[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

INTERFACING THE (IN)FORMAL CITY: [urban interfaces] graduate seminar 2020-2021

Dates: March 4, March 18, April 1, April 15 2021

Time and Venue: 15.00 – 17.00 | Online (TBA)

Credits: 3 ECTS via RMeS (for RMa Studentes and PhD Candidates only, MA students who want to obtain ECTS can contact Prof. dr Nanna Verhoeff or Dr Michiel de Lange for more information) .

Read the students blogs as a result of this graduate seminar on this page.



The seminar series is open to (R)Ma students and PhD candidates

Urban culture is increasingly shaped by various media technologies. Screens, mobile media, sensing technologies, wireless networks, interactive installations and other urban interfaces become more and more enmeshed with the built environment. These technological systems and algorithmic platforms direct and mediate our behavior, data, and experiences in the city. On the one hand, informal interactions and unspoken cultural codes are formalized (or ignored) by datasets, protocols and algorithms. On the other hand, with new interfaces new informal and decentralized networks can be developed for the exchange of information and collective action. Ideals for the contemporary city are often founded on open, transformative and contingent qualities, and imagine its public spaces as arenas for encounters, connections and serendipity. What happens when quantification, commodified platforms, formal protocols, gamified nudges and algorithmic culture impact public and (in)formal urban life, and how can media, arts and performance also contribute to ideals of an open (in)formal contemporary city?

The seminar will schedule preparatory readings, (online) meetups, guest speakers and discussions. RMA students who attend all meetings and submit four blog posts, based on the readings and discussions, are eligible for 2 ECTS.


The aim of this session is to explore conceptual underpinnings of, and tensions between formal and informal organization and structures of urban life. Cities have historically acted as ‘platforms’ for organizing and mobilizing people, capital and networks. For instance, in the rapidly urbanizing world of the early 20th century, informal networks have helped new urban migrants find their way around in their new city, while the city itself sorts newcomers into distinct spatial and social ‘formal’ categories. Today, the impact of sometimes implicit and hidden processes of formalization is perhaps nowhere better to be seen than in the role of technologies, digital platforms, apps, and social media networks in structuring our cities and urban living. On the one hand, ongoing datafication, quantification and algorithmic processing underpins the tendency to formalize every aspect of everyday life into ‘qualculable’ and processable units, subject to modelling, surveillance, and prediction. On the other hand – for better or for worse – new extra- or para-institutional networks are emerging, which ignore, bypass, challenge or even attempt to subvert existing formal institutional arrangements. In this session we will investigate this oppositional and sometimes frictional dynamic.


  • Cuff, Dana, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Todd Samuel Presner, Maite Zubiaurre, and Jonathan Crisman. 2020. Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City, Urban and industrial environments. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Chapter 1 “Introducing Urban Humanities” & Chapter 2 “The Lineages of Urban Humanities.” https://utrechtuniversity-on-worldcat-org.proxy.library.uu.nl/oclc/1130310956
  • Dijck, José van, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal. 2018. The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 1. “The Platform Society as a Contested Concept” & Chapter 2 “Platform Mechanisms.”

What could be strategies for reconfiguring or intervening in formal structures of the city? In this session we will explore perspectives that have to do with emerging citizen-centric ways and technology-enabled ways of re-configuring and re-engaging with current urban life, such as commons-based peer production, new (local) community currencies, open source apps and platforms, and other forms of (h)activism.

In this session we will focus particularly on the notion of the urban commons. In literature, the commons has been theorized as a triad of 1) goods (collectively managed resources); 2) systems (institutionalized sets of rules and conditions for collective self-organization and governance); 3) practices of “commoning” (actual social interactions that (re)produce the management of the resource). Cities have been theorized as a commons. In fact, the 2021 Architecture Biennale in Venice is formulated around the question “How will we live together?” (https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2021/introduction-hashim-sarkis). During the session, we will consider the urban commons as a question of interfacing: how can we meaningfully interface with collective pool resources in the city and the city as a collective resource, how can we create interfaces to alternative (smart) city futures organized around the commons, how can we meaningfully engage people in commoning practices?

  • Guest speaker will be Coco Kanters (Leiden University/Utrecht University).



In session 3 and 4, we turn to more explicit attempts at street level interventions. In session 3 we look at creative methods and the dynamics of (in)formalizing civic co-creation and institutionalizing participation and intervention. Participatory design, co-creation, etc. are all ways to engage a broader ‘amateur’ audience as creators in the making of the future city. This leads to new frictions between the formal and informal. Who has the right to participate? Who designs the co-creation process? How do we get from process to product? To what extent is the rhetoric surrounding codesign as an informal type of civic engagement a new way of ‘formalizing’ and pacifying dissent and subaltern voices?
In the final session, we look at artistic interventionist practices that reflexively comment on and engage with (and in some cases explore alternatives to) the tendencies of formalization we have explored so far. More details will follow.
  • Burrington, Ingrid. 2016. Networks of New York: An illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. Brooklyn: Melville House. See the project website: http://seeingnetworks.in/nyc

Preparation and requirements:

You are expected to read the texts and write a blog post about each session that can be posted on the website of [urban interfaces]. A blog post includes reflection on the literature, a digest of the discussions  we had during  the sessions, and a discussion of a contemporary urban project or practice in relation to the week’s theme.

Organized by: https://urbaninterfaces.sites.uu.nl

More information: urbaninterfaces@uu.nl