Dietmar Offenhuber: The Digital Urban Planner

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Introductions

By Rosemary Grant 

With the release of his newest book Decoding the City: Urbanism in the Age of Big Data, Dietmar Offenhuber again stands out as an expert on technology and its impact on urbanism. The MIT SENSEable City lab researcher is taking steps to transform urban planning to keep up with the capabilities of the digital age.

“The most interesting project is always the next one that has not started yet,” he told Bridges shortly after the release of his book. And indeed, his recent agenda shows his affinity for new projects.

The researcher’s work was part of four exhibitions in 2014, including displays in Canada and Russia. He also received the 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, in addition to having an article on infrastructure published in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. Offenhuber is currently an assistant professor in the Art + Design Department at Northeastern University, as well as the MFA coordinator in Information Design and Visualization.

He first got involved in blending urban planning with digital technology when studying architecture at the Vienna University of Technology. In 1996 he became one of the founding members of the Ars Electronica Center, a science museum for digital technology with an integrated research lab where he developed exhibitions and human-computer interaction research projects. “The architecture field was generally very experimental in the 1990s,” he says. “Many of my colleagues worked in similar domains.”

Since moving on from the architectural programs, he admits that architecture never played an important role in his work, rather his interest was in urban space on a larger scale. His focus shifted to how urban space is perceived, and thus required collaborations with a number of artists. In 2001 he worked under the name stadtmusik with sound artists Sam Auinger and Hannes Strobl. Their resulting films and video installations captured the ways in which the built environment interacts with an auditory domain and how different perceptual modalities structure urban experience. In short, they studied how architecture creates all the sounds people hear in a city.

After two years of teaching at FH Hagenberg, Offenhuber joined the MIT Media Lab, and earned a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning. Regarding the variety of programs he has worked with, Offenhuber says: “All these seem quite different, but the topic always remained the same.” In focusing on urban planning he found a career-driving question: How can digital technologies help us to better understand cities and also improve them?

The question took him to the realm of interdisciplinary studies, where his job relied on a wide range of topics. “At Ars Electronica, [interdisciplinary studies] was the default mode of operation, and it has stayed that way since,” he says.

“Urban planning inherently operates in an interdisciplinary setting, as does human-computer interaction research. I would not want to qualify whether it is preferable to disciplinary research,” says Offenhuber. “It just comes naturally with certain fields and topics. But I do enjoy working with a wide range of interesting people from different fields.”

Of his numerous awards and recognitions, he believes that one of the most rewarding was winning the Trash Track (a project where he tracked the paths of individual trash items using GPS sensors) and the NSF challenge. “[It] was definitely a group effort, I would not claim this as my own success,” he says, “but I am happy how this project developed and how much new possibilities it has opened for me and the others involved in the project.” On the basis of that collaboration, he learned to reframe the project and connect it to personal interests and thinking, and his dissertation and other resulting publications were a great way to do that. 

As Dietmar Offenhuber continues to teach in the US and collaborate on exhibits globally, he has gained perspective on how Austria compares with the US in visualizing urban planning. “It seems to me that the media arts scene is more vibrant in Austria, whereas the academic side is richer in the US,” he says, “at least here in Boston/Cambridge where I live. It is really like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.”

The researcher just finished a project in Recife, Brazil, where he worked with waste picker organizations to develop tools for mapping the infrastructure and improving their waste and recycling collection. “I am generally interested in urban infrastructure as an interactive accomplishment of all involved actors,” he says. The waste picker cooperatives he works with in Brazil benefit from a new law requiring public institutions and companies to hire them, but have a hard time taking advantage of it because their collection strategy is ad hoc. The current procedures include a truck for collection as well as experts on recycling collection. Offenhuber finds it fascinating to see how they read and navigate the city in a completely different way, taking things into account that others would not have noticed. 

Offenhuber says that his industry in media arts and sciences has changed over the years. In the beginning, “… it was fascinating to speculate about the possible, how technology might change the world.” Now, years into this field and helping it shape the latest discoveries, he says, “It has become more interesting for me to look at how people use these technologies, their roles in social and political contexts.”


Interview with Dietmar Offenhuber conducted November 3.

Rosemary Grant is the BRIDGES Chief Editor and communications manager of the Office of Science and Technology Austria in Washington, DC. Connect with her and the office on Twitter @OSTAustria_DC.