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smart cities

City Planning for the Second Machine Age

Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.

The Emerging Future of Cities

I travel a lot, and just in the last year I've spent time in some of the worlds wealthiest cities, its poorest, and its most rapidly changing.  London, Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul, Detroit, and Mogadishu are just a sample.  I also am a constant reader and love to learn new skills in computer science and business strategy.  So out of this mix I have some observations and some proposals on how these observations will evolve.  Is it an optimistic future? For those who can adapt it will be incredible. And for everyone who refuses to do so... not so much.

*Edit: Please note this is not a prescription for future cities.  My objective here is to identify variables and perceptions that are currently not central in discussion yet are central to the realities of tomorrow.

Dynamic Urban Interface
For many years we have described the cyber world as separate from the physical world. This way of thinking needs to stop. There is an interface between the cyber/physical, and this interface is of critical to the future world. As found in a timely piece in Science Magazine, the internet is about to get physical.  Or maybe it has been for awhile. For example, a new post from Brookings Institution suggests that humanitarians should consider the implications of cyber warfare upon mass displacement.

Interaction is Experienced Through Environments
The form of this interface is changing at a rapid rate and accelerating. Only 10 years ago the primary way to use a computer was with a keyboard. Now you can shake it, throw it, walk past it, or swallow it.  This will continue to change and more quickly.

Physical environments are likewise responding to the transformation of the digital interface. The digital urban interface is essential to the future evolution of urban planning, architecture,  and design into a broader field of urban experience design. How we choose to embrace Urban Experience Design in relation to economic policies, organizational systems, and business strategy will continue to be disappointing. While the world is changing quickly, people are not changing with it fast enough to create better policies, markets, or in general, a better world.

Shifting Infrastructures
Robust digital urban infrastructures are the key to making the best use of the digital urban interface. The digital urban infrastructure exists as an interconnection of hardware (physical networks, physical computing sensors), software, and data as input in the form of GIS data, core urban analytics (traffic, pollution, security, water). The speed of these systems to acquire input and process it into a meaningful output (forms vary) will distinguish the ability for one city to embrace greater economic growth than another. Today we have smart cities... so consider how much computing has changed in the last 25 years and apply this same rate of transformation to the year 2039. The curve is exponential.

The New Slum is a Digital Wasteland
The 20th century observed the rise of the middle class and the 21st century is giving way to its demise. The cities with the most optimistic futures are the ones that can connect its citizens to the information and tools needed to compete within a global market place. A good example is this forward-thinking library in Chattanooga that has invested heavily in equipment and seminars for 3d printing and product fabrication technologies. Of course when I asked a librarian in Detroit about this, her response was "it will be very difficult for me to convince the board to put our 300 dollar budget for acquisitions toward new technology since we have so little to work with." Communities that adapt to the speed and interconnectedness will thrive and communities that do not will die. More importantly, communities of data creators will thrive, while concentrations of data consumers will collapse inward, as winner-take-all markets continue to thrive.

Integrated Supply Chains
Even today it is difficult for most companies to track each element of a supply chain. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act has provided incentive for technology companies to shift their practice of component sourcing. Interest in companies like FoxConn have pushed for better treatment of workers. Ultimately this trend will continue. Companies must have better monitoring mechanisms, and our physical environment will transform in response to the demand. Yet this will be expensive. Obtaining a granular level of information will generate new opportunities to cut cost and increase profits. The cost of this refinement will be passed to consumers, exerting more pressure upon a shrinking middle class.

Kanban Urban Management 
Extreme socio-economic polarization combined with integrated supply chains and robust digital infrastructures will create new city management models.  Kanban management methods focus on just-in-time implementation and production. Zero overhead.  Zero waste.  For example, digital sensors in the street will notify the city of a pothole, its dimensions, and location. A service worker is immediately dispatched with the appropriate amount of filler. Problem solved with precision. We won't be perfect at this for a long time - there is a steep learning curve - but the future financial constraints will ultimately demand the emergence and implementation of this technocratic model.

Designing The Perfect Glass of Wine in 3023

The audio piece below contains a fictional story I wrote and situated in a soundscape I composed in Logic.  The story is a snapshot of a professional wine taster, a sommelier, working at some point in the future when the production of wine has been technologically perfected.   The title might be a little too cheeky with the overt Huxley reference, but I just couldn't help myself. 

What does this have to do with urban planning?  Everything.  I realize my writing has been getting a bit apocalyptic lately, but it is merely the consequence of all the books I've been reading in the realm of Science, Technology and Society.  I am a big proponent of technology and my livelihood is dependent on the interface between the physical and the digital, yet it is necessary to be critical of the new technologies that we create given the inevitability of the feedback loop we build with each new piece of tech.  

Where urban theorist Mike Davis argues the world will become dominated by slums, I contend that just the opposite is more likely, whereas we might over-design cities and life in general into an overly mediocre and bland existence.  Where David Kilcullen believes that the future of war is will be found in coastal urban hotspots, I advocate that the location of future wars will have less to do with the land and more to do with the communications and energy infrastructure.   I'm not afraid of this particular vision, considering my own biggest nightmare is to live in a world designed by Richard Florida.   Personally I'm still hoping for something more like BladeRunner and with all the time I've spend in Detroit, Dubai and Bangkok in the last 10 years, I feel like we are getting fairly close.

We press ever onward into the unknown. Only an absurd and naive individual would advocate that previous eras could ever supersede the present or future in terms of moral or cultural authority, the venture forward does necessarily designate a better quality of life.  We must be careful, but of course, we do not truly know how to do so.  Not really.  But I do know one thing; where the technological horizon collides with the dusty roads of the developing world - thats where you will find me.

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems

Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

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.