“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.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.