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Reprogramming the City: An interview with Curator scott Burnham

Have you ever envisioned how one might re- purpose a parking machine or a utility storage box? How about using billboards to distribute fresh water?  Or perhaps getting a healthy dose of ultraviolet light at the bus stop during those harsh, dark winter months?

Reprogramming The City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure a new exhibition at the BSA Space is a global overview of ways in which existing urban infrastructure is being re-imagined, re-purposed and re-invented to expand its functionality. The exhibition, created by urban design director Scott Burnham, explores a new paradigm of urban creativity and resourcefulness that treats the hardware of the city as a platform of opportunity, and infrastructure not as the end result of a previous creative process, but the beginning of a new one.

According to Burnham — who has been working in the UK and Europe for at least 7 years — the city holds a vast amount of untapped ability. The structures, surfaces, objects and systems that underpin its daily operations have the potential to do more, to perform an alternate function, or assume an entirely new role in the mechanism of the city.

After discovering Scott’s work in 2009, I invited him to serve as a member of the first SHIFTboston Competition jury along with Thom Mayne, Mitch Joachim and Sarah Whiting. I spoke with Scott recently to find out more on what brought him to Boston and what he is planning to do here.

Kim: Could you briefly describe what you did in the UK and Europe.

Scott: I’ve worked as an independent design director and strategist for a number of cities and institutions, specializing in new ideas and approaches towards design and the city. I have created and directed design and urban initiatives in 11 cities worldwide, ranging from short term engagements and advisories to directing the $32 million dollar cultural regeneration project Urbis, The Centre for Urban Culture in Manchester, UK, and leading the Trust Design project for the Netherlands Institute for Design in Amsterdam.

Recent projects include Urban Play, a city-wide project created for Amsterdam which transformed the city’s public spaces into platforms for creativity – allowing people to create and shape the design of the city’s urban objects and areas. For the city of Porto, Portugal, I created Bairro Criativo, using crowd sourcing and rapid prototyping techniques to allow individuals to suggest and create public designs they felt would improve their daily lives in the city. Most recently, I created a design strategy and directed the design process for a series of public design projects in the city of Jesolo, Greater Venice, Italy, reusing urban materials for new design creations.

In addition guest lecturing at a number of universities around Europe and Asia, I am the author of Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design Hacking and have addressed the International Conference on European Policy and the World Urban Development Congress on creative urban catalysts. In 2010 I was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London.

Kim: What brought you to Boston?

Scott: I am from New England and went to school in Boston. I left in 1996 because I wanted to explore bold new ideas for design and the city, and at the time I didn’t see any opportunity for me to do so here. After working in 11 different cities, living in seven of them in five different countries, it was time to come home and bring what I’ve learned and done back to Boston.

Kim: How do other cities in which you have had projects differ from Boston in their ability to support, permit and fund urban interventions?

Scott: Every city is completely different in how they support, permit and realize projects. But there is one unifying trait of cities in which I’ve worked – the desire to improve and do things better, even if the city’s status is quite good as it is. I’ve done a great deal of work in Amsterdam, which is a model city for embracing new ideas in order to find new and better ways of doing things. Amsterdam is a very rich, sophisticated city, but never complacent. There is always a hunger for exploring new ideas and making what already looks and works well be even better.

Boston has some of this spirit, but it also tends to be a bit complacent. Cities are constantly changing, evolving, dynamic beings, and complacency can easily become a stagnant condition if a constant quest for new and better ideas, approaches and ways of working isn’t kept at the top of the agenda.

That said, the Boston Transportation Department deserves a lot of credit for being up for new ideas and explorations. In the early stages of planning Reprogramming The City, I approached the BTD to talk to them about my ideas for new uses and future opportunities for their Multispace Parking Meters. The meters work well as they are, but they hold a lot of potential to do more, to be more, in the daily life of the city and its residents. The BTD and Commissioner Tinlin in particular embraced the idea and gave me a machine to reprogram and display in the exhibition as a prototype of future ideas that could be achieved by using the machine in new ways. That machine is now the City Meter reprogrammed parking meter in the exhibition.

As well, the City of Boston’s operations department in South Boston was exceptional in supporting the exhibition and providing the functional material of the city – signs, posts, bases, and much more for me to use in realizing the exhibition. I’ve worked with numerous cities, and Boston is at the top of the list of cities that literally opened doors to provide material for the exhibition. I emailed a wish list of material I wanted for the exhibition to the operations department, and a few hours later I got an email back saying “a truck will be there at 10am tomorrow to deliver the items you requested.”

Kim: How do you hope to apply your knowledge and experience from your work in the UK and Europe here in Boston? Is there anything you plan to do? Achieve?

Scott: As I said earlier, I’ve done projects in 11 different cities ranging from multi-million dollar cultural regeneration projects to design projects that have transformed wide areas of cities, and have been an adviser on projects in cities ranging from Beijing to New Delhi. I specialize in finding opportunities for engagement, and creating platforms for new ideas and approaches to become real to transform the way people relate to design and the city.

I return to Boston with this vast pool of global experience, and with an intimate knowledge of Boston and the potential it holds. I’ve seen the changes the city has undergone first hand – I walk through the city with distinct images in mind of what was, as I look at what is now. But I also have a third image in mind – of what could be. I have big plans. Reprogramming the City is merely the first welcome home handshake with a city that I’ve missed dearly over the years.

Kim: Can others get involved in what you are planning? How?

Scott: Getting others involved is at the heart of everything I do. There is an area in the exhibition where people can share their own ideas for what future parking machines go do in the city – these are the small but vital ways for people to be involved in the ideas. For the bigger ways, feel free to get in touch via the contact form on – we all share the city, and I want to share future opportunities with anyone who wants to be part of them.

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One Response to “Reprogramming the City: An interview with Curator scott Burnham”

  1. SHIFTboston blog» Blog Archive » Looking for a Landscape Says:

    [...] dialogue and openness. His thesis piece, “Looking for a Landscape” is part of the new Reprogramming the City exhibit at the [...]


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