Contemporary language is full of complexities and contradictions.
Progressing urbanization, technological development, environmental and social challenges have an enormous effect on our lifestyles and spaces we inhabit. The language we use to address these topics is equally important as it can enlighten or obfuscate possible ways of dealing with these challenges.
UrgentCity project brought together a diverse group of professionals to elaborate on the contemporary urban vocabulary, its inefficiencies and potential to help us understand cities today and prepare for the future.
The research had 3 main objectives:
1 - investigate which words are seen as problematic in the discourse and why
2 - explore different possible readings and misunderstandings found in the contemporary urban discourse
3 - find methods to enable better communication between professionals from different backgrounds
These three goals were reflected in the phases of the project: open call, interviews and the event, which took place in Florence in November 2016.
The project focused on interactive methods of conducting research engaging a multidisciplinary network of professionals to create a sample of the discourse and investigate the main challenges it’s currently facing. The methods included crowd-sourced collection of terms through a detailed questionnaire (open call), interviews with renowned experts, as well as workshop and debate sessions developed in order to stimulate cross-disciplinary collaboration. The latter format was tested during the event, which was the first attempt to enable better, more insightful discussion into matters of urban challenges.
Quick rotation of meanings attached to particular terms tends to shift the debate rather than deepen it. These changes in the discourse are often forced by the reputation words acquire rather than their actual meaning and often focus on the image building around a certain issue – highlighting or obfuscating some of its aspects (i.e. resilience, sharing economy, smart city, integration etc.). The influence of filter bubbles - among them the professional ones, tend to prevent people from seeing and understanding different points of view existent in the debate causing artificial enclosures, introducing bias, vagueness and lack of understanding. The reasons for this are related to the fact that many of these problems are newly represented in the language.
They address new phenomena that do not have an established discourse or rich enough language to address them. The already mentioned influence of digital media and algorithmic content suggestions based on individual likings that prioritize information we already agree with work towards further polarization of opinion within the predefined circles. The enclosure of the disciplinary jargon is one of them. Originally created as a protection mechanism for highly educated disciplinary elites is now proving the much-needed interdisciplinary work nearly impossible. As a response to these processes the project’s focus on the New Vocabulary of Terms is not meant to create and force single definitions, but open up multiple readings and use them as a base for creating a more insightful debate.
We are currently interested in collecting more feedback from similar events with different groups of people gradually increasing the diversity of participants to see how the methods we proposed can be developed further. We are also planning to construct an interactive tool that would act as a vocabulary of multiple visions and confront the users with definitions they might not know and/or disagree with, in order to counteract further enclosure of the debate and support a shared understanding of environmental, technological and social challenges.