Strelka Institute’s Three-Year Research Agenda Culminates with The New Normal

Headed up by Benjamin H. Bratton, the research rubric and yearbook-like release collate “fungible platforms” that investigate data’s role in global spatial restructuring.

New Normal P44 45 Common Task
Common Task, a research project from the Strelka team and The New Normal researchers, reimagines a tech-embracive Russian history. © The New Normal Researchers & Strelka Team

“Something has shifted,” writes Benjamin H. Bratton in the introduction to The New Normal, a yearbook-like collation of work completed under the eponymous research agenda at Moscow’s Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design between 2017 and 2019. He’s referring to the reign of data and algorithms, which has generated spatial and political arrangements at a pace and scale that have overwhelmed our capacity to meaningfully conceptualize or assess them. In short, technologies and data—distilled most instructively in the cloud—have supplanted many traditional governing structures, as cities splinter into ever-more-atomized but persistently entangled micro-entities.

Every three years, Strelka initiates a research theme for an imported program director and a cadre of postgrads and affiliates to explore. (Bratton affectionately calls these a “little cosmopolitan sect of speculative urbanists.”) As a Strelka research rubric, The New Normal is as abstruse and encompassing as any other, and though the term deliberately evades explicit definition, there is a lot of conceptual table setting: It investigates the impact of planetary-scale computation on the urban future. (Bratton fans will sense overlap with his 2016 book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty.) It maps the tension between globalization’s destruction of borders and the hard realities of administrative boundaries. It sees data as an extractive resource to which we, like past commodities, are subject.

The dozens of projects included are wide-ranging, serving not as typical design suggestions but rather as “fungible platforms,” per Bratton. There are, however, manifest forms and processes associated with his “new normal,” such as cloud urbanism, robot cities, algorithmic governance, “zoning machines,” and global logistical processes that benefit from climate catastrophe. Taken as a whole, the book lands as a manifesto for design that is critical of convention and responsive to emergences. Adapting a Big Lebowski-ism, Bratton prescribes that design’s reaction should be “reconfiguring what norms will be based on the new shit that has come to light.”

The think tank’s output may not be as practical as Bratton and his sect aver, but it’s a welcome plea for a sense of humility in urban investigation, intervention, and speculation.

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