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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