“Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” On art, smart cities and bringing people together

Voiceover in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

As our world becomes increasingly influenced by data and networked technologies; as real time sensors stream from buildings, streets and mobile devices, informing us about what’s happening right now; and as our micro-decisions interact more and more with the micro-decisions of others, being meaningfully and consciously engaged with each other and the world around us might seem increasingly elusive.

The volume of data, and the variety of decisions that need to be made, can seem almost overwhelming. And so, introducing technological systems seems like an obvious answer.

Technologies like smart thermostats are supposed to help our homes decide, on our behalf, the right moment to switch on the heating. Automation systems driving our cars, or executing trades on the stockmarket, or managing our city infrastructures, or distinguishing criminals in crowds, or guiding our economies... All of these deal with masses of data, and complex interactions between all sorts of phenomena, much more quickly and, in a sense, more accurately than humans can.

But each of these technologies was designed. That means that somebody somewhere, some group of people, with their own perspectives and worldviews, made the most important decision of all – they decided, defined and designed the goals each of these systems should strive for.

The plan for VoiceOver. Image: Richard Kenworthy. 

Somebody somewhere decided on a definition for optimisation, or a definition of efficiency, or a definition of safety, of risk, of certainty. They decided how to evaluate progress towards a goal. They also decided precisely how goals would get encoded into algorithms – the set of rules used to derive solutions, or make decisions.

But goals are designed – they’re crafted, if you will – and crafting means that they reflect something about their designer, and the designer’s own worldview.

All too often the design of such technologies is done behind closed doors. Whether it’s driverless cars, or smart homes in smart cities, or curated news items in social media – other people, in companies driven by their own commercial requirements or organisations with their own unspoken objectives are making countless non-consensual decisions on our behalf.

The case for togetherness

We, the citizens, need to be involved collectively in helping shape the technologies that govern our lives. They are going to affect how and where we live, and what we do from minute to minute and so we all need to be part of the conversation. There is no single definition of “efficiency”, or “optimisation”, or “convenience”, or “comfort”. Or “terrorist” for that matter.

Technology is equally an outcome of, and a defining factor in the development of our social structures: it both affects and is affected by the societies we live in and the ones we want to create. The kinds of technology we hear about today are often good for doing things quickly, for controlling things or responding to large volumes of data. That means they are good if you have a clear definition of efficiency, and if you have decided that efficiency is what you’re after. In many cases that makes them good, unintentionally or not, for surveillance.

But the other thing that they are good at is bridging distance: connecting people and places and things and experiences and environments and neighbourhoods to each other in real-time. They’re good at shrinking the scale of the planet and making us more aware of how what we do relates to others, both human and non-human. They’re good at linking things that are far apart, or connecting people that don’t know each other. They’re good at helping us discover new perspectives.

So the goal, in my work, is to use networked technologies, not to make things more efficient or to optimise, but to see things differently so that we can make decisions together. Not to make decisions better (whatever that means) but to make them collectively; not to remove inefficiency and complexity, or iron out wrinkles and seams, but to embrace that complexity and build value from the unpredictability, serendipity and creativity that you find in messy situations. I look for ways to deploy infrastructure that gets taken over and repurposed by other people, so they develop a shared sense of technological enfranchisement and ownership in civic outcomes.

Take our project VoiceOver, sited in East Durham in the north of England. We’re deploying a chain of interactive light and sound that weaves its way round local streets of Horden to connect residents, in ways that we hope they’ve never been connected before.

It’s a communication infrastructure, designed and deployed in collaboration with local residents and organisations, that everyone can listen in on, and whose spectacular luminescent path explicitly depends on which residents have elected to host a node of the mesh network. As sound passes up and down the streets, each fragment lights up in response to the different voices and sounds passing through it, making explicit the lines of communication.

VoiceOver in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

It’s not an “efficient” communication tool: a phone would have been better for one-on-one conversations, and Telegram more private. But the aim was to get as many people as possible together at the same time, communicating with others they might not even know, and meaningfully involved in creating, installing, supporting and bringing to life a cultural infrastructure – one that actively encourages performance, sharing and storytelling. The project has already uncovered the fact that three cousins, who've never all met, have been living near to each other all along.

It’s not that “together” is better than “efficient”. But it certainly has different outcomes. When people work together, my experience is that they have a greater sense of agency and accomplishment, as well as more responsibility and ownership in outcomes.

As we plan for technological interventions in our cities, installing networked technologies and infrastructures for managing the complexities of our lives, let’s evaluate these systems on more than just how efficient they are. Let’s evaluate them on how much they connect us together in new ways, and engage us in meaningful decision making.


The architect Cedric Price once said, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” Well, the question has got to be about more than just how to be efficient.

Usman Haque designs interactive architecture systems and researches how people relate to each other and their spaces.

VoiceOver is a new public art commission produced by Forma Arts and created by Umbrellium for East Durham Creates.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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