Sensors for Life

In the vineyards in Northern California, the vintners plant roses at the end of each row of vines. The roses are beautiful, of course, but that’s not why they plant them. They plant them because Northern California is home to a fungus called powdery mildew. This fungus kills grapes, but it kills roses first. Blooming roses, then, are a signal that the environment will sustain grapes. They are sensors for life.

Once you see the roses in the vineyards, it’s hard not to see them everywhere.

In the year before I left San Francisco, food trucks started sprouting up all over the city. It was a curious phenomenon and I started asking around about it. As it turns out, this food truck renaissance was powered by Twitter.

It was difficult, at the time, to get a food truck licensed in San Francisco. But with Twitter, unlicensed food trucks could thrive. They would park in a different spot each day and tweet out where they were.

The legal food trucks, at a certain point, caught wind of this. They started following the followers of the illegal food trucks, who, in turn, followed them back, and a community was born. This community worked to change the regulations, and when they did, even more food trucks came onto the streets.

In other words, software was shaping the city.

Food trucks are cheap and easy, relative to most changes in the city. We should expect them to appear first. But their presence indicates something deeper. It indicates an environment that can sustain informal networks of small, independent producers.

This all suggests a new way to engage in urban design. If we have a vision for the city, we might start by creating a single instance of what we would like to see — a single public microgarden, a single shopfront school, a single parking-lot plaza. We can then design a social process that helps other people recreate that instance, maintain it, and make it their own. And finally, we can write software to make that social process easier. I imagine that, in this way, we will see lots of small things start blooming in our cities.

The food trucks are the roses in the vineyards.