Reversing the Panopticon

by Dieter Zinnbauer

The infamous Panopticon, conceived by Jeremy Bentham and thoroughly analyzed by Michel Foucault, is emblematic of architecture's role in surveillance and discipline — a blueprint for the perfect prison. It allows a watchman to observe inmates without them being able to tell whether anyone is actually watching them, generating an eerie sense of being monitored all the time.

Panopticons by Jay Crum. Source: Celeste

Bentham's Panopticon blazed a trail for many technological interventions designed to help governments monitor and control public space. Check out Skywatch, for example, the mobile observation structure used to keep an eye on the Occupy Movement in New York City. This high-tech platform — equipped with sensors, cameras and tinted windows — is also used at crime hot-spots.

Greenpeace Twitter wall. Source: Transparency International

Anti-corruption NGOs, such as Transparency International (where I work), help people monitor and control what their governments do. In essence, this is about reversing the Panopticon. Tactics include establishing openness and accountability policies, mobilizing civic action and raising awareness. Returning to the spatial aspect of the Panopticon, important questions arise: Can we shape the built environment in a systematic way to empower citizens vis-à-vis their governments? Can we literally design for transparency and accountability?

Albert Sirleaf's public bulletin board in Monrovia. Source: Ambient Accountability

The term "ambient accountability" refers to creative adaptation of the built environment for the purpose of citizen empowerment, as explained with examples in "'Ambient Accountability': Fighting Corruption When and Where it Happens." To encourage dialogue on this subject, I've started collecting related information, ideas and images — including the public bulletin board above — in a blog about Ambient Accountability. I welcome everyone to add to the collection.

"Panopticon, Isla de Pinos" by Stan Douglass. Source: National Gallery of Canada

So how can we turn the Panopticon around? Contrast the classic Panopticon, a prison tower (above), with the bright red Infobox (below). The Infobox was a viewing platform set up in 1995 so that people could observe a massive public-private redevelopment venture in Berlin.

The Infobox public viewing platform at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Source: archINFORM

The Infobox made it easier for citizens to track the progress of significant changes in their city — a largely symbolic gesture for public relations, but at least a step toward publicly monitoring the work of public officials and private developers.

What other design interventions could help turn the Panopticon around? Can we adapt the built environment for democracy and accountability? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Dieter Zinnbauer is a specialist in policy and innovation for Transparency International. More of his work can be found on the Social Science Research Network and Ambient Accountability websites.

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  1. brilliant idea to consider the ways in which architecture monitors and influences behavior. placing something like skywatch at a high crime area could be a good thing, possibly making people more safe and free to walk the streets without being targeted. maybe there are ways to make it less ominous and more civilian oriented like skybox or like jane jacobs's eyes on the street.

    i also wonder how different forms of housing affect people's behavior: the projects versus the suburbs, upper east side versus kibera, etc.

  2. Shared courtyards at the base of apartment buildings seem like a reversed panopticon. During the day there's usually someone looking from their window or balcony at what's going on below. I'm not sure exactly how this affects human behavior, but it might inhibit crime and neglect because there are so many witnesses.

  3. Would also be good to apply this to virtual space. Web use is closely analyzed, so there must be a way to monitor how this information is used.

  4. I'd like to see detailed models of new urban development (with comment boxes) on display in nearby places for some time as a necessary step in gaining approval.

    1. This is right on! I have started to collect instances of comments' boxes on construction sites and also placards with project descriptions on public works projects. Check for example:, or more generally the collection on
      As you will see these things are far from designed to be truly participatory and effective - much more thinking and improving to I think you are really onto something.

    2. “[I]f it is true that the outline of the very complex technology of security appeared around the middle of the eighteenth century, I think that it is to the extent that the town posed new and specific economic and political problems of government technique” (Foucault 2007:64).

  5. Funny how if you just take out the tower in the middle the Panopticon just becomes way for everyone to look at everyone else. The idea of society policing society is certainly an idea that has some advocates (, or Peter's comment) but stands opposed to liberal (in the 18th century sense) values of privacy.

    Hmmm, I suppose I think that privacy is the real "reverse" of the Panopticon, not the watched watching the watchers. If you're being watched, even if it's by society and not by authority, are you truly any freer? If you're on the wrong side, a majority can be just as tyrannical as a tyrant. But of course privacy has its problems, which is why we're always trying to strike a balance. Where the line is drawn will always be a subject of debate. Right now it's somewhere around Edward Snowden.

    1. but tyrannical implies abuse of power by an individual, and sometimes freedom isn't good. if someone thinks they can get away with steeling an elderly person's groceries because no one is watching, their freedom to do that should be kept in check. in my opinion it doesn't matter whether it's skywatch video surveillance or neighbors looking out their windows, as long as the groceries don't get stolen. if there are also checks on government and law enforcement to prevent abuse, is surveillance necessarily a problem?

    2. Hi Melanie, very interesting thoughts and leads! Would be hesitant to describe transparenncy as the opposite of privacy in this context. Here it is about transparency for public office holders in how they exercise the powers that the community has entrusted them with. It is not about snooping on the private life of citizens. There might be overlaps at times, for example, when public officials are asked to disclose their assets, so to make sure that they do not have any conflicts of interests when taking decisions. But these are exceptions. So let's distinguish the public limelight with the private persona life and then transparency and privacy are more complementary ingredients for citizen freedoms

  6. i think it comes down to whether there is trust in government and whether anyone can monitor or participate if they feel the need. maybe urban design can make it easier for people to monitor and participate by setting up visible neighborhood units or mobile units throughout the city, where anyone can stop in and see what's happening, make a complaint, share an idea, etc.


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