The sense-able city

We don’t need to build new cities – a simple reboot of the existing ones will do. An account of human sensors and smart trash:

What was empty space just a few years ago is now becoming New Songdo in Korea, Masdar in the United Arab Emirates or PlanIT in Portugal — new “smart cities”, built from scratch, are sprouting across the planet and traditional actors like governments, urban planners and real estate developers, are, for the first time, working alongside large IT firms — the likes of IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft.

The resulting cities are based on the idea of becoming “living labs” for new technologies at the urban scale, blurring the boundary between bits and atoms, habitation and telemetry. If 20th century French architect Le Corbusier advanced the concept of the house as a “machine for machineliving in”, these cities could be imagined as inhabitable microchips, or “computers in open air”.

Wearable Computers and Smart Trash

The very idea of a smart city runs parallel to “ambient intelligence” — the dissemination of ubiquitous electronic systems in our living environments, allowing them to sense and respond to people. That fluid sensing and actuation is the logical conclusion of the liberation of computing: from mainframe solidity to desktop fixity, from laptop mobility to handheld ubiquity, to a final ephemerality as computing disappears into the environment and into humans themselves with development of wearable computers.

It is impossible to forget the striking side-by-side images of the past two Papal Inaugurations: the first, for Benedict XVI in 2005, shows the raised hands of a cheering crowd, while the second, for Francesco I in 2013, a glimmering constellation of smartphone screens held aloft to take pictures. Smart cities are enabled by the atomization of technology, ushering an age when the physical world is indistinguishable from its digital overlay.

The key mechanism behind ambient intelligence, then, is “sensing” — the ability to measure what happens around us and to respond dynamically. New means of sensing are suffusing every aspect of urban space, revealing its visible and invisible dimensions: we are learning more about our cities so that they can learn about us. As people talk, text, and browse, data collected from telecommunication networks is capturing urban flows in real time and crystallizing them as Google’s traffic congestion maps.

Like a tracer running through the veins of the city, networks of air quality sensors attached to bikes can help measure an individual’s exposure to pollution and draw a dynamic map of the urban air on a human scale, as in the case of the Copenhagen Wheel developed by new startup Superpedestrian. Even trash could become smarter: the deployment of geolocating tags attached to ordinary garbage could paint a surprising picture of the waste management system, as trash is shipped throughout the country in a maze-like disposal process — as we saw in Seattle with our own Trash Track project.

Afraid of our own bed

Today, people themselves (equipped with smartphones, naturally) can be instruments of sensing. Over the past few years, a new universe of urban apps has appeared — allowing people to broadcast their location, information and needs — and facilitating new interactions with the city. Hail a taxi (“Uber”), book a table for dinner (“OpenTable”), or have physical encounters based on proximity and profiles (“Grindr” and “Blendr”): real-time information is sent out from our pockets, into the city, and right back to our fingertips.

In some cases, the very process of sensing becomes a deliberate civic action: citizens themselves are taking an increasingly active role in participatory data sharing. Users of Waze automatically upload detailed road and traffic information so that their community can benefit from it. 311-type apps allow people to report non-emergencies in their immediate neighborhood, from potholes to fallen tree branches, and subsequently organize a fix. Open Street Map does the same, enabling citizens to collaboratively draw maps of places that have never been systematically charted before — especially in developing countries not yet graced by a visit from Google.

These examples show the positive implications of ambient urban intelligence but the data that emerges from fine-grained sensing is inherently neutral. It is a tool that can be used in many different applications, and to widely varying ends. As artist-turned-XeroxPARC-pioneer Rich Gold once asked in an incisive (and humorous) essay: “How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?” What might make our nights sleepless, in this case, is the sheer amount of data being generated by sensing. According to a famous quantification by Google’s Eric Schmidt, every 48 hours we produce as much data as all of humanity until 2003 (an estimation that is already three years old). Who has access to this data? How do we avoid the dystopian ending of Italo Calvino’s 1960s short story “The Memory of the World,” where humanity’s act of infinite recording unravels as intrigue, drama, and murder?

And finally, does this new pervasive data dimension require an entirely new city? Probably not. Of course, ambient intelligence might have architectural ramifications, like responsive building facades or occupant-targeted climates. But in each of the city-sensing examples above, technology does not necessarily call for new urban space — many IT-infused “smart city initiatives” feel less like a necessity and more like a justification of real estate operations on a massive scale – with a net result of bland spatial products.

Forget about flying cars

Ambient intelligence can indeed pervade new cities, but perhaps most importantly, it can also animate the rich, chaotic erstwhile urban spaces — like a new operating system for existing hardware. This was already noted by Bill Mitchell at the beginning of our digital era: “The gorgeous old city of Venice […] can integrate modern telecommunications infrastructure far more gracefully than it could ever have adapted to the demands of the industrial revolution.” Could ambient intelligence bring new life to the winding streets of Italian hill towns, the sweeping vistas of Santorini, or the empty husks of Detroit?

We might need to forget about the flying cars that zip through standard future cities discourse. Urban form has shown an impressive persistence over millennia — most elements of the modern city were already present in Greek and Roman times. Humans have always needed, and will continue to need, the same physical structures for their daily lives: horizontal planes and vertical walls (no offense, Frank O. Gehry). But the very lives that unfold inside those walls is now the subject of one of the most striking transformations in human history. Ambient intelligence and sensing networks will not change the container but the contained; not smart cities but smart citizens.

Co-authored with Matthew Claudel

Read more in this debate: Anthony Townsend.

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