Wikitopia: The Journey Begins

July 19, 2018

Call is now open for the WIKITOPIA INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION! Organizing a competition proved to be much harder work than I had imagined, it certainly feels great that we’re finally ready to make this public. The initial deadline is set to September 24. That’s more than two months away so no need to cut short your vacation to prepare your entries, but perhaps you can start sketching some ideas between all the hiking, scuba diving, koala feeding or whatever amazing thing you’re up to this summer.

Although most members of the organizing team are based in Tokyo (including me), we’re quite serious in calling this an “international” competition. Our hope is to see submissions from all over the world. We want to see submissions that, taken as a whole, truly capture the diversity of conditions that in our discourse is often concealed or ignored under the catch-all term of “urbanism”.

As we mention in the website, the target site is defined as Ginza but please regard this as more of a hint than a hard requirement. We are looking for ideas targeting “urban centers where a large number of people and objects busily interact daily, in diverse ways”; we are using Ginza merely as an example of such neighborhoods. Thus entries will not be penalized for failing to take into account the specific historical, cultural, and geographical context of Ginza, Tokyo, or Japan.

Since the website (hopefully) covers all information directly needed in preparing the submissions, here I’d like to instead explain the somewhat peripheral issue of why we decided to hold this competition in the first place. As you might already know if you had taken a look at the website, the competition is organized by the Wikitopia Project, which is a research project funded by the Japanese government — and our objective here is not PR or CSR, as is typical in corporate-run competitions. Instead, running this competition is in itself an integral part of our research agenda.

Before explaining this in more detail, first I would like to go over two concepts that are important in understanding our reasoning here: “apps”, and “platforms”.

For around a decade, I have been using various iterations of Apple’s iPhone. Currently, there are over two million “iOS apps” available for the iPhone, which can be downloaded from the App Store. Developing such apps has steadily become easier over the years; near my place in Tokyo there is a kind of school/camp facility that teaches iPhone programming (as well as other technical skills like robotics and 3D printing) to little kids, seemingly in their early teens. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them had already made money selling their apps on the market — iPhone app development has become that accessible.

What enables the development, distribution, and use of these apps is the “iOS platform”, i.e., the collection of varied components including development tools (Xcode, iOS SDK), marketplace (App Store), hardware devices (iPhone, iPad), online forums (Developer Forums), etc. The platform has continuously been refined over the past decade, which has substantially lowered the hurdles to become involved in iOS app development, hence contributing to the ever-increasing number and variety of available apps.

In the competition website, we too make frequent mentions of the word “app”. However, our definition of the term is slightly different — here, “app” refers to any system, artifact, mechanism, or concept that “affects urban space or people’s activities within it, through spontaneous actions of citizens”.

It’s a bit hard to explain without images (this blog is text-only, at least for now), but spontaneous street art such as graffiti and yarn-bombing are obvious examples of existing “apps”, as are so-called parklets that are steadily gaining popularity in North America and other Western regions. Also, websites such as UK’s Spacehive that use crowdfunding to raise money for civic projects are another example of “apps”, as well as sharing services like Airbnb that allow citizens to spontaneously assign new functions to their properties (e.g., turn homes into hotels).

The ultimate goal of the Wikitopia Project is to realize future cities that can be “continuously edited and improved by citizens, like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia”. Any individual idea that contributes to this grand goal is a potential “Wikitopia app” in our sense. In the near future, we can expect to see apps that make use of emerging technologies such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, digital fabrication, etc., and apps that respond to new social developments such as globalization, urbanization, increasing disparity of wealth, rise of the gig economy, etc.

Just like iOS apps can be categorized into different genres such as games, social apps, and productivity apps, there exists great diversity among “Wikitopia apps” as well. It is not only design and architecture professionals that can become developers of new apps. Important contributions can be made by people with engineering skills, legal knowledge, hands-on experience with grass-roots activism, etc., and even people with no special expertise can dig into their own unique experiences/insights regarding urban life, to devise pertinent new apps that flesh out the overall Wikitopia ecosystem.

In the Wikitopia Project, we plan to develop a “Wikitopia platform” that facilitates the development, deployment, and execution of such “Wikitopia apps”. In the same way the iOS platform has made iPhone app development something that can be taken up even by little kids, we’d like to make the development of city-changing Wikitopia apps accessible to everyone regardless of qualifications or experience. And just like how the millions of iOS apps have brought forth a world where people have access to computing anywhere, anytime (fulfilling the vision put forward by the late Mark Weiser), the millions of upcoming Wikitopia apps will bring about a future where “cities are created by everyone”.

This competition, for us, constitutes an important first step in our effort to draft the general specifications of the Wikitopia platform. With help from participants spread across the globe, we would like to predict what kinds of apps may become available 5, 10, or 15 years down the road — then, taking a bird’s-eye view of the entire (predicted) app landscape, we will attempt to inductively derive the list of essential functionalities/services that the platform will need to provide.

For us to achieve the above goal, the competition will need to attract as many and diverse entries as possible, reflecting a multitude of perspectives and lived experiences. In selecting the winners, (although I won’t be directly involved in the process; we have our wonderful jury for that) we plan to prioritize the quality of the idea itself over the degree of visual polish. So even if you lack any sort of formal design training, please do not let that hesitate you from taking part. We hope to see contributions from “everyone” — the same way we believe cities should be created in the future.


YUICHIRO TAKEUCHI is a Toronto-born, Tokyo-based computer scientist whose work explores the intersection of digital technology and architecture / urban design. Currently he works as a researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories Kyoto, and also directs the nonprofit Wikitopia Institute. He holds a PhD in Informatics from The University of Tokyo, and an MDes from Harvard Graduate School of Design.