“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.

 
 
 
 

How big data could help London beat over-tourism

Tourists enjoying Buckingham Palace. Image: Getty.

London has always been vying for the top spot of the global tourism charts. In 2016, the city’s visitor numbers first hit record levels, at 19.1 million overseas arrivals, and projections suggest that number will have increased by 30 per cent by 2025.

The benefits to the city of this booming tourism market are clear: as well as strengthening the capital’s global reputation as open and welcoming, international tourism contributes £13bn annually to the economy and supports 309,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

As tourists continue to arrive in droves, however, the question of how to sustainably manage the influx – and make sure that the city continues to reap the rewards of its global popularity – will become more pressing.

London isn’t quite on a par yet with the Netherlands, where the country’s tourist board recently announced that it would effectively stop promoting Amsterdam as a destination for international travellers in order to ward off the ill-effects of over-tourism in the city. But, looking at that 30 per cent projected increase to the UK, there may be a need to begin future proofing against the same problem.

What if, rather than redirecting tourists away from the city centre when they arrive, authorities employed methods in advance: making tourists aware of the diverse neighbourhoods to explore and cultural experiences to seek out, right across London, which would influence their decisions on where to stay and visit before they even get here?

London First has just published the first ever borough-by-borough analysis of the impact of international visitor spending and accommodation in London. Anonymised and aggregated data provided by Airbnb and Mastercard has allowed us to see clearly who is visiting: where they’re staying, shopping, eating, drinking; when they’re doing it, and why. We can see trends in the behaviours of different nationalities – tourists from China, for example, like to stick in the West End, while German and Italian visitors are keener to explore markets and restaurants outside the centre.


Speaking of the West End, a huge amount of spending (unsurprisingly) goes on in London’s tourism core. But there’s also a substantial amount being spent by tourists across the rest of the city: a ‘halo’ of 19 boroughs, roughly covering travel zones 2-3, accounts for £2.8bn of spending, supporting more than 60,000  jobs. The data showed that growing tourism by just 10 per cent annually in this area would add £250m pounds to the economy and over six thousand jobs.

The economic benefits of encouraging more visitor spending in outer city neighbourhoods and far-flung districts is clear. But what’s also made obvious by the report is the potential for authorities to leverage this sort of data to sustainably grow tourism while safeguarding their cities against its negative effects, now and in the future. With a clearer picture of where, why and when international tourists are visiting, authorities can adapt their promotion, investment and national tourism policy levers, marketing individual areas to international visitors potentially before they even arrive.

Our research, while only a first step, shows that innovative data partnerships of the kind that produced these results are worth doing – and have potential to be adopted not just at a national level in the UK but by cities globally. Facilitating data exchange between public and private partners is not always easy but could be a critical tool for London, and any other tourist destinations looking to avoid inclusion on the growing list of European cities who are scrambling too late to protect their city centres, residents and small business owners against the double-edged sword of “too much tourism”. A three-pronged approach of data exchange, innovative analytics and digital transformation must be leveraged, to help cities better manage their growth challenges, improve efficiency and support economic development.

Matt Hill is programme director at London First.