Genetically Modified Bureaucrats
The Urban Genome Project aims to 'map the code on which cities are written', using the human genome as a metaphor.
Contained within each human DNA are 23 chromosomes, each of which is made up of hundreds or sometimes thousands of genes. Each gene has a role in determining the characteristics of the parts of the body it pertains to: the eye color, the shape of the kidneys, one's sex, one's tendency to develop diabetes.
Scientists worked throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to gather DNA samples from people of different backgrounds all across the world and to identify and map the genes that make up the human genome. Since every individual's genome is unique, the researchers had to 'prospect' a wide and inclusive variety of samples, in order to later map, or 'sequence,' many variations of each gene. Once scientists had sequenced the genes and their variants, determining which genes carried the instructions for what characteristic of the body, it allowed the possibility of recombination, in which a gene is altered or replaced with one of its variants in order to change the characteristic it controls. One potential use would be removing from the genome a gene that makes someone vulnerable to cancer; another use applies these techniques to agriculture with the idea to take a gene from a jellyfish and insert into a tomato to make the fruit last longer.
Regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of genetic modification, culture tends to work this way too. Someone notices an effective cultural product or urban strategy and recontextualizes it by adopting it in his own community. For example, the Metrobus system in Mexico City was inspired by the Transmilenio rapid transit system in Bogotá, Colombia, which was itself based on the bus system in Curitiva, Colombia. The strategies are simply copied by city leaders who recognize the potential benefit of a particular strategy for their home districts.
This cultural recombination process inspired the Urban Genome Project, which I developed along with editor and curator Joseph Grima and the creative collective Pase Usted (After you). The project's goal is to create a digital platform based on the prospecting and sequencing of these urban best practices. Within the platform lives the knowledge collected from interviews with 500 mayors and delegates, who each spoke about specific tactics their cities had developed during their tenure.
We chose to speak with mayors and delegates of urban areas because, as more and more of the world's population continues to concentrate itself in cities rather than rural areas, cities and their leadership are faced with increasingly complex challenges of governance, maintenance and crisis management. In the 21st century it will be largely up to cities and metropolitan areas, rather than nation states, to shape the world's social, political, cultural, technological and economic agendas. And each of these urban areas operates according to the unwritten codes created by the extensive administrative work undertaken by those who govern cities.
In order to map out these codes and provide detailed records for other urban decision makers, we invited each of the 500 leaders to speak about five issues he or she felt had been success stories from their administrations, thereby focusing the research on the bright spots. We avoided generic questions such as 'how do you make your city better?' because we wanted these leaders to give us specific, detailed information about how to create and implement the tactics they told us about. So the more specific the question, the more specific the answer and the more useful it will be.
The interviews were filmed upon the UGP Mobile Unit, a folding mobile research station that traveled to different venues and summits where city leaders were gathered. When closed, it is compact and easily transportable. Open, it has the capacity to seat up to sixty people, becoming a stage upon which to capture our talks with each leader.
Once the 500 interviews were collected, our 'prospecting' phase concluded and the sequencing began. Each interview is divided into five segments according to the different subjects discussed by the leader featured. All of the five strategies are tagged by its content. If one mayor was proud of how she managed to incorporate bike lanes in her city, that discussion, tagged with 'bicycles' or 'bike lanes,' ends up in a register together with the comments of the other 16 mayors who talked about bike lanes. A future user of the UGP who wants to know about creating bike lanes in his city is then able to perform an online search looking for that particular information. The register allows him to compare the different approach that each leader took to this certain topic. The topics in the database cover a multitude of areas of urban planning and development, including crime reduction, infrastructure, education and management of natural disasters.
Once this sequencing phase is finished, the UGP's digital platform will be complete, and it will be up to users to carry out the process of recombination, 'genetically' modifying the way their cities are administered with the assistance of this map of best urban practices.