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

 
 
 
 

Uber’s battle for Buenos Aires is shaking rule of law in Argentina

A 2016 protest against Uber in Buenos Aires. Image: Getty.

Just 12 hours after Uber’s service became available in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, taxi industry representatives took the company – and the city’s administration – to court. The case was similar to those faced by the company in London, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Budapest, Frankfurt and several US states and Canadian provinces. Uber has faced legal challenges in relation to labour and licensing regulations, as well as allegations of misuse of data and tax avoidance.

Uber’s expansion has become a global epic with regional episodes. While the specifics differ, the terms of the debate remain the same. On one side: the rhetoric of inevitable technological progress and free choice. On the other: claims that precarious work and exploitation have reappeared in a sleeker guise.

Yet the Buenos Aires instalment of the saga is, in some ways, unique. In other places, Uber has acted on authorities’ demands – in some cases leaving those markets entirely, in others reforming or waiting for new regulations to develop. But on 22 April 2016, when a Buenos Aires judge declared Uber’s activities to be in breach of local laws and ordered the immediate blockade of the app, Uber simply continued its operations.

Since then, protests by both Uber and taxi drivers have intensified, while the conflict has branched out on several legal fronts, dragging in more courts, Uber drivers, tax authorities, Uber officials themselves and most recently one of the company’s Argentine lawyers, who initiated legal action in the state of California for what his legal representatives describe as “the unimaginable harm Uber inflicted on him as a result of Uber’s recklessly orchestrated entry into Buenos Aires”.

Uber’s strategy might seem scandalous – perhaps even more so, because it’s working.


Power to the people?

From the beginning of the conflict, the ride-sharing company argued that existing rules were obsolete, and that it was willing to cooperate with authorities to develop a legal framework “adapted to 21st century technology”, so that people would be “able to choose freely” like millions of others around the world.

Among the middle classes of many developing nations like Argentina, these arguments and references to modernity have huge political significance. In countries where democratic institutions are haunted by spectres of corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement, citizens see in Uber’s platform a world of opportunities. Anyone can set out and drive someone for money, a completely impenetrable algorithm produces market values according to demand, and users rate each other based on their experience. And crucially, no local actor can interfere: Uber’s separation from the state is seen to guarantee its virtues.

As part of my PhD fieldwork in Buenos Aires, I was researching how the middle classes understood the place of Argentina in the world. To these people, Uber carried the promise of a modernity beyond local interests and petty regulations. It seems the company has effectively aligned itself with the side of “the people”, in a struggle against governments, unions and other interests, which appear to stand in the way of progress.

A test for democracy

The legal tug-of-war resulting from Uber’s strategy is testing the strength of Argentina’s governance structures. Cities and states seeking to enforce the rule of law can appear silly and provincial in the eyes of their citizens – even when similar laws are followed elsewhere. Buenos Aires’ minister of transportation characterised Uber’s business strategy as being “two-tiered”: respecting governments in developed countries, ignoring them in developing ones.

Uber’s regional director for Latin America George Gordon replied:

French president Emmanuel Macron received Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, and they jointly announced investments in new forms of transportation and the launching of an insurance policy bringing maternity and paternity benefits to drivers and accident and injury coverage. This is an example of the relations we want to build in each country and city where we operate. Uber will continue to operate in Argentina, committed to growing and in the hope of opening a space of dialogue and cooperation with national authorities.

The irony is that the modernity middle class people in developing countries yearn for cannot exist without government and the rule of law. The structures and policies of private companies are set up for profit, not for public interest. The point of the law is precisely to ensure there is a framework citizens can reach out for, when things go wrong.

If the driver of a ride-sharing platform commits a crime, would a low rating be sufficient sanction? Would it be for that platform’s management to decide what counts as evidence? Those opposing Uber asked such questions hundreds of times, but amid the race for modernity they have seemed to be somehow missing the point.

Uber’s legal conflict in Buenos Aires may be entering its fourth year, but the people have already decided their winner. A developing nation’s yearning for modernity proved the crucial battleground for a slightly different epic than usual. At the very least, this ongoing saga should prompt new debates about new technologies and their place in people’s lives.

The Conversation

Juan Manuel del Nido, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.