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computer science

Technology Determined Cities or Strategic Design for Tomorrow?





Imagine if urban planners had more knowledge about cars long before automobile traffic was a common issue. Imagine if they had better understood chemistry or environmental sciences. How could that have changed the transit landscape? Could today's problems of automobile pollution or over-dependency on oil been curbed at the outset? Maybe, maybe not, but urban planners can change the future if they change their relationship to technology and the processes by which technologies are created.

Urban and socio-economic development are continually framed as a top-down or a bottom-up system of human decisions. Either the messiness of political action informs and determines the form and function of our lives or policy choices are made by experts reliant on consultation data. Yet this model fails to describe how the environment and the objects around us shape and structure our lives.  Development is not purely determined by people but also by places and things. We might believe we are designing our future, but much is predetermined by what we have designed in the past, by the technologies presently in development, and by the physical conditions of our designing. As long as urban professionals and policy makers ignore such factors, strategic design and policy will rarely accomplish what is intended.

Humans can synthesize DNA, break the sound barrier, and investigate distant galaxies. We wear computers that monitor our bodies and transport information at the speed of light. In the meanwhile, we compose our urban visions in massive paper books of zoning code and render aerial maps on a digital screen to shape the future.  Interesting technologies pop up almost daily that can provide value to urban planning and design, yet as a whole, these technologies are not thoughtfully integrated within planning practice. Certainly planners might use a given technology, but that is not the same as building a mindful socio-technical practice with the technology. Case in point, when I hear the words "how can a planner use a drone?" it is the engineer and the robot that is carving the pathways of our urban future - not the urban professional. There is also a particular moral imposition within the design of a drone - aside from the thinking of the engineer - wherein the design of the artifact delegates use and consequence.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist on the subject of drones in urban planning and was surprised that all of the questions were focused on how planners should use these technologies. There were no questions about the possible negative results or externalities. There were no questions about the responsibility of planners to design new technologies themselves, or to work with groups of software engineers in the same way we work within community groups.

In its current form, the entire field of urban planning is reliant upon the visions of engineers at companies like ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google. These companies showcase their products to urban planning departments stating "now you can do this thing we think is important." If the message is not clear enough, planners look at the technology and say "what do we do with this?" in an attempt to fit the solution to an unknown problem. The search by planners to incorporate drones into their work is a good example.  Certainly there can be a use, but does the drone solve a known problem or does it require the formation of a new problem? Do we want or need that new problem? The answer varies by time, place, and circumstance but I suspect these new problems often distract from more essential demands.

Consequently the technology startups, major corporations, product supply chains, and DIY hackers are designing our future cities - not designers, developers, or policy makers.  Any time a planner asks "how can I use a drone?", they are placing faith into the mind that designed the robot, the design of the robot, and the capability of the machine. Consequently we need urban professionals who are proactive in the technology creation to say "I want X to do Y so I can get Z," and sufficiently understand the technology to see this vision become reality.  If we are truly in touch with urban systems, we should have the vision and capacity to design our own tools to work with those systems.  The ability to make informs the ability to vision, and more importantly, it is the basis to executing that vision.

Planners have long been at fault for separating vision and implementation. In Yves Deforge's essay Avatars of Design: Design Before Design, the author recounts how renaissance inventors and designers for several centuries generated detailed plans with little understanding on how to implement them, leaving that task to another class of producers.  By the time of the 20th century, the role of artistry in mass production had been squashed, eclipsed by the rise of the Eiffel tower, embodying mathematics and engineering in place of design. The role of the designer whose job was to conceive new ideas fell into the shadow of the engineer who gave form to the possible.

In recent decades, the field of design and the planning profession has shifted toward human-centered methods as mathematics cannot alone solve all problems or generate positive human environments. Yet unlike planners, most of today's UX designers are more tightly connected to the DNA of their tools. They can write software and scripts to automate processes and they can construct new tools to make new visions into realities. When they are limited to produce something they envision, they share common vocabularies with engineers to give form to their intentions.  These designers do not need to be engineers, but their tacit knowledge and skills are sufficient to inform new ways of thinking, designing, and making.

So what of the future concerning new technologies in robotics, big data, and AI? Will humans be replaced by intelligent and superior machines? If the outcomes of the Darpa Grande Challenge are sufficient indicators (below), we are not at risk right now of any threats from these emerging technologies. Notably, none of the robotics teams included an architect or planner, even though every robot was tasked with managing the built environment. There is a clear demand for urban professional among the machines.

Will planners continue to react to the work of engineers, forever a decade or two behind the technology?  Already there is a deluge of books, podcasts, and news specials describing how new breakthroughs will change the economic landscape. People will lose their jobs to robots.  Cities will smolder amid collapsed economies. Or in contrast, planners could create a new preferable future, by repositioning their relationship to technology, taking hold of the materials, engaging the engineers, and embed themselves into the processes that shape our economic landscape. They can make digital tools and participate in the working groups that build the machines. They can take the lead in designing tomorrow and not just react to its arrival. They can design the future.




Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

The persistence of data and slow urban death



One day you may never again sit in traffic at 4pm in the rain, hear that song from 20 years ago on the radio and then wonder whatever happened to your ex from college. There is no need because you will never sit in traffic, the radio is customized to your listening profile, and you still talk to your college ex on Facebook. You still talk to all your exes actually, so you never need wonder "what might have happened?" had you stayed with that person.  The relationship never died.

Urban planners use tools like zoning, economic development hubs, urban design, and historic preservation to create a better living environment.  Yet better for whom? The question of values has frequently been discussed within planning theory, and over the years planning has shifted to include participatory processes, advocacy models, and mixed systems of governance.  There is no universal definition of better, and yet, I would argue while attempts have been made to diversify the planning process, a preconceived ideal still dominates the outcome.  

Today the "big thing" is the creation of smart cities.  Distributed systems of digital sensors and wifi networks blanket over 140 cities in the world to create highly efficient traffic systems, disaster relief, and energy efficiency.  Computing heavy weights like IBM and Microsoft are heavily involved in creating the technologies and working with governments on such systems.  Media channels cycle through progressive articles on these smart systems.  Whoever designs the software designs the future.

I have a love/hate relationship with these technological systems for urban management.   I am a technology creator so obviously I subscribe to many of the benefits.  Yet for smart cities, it seems that all of these efficiencies are narrowly fine tuned to accommodate a universally implied yet generally undefined ideal. Replicated across cities, and undercurrent of imposed values channel all societies toward a particular standard for living and all cities eventually conform.  By putting efficiency before humanity, the buzzing chaos of auto-rickshaws in New Delhi or the thumbing bass of Kenyan matatu's ripping down the city streets could easily become a thing of the past.

The economic advantages are obvious.  We could solve the problem of climate change.  But I foresee that these technologies allow us to mechanize cities to achieve maximum capital valuation of land and space.  While Hernando De Soto advocated the creation of legal documents to turn shanties into real estate, these newer technologies transform real estate into machines. Mechanized and optimized, our buildings generate lower carbon footprints and buses run unobstructed. 

But the data never dies.  It simply accumulates, ever minute of every day, for hundreds of years.  Every fluctuation of weather is documented, and so is every criminal act and social protests.  Market fluctuations are recorded and correlations are identified deep within the data architecture that would be considered by most observers to be entirely spurious.  But the algorithm knows.  It builds it's own programs within programs.  It doesn't need us to understand.  In the essence of being participatory, our urban technology centers dump terabytes of data back into cyberspace every quarter second to be picked up by sophisticated trading algorithms.

Perhaps eventually the persistence of digital memory supersedes the collective.  We forget ourselves and we forget the notion of environmental change.  The city can no longer transform across time because it is too hyper-efficient to necessitate change and civilization is halted as every social process. We forget ourselves and fade away.  All that is left is a digital memory, factored into a NASDAQ exchange, stored in a hard drive,  and then lodged away in darkness.

#Stuxnet Lessons for Urban Planning 2 of 2


In the previous post I gave a brief overview of how Stuxnet worked and discussed some of the perils Urban Planners face within complex conditions, notably within conflict.  Below is a closer look at how Stuxnet can apply to urban planning.


Stuxnet and Urban Planning 
1. Stuxnet was designed and operated reflexively, rather than strategically.  Its code was structured like a Russian doll, with one layer contained with in another, and so on.   Configured as such, it had the ability to continually unload an additional set of internal tools when the situate presented itself.  Yet when the conditions were not present, the structural integrity remained intact. 
  • Too often development plans are developed and executed while overly reliant on contingent variables to maintain their integrity. If Part A occurs properly, Part B will go into effect... yet if Part A doesn't happen, the project is at risk of failure.  This is partly the fault of the discipline of Urban Planning and its tradition of  creating"Master Plans," long term projections into the future with a constant effort to fine tune socio-economic conditions in space.  Yet as the conditions constantly change and the implementation of Part A will have unforeseen effects elsewhere in the urban space, master plans are rarely equipped to meet the changing demands of the urban environment and are doomed to fail.  

2. Stuxnet not only penetrated multiple systems, it provided opportunities to change in response to those systems.  The code maintained a series of entry points in the event that the present layer of the 'russian doll' doesn't quite fit the conditions.
  • Markets do not exist in an equilibrium, neither do the less tangible social forces, therefore it is essential that plans are designed and implemented as fluid enterprises.  Rather than craft a plan that is project-oriented, consider how projects function as a larger process, and thus changes and tweaks are determined in terms of maintaining momentum with the process, not within the operations of a single project.  In other words, to craft a successful small project, consider it at a regional scale. Evaluation of the project and suggestions to change  are best designed in terms of regional necessity, not at the smaller scale of 'project success.'

3. The systems exploited by Stuxnet varied in Code (as operating systems) and as networks (peer-to-peer, hardware based, intranets, closed and open systems).  It jumped between code and network style, adapting to not only new terrain, but new communication protocol.

  • Planners in conflict need to visualize human settlements as  4-dimensional and not as static compositions.  The traditional overhead map will only provide a fraction of the information necessary.  If the problem is defined by conflict between two social groups, situate these groups in a space, and visualize their interactions within that space over periods of time.  The environment will inform the actions of those groups.  Over time the environment and the groups will influence each other and thus create a new set of conditions. The problem will again change once an intervention is introduced.  
  • This doesn't exclusively apply to conflict cities.  If one were to count the bus stops on a street then count their occupancy at different times of day, and each day of the week, a succinct pattern would emerge.  Introducing a new transportation option would change this pattern.  Yet before a new option can be introduced, such as alternative transport, additional buses, or an alternative route, the pattern must be first determined in terms of space and time and a variety of research methods may be used to acquire this information.

4. Spend less time attempting to building sectors and invest more time into the linkages.  Embedded within Stuxnet were three different layers of code to exploit three different situations.  It used the connections between Windows OS to Siemens and then to PLC.  Its primary set of tools took action at the final stage.
  • Likewise the function and productivity of any sector is only as strong as the transition point from one sector to another.  Rather than devoting hours to the study of transportation and a separate study on economic markets, condense efforts to understand how markets flow and interact based on available transit corridors.  

5. Identify target indicators within those linkages, but these indicators  must also be 4-dimensional.
  • To continue the above example, a rapid observation of wheel thickness among vehicles will tell you the condition of roads, the distance between production and supply points, the amount of wealth generated within processes of exchange and the frequency of exchange. The better the conditions of all circumstances, the thinner, lighter, and newer the tires on bicycles and cars.   This single indicator can inform the health of sector linkages and simultaneously communicate the health of individual sectors.  It should be noted that the indicator itself may actually serve as an ideal point of intervention.

6  Stuxnet simultaneosly spread through multiple networks so that points of failure were inconsequential. While the mechanisms of the intervention may be complex, the linkages need not be.    If an intervention is crafted upon a continuous series of dependent variables, it will not succeed.  If an intervention directly impacts multi-sectoral linkages and multiple locations at different points in time, it will have a higher probability of success.  It may require fine tuning in some locations or at some points in time, but such changes need only be subtle and responsive.


The greatest difficulty of behind planning an urban intervention while utilizing the Stuxnet approach is the challenge of measuring the impact of the plan.  Stuxnet was designed to relay information back to some website databases, yet working in a community does not provide the same immediate information supply. Rather one can only measure the impact of the project by assessing the actual problem at hand, such as fluctuations in conflict, market stabilization, transportation flows, and the production of goods.  The problem emerges when specifying causality, specifically connecting the value of the project to the mitigation of the urban problem.   Certainly it can be done, but it will require creative thinking.  After all, if one simply continues to add more layers of indicators, markers, measurements, links, etc. to the production cycle, the project will lose its streamlined sophistication and  become too self-burdened to operate efficiently.