Transition tales #18: The Hackable City

City-making in the digital age

The digital age – high-speed trains, open data and social media are just some of the means through which we have incorporated technology into our lives. We measure our social interaction through the number of friends we have on Facebook, we chose our houses based on the proximity to transport modes and we keep up-to-date with the world though online platforms. We construct our lives around digital media, yet fail to emphasize its empowering capabilities when it comes to the way in which we construct our cities. To this, a Dutch organization brings an alternative: the Hackable City.

‘Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares.’ – Trainspotting 2

The rise of digital media has opened-up new modes in which we construct our social realities. The Hackable City offers a new perspective on the way open data and social media can foster city-making. So, how does a city become ‘hackable’?
Coming from the underground online culture of the 1990s, the term ‘hacker’ originally denoted a skilled individual that would work on an unsatisfactory system to solve its problems. One Architecture and The Mobile City Foundation took this concept at a city scale, arguing that ‘hacking’ the city refers to the same problem-solving situation, but from an urban perpective. It basically entails that through digital media, citizens are able to access and develop new practices of city-making. What the ‘Hackable City’ project offers are new ways to engage and empower individuals to act on communal issues through the use of digital media (apps, online platforms, networking).

Based on a mapping process of local initiatives that used digital media to organize themselves with the goal of improving urban life, the “Hackable City’ proposes a toolkit on how a city can be, well, ‘hacked’. Altough it sounds very technological, implementing the ‘hacking toolking’ appears to be easier than re-installing your Windows system, follwoing a 7 step process:

1. Define – the ‘hacking’ starts with the definition of an issue by an actor (individual or institution)
2. Visualize – communication of the issue through visualization tools plays an important role in contextualizing the situation
3. Engage – the use of digital media to engage the attention of a larger public
4. Represent – development of an online platform that represent the community and enables communication among members
5. Ideate – using the platform as a base to explore what solutions are thinkable and desirable
6. Act – once the solution is establised, the publci needs to act upon them, sharing resources and availability
7. Institutionalise – once the ‘hacking’ process is over, how can it be made to last?

'Hackable City' toolkit

This new model of re-thinking the city challanges not only the way we are customed to use technology, but also the power structures involved in city-making. The Hackable City is an inclusive model, in which the expert knowledge of public instituions is combined with the bottom-up ‘smart citizen’ initiatives. Read the full ‘Hackable City’ model here.

‘This idea of hackable city-making allows us to ask who has the right to make the city in an age of digital technologies and smart cities.’ – Michiel de Lange, co-founder The Mobile City

Amsterdam proves itself to be a ‘hackable city’, where local initiatives self-organize via digital media and collaborate with top-down institutions in solving various urban situations. One ‘hackable’ example is the project ‘BSH5’ which is located in Buiksloterham, a brownfield redevelopment area in the northern part of Amsterdam. As part of the brownfield redevelopment, the Municipality of Amsterdam allocated several plots to an informal group of citizens focused on self-building their homes in the area. The group organized and coordonated their activities through an online website and a mailing list that allowed the members to exchange experiences. The ‘hacking’ process went beyond the individual housing developments all the way to creating a Buiksloterham community, which increased the number of members from 18 to 210 households.


The ‘Hackable City’ project offers a valid prespective on re-thinking urban transformations, and it’s example is followed by other cities, such as Athens, or Shenzhen. It becomes an implemetation model not just because of its memorable title, but more due to the fact that it answers the question on how citizens, professionals and government institutions can employ digital media in a collaborative process that contributes to a resilient city.

Watch the video below and feel inspired to ‘hack’ the city.

Transition tales

The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.

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