“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.

 
 
 
 

The Delhi Metro: How do you build a transport system for 26m people?

Indraprastha station in 2006. Image: Getty.

“Thou hath not played rugby until thou hath tried to get onto a Delhi Metro in rush hour,” a wise Yogi once said.

If you’ve never been on New Delhi’s Metro, your mind might conjure up the the conventional image of Indian trains: tawdry carriages, buckets of sweat, people hanging out of windows and the odd holy cow wandering around for good measure.

Well, no. The Delhi Metro is actually one of the most marvellously sophisticated, affordable, timely, and practical public transportation systems out there. On a 45C day in the Indian summer, many a traveller has shed tears of joy on entering the spacious, air-conditioned carriages.

Above ground, Delhi is a sprawling metropolis of the scariest kind: 26m people, three times the population of London, churn and grind through Delhi itself.

The National Capital Region, an area which includes Delhi and its surrounding satellite cities – now victim of its never-ending urban sprawl – has an estimated population of almost 50m. So how do you tie such a huge population together?

The map; click to expand. Image: Delhi Metro Rail.

Motorised vehicles won’t do it alone. For one, air pollution is a horrific problem in Delhi, as it is across India. Last November, the government declared a state of emergency when the Indian capital was engulfed by a toxic, choking fog so thick that you could barely see several metres in front of you, drawing allusions to the great Victorian fogs in London.

Then there’s Delhi’s famous traffic. Twenty-five years ago, the travel writer William Dalrymple observed that you could reduce the Delhi’s road laws to one simple idea: the largest vehicle always had the right of way. The traffic has tamed somewhat in the 21st century, but the number of vehicles has multiplied again and again, and it’s not uncommon for people to be stuck in four-hour traffic jams when they try to traverse the mighty city.

Enter the Delhi Metro – a huge network of 164 over- and underground stations – and by any account, a titan of civil engineering and administration.

The numbers are simply colossal. Every day the metro serves on average almost 3m people. Annually, it carries around 1bn.

In a country where intercity trains still turn up a day late, the Delhi Metro is extraordinarily timely. On the major lines, trains will come every several minutes. The trains are extraordinary speedy, and you’ll reach your destination in a fraction of the time it would take for you to drive the distance.

The minimum fare is 10 rupees (12p); the maximum fare, to and from the airport, is 50 (60p).

The evolution of the metro. Image: Terramorphus/Wikimedia Commons.

Construction of the metro system began in 1998, with the first section completed in late 2002. Keen to avoid the catastrophic corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement which plagued eastern city of the Kolkata Metro, developers took advice from Hong Kong’s high-tech system There have been several stages of development to add extra lines; more is planned. By 2020, it is hoped that the 135 miles of line will have increased to over 300.  

One thing quite striking about the metro is its women’s only carriages at the rear and the front of the train, marked by pink signs. Sexual assault and harassment has been a horrific problem on Delhi’s transport systems. Women can of course go anywhere on the train – but men who violate the carriage system will have to deal with the scathing anger of the entire pink carriage.


One of the under-discussed impacts of widespread and well-used public transportation systems is their propensity to break down social and class barriers over time. As the London Tube began to be used more and more in early 20th century London, people from completely different walks of life and classes began to brush shoulders and share the same air.

The story is similar in Delhi. The necessity of the metro helps to break down old caste and class divisions. Of course, many elite Delhiites would not be seen dead on the metro, and choose their private chauffeur over brushing shoulders with the common man. But slowly and surely, the times are a changing.

What’s more, the Delhi Metro system is one of the greenest around. Six years ago, the Metro was the first railway system in the world to be awarded carbon credits from the United Nations for helping to reduce pollution in the capital by an estimated 640,000 tonnes every year.  

All praises sung and said, however, at peak times it’s less mind the gap and more mind your ribs – as a fifth of humanity seems to try to get on and off the train at once.

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