want to do'. It's this weird confluence of several disciplines that I'm super interested in exploring.
SIOBHAN: So, in terms of working on urban informatics type projects over the last few years, what for you have been some standout or key projects or your favourite project?
MICHELLE: Well, one of my largest projects is working for Tonsley Park. This is a project initiated by the South Australian Government. It's a large 61 hectare redevelopment in the southern suburbs of Adelaide. And it's a really bold proposition, and that's what I like about it, it's the boldness of it. It's about converting an old Mitsubishi factory floor basically into a mixed use project, with a strong innovation and advanced manufacturing component to it. And that's a project where I've been involved really early on, all the way through to the design phases. And on the client side, really pushing specific outcomes with the clients. And I've enjoyed so much the quality of the clients that I've interacted with, and I think half of the outcome is based on who the client is, and how well the brief is formed.
SIOBHAN: Are you collaborating with new clients and players on a project like this, bringing in your expertise around the digital, as well as the place. Traditionally we would think of civic infrastructure, builders, home builders etc...Who are you collaborating with on this project, doing what you do?
MICHELLE: Well this is a very strategic role so my client is actually at the Department of Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy. So it's a policy position really, in setting the agenda for innovation for South Australia as a State. So she's got an incredibly strategic role in that respect. Obviously she's got that appetite for thinking about 'what's the 21st century proposition here ... Beyond the bricks and mortar what is differentiating this specific development from any other competition? What is going to cut it for the next generation of workers, and the next generation of people who are going to want to live here?' So yes, it's who she was and what her role is, but it's way more her education, and how ready and how much appetite she's had for this conversation. Really truly an exceptional person.
SIOBHAN: And when you look to the future, what do you think the big problems are that you'll be tackling?
MICHELLE: Oh, that's a great question. I think there's going to be a whole bunch of ethical issues. I think we're still in the honeymoon period around technology, real time, sensing. I think we're still really interested in what's possible rather than what's right, or what's going to shape a better city, or what's going to deliver a better outcome. I think a lot of these things are just going to come out in the wash. I think we're going to start seeing precedents over certain things that have gone overboard, certain cases or certain applications of technologies that we think just stand outside of what we're ready to accept socially. So the social challenges are the ones that I see ahead, not so much the technological challenges.
SIOBHAN: So there are you also thinking about where the smart city has got ahead of the social city?
MICHELLE: I think that debate is really where things are at at the moment. I'm increasingly uninterested, or less and less interested in this technocentric approach to city building. I think those things will become a matter of course, in terms of how you procure in design, in infrastructure and how smart that needs to be, but we're going to have to ask the really hard questions which is 'Is this building a better city? Is this making it more competitive? Is it making it more attractive? What services is it enabling? How much innovation is it enabling?' And all those things are human factors.
SIOBHAN: When you talk about the ethics of the future and the future city, to what extent does that also play out in terms of equity or social equity?
MICHELLE: That's a big question, and often in this field, we tend to see things through the lens of the people that are at the bleeding edge, and who therefore are very technologically endowed or have access to all sorts of infrastructure, and that's why I thought the NBN project was so interesting. The idea of being able to put our whole population on an even keel, or at least 98 or 99 percent of them, or whatever the claim was. And I think that's still part of our future, this idea if only it were we could get the digital infrastructure right, unlike how the water infrastructure was deployed in a very uneven matter, or how even sewerage or other types of infrastructure and utilities were actually developed in a very kind of class ... it was a deployment that revealed basically the divisions of class and income and poverty, and so on. If really we could pull that off, I think that would be a fantastic thing.
SIOBHAN: I mean I'm bouyed by what I see happening in Africa, where I see towns and villages kind of leap-frogging because they're using technology ways that we wouldn't have expected.
MICHELLE: They would - and I think that's an area to watch really closely because I think there's a whole bunch of business models and a whole bunch of opportunities that we can't really think of unless we let people tinker with it and so on. But I also think that relies on some sort of base infrastructure. I haven't made my mind up as to whether broadband is really that magic silver bullet, or whether it is 3G or 4G or whether it is satellite. Whether that's where we should be investing our time. I'm just really looking avidly at how the price of those kinds of technologies is evolving, what kinds of things it's enabling. And in Australia you're looking at a portion of the population being served by satellite, for example. What are the opportunities of that? How expensive is satellite real estate going to become, or is it going to become more affordable? And how will that challenge all this investment that we're doing into pipes in the ground? Maybe it will, maybe it won't. So I'm just really interested in that, and Africa will definitely be an interesting testing ground.
SIOBHAN: Is there a city that comes to mind for you that seems to be getting this kind of balance right? This kind of tension between the social city and the city that's really I guess putting in place this infrastructure that enables us to access this data to make better decisions around cities. Is there one that comes to mind where you think 'yes, I think they're on the way'?
MICHELLE: That's a really really good question. So much of it at the moment has been about rolling out the infrastructure, and I've read so much, this is the price of looking out for the drama stories ... I can't think of a place specifically that has an untarnished, positive kind of image about this. But I'm really impressed with some of the cities that have actually sourced their own broadband, that have started thinking about a procurement club approach, or procuring their own municipal broadband. And I've thought that's been quite a clever way of thinking about digital as your fifth utility or your sixth utility, that's really pushing boundaries. And there's a whole bunch of cities that are doing this around the U.S, and the U.K and I know that some Australian councils are thinking about that as well. It's kind of an interesting model.
SIOBHAN: So, you've been talking a lot about cities. Is there a place that comes to mind, or a favourite place for you that starts to encapsulate much of what we've been talking about tonight?
MICHELLE: I think there are a lot of places that are evolving at the moment, and I'm really keen to see what Sydney is going to be like in the next five years. I feel like it's gone leaps and bounds since I arrived here about five years ago. I think that there's really great opportunity here, for instance. But specifically about a city that encapsulates ... I'm really always drawn to New York as a city that's just full of new things to do, new opportunities, a whole bunch of people that are just innovating left, right and centre. To some extent it's a little bit sickening.
SIOBHAN: And within that, is there a favourite space that you have?
MICHELLE: Emotionally, I'm very tied to a lot of very old school type spaces in Paris. I think that's probably without a shadow of a doubt, some of the more magical spaces.
SIOBHAN: What makes them so great?
MICHELLE: I think it's just the endurance, endurance through time. If you look at something like the Jardin du Palais Royal, which is where I was baptised, as an unwilling child of two months ... you know, it's just amazing to think that somebody could have designed something like that two to three hundred years ago, and that public space still has resonance, and it still has appeal, and it's still heavily utilised, and it's still the stage for a lot of family gatherings and public gatherings. And yet, we're able to design some these days that will last ten years at best. And I'm really intrigued by how that has authenticity and how a space that's designed now just doesn't seem to have that enduring appeal. I can't resolve that. I think there must be something special about the historical nature of it, or something different. I can't resolve it.
SIOBHAN: I think it's interesting to think about this concept of time and endurance. Also, in terms of when we think about cities, the fleeting experiences. How do you best like to experience a city, or travel through a city?
MICHELLE: Oh, this is my question of the month! Having been to Paris recently, I just got on to Velib. I got my mother's pass, and just got on that thing, and just loved it. I went through high waters on the banks of the Seine, or through traffic, but it's just such a fantastic way to see the city. Because usually you experience it through a discontinued experience of popping out through different subway exits, and the Velib really allows you to tie all that stuff in together 'oh actually this is really close to so-and-so, and really close to so-and-so' and it's just such a great navigational tool. I loved it.
SIOBHAN: So you have you started diving into some of the data that some of the cycle sharing facilities enable us to access across different cities, particularly in London?
MICHELLE: Well on this one, I didn't use it in London. But particularly in Paris, I was actually using my mother's profile who couldn't remember her password, so I wasn't able to look at my data. I know that they've done a lot of work on Velib in order to build a bit of those personalised or quantified self statistics around it. They've been looking at ways of telling people where the free parking spots are, where can you go put your bike. That's one of the big plagues of using Velib is that everybody wants to be at the same place at the same time.
SIOBHAN: Well, everyone wants to ride down the hill, not back up the hill, having been to Montmartre many times.
MICHELLE: No, that's true, I hadn't thought of it that way! I always noticed that I'd arrive somewhere meeting somebody, and then I can't find my bike anywhere. So there's a lot of evolution around some of that real time information, and that requires actually having the app on your phone, and if you're not on a french plan or don't have access to wi-fi or 3G or 4G, you're pretty much stuck. And that's where really the boundaries of some of those things are, is that they're great to tap into if you're from the place, but it's very hard for a foreigner for a visitor to leverage the full benefits of it. I was starting to think about how great would it be if they started giving you a bit of a summary 'you've actually travelled this much' because that would have made me feel so much fitter and so much more active!
SIOBHAN: So Velib meets Straba ...
MICHELLE: That's exactly right, exactly right!
SIOBHAN: Michelle, thank you so much tonight for taking us on a cycling journey across cities around the world, and your insights around what it is to be an urban informatics lead. Not only have you taken us on a physical journey but you've also made us think about what it means to think about cities from a digital perspective, and how that comes together to create richer experiences. So thank you, it's been wonderful to chat with you tonight.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much!
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Kate Read
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews