“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.


On housing, Theresa May promised a revolution, then delivered a damp squib. Again

Theresa May handed a P45 by terrible comedian Simon Brodkin. Image: Getty.

As I write these words, Prime Minister Theresa May is still giving her speech to the Tory conference. The section on housing just finished – I’ve yet to even see the text written down. If journalism is the first draft of history, these are the scribbled notes on scraps of paper that may or may not make it into that draft. 

Nonetheless, some first thoughts.

1) They massively over-stated how radical this would be

Last night the Sun reported that May would be “the first PM in decades to unveil a major programme to build council houses” – a statement based, one assumes, on briefings by May’s team.

The rhetoric leading up to the meaty policy part of the speech seemed to back up the suggestion that something radical was on the way. “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem,” May told us.

What we actually got was an extra £2bn for affordable housing. At first glance, that looks like a significant bump – it takes the total budget to £9bn, so amounts to an increase of more than 28 per cent. Wow!

Except, in 2010, George Osborne cut the annual capital funding for housing associations from £3bn to £450m. This new money isn’t even enough to make up for that cut.

It’s also not clear if this £2bn is an annual contribution, or a one-off – which obviously makes quite a big difference.

At any rate: they’ve oversold this. By a lot.

2) Affordable housing still isn’t the real priority

Something else about that £2bn figure: it’s a lot less than the extra £10bn May promised for Help to Buy. This, she claimed, would help another 130,000 families gather the deposits they need to buy their own homes.

But it’s unclear, to say the least, that this sort of government support has actually increased building rates. As the housing charity Shelter has put it

“although the scheme genuinely helped some people on middling incomes buy bigger new builds in nicer areas sooner, over half of those using the scheme didn’t really need it. This implies that a large chunk of Help to Buy Equity sales could at best be a waste of public money and at worst, an inflationary boost to house prices.”

That’s a big enough screw-up it’s worth restating it: it’s possible that throwing more money at the housing market through Help To Buy actually inflated prices, making it harder to buy.

And Theresa May has just promised it another £10bn – five times as much as her much-trailed pledge to get councils building again.

We should probably hold the champagne for the moment.

3) Councils are still constrained

There was another change promised in the speech, of course: “We will encourage council as well as housing associations to bid for this money.” That will make it easier for councils to build, so should be viewed as significant.

What would have been much more significant, though, is letting councils borrow to invest. That would likely have had much bigger impact on housing supply than allowing them to beg for a sliver of Treasury largesse.

Once again, Theresa May has promised revolution, but all she’s delivered has been small, technical changes.

4) Seriously, these numbers are tiny

Oh, and while I’ve been writing, the FT’s Jim Pickard tweeted this:

Experts believe we need to be building about 250,000 extra homes a year to keep up with demand. We’ve not made it within 100,000 of that in a decade.

If Pickard’s figures are right, this “revolution” will deal with less than 5 per cent of the problem.

Honestly, this is nothing. Why on earth did they decide to brief this would be a revolution?

4) There is some good news

For one thing, May promised that some of the money would go to “social rent” homes in areas of higher need. That’s a shift from the last few years where such funding has focused on “affordable rent” – which, since it can be 80 per cent of market rent, has often been anything but affordable.

And some of the noises coming from the housing sector are positive, too. Here’s Shelter’s head of policy, Kate Webb:

While David Orr, of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, says:

“The additional £2bn will make a real difference to those let down by a broken housing market.”

So yes. These are steps in the right direction.

5) Seriously though – Is that it?

All over the Tory conference this week, I heard Tories worrying that the housing market would destroy their standing with the under 40s. They are all too aware of the problem.

And yet this is their solution: another 5,000 homes a year, and shouting a bit at developers in the hope they’ll change their ways. That’s all they’ve got.

There will be a lot of snarky commentary about the problems with Theresa May’s speech: the P45 handed to her by a comedian as a stunt, the lengthy coughing fits, the fact the sign behind her literally started disintegrating as she spoke.

But none of those are the reason that she’s doomed. The real problem is the mismatch between rhetoric and policy. Once again, she’s promised a revolution and then bottled it.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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