The cities of the future will talk to us via our smartphones

A researcher monitors a man's response to a particular street-scape. Image: Future Cities Catapult.

Earlier this year, the Future Cities Catapult teamed up with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to conduct "Cities Unlocked": a project, to improve cities for the visually impaired. But, says Claire Mookerjee, it could hold provide benefits for all of us.

Imagine if the city you worked in worked hard for you, too. If signs showed what you needed to know, when you needed to know it; stations didn’t need barriers, because trains and busses already knew you had a ticket; store fronts told you that they stocked an item, just because it was on your shopping list.

It’s not the pipe dream it sounds. With maturing mobile technology, a growing pool of personal data in digital form, and increasingly smart streets, this kind of city experience is an increasing reality. At the Future Cities Catapult, we’ve been working on a project with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to investigate how that idea could be used to help visually impaired people navigate their cities better.

To do that, we wanted to understand how the visually impaired experienced the world; to know what they found confusing, frustrating or, occasionally, helpful. So as part of Cities Unlocked we followed participants, watching them and monitoring their emotional reactions using EEGs to see how urban environments made them feel. Now we know, for instance, that visually impaired people find pedestrianized areas particularly frustrating, while both sighted and non-sighted individuals find green space relaxing.

Armed with those kinds of insights, we worked with Microsoft to build a prototype device, that supplies a 3D soundscape to augment the sounds of the street. Running on a smartphone, the app uses location data and interactions with nearby wireless networks to provide audio cues – about orientation, navigation and nearby points of interest – via a set of bone-conduction headphones, which don’t block out ambient sound. In real-world trials – on a route between Reading and London involving walking, bus and train journeys – participants reported feeling significantly more confident and comfortable in their surroundings when using the device.

But it’s not just the visually impaired that can benefit. Participants in our study all felt happier because they knew more about their surroundings: something we all deserve.

Now, more than ever, our cities can communicate with us about themselves. They can provide information, answer our questions and even express their characters in interesting new ways: that can mean basic navigational prompts in a city we’ve never visited, provided via discrete vibration of a smart watch, or nuanced local knowledge about the vibe of a coffee shop, articulated through music.

The technology’s certainly ready. We each carry a smartphone that’s capable of knowing where we are, sending and receiving large amounts of data, interacting with other devices and logging rich streams of information. Indeed, tools like digital maps are already using much of it to curate digital representations of space for us, to provide the information we most likely need. All of this allows more opportunity to interact with a world of invisible information that currently circulates in our city streets, be it public Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth beacons in shops or Near Field Communication sensors at tills.

So we find ourselves at a tipping point. The technology is woven into our cities, becoming increasingly rich by the day: what we need now is for city leaders to make the most of it and test new ways of using it at scale. With the integrated city systems market up for grabs worth an estimated £200bn by 2030, there’s certainly a huge financial incentive to do so.

Some people are already seizing the opportunity. Take Neatebox: a smartphone app that wirelessly triggers the push-button at a pedestrian crossing when you stand by it for a few seconds. It’s an elegant, if simplistic, example of how wireless networks and proximity data can be used by your smartphone to make life easier. Originally designed for those with disabilities, it could make life more straightforward for all of us.

But we think cities can achieve far more. What if every signpost in the city sensed your presence? Walking towards a sign wouldn’t just allow you to read it more clearly, but also to interact with it: it could point you in the direction of the store you’re already trying to find, tell you how long it will take to get home including the walk to the bus stop or even change language on the fly.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of interconnected city would create opportunities to redesign the public spaces. If a train knows that you’re allowed to be boarding it because you’ve already paid for your travel online, the need for ticketing – and with it the associated kiosks, machines and barriers – simply melts away. Instead, the station can become a more open and inclusive space, which allows for free movement and an emphasis on accessibility, rather than ticket purchase and validation.

That example, of course, requires the use of technology to be absolutely pervasive. But at a smaller scale it’s already happening. Now, it’s time for city leaders to make sure it's done right, in a way that makes citizens lives easier and more enjoyable, while protecting their privacy and security. The city can work hard for us – we just need to make it do so.

Claire Mookerjee is project lead for urbanism at Future Cities Catapult

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.